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Tapelo Xoki: The gem that emerged from the rubble of a humiliating 17-0 rout

Tapelo Xoki’s burgeoning career renders credence to a theory that sometimes some dreams are born from the rubble of adversity.

Maybe if Xoki had not walked off Old Mutual pitch in Pinelands, Cape Town, shirt wrapped over the face in utter humiliation and dejection, we could not have been waxing lyrical about the newly signed Orlando Pirates defender.

It was from that pitch where Xoki’s unforgettable moment of embarrassment happened that his dream was born just when all appeared gloomy. 

Every story can never be complete without an eyewitness account, so let us turn the hands of time for Mzonzima Anderson Xheshisa’s first-hand account of how an embarrassing defeat for Xoki’s amateur team gave birth to his career that has Pirates making overtures.

Xheshisa recalls the unmistakable sight of young Xoki [then Nyongo] walking off that pitch; his head hung in shame. The teenager just had to be ashamed. An Old Mutual side made up of boys, a year or two years younger than him, had ruthlessly clobbered them 17-0.

Xheshisa

The then 17-year-old Xoki marshalled or ‘mismarshalled’ the very same Goal Hunters defence that leaked a degrading 17 goals. Four or five goals would have been understandable, but a whole 17?

Xheshisa, affectionately known as ‘Mr A’ in football circles, had observed the Khayelitsha-born youngster from a distance and was so convinced he was a decent talent just in the wrong team. But, how on earth would he recommend him to the academy after such a drubbing?

“I’d been watching him from a distance ekasi, and I knew there was something [talent]. Even after losing, I invited him to train with the boys at the academy,” says Xheshisa, the head scout at the academy.

As soon as he made it known to his colleagues that Xoki and two other boys would be joining them the following Monday for further assessment, there was unyielding opposition from other academy officials.

Understandably, it made no sense to the other academy officials that any of the boys from that hapless team were worth a second look. But, Xheshisa was so sure he had seen something special.  A rough diamond.

After all, until biblical Jesus’s birth in Jerusalem, few doubted anything good could come out of that land. For teenage Xoki, nicknamed ‘Baby Tower’, it was either football or nothing else. 

He had always made it clear that the path he wanted to pursue had to be paved with soccer. Even his school teachers and classmates were aware. “In class, he would sit right at the back by the corner with two of his friends, and when asked what career path he wanted to pursue, he would simply say: ‘football,” Mbuyi Hlomela, who was a senior teacher at Thembelihle Senior Secondary School in Khayelitsha, tells FARPost.

While the 17-0 drubbing was a reality check for him, it never sapped any of his passion for the game. Indeed, being invited to the academy was a bit of a reprieve. But Xheshisa’s colleagues never held back; they condemned the move to bring a ‘bunch of losers’ to the academy.

It came to the point that the two other boys from Khayelitsha gave up after just a week. They couldn’t take it any longer. For spirited Xoki, it would be a straight three weeks of attending training sessions, even when he knew pretty well that he was unwelcome.

“I would jump into a train to get to the training sessions every day and get back home quite late. On Friday, I got home at 11pm and had to attend the Nike trials on Saturday at 7am,” the soft-spoken defender tells FARPost.

Seeing his colleagues were not budging on his issue, Xheshisa gave in to the pressure and decided he would not force the boy on Old Mutual Academy. Coincidentally, around the same period, George Dearnaley was on the verge of buying status in the ABC Motsepe League. On the other hand, Old Mutual was planning to sell.

While buying, Dearnaley, who grew up in Montclair, a southern suburb of Durban, sought to unearth a few gems that he would draft into his squad from the township. He then approached Xheshisa, a man whose list of football prodigies is endless. The revered Kasi scout had his beloved ‘Baby Tower’ in the back of his mind.

“When George came to watch the boys [Old Mutual reserve side against Kensington FC], I sat very far from him so that I would not influence his selection. Straight after the game, he came to me and said: ‘I want that defender, and I said ‘that’s Tapelo Nyongo’,” an elated Xheshisa tells FARPost.

At least someone was beginning to see what had impressed him too. Dearnaley, however, admits the boy was a diamond in the rough. “The Old Mutual Academy had released him because they didn’t think he was good enough.

“Tapelo was 17 when he arrived, but you could see there was something. He was a little bit clumsy. He was growing taller, and his feet were becoming bigger. We gave him a few months to get used to his new body,” Dearnaley tells FARPost.

Perhaps the growth spurt was why he was almost ruled out of the Nike Chance programme as they questioned his age. Eventually, he was one of the six kids picked in the Western Cape for the Nike Chance—a football talent search that sought to give young amateur, unsigned footballers an opportunity to prove themselves on an elite stage.

“I had to ask the school for his records when there were claims that he was overaged. We got the records, and he was allowed to participate in the programme,” says Mtutuzeli Hlomela, Nike’s brand product specialist.

Xoki says the move to join Dearnaley was precisely what the doctor ordered. His development fast-tracked under the watchful eye of the former AmaZulu forward. “It was in 2012 that I started playing in the ABC Motsepe League. It was a critical time in my development,” he tells FARPost.

Before that, he had turned out for amateur teams including CT Liverpool, West Coast and Silver City, who were part of the LFA in Khayelitsha and Eleven Express in the Castle League. At the end of 2013, he was sent to Bloemfontein Celtic. While things didn’t work out for him in Free State, his parents started seeing the football thing was serious.

“I stayed in Bloemfontein for three weeks; the deal was that I’d play ABC while they monitor me. But George thought I had to stay there in Cape Town. So, I went back to Cape Town.” The 1992 NSL Golden Boot winner with 20 league goals, Dearnaley, then organised a trial with his former club Usuthu.

Dearnaley also played for Usuthu back in the day

For some reason, the first-team coach Craig Rosslee couldn’t have a look at the young defender. Luckily, AmaZulu’s head of development Mark Kruner, was also involved in the Nike Chance programme, where he would further assess the youngster.

“He said he would monitor my progress. He was there when we were doing the tests. He monitored my progress. I even met Benni McCarthy at the Nike Chance for the first time,” adds the lanky defender.

Academics made a last gasp effort to snatch him away from football. Interestingly, his dad was pressuring him to at least go to varsity before turning pro. The old man was even quick to pay the registration fees to enrol in a sports management course at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).

“The scenery [at CPUT] was just not where I wanted to be,” Xoki says jokingly. Exactly a fortnight after the initial trial, the Durban outfit invited him for a friendly, after which a decision to sign him was made.

The agreement was that he would join the team ahead of the 2014/15 season. That arrangement would give him time to push his studies a little. Alas, two months after penning the pre-contract, his new club asked him to come earlier than planned.

It meant he had to drop out of school after just a handful of lectures. Dad was seething, yet the boy’s mind was made up. After all, he had worked so hard – through all the rejection—to get to that point.

“My dad was like: ‘what about school?’. He didn’t understand how that would work,” says Xoki. He just had to stand his ground and make this football thing work. Steve Bezuidenhout, who later took over from Kruner, says it was challenging keeping a then 19-year-old Xoki on the reserve side. He had a presence on the field, repeatedly says Bezuidenhout.

“For me, the one thing that struck me immediately was his leadership. He had a presence on the field. That was probably the most significant thing. He looked like the only player on the field. He had a real presence. As a defender, he was brave; you look and think he would be important,” Bezuidenhout tells FARPost.

The 1.85m tall defender made his Absa Premiership debut for Usuthu during the club’s 5-2 victory over SuperSport United in Pretoria. He made ten more league appearances for AmaZulu and netted once against Maritzburg United in the season’s final game.

Despite Usuthu’s unfortunate demotion from the PSL at the end of his maiden season, it was so clear that he was destined to become a key player for the club.

The promising centre-back managed to establish himself in the club’s starting line-up during the 2015/16 season, making 18 starts in the National First Division (NFD). He was deservedly handed the captain’s armband, aged 21, ahead of the 2016/17 NFD season after building a commanding reputation on the team.

Under his captaincy, Usuthu mounted a severe challenge for promotion to the PSL—making 25 league appearances and notching five goals. Unluckily, they narrowly missed out on promotion on the last day of the season but bounced back to the topflight after purchasing Thanda Royal Zulu’s PSL status.

Since then, the 27-year-old’s performances in the heart of Usuthu’s rear-guard have been pivotal. He was a vital cog in their fairy-tale run this season under the tutelage of Bafana Bafana record goalscorer McCarthy. 

But in the book of his dreams, the newly-signed Buccaneer wants to lift silverware and don the Bafana Bafana jersey. He has come a long way for him not to realise that dream. Not even the 17-0 humiliation could stand in the course of his professional career. 

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