Percy Tau’s bubbly personality, playful nature, wild hairstyle and eccentric goal celebrations hide a secret that has been exposed in Belgium. The Brighton & Hove Albion forward is terribly shy, even though almost everything he does on the pitch demands your attention.
Tau prefers to operate under the radar. But that’s a luxury the 24-year-old from Witbank has forgone, particularly since the English Premier League club forked out more than R50 million to acquire his services from Mamelodi Sundowns, despite knowing that it will take some time for him to get a work permit to play in England.
To help him gain European experience so that he makes a seamless transition when he is eligible to play in England, Brighton loaned Tau to Belgian first division outfit Union Saint-Gilloise for the 2018/19 season. But Tau’s move to Brussels via London has taken him out of his comfort zone.
“This is the first time I am an outsider,” Tau tells New Frame from Bafana Bafana’s temporary base, Durban’s Hilton Hotel, as they prepare to take on Libya on Saturday in a qualifying match for the Africa Cup of Nations [Afcon].
“It feels weird not having a lot of handshakes with the guys. I only have one handshake with one teammate. I used to have like 10 different handshakes for 10 different players [at Sundowns] with dance moves thrown in there. There used to be a lot of happy times in the change room at Sundowns. Now I am back to being the shy boy that I am.
“I sit in the corner and keep to myself while I familiarise myself with this new environment. I am back to a place I don’t enjoy being in because I am very shy. I was able to hide that side at Sundowns because I had been there for a long time and Witbank is home. Now this side of me shows up a lot and I don’t like it. Sometimes I want to be bold, have fun with the guys, do handshakes and say something nice that’s going to make us laugh. But I am not there yet. I am quiet most of the time because I am still finding my feet.”
From king to pauper
But don’t for a second think that being in this uncomfortable position will see Tau becoming one of those South African footballers who quickly come back home without making much of a mark in Europe.
He frequently speaks to friend and former Sundowns teammate Keagan Dolly, who is based in France. The two have made a pact to stay in Europe for a long time and return home only when they are old. In fact, Tau is excited about his transition from a king in South Africa to a pauper in Belgium’s first division.
“There’s a saying in SePedi, ‘Mpṧa ge e tṧwa nageng enngwe e khutiṧa mosela’ [When a dog goes to a foreign land, it hides its tail],” says Tau. “If you’re a king this side and you go to another place, you must hide your crown and kneel before whoever is in charge that side. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t a king anymore, it just means that you have an opportunity to show your worth, your royal touch all over again. I am not a guy who is about profile. I actually prefer to live away from the spotlight and I refuse to let fame get into my head. I like to go under the radar.
“I left my huge profile in South Africa and I have an opportunity to be myself, make a name for myself all over again. I don’t think about what I have done, I think about what I have to do tomorrow. I am here to work. At the end of the day, I will leave football. I don’t want to lose myself chasing fame. I want to remain the same boy from Witbank who enjoys football, studying and just being myself.”
Tau’s journey from cub to ferocious lion who devours defenders for fun wasn’t easy. In February, with the crown of PSL Footballer of the Season within touching distance, Tau’s brother, Mogau Tshehla, was killed in a car accident. “I still haven’t accepted that he is gone,” says Tau in a solemn voice, dropping his energetic and bubbly tone.
“I haven’t even deleted his number. The family really supported me because I was alone in Johannesburg while they were together in Witbank, and Dumi [Tau who was in Pietermaritzburg with Royal Eagles] is older than me, he sees things differently. I was the one they were most worried about. I am doing what he [Mogau] would have wanted me to do as a way to honour him. When I was 18 years old, he posted on Facebook that this boy is going to be a star. I asked him why is he putting me on blast like that? He said it was the truth. I listen to everything that’s said about me but I don’t take it to heart. I’ll try and do what he wanted me to achieve. I want to make him proud. He would have been happy to see me playing overseas. He was very proud of me. He played with my soccer boots. It’s sad that I don’t have him any more.”
Tau’s move to Brighton wasn’t as straightforward as he would have liked. The issue with his work permit pales in comparison to what he went through during the negotiations. The Brazilians played hardball even though Brighton met and exceeded their evaluation of the forward.
Frustrated, Tau’s business manager, Mmatsatsi Sefalafala, told The Sunday Times that Sundowns were negotiating in bad faith and reneged on their word. That complicated the process, pitting the two clubs against each other. Tau downed his tools and didn’t travel with Sundowns to Phokeng for their pre-season camp.
“It was difficult for me to be positive with what was happening,” says Tau. “I was very close to throwing in the towel. I knew that the interest was very strong. A little voice told me to be strong, it’s going to happen at the end of the day … I don’t have any regrets [with how I behaved during the negotiations]. Everything was done in a proper way.”
Sundowns eventually gave in and Tau realised his dream of playing abroad, but not with the club that signed him. But he is positive about his detour.
Home away from home
“I have a medical team from Brighton that looks after me while I am at Union. I have access to London, to my team, every day and all the time if there’s no training. They’re close to me. There’s someone who watches me in every match. They compare my stats to every forward in the Brighton team. They played against Liverpool recently and looked at my stats in the cup that we played. They compared what I did and what the forwards did at Brighton against Liverpool, from how many kilometres we covered to how many sprints we made. I am in a place where they are allowing me to grow and they are keeping track of everything I do. Even now they asked me how Bafana Bafana camp is going. I feel at home. I don’t feel like I am on loan because they speak to me and they are very close to me.”
Tau is determined to play a starring role for his national team in the build-up to Afcon 2019 in Cameroon. Bafana can move a step closer to booking their place in the competition by bagging three points against Libya at Moses Mabhida Stadium on Saturday.
“It’s important for Bafana Bafana to qualify for major tournaments, do better in matches and make sure that we build a national team that people will love to watch,” Tau says. “We need to stop losing and staying at home to watch major tournaments instead of playing in them … I have never played in the Afcon. I would love to play in it and win it … I know that it’s going to take a lot of work.”