Untold Stories

Teboho Mokoena: The gem Sundowns forgot to polish

Walter Steenbok was so sure he had unearthed a gem for his then-employer Mamelodi Sundowns in 2014.

The future of the 17-year-old boy was just as clear as a bell. In his eyes, without a shadow of a doubt, there was a diamond in the rough that could quickly become the next best thing for the Brazilians.

Twice, Steenbok, an author of a book on scouting, has described Teboho Mokoena the same way, using the same terms and names as he falls short of saying the boy was an unused engine with low miles on the clock. All he needed was someone to harness his raw talent and bring the best out of him.   

“At that age, I saw a fusion of Doctor Khumalo and Sunday Oliseh – he could play number 10, he could play 6 or 8,” Steenbok tells FARPost.

For any boy that age to evoke memories of the doctor from Soweto who gave adoring Kaizer Chiefs fans entertaining prescriptions and the former Juventus maestro – a physical yet highly technical midfielder – is somewhat unthinkable. Those two names are hallowed and revered in equal measure in the continental football hall of fame.

Steenbok spotted young Tebza at an Engen tournament

Makhanda, as he was affectionately known in his kasi Bohlokong – a Bethlehem township named after the hloko/bohloko grass – was raised by a single mother. His dad’s passing when he was 13 didn’t make matters any better.

His loving mom, Manthati Mokoena, a woman of a calm demeanour, knew how much his dad, Alexis ‘Didi’ Motaung, was endowed with talent and knew her boy had the genes to follow in his footsteps.

However, even in the wildest of her dreams, she never thought he would outdo the achievements of Motaung, a renowned football star who plied his trade with the then QwaQwa Stars and Hellenic Football Club in the late 90s. Like his son, he also operated in the middle of the park.

“His dad was also a soccer star, but I’m so happy with the way he has done. He has achieved way more than his dad,” a proud Mama Mokoena tells FARPost with such composure.

Of course, the lad, born on 24 January 1997, was relatively young when dad graced soccer pitches across the Rainbow Nation, but he has an inkling of the kind of player he was.

‘Didi’ – Tebza’s dad played football in the late 90s

“I watched a video of my dad’s game when he was playing for Hellenic. I’m a better midfielder,” the good-humoured Mokoena tells FARPost as he giggles.

If one man will not even argue with the Bethlehem-born star about being better than ‘Didi’, it is Steenbok.

“He could play behind the striker; he could play in midfield coming from deep or controlling the play from behind. So, that’s a talent,” adds the well-travelled scout, who is also credited for unearthing talents like Knowledge Musona and Gaston Sirino.

Sadly, Motaung met his death in August 2010 and never got a chance to see his son in action. But mom and his late grandfather, Pitso Mokoena, were there to hold his hand all the way.

And then, when he got to Bodikela Junior Secondary School, his teacher Charles Molefe took an interest in his football flair. Molefe fell in love with the boy for three simple reasons – his self-discipline, which he humbly attributes to his grandpa, the sheer talent and good grades, of course. Yes, the boy was an A student.

Tebza and his mom

Skinny as he was, he would turn into beast mode when thrown into the field of play. It didn’t matter where the coaches played him – right-back, up top as a striker or in the heart of defence – you just got emphatic performances. Such was his versatility.

“When I got scouted by Harmony Academy, we were playing at the Coca Cola tournament [in 2012], in Bloemfontein,” he says.

The man who initially scouted him in 2013, Pitso Mokoena, who surprisingly shares the same name and surname with Mokoena’s maternal grandfather, recalls exactly what caught his eye. Nothing complicated nor sophisticated.

“Each time his coach [Molefe] wanted to instruct the team, he would do it through him,” the Harmony Academy coach tells FARPost. The teenage sensation would relay the instructions to the tee. Add to that; he would be the vital cog that drove Bodikela.

And so, the man who would become his mentor for the next two years saw a leader. It took him just two games to be convinced that he had found a real gem. It was a fantastic combo, however. Sipho Mbule also stood out, and he had to take both of them.

The Free State double act

At the time, Harmony Academy, whose rugby alumni include Cecil Afrika, Branco du Preez, Seabelo Senatla and Alistair Vermaak, was playing in the SAB League, with most of the boys aged slightly below 21. His new find was just a 15-year-old greenhorn.

“So, at first, I thought he couldn’t play because it was Under 21s, but he came in and did extremely well,” the Harmony Academy coach says.  Steenbok saw the boy at an Engen tournament hosted in the Free State a year down the line.

The devoted apostle to the football scout cult, Steenbok, was in the company of Thomas Nare, who worked as Sundowns’ development coach for goalkeepers.

While Steenbok’s vigilant eye only stalked ‘Makhanda’, his colleague Nare insisted he had to look at Mbule as well. But he could not take his eyes off this boy who had the knack of scoring all-important goals.

From his attacking midfield position, Mokoena scored 11 goals in six games at that tournament. Subsequently, he scooped every individual award in the offing – from midfielder of the tournament to top goal scorer, capping it all with a player of the tournament accolade.

No wonder, Steenbok was back in Bethlehem two days after the tournament ended to sign the boy.

“I kept telling this guy that if you’re taking this one [Mokoena], also take this one [Mbule],” Nare tells FARPost.

Of course, the Baroka FC goalkeeper’s coach, Nare, still admits Mokoena certainly looked like a player who would later make it big.

“You could see he would grow to become a great player; he was younger than the age group he was playing in. In youth football, one year difference is quite huge, but he managed to play well. You could see he was a gifted player. He had pure talent,” adds Nare.

After he was signed, there was a slight problem. He could not immediately change schools at that point, so the agreement was that he would remain in the Free State.

“He was in Grade 11 when we signed him. It was going to be difficult to sign him when he was going to Grade 12. So, we had to allow him to finish up there,” Steenbok explains.

Steenbok didn’t know that the Harmony Academy coaches were reluctant to release their wunderkind to Sundowns because some of their prodigies had previously failed to make the grade.

Mokoena was reluctant to let Tebza join Downs

“I remember I signed for Sundowns in 2014, I was supposed to go there, but Coach Pitso [Mokoena] thought I might not make it at Sundowns. He stopped the move because most of the players from the academy who went there never made it,” recalls Mokoena.

A year later, SuperSport United came knocking after seeing him in the Bayhill tournament, and they signed him.

This time, his coaches felt it was the ideal move because of the perceived stability of the SuperSport academy.

“It was a dream come true, I wanted to play in Gauteng, and I thought SuperSport had great development structures. Looking at their youth squad, I wanted to be part of that team,” he says, adding that the botched Sundowns move was soon forgotten.

For just about a year, he played in the Multichoice Diski Challenge before parachuting to the first team in 2016 under the tutelage of Briton Stuart Baxter.

They were not ready. The new boy scored a ferocious shot from 40 yards in his first session with the big boys.

“I guess that’s where I made my mark,” he recalls.

Baxter promoted Tebza to the SuperSport first team in 2016

Back home, the youngster was also making a mark in his mother’s life, reminiscing on how she toiled as a single parent to give him a decent life.

Although unemployed, her son was guaranteed an allowance of R200 every month. So, when he started earning his R2500 stipend at the academy, he made sure half of it went to mom back in Bethlehem.

“I gave her half of my allowance every month,” he says.

Thrice, he gave her his signing-on fee to makeover her Free State home.

Nare is convinced the Bafana Bafana star is ten times better than the rookie he watched in Free State some seven years ago. The multiple man-of-the-match and individual awards are testaments to that.

“He’s even better now because he’s been taught how to defend as well. He’s got an element I never saw when he was younger, like those shots that he takes, being hard and winning the ball,” he says.

It was no surprise to Steenbok when Sundowns courted the 25-year-old ace in June 2019. Matsatsantsa sensationally rejected their Tshwane rivals’ multi-million rand offer for his signature.

SuperSport’s football manager Stan Matthews did not mince his words when saying the 2019 young player of the year award winner’s buyout clause was meant for the international market.

Sundowns finally got their man

So, Sundowns came back in January 2022, dug deep in their pockets for a talent they could have had seven years ago.

But the jolly former youth international remains a happy man, with his sights set on brighter days ahead.

“As the saying goes, ‘The home of Champions’, I was also born a winner, and I want to see myself winning the league (DStv Premiership), competing in the CAF Champions League as well as the FIFA Club World Cup and just winning trophies,” the former SuperSport man said after his move to Downs was announced.

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