Rivaldo Coetzee pulls himself up by his bootstraps

The Mamelodi Sundowns’ defender reveals how he beat the temptation to quit football that preoccupied his mind during bleak times of injury.

The thought of quitting football has crossed Rivaldo Coetzee’s mind several times. At the heart of those thoughts is the chronic foot injury that the Mamelodi Sundowns’ defender can’t even describe.

“I can’t explain it, honestly. That you’ll have to speak to the doctors about. It’s just a broken bone on my foot. A few specialists told me that they haven’t seen anything like it before. They specialise in it, I have to take their word,” Coetzee said at the club’s training base in Chloorkop.

These specialists have also said they can’t operate on Coetzee because of the many intricate bones in close proximity to his injury on the right foot. It’s an injury that denied him a dream move to Scottish giants Glasgow Celtic in 2017, and it almost ended his career prematurely at the age of 21.

“When I found out about the injury, I had already signed the contract with Glasgow,” Coetzee said. “At some point I thought about quitting football [after the failed move to Celtic]. That was a dream move for me. To go to such a big club, and that year they were playing in the Uefa Champions League. They were in the same group as PSG [Paris Saint-Germain] and Bayern [Munich]. I had already seen myself there, being a part of it all and playing against world-class players. But then Sundowns came along and it gave me hope again.”

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The Brazilians signed the 22-year-old defender from Kakamas despite him failing the medical test with Celtic, the test that turned his dream move into a nightmare. The contract with Sundowns gave him hope, but the nightmare continued. He played only one match in top-flight football last season. When he made his debut for Sundowns in the preliminary round of the CAF Champions League, against Leones Vegetarianos in Equatorial Guinea on 28 November, he hadn’t played top-flight football in over a year. His last match before that was in the colours of Ajax Cape Town on 19 August 2017. But striker Jeremy Brockie liked what he saw.

“Riva, playing in his first game for the club, looked like he has been playing for years. He is a good, composed centre back,” the Sundowns forward said. But underneath that composed exterior was a nervous Coetzee.

“It felt like I was making my debut in professional football all over again, since I was out for so long,” Coetzee said with a bright smile. “It was good to be back. It’s something that I had been looking forward to since I came here. It took a bit longer than expected, but we’re here now and I am getting some games under the belt.”

Lonely road

The road to Coetzee playing his first competitive match was tough, lonely and tested his mental strength. Thoughts of quitting football resurfaced.

“My family kept me going in the difficult times. They are the most important people in everything that happened to me. I would speak to my mother on a regular basis. There was a point when I told her that maybe I am thinking about quitting football. I didn’t say that I want to,” Coetzee said, bursting into laughter and changing the tone of what had been a solemn interview up to this point. He still speaks about the injury with a lump in his throat, though.

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“I was just telling her that maybe I am thinking about quitting. She would remind me that ever since I was a young boy, all I ever wanted to do was to play football as a career. That’s what kept me going, because I want to give her a better life. Football has given me the chance to do that.”

On the day of the interview, in mid-January, Coetzee hadn’t been able to finish training. He left hurt and missed out on playing against Maritzburg United the following day. His injury never healed completely, he still feels pain now and then – but it’s not as bad as when he arrived at Sundowns in a moonboot. The injury made adjusting to life at Sundowns difficult. For a long time, more than a year, he was a Sundowns player in name only. Coach Pitso Mosimane, who rates the calm defender who can play off either foot highly, was patient with him.

“Luckily for me, I spoke to the coach before coming here,” Coetzee said. “He told me that he will be patient with me. He told me that he will wait for me as long as I need to recover. That gave me a little bit of confidence because I have a coach who believes in me, even though he knew I wouldn’t be able to play for up to a year. That helped me to stay positive and made sure that I worked hard in the gym every day so that I come back stronger.”

Life without boots

Coetzee missed the little things while on the sidelines. During that time he saw more of doctors and the gym than his teammates and the training field – and, importantly, the stadium.

“I missed just putting on the boots every day, going out on the field and being with the team. When I was out, I was in the gym alone. The guys were training on the field and I couldn’t even put boots on. That’s what hurt me the most.”

The biggest challenge for Coetzee is that Sundowns can’t bank on him. He could make Sundowns’ CAF Champions League clash against Asec Mimosas of Ivory Coast on 1 February at Loftus Versfeld, or he could be in the stands with the injury holding him hostage again. Irrespective, when he is on the field, the Bafana Bafana centre back plays without fear.

“When you think, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t make this tackle because I’ll get hurt,’ that’s when you’ll get hurt again. When I am on the field, for that 90 minutes or however long I’ll play, the injury doesn’t exist. I don’t think what will happen if I tackle or what will happen if this happens. My main focus is on the game. If you think about something too much, it will bother you and hold you hostage. It will take over. You won’t be as confident as you usually are. I try not to think about it too much and enjoy football.”

Picking up the pieces

The words “enjoy football” stick out. They reverberate through the Sundowns reception room. He hasn’t enjoyed football for a long time. Coetzee, who was named after the Brazilian great Rivaldo Vítor Borba Ferreira, wants to do more to build on his grand entrance into the beautiful game.

After his stellar performances for the Urban Warriors, former Bafana Bafana coach Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba bravely handed him his debut at 17 years, 11 months and 25 days old against Congo-Brazzaville in Pointe-Noire in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. Coetzee was the youngest Bafana Bafana player in 15 years, a position previously held by former captain Aaron Mokoena, who earned his first senior national team cap at the age of 18.

Coetzee was tipped to follow in Mokoena’s footsteps, have a long career with Bafana, perhaps surpass Mokoena’s record for the most caps (107) and enjoy a lengthy stay playing in Europe. He was on his way to achieving that before injury derailed him.

But Coetzee has picked up the pieces and is eager to continue where he left off. When thoughts of quitting football resurface during difficult times, he now has a coping mechanism to deal with them: “I look for those small positive victories that tell me that I should just keep going. Further down the line, we will see what happens.”

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