Tuesday, October 19, 2021

We did it our way, times have changed – ‘Baiza’ Lekalake

Former Notwane football striker Sedirwa “Chilliboy” Kgoroba recalls his playing days when the only remuneration they would get was transport money to attend midweek training sessions.

Their service was purely out of passion. If you did not have the passion there was little else to play for. Now, 30 years later, players have proper income; usually more than enough to survive.  Sounds like quite a development. Or is it?

“During our playing days the best you could get through playing football was a job opportunity or tertiary placement,” Kgoroba explains. He says club management would use their corporate connections to secure employment for various players in exchange for their footballing services.  

“We had guys being placed at various learning institutions, or companies for jobs that they have kept long after the end of their playing days.” 

A decade before Kgoroba donned the Notwane colours (1973), the now club president Mothusi Lekalake had just begun his ascendance through the club’s structures. 

Notwane Club were the pioneers of the recruitment system that attracted quality players through offering various job or school placement opportunities. 

“Before 1974, first team selection was based purely on seniority in the club,” recalls Lekalake. “Older players were usually selected at the expense of younger, deserving ones.”  

By 1974 the club had begun recruiting players straight from secondary school. Willie “Paymaster” Dennison and Sam Makgalemele were some of the young players recruited from secondary school to play for Notwane. 

It was this crop of young players that would lead Notwane to the famous nine-goal thriller that saw Toronto overturning a 4-0 deficit to beat Township Rollers 5-4 in the Trade Fair Cup final the same year (1974) at the National Stadium. 

It was then that it became clear that the older players could not match the speed and mobility of their much younger counterparts. 

“And from then, our biggest challenge was to retain these young players and keep them from joining rival teams,” Lekalake explains. 

“It was either you get them placement at higher institutes of learning, or find them permanent employment.”  

 Lekalake explains that since some of the young players would not have performed well enough at school to automatically qualify to the next level, the club management had to use their available connections and resources to get them placement at relevant learning institutions.  If “connections” failed they would provide tutorials to ensure the players pass their way to the next level.  

“Most parents wanted their children to continue to the highest institutions of learning as opposed to taking the short cuts to employment,” Lekalake says. 

David “Khoza” Dintwe, now a civil servant, is one of the former players who benefited from the model. “I got placed at Murray & Roberts alongside the likes of Oris Radipotsane when when I joined Notwane in 1979,” Dintwe tells Sunday Standard. 

“Club management always ensured we were well taken care of at our respective jobs and that we were not overworked lest we get too exhausted to perform at practice or game time,” Dintwe says.  

Former Gaborone United, LCS Gunners, Notwane legend Naphtaly “Scara” Kebalepile is one of the players that benefitted from the system.  “Terence Mophuting for his own personal reasons turned down an employment opportunity,” Lekalake says. 

 The Notwane Club president says back then, securing a player’s future beyond their playing days was the clubs’ major concern. “For some of the players that performed dismally at Cambridge Examinations we offered jobs that provided career advancement opportunities like commercial banks, sales, electrics and other professions.” 

But then as time passed Lekalake says things began to change. Human resource development as a way of attracting players became obsolete. The model had been overtaken by time and developments in the sport. 

“We became a dinosaur when money and better remunerations became the focus.” Corporate sponsorship meant teams could now afford to directly employ players themselves. 

“Sponsors support clubs because they hope to build their brands. They want short-term goals,” Lekalake tells Sunday Standard. With Notwane not enjoying the same support base as some of the other big clubs in the league it became difficult to attract sponsorship.

Lekalake says now with the new model that does not guarantee a better life for players’ outside the pitch, it is up to organisations like the Footballers Union of Botswana (FUB) to formulate a system through which players’ present and future welfare is guaranteed.

Former Zebras Player Diphetogo ‘Dipsy’ Selolwane is the FUB president.   He was part of the “Dream Team” that graduated through the ranks from national Under-17 up to the senior Zebras. 

It was a group that boasted some of the best players at the time that included Tshepiso Molwantwa, Barcos Mosimanegape, Masego Nchingane, Seabo Gabanakgosi, Modiri Marumo, Innocent Ranku and Barnes Maplanka, among others.

 “Although the dramatic change that saw the local game going professional began during our time most of the generation benefited from the old model. They have gone on to become successful in their respective endeavours following the end of their playing careers,” Selolwane says. 

He does admit, however, that some were not so lucky.  He says while big teams may offer attractive remuneration players’ choices should be guided by the prospect of long term benefits. Selolwane made reference to Kabelo Seakanyeng and Otlaantshekela Mooketsi who quit their permanent jobs at Botswana Defence Force (BDF) for a bigger pay cheque at Gaborone United (GU) and Township Rollers respectively. Mooketsi has since fallen out of favour with Rollers and joined Extension Gunners.  

“It breaks my heart to see a young player quitting a secure job for a contract that has no guarantees,” Selolwane says, adding that “a football playing career is too short. To retire at 32 year and not have something to fall back on is a tragedy.” 

He says through FUB they have been advocating and facilitating various programmes aimed at equipping players for life after football. He says the Botswana Football Association (BFA) could also help by introducing policies that could “drive the development of footballers’ lives in and outside the pitch”. 

While providing external employment opportunities for players has proven to be an effective method for their welfare post football, Township Rollers financier Jagdish Shah insists the current model is the answer.

“All our 25 players are full-time employees,” Shah says. 

“The remuneration they get is far superior to that of the clerical jobs we could have otherwise offered them,” he says.

 He says while in the past players had to divide their time between fulfilling their responsibilities at their respective jobs and availing themselves for team practice, today the commitment lies solely with the club. This, Shah says, ensures better performance on the field. While he admits that a football playing career is short, Shah says with financial acumen and sound investments, players should be able to retire comfortably given the salaries they are getting.

Although he is all for direct remuneration of players, Shah admits even the top teams struggle to remunerate players for an entire year without sponsorship.

He says as much as the welfare of players remains a concern for premier league clubs, it is difficult to provide such assistance in an era where players refuse to commit to longer contracts. He made reference to former Rollers player Sekhana”Nandos” Koko who has left the club for Jwaneng Galaxy FC. “Because he was in the twilight of his playing career we offered Koko a coaching opportunity with the club but unfortunately he felt he still had more to offer on the pitch,” Shah says, adding, what we do for a player? 

Shah also had harsh words for the BFA. “Those guys should stop being so consumed with advancing their own personal interests and start concentrating on building proper structures and attracting sponsorship.”

Business construction magnate Nicholas Zackhem, long time Gaborone United financier, echoed Shah’s sentiment that short term contracts make it impossible for teams to ensure players’ welfare beyond football. “Our players are always on the move because they are after a hefty sign-on fee,” Zackhem tells Sunday Standard. He says the spirit of playing football for passion is dead as now the players are always looking to make a quick buck at the expense of long term benefits. He says while the old model of attracting players by providing external employment opportunities proved successful, turning football professional has rendered the model obsolete. 

He, like Rollers’ Shah, maintains local clubs are struggling to keep up with the relatively high salaries of players. “We need the prize money of the Premier League to increase from the current P10 million a season,” Zackhem says. 

“We need a P30-million sponsorship for the league.” He says when GU won the league in 2009, the P1 000 000 first prize money was enough to pay salaries for an entire year. “Now seven years later that million is only enough for three months’ salary,” Zackhem tells Sunday Standard.

 BFA president Mclean Letshwiti is of the view that players should be responsible enough to plan for their survival beyond football career. 

He says while the BFA has failed to effectively carry out its mandate it remains everyone’s responsibility to ensure the success of the sport at all levels. He says in order for sponsors to come on board the BFA has to demonstrate they will get value for their money.

“That is why we are taking it back to the basics. We believe grassroots development is where we need to begin if we are to elevate the local game to the next level,” he said.

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