Sitting across the table from his childhood best friend Katlego Mohamme, who is representing South Africa at the Tokyo Olympics, Aigner Kalaba points at the television when Kamohelo Mahlatsi appears on the screen and says: “I used to play with him, too.”
Swallows FC were hosting Orlando Pirates when Mahlatsi, their former teammate at the Rosina Sedibane Modiba Sports School academy, appeared in the starting line-up for the Dube Birds.
Mohamme and Kalaba were catching up over a meal at Mohamme’s family restaurant in Soshanguve, Pretoria, the day before Mohamme’s University of Pretoria side were to play Pretoria Callies FC in a GladAfrica Championship league tie.
It’s a tradition the now 23-year-old Mohamme says he has practised religiously over the years. “I play my best games each time I eat here a day before my home matches,” Mohamme says in a firm tone as he clears the empty plates off the table and takes them to the kitchen.
“As I was saying,” Kalaba says, “I used to play with both of them at the academy. You can say I was one of the unlucky ones who never broke into the professional scene.”
While Kalaba talks about missed opportunities, Mohamme has been an inspiring role model for Soshanguve. He is the first player from the township to feature in three junior Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) tournaments with the Under-17s, Under-20s and Under-23s. He has been to two World Cups, with the Under-17s and Under-20s, and on 22 July he makes his Olympic debut against host country Japan. But that’s not what Kalaba, 24, appreciates most about Mohamme.
Partying harder than hard
While his best friend was collecting his first international medal and qualifying for his first Fifa World Cup tournament with the national Under-17 team, Amajimbos, Kalaba was hooked on marijuana and alcohol. This was in 2015, when he was 18 years old.
“I started smoking when I was 16,” Kalaba says. “I started off by cigarettes and by age 17, I was now smoking weed and partying a lot. I partied harder than hard, actually. I used to come to Katli’s [Katlego] place for sleepovers during our school days at Rosina and always reasoned that I needed smoke breaks while we were studying. My argument was that it helped me keep my concentration levels up. However, that was a lie. It was a preference thing.
“Katli used to keep coins like 10c and 20c inside two-litre bottles until they filled up to the brim. I remember asking him to give them to me because clearly, he had no idea on what to do with that sort of money,” Kalaba chuckles. “It took a while for me to admit that I had a problem. I was just one of the fortunate ones who didn’t tip over to smoking heavy stuff like nyaope. And it’s all thanks to him. He helped me to focus my mind on the right stuff and channel all of my energies into my future. I’ve been clean for five years now.”
Kalaba credits Mohamme for his now focused and driven mindset. His friend has always been the perfect example in how to set goals, lay out practical steps to attain them and eventually achieve them. Kalaba now works at Volkswagen in Pretoria as a technician and is studying for his artisan certificate. He graduates in July next year and his long-term goal is to acquire a master certificate in the profession.
Setting the bar
Mohamme says he has helped many of his friends and other members of his community to break away from heavier drugs like nyaope. “Some have gone on to get jobs and even got married, transforming into more responsible members of the community,” Mohamme says. “I cannot divulge their names, as I’m not too sure if they would be comfortable with that.
“My plan now is to host tournaments and get coaches, even players from the professional ranks, to come and watch these boys in my community play. The intention is to keep their attention away from the wrong stuff, and instil some sort of hope in them to continue to aspire for greater things in life and keep them believing in their individual dreams.
“I, too, sometimes make time to watch these kids play their matches and talk,” adds Mohamme, “while also making sure I listen to them. I might be the first football player from my township to have represented my country from the junior ranks in major tournaments up to this point. However, more players must come out from it. We have talented players here and mine is to just set the bar really high for the upcoming generation.”
Having enjoyed season-long success with Portuguese third-tier outfit Sertanense FC in 2017, Mohamme dreams of going back to Europe. This is the environment in which he wishes to discreetly continue working towards his personal goals and dreams, to eventually earn a seat at the table among the football greats who have come before him.
“I had a great time during my stint there,” Mohamme says. “I’ve raked the club’s Player of the Season award, Most Promising Player and the Defender of the Season accolades, while also making the league’s Team of the Season inclusion, six Team of the Week league inclusions and a few Man of the Match awards. Sertanense wanted me to stay, however, legally I was still contracted to SuperSport United and this was one matter both clubs had to sit down together and agree to terms. That move didn’t happen and so I had to grow and move on from that experience.”
Manchester in his sights
At this year’s Olympic Games, South Africa are pitted in Group A against Mexico, France and hosts Japan. A top-two finish in the group will see them progress into the knockout stages for the first time at the global showpiece.
These opponents don’t trouble Mohamme much. His focus is centred on how to improve his game and reach the level of play both he and his best friend know he can attain. And that is to play against the best of the best in Europe. Upon his return to South Africa, he’ll head straight to his new club, Mamelodi Sundowns, with whom he has penned a five-year deal. The Brazilians are an ideal stepping stone to achieve that.
Kalaba, who has watched his friend’s game grow in the years since their Rosina Sedibane Modiba days, calls him “a fucking machine”. That’s because Mohamme used to play for two age-group divisions at school, outclassing kids who were older than him for a starting berth in both divisions.
Mohamme makes an effort not to miss Manchester City’s games. This is where he takes a leaf out of the book of one of the greatest footballing minds in the modern game, that of 1992 Olympic gold medallist winner with Spain, Pep Guardiola.
Mohamme works on his personal growth and improvement as a player, because he knows that’s the only way he can be effective for club and country. “Manchester City is a team that I would like to play for,” he says.
“They are forever in charge of the matches they play in and I like that about them. Sometimes you just have to avoid lying to yourself or wanting to play for a team which does not suit your style of play. They suit mine and I actually visualise myself in their kit, training with the team each and every day. That’s where I want to see myself.”