Mustapha Cassiem has a sweet tooth. One of the country’s youngest ever national hockey players admits this sheepishly when quizzed about his favourite things in the world, though it’s hardly surprising for a young man who’s only just 18 years old and who up until a few months ago was still a schoolboy. He has a weakness for sweets, but that’s the extent of his weaknesses it seems.
Cassiem has had to grow up faster than other children his age. Most teenagers don’t have the label of “future legend” hanging over their heads, or the world at their feet, with an Olympic dream waiting patiently to be realised.
Cassiem’s precocious abilities on the hockey field thrust him into the limelight at an early age. It’s a talent that has been nurtured from the moment he picked up a hockey stick on the sidelines, while watching his father Abdullah “Casa” Cassiem dominate opponents at Vygekraal Stadium in Athlone, playing for Central Hockey Club.
“I started playing when I was five. I come from a sporting background. My dad played all codes. Hockey, rugby, soccer. I would go with my brother and my dad to hockey training, and matches. It all started for me when I was just messing around on the side,” Cassiem says.
There’s one more thing the Cassiem brothers have in common with their father. They also made their national team call up by the age of 18. Mustapha’s older brother Dayaan is already an established national team player who lit a path for his sibling to follow in his footsteps, although in truth it was a fait accompli. Now, the younger brother is touted as a legend in the making. Observers say the teenager could play up to 300 games for the national team and write his name in the record books as one of the greatest ever to play for South Africa. It’s a heavy yoke of expectation to carry on his young shoulders, but he seems to have the pedigree for it.
“Growing up, everyone thought that soccer was the thing and I really loved playing. I used to learn hockey and mess around and play on the side, just watch my dad and my brother play. I thought the game of hockey was really cool. I thought it was similar to soccer,” Cassiem says. “The skill that I saw back then from the older guys and older players was just really amazing, and that’s what got me stuck into hockey.”
In 2014, Dayaan and Mustapha Cassiem were awarded full scholarships to attend Bishops Diocesan College in Cape Town. Dayaan joined the college in grade 10, while Mustapha joined the prep school. It was an opportunity of a lifetime that would change the fortunes of the Cassiem family who come from the working-class area of Mitchell’s Plain, a world away from Bishops in Rondebosch.
“My dad grew up in District Six in Cape Town. I grew up in Mitchell’s Plain, in Colorado Park. And yeah, that’s where I’ve been living my life for the past 18 years,” Cassiem explains.
The brothers now stand on the cusp of successful professional hockey careers, probably abroad, and if the Covid-19 pandemic allows, an Olympic Games later this year is a distinct possibility.
For now, Mustapha Cassiem, having completed his matric year during a pandemic, is focused solely on realising his hockey dreams. He’s done some of the legwork already, captaining the Bishops first XI in 2020 and earning 100 first-team caps for the school by the end of grade 11. He has represented the men’s senior indoor and outdoor national sides, and his Barracudas team won gold at the Pro Series Indoor Nationals in the Under-19 Coastal section in December.
Never short of role models
The young star’s hockey path is set, well lit and in capable hands. He’s a product of the Central Hockey Club’s setup, which boasts dynamic players like Ryan Julius, Keenan Horne, Jody Erasmus and his father among its ranks. A keen footballer in his youth, Cassiem Sr now coaches at Bishops and the University of Cape Town.
“My father has been involved in the game for a very long time. I look up to him. He is still playing for Central Hockey Club’s second side. But I think he’s getting old now,” Cassiem laughs. “He’s enjoying himself. From what I’ve heard, when he was young, he was a really good hockey player. I could see that when I had the opportunity to watch him, and I’m still watching him today.”
It’s clear the young Cassiem is never short of inspirational role models, in his own house and abroad. His idols include former South African national captain and coach at Central Hockey Club Bruce Jacobs. “I looked up to him and overseas players like Art van Doren, the Belgium international, Joep de Mol from the Netherlands, and then Aran Zalewski from Australia. Those three are world-class role models to me, but my brother and my dad are definitely my biggest role models, for sure,” Cassiem says with a sincerity in his voice that adds depth to his words.
He is a young man grounded in strong family values along with hard work, and a vision for what his future holds in a sport that is often underappreciated.
Hockey in South Africa has held its own among community sports, but it sits in the shadow of big sports like football, rugby and cricket, which attract large sponsorships and audience support. The game has struggled to reach a level of professionalism that would allow players like the Cassiem brothers to devote a future to it – unless they seek their fortunes overseas.
Hockey, not many people know, is the third most popular sport in the world, after football and badminton (which is equally surprising). An estimated two billion fans follow hockey religiously, and while most of those fans are based in India and Pakistan, the strongest and most professional leagues are in Europe.
“Unfortunately, hockey in South Africa is not professional. People are trying to expose hockey in South Africa, but my personal goal is to go overseas so I can be in a professional environment and experience what hockey is like overseas. And to play in the top leagues in the Netherlands and the Bundesliga in Germany, or anywhere in the world where you can get paid for what you do and what you love doing,” Cassiem says.
Brother and teammate
On the field, Dayaan Cassiem is lightning quick on his feet, impossible to contain and runs rings around defenders every time he’s in the danger area. He’s earned himself a reputation as a goal machine for school, club and country.
Mustapha, on the other hand, has a stronger physique; he’s tall and muscular with floppy brown hair, unlike his brother Dayaan who is more slightly built and lean. The younger Cassiem is a force to contend with in any position he plays, owing to his strength and skill with a stick.
“For school I’m a midfielder, but I also play a bit at the back and then attacking midfielder. I’m a utility player. And they use me in the spine of the field. But for the SA team at the moment, I’m playing up front as a forward,” Mustapha says. “I think being new is always nice. Obviously, as a youngster you’re a bit scared to say something, or say something wrong, but I’ve tried to be myself and the transition has been amazing.”
Of course, playing alongside one’s older brother does tend to alleviate some of the pressure a young star can feel at any moment. The duo are becoming a force to reckon with in the next few years. The interplay between the two on the field is intuitive and their awareness of each other’s positioning is almost telepathic. These are crucial advantages to have in a sport that’s played at breakneck speed.
“There’s this connection that we’ve built outside of hockey. It’s a connection that we have as just being brothers, being there for each other, standing up for each other. Moments that we have together. We’ve been playing together for a very long time, since I was eight or nine years old, maybe younger. He was always the guy that I really looked up to. We have a really good understanding,” Mustapha says.
“Sometimes it’s tough to play with your brother in a team. You’re going to be hard on him, and he’s going to be hard on you, and sometimes it gets hectic. But other than that, it’s special.”
When asked, Dayaan Cassiem feels precisely the same way about playing with his younger brother. He feels a connection that is difficult to explain, but he knows how it feels. “It feels amazing actually,” Dayaan says. “When I got accepted at Bishops in grade 10, and he was in Habibia Primary School in Rylands, we kept working hard to make sure he also gets a scholarship to Bishops. I remember him being in grade 9 and me being in grade 11 and we played the first time in the first team for Bishops, and we just connect so well. We understand each other, and because we train with each other we really have that connection. I already know where he’s going to run when I pass. He already knows where I’m going to be when he has the ball so the connection is there.”
Much is expected of young Mustapha Cassiem already in his short hockey life after achieving so much before he turned 18. He is in many ways the face of hockey’s future as the sport continues to churn out young prospects, but it’s in need of a global superstar who can stand shoulder to shoulder among the world’s best.
“I remember getting the call-up to be part of the national Olympic squad. It was late in 2019. It’s something that I’ve been dreaming of for a long time. I think that making my indoor hockey debut in 2019 with my brother was a highlight. In 2018, we went to Algeria and we played in the African Youth Games. We won the gold medal, which meant we qualified for the Youth Olympics Games. But unfortunately, we couldn’t go,” he says.
Tough times for second-tier sports
Hockey has learnt to live with certain disappointments in recent years. The sport has had contrasting fortunes at a continental and international level. The men’s hockey team has dominated the African continent since 1993, winning seven Africa Cup of Nations titles. But internationally, they’ve struggled to earn a better placing than 10th at a World Cup or Olympic Games. The women’s national team has had similar, if not better success on the continent but also struggles to compete against the stronger, better financed teams from Europe.
The South African men’s team is ranked 14th outdoor and 11th indoor, while the women are 16th and 14th respectively. The pandemic has done little to improve the prospects of the sport with the Olympics in jeopardy.
These are stressful times for so-called second and third-tier sports in South Africa. The sport’s growth depends largely on participation and competition, neither of which are allowed under the country’s Covid-19 lockdown regulations, with the exception of professional competitions.
“Going to the Olympics would be a dream come true, and it’s something that I will hold in my heart forever. It’s something that I would never forget. Being able to represent your country and being an Olympian would be amazing, to represent my family and my friends,” he says.
Cassiem is aware of the expectations around him and appears to have set a high bar for himself, too. “It was one of my goals to really make my mark and make the national team at 18 years old. But luckily, I was able to make it at 17,” he says with a smile spread across his face.
“Pressure for me is a big thing, but I also like pressure. It’s something I enjoy, and a lot of sportspeople don’t like the word pressure or the pressure moments. I think I’ve learnt in my hockey career or my sporting career that the pressure moments are what you must live for, because once you get out of those moments, the rest comes easy.”
But how easy was it for a schoolboy to settle into a national team of grown men in a grown-up world? Does he have the mental fortitude to handle it all?
“I’m not gonna lie to you. I’ve had those moments before in my hockey career. I think sport helps you a lot, but there’s moments or times in your life that makes it very difficult. In my school hockey career there were times where I found it really tough, and wanted to quit because of some actions. Mentally, I wasn’t the greatest at the time. But I’ve developed and I’ve really learned to be mentally strong.”
Correction, 3 March 2021: Mustapha and Dayaan Cassiem were previously incorrectly named in the captions.