Percy Tau is clearly a good person, but he did something truly evil on 17 November at FNB Stadium. First, he feinted to shoot from the edge of the box with a pronounced backlift, thus compelling two Nigerian defenders, Kenneth Omeruo and Leon Balogun, to lunge inside in an effort to block the shot.
But in the next three milliseconds, instead of shooting, Tau stroked a delicately weighted through-pass to himself. So finely did he calibrate his contact that he had time to nip into the box and collect the back-spinning ball in a sweet pocket of space. He then crossed to Lebo Mothiba, who found the net.
This audacious stunt went way beyond the norms of legitimate football deception. It was grossly fraudulent. It was the football equivalent of the VBS heist.
Because Tau clearly did not comply with the Official Handbook of Football Trickery, which states that after dummying a shot, one must do the usual thing: transfer the ball and shoot with your other foot. The handbook allows that in certain exceptional circumstances, you may, instead, pass to a team-mate after dummying a shot. But the handbook does not permit passing to yourself in this context.
As such, Tau grossly infringed a basic human right enjoyed by everyone, including Nigerian centrebacks: the right not to look like a moemish for two reasons at one time.
In all seriousness, Tau is a beautifully subversive footballer. He was the best player on the pitch at FNB Stadium in Bafana Bafana’s 1-1 draw with Nigeria, edging out the impressive Alex Iwobi. Tau was everywhere – harrying, dribbling, prompting, orchestrating. At one point, he executed a tackle just inside his own half that any defender would be proud of before collecting the loose ball and mounting an exhilarating counter-attack, neutralising three defenders with an electric slalom charge down the touchline. The crowd inhaled with excitement every time he touched the ball.
Even when he made mistakes, we applauded. His performance was worth the price of three match tickets. We should all be attending Bafana Bafana games purely to see him at work, no matter the result.
Tau connects the future of South African football to its past. He represents the future of our game precisely because he resurrects the finest qualities of its past. His unassuming style on the pitch, that deceptively robotic gait when the ball is not in play, belies a charismatic presence to match the diski greats of years gone by.
He resurrects the delicious guile, the pleasure in dominating through elegant deception, which defined the brilliance of Doctor Khumalo, Jomo Sono or Zane Moosa. The bottom line is that he modernises that impulse by combining it with the pace, endurance and furious energy required to compete in the hurly-burly of contemporary elite competitions.
Speaking of which, Tau is currently employed by Royal Union St Gilloise in the Belgian second division, on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion until he qualifies for a UK work permit. The Belgian second division is really not an appropriate stage for his gifts, no matter how fashionable Belgian football is right now.
Even Hein Vanhaezebrouck, who is the coach of top-tier team Anderlecht, said as much a few weeks ago. Speaking even before Tau shredded the Brussels giants’ defence in Union’s shock 3-0 away victory in late September, Vanhaezebrouck told the Brussels news site Bruzz: “Percy Tau is the best player in the Belgian second division, I think it’s a punishment he’s playing for Union.”
That’s a direct translation from Flemish, but I think what he meant is that it’s actually a crime that someone as good as Tau is toiling away in the wilderness of Belgian football.
But you get the feeling that Tau won’t feel too badly punished as his debut European season unfolds. It’s not entirely a bad thing to be a little too good for your environment for one season; to be a little comfortable in your technical edge, particularly if you need to adapt to a new continent, a new climate and a new social environment.
Speaking to New Frame a couple months back, Tau admitted his natural shyness was posing a bit of a challenge for his adaptation to life in St Gilles, a Bohemian suburb in southern Brussels. He mentioned his arcane range of personalised goal celebrations with each of his Mamelodi Sundowns teammates as an example of the camaraderie he missed.
But against the Super Eagles, he took the precious opportunity to recharge that tank of friendship. He now faces a long wait in the cold Belgian winter until his next dose, when Bafana face Libya in March 2019, in a neutral venue, for the away leg of their final Africa Cup of Nations Group E qualifier. It could all end there, of course (if the Seychelles are good enough to hold Bafana to a draw, Libya could be good enough to beat us).
But whatever transpires, Tau is good enough, and deceptive enough, to lead the reconstruction of Bafana’s pride.