When talent scout Tebogo Moloi first saw Sibongiseni “Ox” Mthethwa on the field of play, his tucked-in shirt convinced him he was as old as people told him.
Mthethwa was aged 25 at the time and had, up until that point, never seen a professional football contract.
In general life, 25 is young, with those of that age blessed with the knowledge that they still have a decade to enjoy their youth before begrudgingly bidding farewell to it.
But in football, such an age is considered advanced for a young man who has never stepped into professional football ranks.
By that time, many have cemented their status in the hearts of football lovers locally and are probably looking overseas for greener pastures.
Perhaps, as he strutted on the fields of Estcourt—that little town snuggly tucked onto the confluence of Bushmans and Little Bushmans rivers—even Mthethwa was resigned into accepting that age was not on his side for professional football.
While the shirts of others hung loosely below their waists, showcasing all the carefree exuberance of the young, his was tucked into his shorts, effectively betraying his age and the kind of maturity that would not allow him to showcase any signs of untidiness.
He was, after all, a worker at Narrowtex, a seatbelt manufacturing company, earning a modest R3000 a month. He was, literally, a man amongst boys.
“Ayanda Mkhize [former AmaZulu scout] was hosting a tournament in Estcourt and had invited me,” Moloi tells FARPost. “Ox was the captain and wore jersey number 2. I thought he was old.”
REJECTED BY AMAZULU
A few days later, while in Bergville, famously known as the gateway to the Northern Drakensberg holiday resorts, Moloi couldn’t resist approaching him.
“He was unstoppable in midfield. I called him after the game, and he told me he was 25. He told me he was working. I said: ‘Tell me if you want to give football a chance’. It was the year of Covid-19, and his job was not secure,” Moloi said.
As a fellow Estcourt boy, Mkhize, who ran the trials, wanted to take this unknown midfield dynamo, who played with his shirt neatly tucked in, to Usuthu. As Ox would learn a lot in those days, football is more than just a number. Desperate for players with resale values and perhaps believing that it is usually too late to teach an old dog new tricks in the beautiful game, many clubs, including AmaZulu, were reluctant to take a chance on a 25-year-old.
“I tried taking Ox to AmaZulu, and they were concerned about his age,” Mkhize recalls. “They said it was too late for him. They were afraid to take a risk.”
Like Mkhize, Moloi felt that Ox deserved a crack at the game at the highest level. He was too tenacious, his talent too obvious to be allowed to languish unfulfilled in Estcourt.
However, COVID-19, once a distant pandemic in Far East Asia, was now real, a menace knocking on South Africa’s doorstep. Like thousands of others across the globe, Ox’s job was now on the line even though his passion lay on the football field, far away from the factories where he toiled for a measly salary.
GETTING HIS FIRST PROFESSIONAL CONTRACT AT 26
“Eventually, he asked me to join my team. I worked with him for three months and took him to Royal Eagles,” Moloi tells FARPost. Royal Eagles were searching for Under-23 players. So, Ox didn’t have a chance until they ran the rule over him.
“They were impressed and took him into the bio-bubble with six games left. He played those six games in the bubble and scored a goal,” Moloi says.
Perhaps, as an illustration of his undying passion and desire, the gritty midfielder turned out for Eagles without earning a penny, even though he had signed a three-month contract.
“During that period, he was never paid a cent. He only got a T-shirt,” Moloi says sarcastically.
Ox had toiled in the unforgiving fields of the NFD for three months, and he was repaid in his own sweat and blood. In those three lean months, however, Ox’s hope had been rekindled.
Perhaps it was not too late to forge a career in professional football after all. Alas, as had so often before in his late blossoming career, as soon as one door was open, another would be shut immediately in his face.
CHASING THE UNLIKELY DREAM
At Black Leopards, where he went after his successful stint at Eagles, he would be told that he was surplus to requirements after only a day. It was a brutal dagger in the heart of a man who had left the comfort of KZN to go all the way to Thohoyandou, chasing an unlikely dream.
According to Mongezi Bobe, while he had given explicit instructions that Ox should be a part of the squad for the season, he later found that his fellow gaffers did not share the same enthusiasm for the tough-tackling, hard-running midfielder from KZN. Bobe was co-coach with Morgan Shivambu at the time.
“I thought they saw him because I told him to register his name with those who had passed the trial. Only to find out he was told not to come back,” he said.
“I insisted that there was a player who was here, and we made a mistake by letting him go… Out of all the players we saw, he was outstanding. He was a bit scared because he came from KZN. What I liked about him was that he was hungry. You could see the determination and fighting spirit.”
Moloi believes that the attributes that Bobe admired – the insatiable hunger for the ball and the never-say-die attitude – qualities that compelled Ox to single-mindedly pursue a career even though he was regarded as “old”, were also the same characteristics that turned some of the staff in the Leopards dugout against him.
“They said he was too aggressive,” Moloi explains.
HE WAS A COMPLETE PLAYER
Bobe believes after that rejection at Leopards, Ox was on the verge of giving up on the prospect of ever making it professionally. Were it not for Bobe’s unwavering belief, Ox could indeed be languishing in rural KZN, telling others in Estcourt about a career that could have been. Certainly, it is on such fine margins that the success or failure of careers is decided in football.
As soon as Ox adapted to life in Limpopo, the qualities Bobe had fought to highlight were apparent. With impeccable ability on and off the ball, Ox immediately established himself as a mainstay in the Leopards engine room.
“I was surprised to see a player with those qualities. He could read a game, tackle and play at the same time. I thought he was coming from a PSL side. He was a complete player,” Bobe adds.
After a single season with Leopards, a man who had come to Thohoyandou with nothing but clothes on his back was now worth R2.5m. Fast forward a few years later, Ox has already donned the green and gold of Bafana Bafana and arrived at Kaizer Chiefs from Stellenbosch FC in September 2023 in a deal thought to be worth a couple of millions.
It is a staggering meteoric rise for a man who was squeezing in a bit of football between shifts in factories in Estcourt at the onset of the CO-19 pandemic.
However, one man not least bit surprised by his rise is his father, Shadrack Muntukathenjwa Mthethwa. This is because he saw football’s new late-blooming flower blossom in an environment where opportunities were hard to come by. Football, the elder Mthethwa says, runs in their family.
FOOTBALL RUNS IN THE FAMILY
“He got it from me. In my younger days, I played as a striker for a team called Delcon Junior Bucs. His late brother was also very talented,” Mthethwa senior tells FARPost.
It has been a long journey from the dust of Estcourt to the lush turf of Naturena. Prophets of doom might say Mthethwa would not be the first star from a small town to find the lights of Johannesburg too bright once in the spotlight.
However, Shadrack raised his son to be humble and hard-working while fearing God. That may stand him in good stead at Chiefs. With the pressure ratcheting up on the boys in black and gold, the Chiefs midfield already resembles hell’s kitchen, and nothing but the highest standards of professionalism and determination can put out the fires that have already ignited at the beginning of the season. According to Moloi, Ox might just be a man for the job.
“He’s like [the late] John Moeti; he never gets tired. He’s a humble, relaxed boy who doesn’t smoke or drink. He lives a clean life, and at 70 minutes, he pushes when other players are getting tired,” Moloi adds.
With comparisons to the likes of Moeti, Ox has a lot to live up to. Dylan Kerr, who coached him at Leopards, concurs.
Kerr believes Ox is a throwback to the Chiefs midfielders of old. The workhorses that did the ugly jobs, carrying the piano for the artists who express themselves further up the field.
SOWETO DERBIES WILL NEVER BE THE SAME
“He may be the missing player who can give them that attacking flair of the way Kaizer Chiefs always used to play back in the days,” Kerr tells FARPost.
Ox has a lot to look forward to as his Amakhosi career takes off. Chiefs, especially in their current state, are always a pressure cooker. It’s never easy to tell the players who would thrive or crumble under the spotlight.
One thing is sure. Soweto derbies in the Mthethwa household will never be the same again, especially for Ox’s father, a die-hard Buccaneer. It’s a pleasant dilemma for a man who has seen his son rise from the unlikeliest beginnings to the pinnacle of South African football.
“He knows that I’m a big Orlando Pirates fan. I don’t know what will happen now that he plays for Chiefs,” his dad concludes.
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