Occasionally in world football, a player with style and method and who defies categorization emerges. He is the kind of player who invents his own idiom, plays in a manner and at a tempo that is entirely his own. One thinks of the then younger Roberto Carlos, who, as a counterattacking left back, showed that a defender could be the most creative player in the team. Uniao Flamingo Santos playmaker Vincent Kgaswane-Phiri sometimes seems to be playing a game beyond his peers. He is stylistically most unlike any other in the current Premier League.
Short and often morose in appearance, Phiri plays behind the two Santos strikers. That, at least, is his nominal position because in truth, he moves wherever he wants as he seeks to create space and possibilities for those around him. In many ways, he is the closest thing our league has to a quarterback, the most influential and glamorous position in American sport. The quarter back is the creator, the player who invents the game as he goes along. If it means passing back or side ways to progress, so be it.
Some years ago, the man they call Ortega, after the erstwhile Argentinean Gabriel Ortega, was touted by many as the hottest property on the local soccer scene. But his return from a spell in Finland saw him mark-time. Phiri did attempt to illuminate the embarrassing Zebras youth team to no avail. The big question we have to ask is whether Kgaswane will become another Dipsy Selolwane. Is he the real deal?
They might throw stones at you at Legae Academy (Santos’home ground) for even asking.
In all the games that Santos has done well this season, the stockily built player has either scored or assisted.
Phiri is indeed a rare talent. His range of passing is excellent, and his ability to play himself out of tight spots and slide a killer ball through a half-gap is the reason why he is Santos’ main man this season.
Some critics have said coach David Bright indulges the boy. Why do they think so? Because he rarely tracks back after the team loses possession. He is not a ball winner. He seems to move at his own languid pace. But that happens all over the world – a case in point is Argentine playmaker, Juan Roman Riquelme.
Well, that not withstanding, we know that Phiri on his terms can be murderously good. Give him time to pick passes, as Centre Chiefs routinely did, and you are cooked.
Phiri incarnates the kind of player that has been lost in time. His vision and understanding of the way that the game works usually make up for his relative lack of take-off. His movement off the ball is so good and as a result he is difficult to pin down.
While the scale of his talent is not in question, looking at him the other day against a visiting Tafic side, you had to wonder if Phiri required empirical laboratory conditions in which to blossom. Did he need a slow pace and overly respectful opponents?
On the day, Shepherd Mosekgwa of Tafic kept snapping at his heels and this was not to the Santos player’s liking. Phiri became petulant and self-pitying before disappearing altogether from the contest. He is just like Riquelme, given the way Gilberto Silva shut him out in the Champions’league Semi-finals when London glamour side Arsenal edged out Villarreal. If it is frenzied and the tackles are flying in, games can pass Phiri by.
Said Santos’ mouthpiece Chillie Rakgare, “Ortega is always able to slow the game down, wait for a weak moment and then kill you.”
While he is not Santos captain, he is their talisman and leader in the sense that he can be their most dominant force. He is the one who sets the tempo and the one from whom others feed off and look to for inspiration. He is also a quiet fellow, just like Riquelme. Santos looks to Phiri just as Argentina looks to Riquelme.
Perhaps what this player has, above all, is patience.
Phiri’s other great gift is that of decision making, of knowing when to ‘call the play and knowing intuitively what will and won’t work and why?
As such, he is the fulcrum of what may be an emerging Santos side.
Against high-riding Centre Chiefs, Phiri offered those of us who were fortunate to be there a masterclass in how to move and pass and thus dictate the pace of the game.
It is often said in Gaborone that because Phiri rarely smiles on the pitch and is reserved and undemonstrative off it, he plays without joy. But that is wrong. After scoring a scorcher against Gaborone United in SSKB Stadium, he turned to his mentor Bright and opened his arms wide in a kind of private rapture, as if to say, “Yes, this is how the game should be played.”
On paper, this should be the turning point in Phiri’s football career. Only time will tell!