Asavela Shakespeare Mbekile’s football career has been so dramatic, with all its ups and downs, it could have been penned by the wordsmith after which he is named. Despite the drama and upheaval, Mbekile always finds a way to come out on top, thanks to the support he gets from his mother.
“It hasn’t been easy to get here because I grew up far from Johannesburg, where everything happens,” Mbekile said. “Dreams that you have of becoming a footballer are quickly diminished because you see people who are more talented than you, but their talent is being wasted because there are few opportunities in those dusty streets of Cofimvaba. It becomes difficult. Your parents have doubts, they wonder why are you still interested in football. But my mom was always there. She would buy me boots and make sure that I got to wherever I needed to be.”
The 32-year-old’s best quality – his versatility, able to play in central midfield and as a right back – has also been his biggest challenge. He is the proverbial jack of all trades, master of none. He is a decent central midfielder and right back, but at Mamelodi Sundowns and even at his new club, Orlando Pirates, he isn’t good enough to own either positions as a first choice.
This has pigeonholed “Shoes” as the cover who only comes in when the first-choice players aren’t available. He wants to change that at the Sea Robbers, especially in the CAF Champions League, as the club’s only in-field player who has lifted the biggest prize in club football on the continent – Mbekile won the tournament with the Brazilians in 2016, along with goalkeeper Wayne Sandilands.
‘One of the greatest things’
Mbekile’s versatility came to the fore in that campaign. He plugged the holes that came up in a gruelling campaign that saw Sundowns win in some of the most hostile environments on the continent, in Algeria and Egypt.
“It’s a great feeling to have achieved all that I have achieved with my upbringing,” Mbekile said. “Winning the Champions League is one of the greatest things to have happened to my life. Before the tournament, I don’t think that anyone thought that we could win it. Even us as a team, we didn’t think that we could win it. But after the first game in the group stage, we started believing that we can win it. Going back to Cofimvaba with that medal made everyone proud and it made me happy to see that the people are very proud of their son.”
“Shoes” wants another Champions League winners’ medal, this time with the Sea Robbers. Pirates sit at the summit of Group B. They will face Tunisian giants Esperance back-to-back, starting on 2 February at Orlando Stadium at 9pm. The return leg in Radès, Tunisia, on 12 February will be played behind closed doors as part of Esperance’s punishment for their supporters’ misbehaviour in the previous campaign.
This will give the Buccaneers a big boost as it will remove one of Esperance’s biggest threats, their intimidating home crowd, which is filled with supporters wielding lasers that they use to blind their team’s opponents.
Pirates will then host Zimbabwe’s FC Platinum in March, before ending their group stage campaign with a visit to Guinea to face Horoya. A good showing in these matches will move them closer to the knockout stage, a space reserved for the top two teams in each group. Should the Buccaneers conquer the continent again, like they did in 1995, this winners’ medal would belong to Mbekile as the one he won with Sundowns belongs to his No.1 fan.
“My mom has it, it’s at home in the Eastern Cape,” Mbekile said. “She’s been supportive. I was raised by her. She’s been there for me. She did everything for us to get what we needed, go to school and have something to eat. When I was young, I never thought that we were poor because she made sure that we didn’t see that. Now that I am older and wiser, I see that my mom was struggling because she didn’t have a job.
“We didn’t see that when we were growing up. Whatever I do now, I want to make sure that she never works in her life. She is proud of me and the achievements that I have reached. But I also want to make the people from the Eastern Cape proud. It’s not easy for them to have someone playing for these big teams. We hardly have someone from the area who plays for [Kaizer] Chiefs, Pirates or for Sundowns. I want to make sure that they are proud of me.”
As much as Mbekile is a flag-bearer for his province, his transition from Sundowns to Pirates hasn’t been easy. He went from sitting in the stands at Sundowns to doing the same thing at Pirates. Mbekile has only completed six matches at Pirates in all competitions.
“You’re always going to find challenges in life, what’s important is that you keep on fighting to get into the team,” Mbekile said. “It’s important to stay positive. It doesn’t help to sulk and complain about things. By being positive, you’re able to change things. You work more so that when your chance comes, you’re ready to play.”
The Champions League will offer Mbekile more game time because of his experience in the tournament. It’s an opportunity to write a positive chapter in a turbulent career that started at Ikapa Sporting before moving to FC Cape Town and Moroka Swallows, and then on to Chloorkop.
“The Champions League is a great tournament, you’re playing against the best in Africa,” Mbekile said. “For any player who has ambitions to be the best, you need to play in this competition. Rubbing shoulders with the best in the continent is a big motivation for everyone. Pirates wants to win it, which is great because I also want to win it.”
He continued: “Winning is the motivation. Every time I get up, I want to win. I want to be better than yesterday. What we achieved at Sundowns is in the past, what’s important now is what we can achieve today and tomorrow with Pirates.”