Ronwen Williams’ left arm is a shrine dedicated to a man whose death rocked the 26-year-old so much, it almost ended his career before it even took off.
Tattooed on the SuperSport United goalkeeper’s arm is a cross, on which the following line is inscribed: “In Loving Memory of Marvin.” The cross itself has angel wings and the name Chelsea is inscribed at the top. Chelsea is the daughter of Williams’ late brother, Marvin, who passed away in a car accident in 2010.
“Dealing with the loss of my brother was tough,” says Williams, who spoke to New Frame at SuperSport’s training base in Sunninghill, north of Johannesburg.
“I wanted to quit football. I didn’t play for almost two months. I was just sitting at home in Port Elizabeth. People at the club kept calling me and motivating me but there was no motivation. My parents and everyone tried. I actually fought with my parents because they thought that I would lose my talent, but I just didn’t care.
“The call that changed my life came from our academy coach, Kwanele Kopo. He encouraged me and that opened my eyes. We were in the playoffs of the [then] Castle League [now called the SAB League]. He said I just needed to be there because my team-mates wanted to see me. He said that he wasn’t going to play me, I just had to be around the team.
“We ended up winning. He had a very good talk with me. He told me that he sees me playing in the first team; that I must do it for my brother. That was motivation for me at that time. I thank him for calling me because a lot of people from the office were calling me and I either told them to just leave me alone, or I wouldn’t answer. Sometimes I would just drop the call.”
Kopo’s words were prophetic. Williams not only graduated to the first team after that call, he became the club’s undisputed first-choice goalkeeper and is Matsatsantsa’s longest-serving player, having arrived there as a 12-year-old.
“I have received a lot of offers in the past but I turned them down because of the loyalty I have for SuperSport and the love they have shown me,” says Williams. “This is a family-orientated team and I love being here. There are a lot of people who have been here all their lives.
“You look at that and feel like you’re a part of a family. We are SuperSport United and we are very united. Everyone is happy. That’s why they have been working here this long. I am happy here; hopefully when I am done with football, I can be a part of the staff as well.”
Williams spoke about his SuperSport family with his son Mikyle in his sight. Mikyle’s presence here is just one of the many signs that the 12-year-old boy who left PE after being scouted at the Danone Under-12 tournament in Polokwane and the Schools Winter Sports Games in Pietermaritzburg is now a man.
“I am proud of myself. It hasn’t been easy. I took on a huge responsibility early in my life,” says Williams. “I had my son when I was 21-years-old. That changed my life. I had to grow up quickly. A lot of people at that stage want to go clubbing and buy nice things. But my mentality has always been to sort out my family first.
“My partner moved up here when I was 20. I’ve been on lock-down ever since,” Williams says, laughing. “I am not one to go out much and you never read bad things about me [in the tabloids] because I stay indoors and I am family-orientated. I am proud of the man I have become, obviously I have my flaws and my weaknesses but I am happy and proud of the man I have become.”
A thankless job
Having his family close by, in a city that’s thousands of kilometres away from Wiliams’ place of birth, helps him keep his sanity in job for crazy people. Being a goalkeeper is a thankless job, people remember your heroics for a minute while your errors are remembered for eternity.
Moacir Barbosa, who was once regarded as the best goalkeeper in the planet, is not remembered for his saves but his career is defined by one mistake in the 1950 Fifa World Cup final that Brazil lost to Uruguay in Maracana. In 1994 he was even banned from meeting Brazil’s squad because the then coach Mario Zagallo feared he would bring bad luck.
“Under Brazilian law the maximum sentence is 30 years. But my imprisonment has been for 50 years,” Barbosa lamented before his death in 2000.
Williams is on his fourth year of his sentence. His crime – being beaten five times on his Bafana Bafana debut by the mighty Brazil. If he had stuck to playing as a striker, like he did in his youth, he wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of thing. But as much as Williams liked scoring goals, he loved following in the footsteps of his uncle and former coach, Maurice, even more.
“You have to be crazy in this position,” says Williams. “You can’t be soft and you can’t be quiet. You need to be crazy and outspoken. We enjoy ourselves and our craft. It’s not an easy position because if you make a mistake, it’s in the back of the net but if the 10 other players make mistakes, I am supposed to be there to support them. I enjoy that pressure.
“I don’t mind [that people remember my mistakes more than my saves] because it means I have something to work on. I have made a lot of mistakes in my life but I feel that I haven’t made the same mistake many times. That means I am on the right track. I am very hard on myself. Sometimes I enjoy making mistakes because it brings me back to earth, to stay focused and stick to the basics.”
Williams has much in common with Eskom, the company SuperSport United shares space with in Sunninghill, as they train at Eskom’s headquarters Megawatt Park. Much like Eskom, which brings light to millions of South African homes, Williams brings light to his club with his safe pair of hands.
But for the senior national team, for now his lights have been knocked out and he is in a period of “load-shedding”.
“I know Ronwen from my time at SuperSport,” says Bafana coach Stuart Baxter. “His challenge is to reproduce his form from SuperSport in the national team. I don’t think that there are 20 camps for Ronwen to do that. He must show his worth now.”
Williams will compete with Itumeleng Khune and Darren Keet for a starting berth against Libya in Durban on Saturday in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
“I just need to break that duck,” Williams says, “I’ve had a few okay games but people will always judge me whenever I concede because of what happened against Brazil. I just need that one clean sheet to boost my confidence. Obviously, I also need to be consistent. That’s the main thing in football. Once I break that duck I will need to work on my consistency to be Bafana’s No. 1.”