Christopher ‘Pro’ Ollyn, was it Piano Football?

15 Jul 2019

KITSO KEMOENG’s face to face with  the man who during his days played football like Piano the way Dollar Brand would do his piano

It’s the morning of the Sir Seretse Khama day, the day on which I finally come face to face with Christopher ‘Pro’ Ollyn. I discover that there are actually more people out there who are more passionate about the history of Botswana football. On the day when my agenda was to uncover what made the football dynamo of the yesteryears who made playing football as artistic as playing a piano, I come out of it wiser, with much more than I bargained for.

Ollyn’s mother was apparently one of the founders of Tafic, way back in 1959. He traces his footballing days back to his primary school days when he, in the company of some of the young boys from the Kgaphamadi township in the vicinity of the Leseding ground (Tafic training ground) used to walk over to the ground during practice sessions to act as ball boys for their seniors. His touches on the ball gave him away as the future national icon he came to be.

Born on 19 September 1957, Christopher started school at Nyangabgwe Primary School in 1967. By this time he already played for Amakhosana, the Tafic juniors. Those days big teams used to have reserve teams with Township Rollers’ Mazola, Gaborone United’s Murder and Maletamotse’s Masalage. At standard six Ollyn was already captain of the school team. He moved on to Mater Spei College in 1974 as a form 1 student, making an impact on arrival; earning selection into the first team and appointed vice captain right away. He was immediately shipped to a Botswana Institutions (now Integrated) Sports Association (BISA) selection camp at Swaneng Hill School in Serowe where among others he made it intoMatshwane, a BISA selection team of then, with the likes of Matshediso ‘Saxton’ Kowa and Maneru ‘Rhumba’ Sixpence among others, under the watchful eye of the late Nicholas ‘Lele’ Sebele and Joel Mpetsane.

In only his second year at secondary school, Ollyn was in the team that brought the BISA national football trophy to the north for the first time; playing alongside Sam Makgalemele who later made his name with Notwane, Reuben Gwatiwa of the Rollers fame and Newman Habangana of Tafic, among others. Of course Mater Spei with Ollyn was a nightmare to opposition. A friend Kabelo ‘Wire’ Bokala, then South African in exile in Botswana, playing for both Selebi Phikwe Secondary alongside the likes of the free scoring Jacaranda Mokgachane and Copper Chiefs alongside the likes of Kabelo ‘Kempes’ Ebineng always reminisces about his fight for supremacy with Ollyn against Mater Spei in the BISA leagues and Tafic in the national league. Ollyn remembers the player very well with some measure of nostalgia.

I then remind him of their cup final match against Township Rollers sometime in the late 70s (1979?) a match that could only be concluded the following day due to darkness. Tafic had equalised at the last minute, courtesy of Priger’s solo effort on the left wing before crossing for Boyce Moffat to finish the job with a spectacular diving header. The match went into extra time and due to insufficient lighting, it was to be continued the following day. We then reminisce about Peter Gillicks, volunteer teacher at Shashe River School then and the only white player in the Tafic team of their time. We recalled how, during the penalty shootout the following day, Gillicks ballooned his effort over the bar to the chagrin of Tafic supporters and those others who wanted to see Rollers on the losing end. Apparently Gillicks fell out with Tafic when they roped in the (then) just retired Freddie Mwila as coach, doubling as a player to give instant instructions on the pitch. It is suggested that he had a problem of being coached by a native, and only toned down when he was told that as part of Mwila’s rich football profile he had played for Aston Villa in England and also Atlanta Chiefs in the US. 

Very rich in football history, Ollyn has a recollection of some aspects of the history of football up north, and is apparently working on a compilation of sorts that would assist with the evolution of football in the country. He recalls the historical rivalry of Tafa and Tafic and alludes to how Tafa evolved from a representation of football in Tatitown to become a club. He uncoils the actual origins of Tafa as Tatitown African Football Association (TAFA), then in competition with PAFA (Palapye Africa Football Association) and MAFA (Mahalapye African Football Association). Initially a representative team, Tafa reneged along the way to transform themselves into a club, giving way to the visibility of such other clubs in the region as Tafic. Then I come to learn that Tafic is actually Tati African Federation Independent Club (TAFIC).

We then jump to PMU that transformed into BDF, leading to the establishment of BDF XI, recalling how he (Ollyn) ended up with the army team.

Ollyn joined BDF XI from Tafic in 1980, the year on which BDF XI were in their maiden season in the elite league, having earned promotion with Lobatse Extension Gunners at the end of 1979. Little did football enthusiasts like myself know that ‘Prigger’, as he is sometimes referred to, came to BDF not for football but in search of a career. Like many young men of those days, fresh from high school, he had responded to a newspaper advert where the army was on a recruitment spree to increase its capacity and might since being formed three or so years earlier. It would take patience and perseverance for more than two weeks of waking up in the morning to gather at the recruitment spot at the BDF only to go back to bed at his host family without any sign of a job. With his patience still intact with several others, one day he returned to the gathering place only for some senior officers, led by one Col. Rankhudu, came shouting “Pro! Pro! Pro!…Pro ke mang banna?’. That was the end of his patience testing waiting. He was employed, what had to follow were formalities of completing forms and undergoing medical tests. His football had done it for him! The rest of the jobseekers had to stay the test of time.

At BDF XI he recalls how on his arrival the team believed in running and a lot of physical training at the expense of football, with the then Captain Sello Katse shouting instructions on the side lines. Otherwise ball work was in the form of 11 vs. 11. He recalls how training sessions dragged on whenever the then Brigadier Khama’s team was trailing, ostensibly to allow it to make a comeback. He also recalls how ‘Horse and Trailer’ Kgosidiile, a no-nonsense defender was preferred ahead of the upcoming Rodgers ‘Tshipi e ntsho’ Chikumbudzi for what was believed to be the latter’s inadequate physique, until one day the team leadership relented to the pressure and tried him out. As they say, the rest is history.   

With Ollyn’s influence, BDF XI training changed to more work on the ball with more juggling exercises that exposed most of the players who believed in kicking it up for ‘the big boys’ to run. Notwithstanding, we recall the likes of George ‘Zero’ Mminakgomo, ‘Number’ Keosentse, Tshidiso ‘Bra’ Reikeletseng, Bruce Therego, Six Keatlholetswe and the physical Felix Chalwe.  

We then recall the 1982 CAF club championship return match between BDF XI at the national stadium against the then invincible Dynamos of Zimbabwe where Chalwe missed a penalty that could have qualified BDF XI for the next round. Dynamos lined up a solid team built around the likes of Mathews ‘The Cat’ Mwale, Shadrack ‘Oshlosh’ Ngwenya, David ‘Yogi’ Mandigora, Onius ‘Excellent’ Musana and Douglas Maneto. The latter later joined the all-conquering Township Rollers of Mochuu ‘City’ Manyelela, Chibazo Kande, Molalu ‘Cooleh’ Molalu, Sola ‘Ace Mgedeza’ Mokgadi and them.

Prigger was selected for the national team as early as 1980. He recalls his first match in national colours away in Gweru, Zimbabwe, for a Zone VI tournament to mark the national independence celebrations of Zimbabwe, where the then Botswana XI suffered a humiliating 1-5 loss at the hands of ‘The Flames’ of Malawi, then led by the slippery Kinna Phiri. He agonises at how their team made up of the likes of the late Sam Sono, Seth ‘Junior Kaizer’ Brown, Keoagile ‘Ace Ford’ Gosalamang and Sola ‘Mgedeza’ Mokgadi among others could not cope with the Malawians once they were in possession. He recalls how, on the eve of a camp to prepare for another international against Malawi, they downed the tools asking for allowances, which call was answered by the Joseph Orebotse and his BFA offering them P32.00 each for the duration of the camp.

Among the best footballers he has come across in this country, he has very fond memories of the late Clement ‘Muller’ Mothelesi of Rollers and Willie ‘Paymaster’ Dennison of Notwane. Ollyn generally had no problems finding his way around defenders, but could not ignore Mochudi Centre Chiefs’ hard-tackling centre back Michael ‘Topporrnaka’ Davids, left back Rammala ‘Ryder’ Sekobye and the speedy and uncompromising Gaborone United centre back Reuben ‘Rhoo’ Mgadla. He particularly enjoyed playing under the late Thomas ‘Zero’ Johnson, who gave players freedom to express themselves as long as it was for the benefit of the team. He agonises over the late Chibazo Kande who ran players up and down the spectator stand about 60 times in one session. Both Johnson and Kande were borrowed from their clubs (Gaborone United and Rollers respectively) for brief national assignments.

I then remind ‘Prigger’ of the way he used to position himself during corner kicks against Tafic, whereby he as a top man would pull to the corner of the centre line along the touchline either on the left or right, leaving the central defenders wondering whether to follow him or to remain at the centre spot like idiots. He attributed this to Freddie Mwila, whose instructions were that they should always stretch the opposition defence wide to create openings for attacking midfielders.

Ollyn went into early retirement in football to concentrate on his professional career at the army as, more often than not, soldiers who kept to football lost out on professional advancement and promotions. When he joined the army, he had his eyes on a career as a pilot, but Rankhudu and them who came to pull him out of the recruitment pack had other ideas on his life at the army. During his days at the army he also served in CISM, the international military sports council.

At national level, he was at some stage appointed into a task force alongside the likes of the late Victor Ghani to address concerns of the elite league that paid very little in prize monies. He still plays social football, although his body his athletic body is slowly drifting away from what it was when he used to slice his way through any defence he came across like a hot knife cutting through butter.

Upon retiring from the army in 2004 ‘Prigger’ turned to business, his first attempt being a distribution outlet before him and his wife settled for fashion design business in Francistown. He is happily married with two children, a boy and a girl. His involvement in football is through serving in the Tafic committee of elders, where he continues to be pestered to take over the administration of the Tafic office.

Before we parted, I reminded him of his days at the BDF as a retired player, when he featured for ‘Cockroaches’, a team for the retired BDF players. I particularly reminded him of this game we played at the Gunners ground in Peleng, Lobatse, when I featured for ‘E moale’ (now called ‘Omale’ by those who followed). I reminded him of how he made my job difficult in the midfield with his touch and pass approach and occasional body waves. Of course I admitted that the bigger part of my problem was that I admired him even in my opposition. We laugh it off shake hands and part.

What a privilege it was to have come so close to the man who during his days played football like Piano the way Dollar Brand would do his piano.