When asked what he thinks about Bloemfontein Celtic supporters, who sing even when their team is losing, Steve Komphela is at a loss for words. It’s a first for the Phunya Sele Sele garrulous coach, but once he finds his words, he is vintage Komphela.
“If there’s anyone who wears green and white and is called a fan, there’s a mistake. Maybe the definition of fan is something else. These are supporters,” Komphela says. “These people support us. Fans are fickle. When you are not doing well, they change, and when you are doing well, they change again. But these ones are supporters. They are genuine, authentic people who support their club. I have never seen anything like this.”
Komphela’s union with Celtic is a match made in football heaven. Both need each other, and each gives the other what they couldn’t get in their previous relationships. Komphela had a tumultuous relationship with Kaizer Chiefs fans who threw missiles at him and chanted “Steve must fall” a number of times during his three-year tenure.
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On 21 April, that rocky relationship reached boiling point. Disgruntled Amakhosi fans invaded the pitch at Moses Mabhida Stadium. They destroyed millions of rands worth of property and broadcasting equipment and beat a security guard almost to death after Chiefs lost to Free State Stars in the semifinal of the Nedbank Cup. Komphela immediately resigned.
Transforming players’ lives
At Celtic, the former Bafana Bafana captain has been showered with love. In return, he has managed to get the best out of his players despite various uncertainties, including unpaid salaries and the botched sale of the club. Now another sale is on the cards, which could see the team moving away from the City of Roses.
Komphela's best quality as a coach is that he can produce something out of nothing. His most successful coaching stints come from work he’s done with clubs on shoestring budgets where he polished some rough diamonds. He has plucked plenty of players out of obscurity and given them a platform to showcase their talent on a national and even global stage.
“What I would like to achieve at Celtic is to change the players’ lives,” Komphela says. “I would like to change how they see themselves, beyond just being professional footballers. The biggest mistake we make with footballers is we want to make them the best players, not the best human beings. It has to be a totality. The development of a player shouldn’t be confined only to football. It must be embedded in the cornerstone of humanity.
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“Football isn’t only a sport. It’s the equivalent of an education. It empowers people. It upskills people. After 30 years, these kids must either be team managers, football coaches or doing something important with their lives. Sometimes the measure of success must not only be glittery. The measure of success must also be in the quality of the people who come behind you.”
As the team with the most silverware in the country, Amakhosi measure success in trophies. Komphela didn’t win any for three seasons. But he was what the club needed after Stuart Baxter resigned. The British coach had won the league convincingly with an ageing squad. Komphela introduced young blood and built a decent team that only lacked a prolific striker.
The reader as leader
Komphela remained dignified despite what happened during his spell as Chiefs coach. He never lost his cool when his competency was questioned or when fans were baying for his blood.
“Leaders are readers and readers are leaders,” Komphela says. “As the coach, you are the head on the technical level, so you must have solutions. Reading strengthens your capacity to withstand things because your level of rationale becomes better. You don’t get easily irritated. When you read about stuff that’s similar to what you are going through and you look at how that particular person dealt with that situation, it gives you strength. If you send negative thinking to your brain, it’s going to send negative vibes to how you feel, and your reaction and behaviour is going to be negative. I understood that for me to feel good and stay strong, I’ve got to feel positive.”
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The tougher things got at Amakhosi, the more resilient Komphela became. “I never said no to pain. Instead, I prayed for more wisdom,” he says. “The growth that I have gone through in the past three years, no varsity could have given me. I am not a professor. I won’t be one. But I strongly believe that I can stand anywhere without being shaken.”
Komphela’s time at Celtic has tested both his tactical acumen and management skills. Celtic players have gone on strike more than once this season. They didn’t train at the start of the season because club boss Max Tshabalala failed to pay some of their salaries and signing-on fees. Despite the chaos, Phunya Sele Sele have been a well-oiled machine on the pitch. At one point they were among the title challengers. But they have slipped down after collecting just one point from their last four matches.
Fearless under pressure
Celtic’s good start to the season earned Komphela the Coach of the Month award for August, with Alfred Ndengane, who was later sold to Orlando Pirates so Celtic could pay some outstanding bills, receiving Player of the Month. Despite the mounting financial pressure on the club, Komphela exhibits a calm demeanour, which rubs off on his players.
“One of the things that I would do when there was pressure [at Chiefs] and I feel that pressure was coming to the players, I would walk out of the dugout and stand there so that I become the target of abuse so that the players get the relief because one way or the other somebody must be a distraction,” Komphela says. “Psychology dictates that go there, expose yourself, let them show their frustration but the players must be safe.
“There was a bottle thrown at me, and the players were saying: ‘No, coach, why don’t you go to the dugout?’ I said, ‘No, I won’t.’ If anybody wanted to throw a bottle at me and hit me in the head, or to pull a gun and shoot me, so be it. There’s nothing wrong with that, because they would have derived their ultimate satisfaction.
“For me, my duty is to stand there on behalf of the club, the team and the players and do a job. You have to be calm. I would have suffered heart attacks if I was weak. I don’t take things personally. You must be professional.”
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Komphela protected his players throughout his time at Chiefs, saying that the anger and pressure must be directed at him and not at them – even when they were not playing well. He never once slammed a player in the media. But, while he protected his players, who protected him?
“The one above,” he responds. “The one who created me. Many great leaders went through hell before they saw the horizon. You’re refusing to meet your destiny when you refuse to go through suffering.”
Celtic and its fans have gone through a lot of pain, on and off the field. Komphela’s mission is to end that suffering by finally giving them something to sing and dance about. On 24 November, Celtic supporters staged a protest against the debt-ridden Tshabalala. Komphela has to deal with all of this and also outsmart his opponents, whose only focus is on what happens on the pitch. And he’s still recovering from his time at Amakhosi.
“I don’t know how many coaches would have survived it – you’re at one hell of a club, a big institution, and you are building a project from the ground up, from the Under-13s to the first team, trying to both bring down the average age and get results. My man, that’s crazy! But, whatever happens, you focus on your job. That’s what has kept me standing for the past three years – along with the support I got from the people who worked closely with me,” Komphela says. “I am happy with what we did. The only thing I regret is that we did not win a trophy. If God had wanted to make our lives easier, it would have happened. But it’s not always easy. Any team that starts from scratch takes time to gel.”
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