The Soweto Derby is a perfect opportunity for Jackson Mabokgwane to step into the spotlight and move away from the shadow that has held him prison for the better part of his career. The biggest match on the South African sport calendar can turn a player into an instant hero. But it can also produce villains. Mistakes in the clash of Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates live long – especially if they lead to defeat.
It’s a good thing then that the Pirates’ goalkeeper is used to walking the tightrope between hero and villain. Eduardo Galeano perfectly described the life of a goalkeeper in Football in Sun and Shadow: “He wears the number one on his back. The first to be paid? No, the first to pay. It’s always the keeper’s fault. And if it isn’t, he still gets blamed.”
“You need to be strong and bold as a goalkeeper,” Mabokgwane says at the Buccaneers training base, Rand Stadium in Johannesburg. “If you make a mistake, unfortunately, nobody covers you. In all the other positions on the field, when you make a mistake, there’s always someone who can still help you. It’s all about mental toughness. When you don’t have a good game, you must be mentally strong for you to bounce back. I’ve got that, and that’s what keeps me going.”
The 30-year-old has never fully owned the number one jersey in the numerous clubs he has played for since turning professional 11 years ago. At Mamelodi Sundowns, where his professional career began, he watched Brian Baloyi, Calvin Marlin and Wayne Sandilands start ahead of him. He played second fiddle to Moeneeb Josephs at Bidvest Wits and deputised for Shu-Aib Walters at Mpumalanga Black Aces.
“My career has gone perfectly fine,” Mabokgwane says. “I started very early, around 18. I have grown as a player, and I am slowly reaching my peak. That’s why I say that my career has gone fine. I am not a one-season wonder, a player who comes and shines for one or two seasons, wins a couple of individual awards and then is no more. They say goalkeepers mature with age. I am approaching my peak. I don’t think that I have reached my highest level yet. I am heading in the right direction.”
This is not the first time Mabokgwane feels he is heading in the right direction. It happened at Sundowns, Wits, Aces and even at Bafana Bafana but he never reached his destination of being the undisputed number one. Even though he’s been at Pirates for two years, he is yet to feature in the the Soweto Derby. It looked like he would break that duck last season after 12 successive appearances but was dropped for the derby and didn’t feature for the club again until the end of the season.
“The most important thing for me is the Pirates’ badge. It’s not so much about the individual,” Mabokgwane says. “The most important thing is the team and for us to get the results.”
No permanent number one
That’s Mabokgwane the diplomat speaking. He would love to be in the starting XI against Amakhosi. “It’s a great occasion, one that’s a childhood dream for every football player in the country,” Mabokgwane explains. “It’s exciting for me that I will be a part of the occasion.”
But Mabokgwane could still suffer the indignity that befell him last season. New addition Brilliant Khuzwayo, the former Chiefs goalkeeper, has regained his fitness and looked good at training on Monday morning. The Buccaneers haven’t had a permanent number one goalkeeper since Senzo Meyiwa’s death in 2014.
“The Orlando Pirates’ jersey doesn’t belong to anybody,” the club’s assistant coach, Rhulani Mokwena, says. “The Orlando Pirates’ jersey belongs to the multitude of supporters. Whoever has been bestowed with the responsibility to wear it needs to do so understanding that it comes with a huge burden, because blessings and burdens are cousins. You’re blessed to be a part of such a big team, but the burden of carrying the jersey comes with the responsibility to please the multitudes of people who follow this club.
“When we select which goalkeeper will start, we look at the overall contribution to make sure that the team is in the best possible shape and has the best possible starting lineup to be able to win – because winning is the most important thing.”
That type of thinking might keep players hungry and motivated, but it also leads to instability as the defence is forced to contend with instructions from goalkeepers who have different playing styles. Last year Mabokgwane argued that rotating goalkeepers was killing the club. “There is no goalkeeping crisis,” Mabokgwane told Sunday Times after the Buccaneers’ worst finish in the league in the PSL-era. They conceded 40 goals in that campaign and used four goalkeepers.
“There isn’t a question of ability. The problem is that there is too much rotation, which creates the illusion of a crisis because you end up looking like you don’t know what you’re doing. You need to have a first-choice goalkeeper who you back even if he goes through a bad patch.”
Wayne Sandilands, the recipient of Pirates’ Golden Glove award for keeping the most clean sheets last season, was dropped after a mistake. He made way for Siyabonga Mpontshane, who looked like a good first choice after his strong finish in the last campaign. But he found himself starting this season on the bench. Mabokgwane is the Buccaneers’ third keeper in three months. It’s not a stretch to imagine they’ll finish this season on a fourth keeper with Khuzwayo ready for action.
“You need to stay ready,” Mabokgwane says. “That’s all you need to do. In football, the opportunity comes at any given time. Of course, nobody owns a jersey anywhere. That’s what has happened to me. I’ve received the opportunity, and I have grabbed it with both hands. That’s all I’m focused on, continuing to do the job I have been doing.”
If Pirates and Chiefs play like they have been doing this season, the sold-out crowd at FNB Stadium could be in for free-flowing and attacking football. But that will only happen if players aren’t held captive by the fear of making mistakes. That fear has often resulted in cagey, goalless draws. Mabokgwane, should he start, will not be held back by any fear, despite the uncertainty of his position.
Whether he is the first choice or fighting for the jersey, Mabokgwane says he has the same attitude. “You need to keep on working hard. You can’t relax when you’re playing. And when you aren’t playing, you also need to work hard. It’s all about focusing on yourself and looking at the bigger picture. People sometimes think it’s only about what you do at the stadium on match day. At the end of the day, this is your career. You must do well every time. It’s about getting better as a player to achieve as much as you can while you’re still playing the game. That’s all it is for me – making sure that my game improves.”