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The African Star Out To Dominate The States

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African icon Didier Drogba is switching focus from time on the football pitch to the boardroom as he plots the next phase of his life that has already started with his move to United States second-tier side Phoenix Rising.

The Arizona desert is a far cry from Europe’s elite stadiums and UEFA Champions League finals, but for Drogba, who turns 40 in March, it is an important step in his life.

He admits his playing career is winding down, though in the latter part of the club’s 2017 United Soccer League season he still looked sprightly enough, netting 10 goals in 13 starts for the side.

He perhaps has one more year in him, but for the Ivory Coast star, one of the greatest players ever to come out of Africa, he says he is having more fun learning about the business of football.

He is now a co-owner of Phoenix Rising, brought on board to help the club with their aim of winning one of the four Major League Soccer expansion spots to be handed out in the coming years.

They have missed out on the first two, which were announced in December, but have high hopes for the next award which will be made known sometime in 2018.

“When I had this offer, I was thinking, ‘well, I have been a player before, but never an owner’, so it’s a good challenge,” Drogba tells FORBES AFRICA in Phoenix.

“It’s interesting for the future as well and what I would possibly want to do when I stop playing. I am going to be 40 in March, so it’s about time to think about what’s next. To apply what I was thinking a few years ago.

“The plan is going well; this opportunity is amazing because it puts me straight into what I want to learn. I enjoy more the fact that I am learning a lot about the other side of the game which is very important.”

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Phoenix Rising is a little over a year old, having been formed by a consortium led by local businessman Berke Bakay when he purchased the status of Arizona United.

Drogba took little persuading to come on board as the opportunity to be a “founding father” at a new club excites him.

“It’s an amazing project here, to build a team from scratch and apply for an MLS license. To [potentially] be part of the biggest league in America, it’s a good challenge.

“I played before in this league [MLS] with Montreal [Impact] and I had time to understand the league and the challenges, and to see how this opportunity could become a big one. That’s why I came here, to try to make history.”

Phoenix Rising had a few African players on their books in 2017, including South African Miguel Timm and Gladson Awako from Ghana.

Drogba hopes that his presence, and that of coach Patrice Carteron, who led Mali to third at the 2013 African Nations Cup and won the African Champions League with TP Mazembe, will provide a platform for more players from the continent.

“The league already has a lot of African players, but I hope my presence here will be an opportunity to bring more players and give them an opportunity to get better contracts, to get respected and to have a chance in their life. It’s what it’s about,” Drogba says.

“People say, ‘football players are making money’, but it is actually a way to deliver from this [hardship], it’s their life. It’s a different job but they still have to work to earn their money.”

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Drogba is set to keep playing in 2018, which will surely be his last as a player, though he says he still feels that same competitive spirit as when he first took to the pitch as a teenager.

“I’m having fun and that’s really what keeps me playing because my teammates are great and I feel like a kid when I see the ball. I’m still a competitor,” he says. “I don’t think that is something I will lose one day.”

The Ivorian adds that while he does enjoy being on the pitch, he is energized by what he is learning off it.

“The physique is OK, so I carry on playing, but the fact is I enjoy more that I am learning about the other aspects, the other side [business] of the game, which is very important.”

Didier Drogba

Didier Drogba while at Chelsea (Photo by Getty Images)

It is then, perhaps, a time for reflection and for a player that won so many trophies in a glittering playing career, most notably with English Premier League side Chelsea, it is hard to pick three moments that mean the most to him.

“My first goals as a professional player, I scored twice [against Cannes in August 1999],” he says after some contemplation.

“Then the year I spent in Marseille. I had the chance, as a Marseille fan, to play in that stadium and it was a dream come true. It is something very special to me.

“Finally, Chelsea – not only the Champions League [win], but Chelsea the club, the people, the games we lost, the games we won, those years are very special as well.”

READ MORE: Is This Africa’s Next Star?

And he says he could not have dreamed of the success he would have as a player, especially as something of a late bloomer who only really rose to global prominence when he joined Chelsea at the age of 26, but would later win two African Footballer of the Year titles, among many other accolades.

“I am beyond satisfied, of course I was dreaming of becoming a footballer, playing in big stadiums, 60,000 people and all that, but I never thought that I would go so far,” he says.

“Even if I had the dream, even if I had the desire to succeed, for me football has always been my passion and not my job. Maybe that is why I am still enjoying it now.”

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‘The Boys Club Is Being Infiltrated Slowly’

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Women’s football in the southern African region has picked up pace in recent years, benefiting from some ground-breaking work across all spheres of the sport. Sue Destombes is a key figure driving it.

The Council of Southern African Football Associations (COSAFA) is leading the charge in women’s football, and particularly so, its Secretary General Sue Destombes, who has overseen the introduction of women’s competitions at Under-17 and Under-20 level, to go with a senior championship, in the last year.

COSAFA has 14 member nations across the region, and industry veteran Destombes is a key figure in driving an ambitious expansion of its operations that last year saw them host six international tournaments in four different countries – South Africa, Mauritius, Malawi and Zambia.

Destombes was recently recognized for her contribution to football with a Lifetime Achievement honor at the 2019 Hollard Sport Industry Awards.

She has been involved with the organization since the first men’s senior COSAFA Cup was played in 1997, and leads a team that has a heavy female influence, along with the head of the COSAFA media office, Lynda Greeff, and long-serving office manager, Nobuhle Masuku, among others.

Sue Destombes COSAFA General Secretary with Janine Van Wyk South Africa Team Captain and Amanda Dlamini Former South Africa Captain help conduct the Draw during the 2019 COSAFA Women Championship Draw on the 03 July 2019 COSAFA House Pic Sydney Mahlangu/ BackpagePix

In what has been typically a male-dominated industry, Destombes has managed to leave her mark not only on COSAFA, but also the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and global governing body FIFA.

“I have never found being a women a barrier to entry in football, and cannot remember any situation where I felt excluded because I am a woman, but that does not mean there is not a ‘boys’ club’ environment,” Destombes tells FORBES AFRICA.

“It is not a problem in the business of football, but maybe on a social level, yes, there can be some exclusion. But I don’t work in football for the social gatherings, so it does not bother me.”

Sue Destombes, Cosafa General Secretary during the 2019 COSAFA U17 Boys draw at COSAFA House, Johannesburg, on 28 August 2019 ©Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Destombes says she is pleased that women are starting to play a greater role in football administration, but says there is a long way to go.

“In the 54 African member associations of FIFA, we only have one female president in Isha Johansen from Sierra Leone. But we are slowly starting to see a change in terms of female representation on executive committees and even within the CAF secretariat.

“FIFA, for the first time in their 116-year history, have a female Secretary General in Fatma Samoura (from Senegal), so maybe the boys’ club is being infiltrated slowly.”

Destombes has been determined to help grow the women’s game in the COSAFA region – but not just for players.

COSAFA’s mandate includes upskilling coaches, match officials and even administrators, who all gain valuable experience, not only from the tournaments that are played, but also from targeted workshops that leave behind a lasting imprint in host cities across the region.

“We don’t just pitch up, play games and say goodbye,” Destombes says. “We always leave a legacy in whichever country we are in.

“We have done incredible work to develop male and female referees across the region, many of who have gone on to make the FIFA panel. We have put aspiring male and female coaches through courses to get their D-License, which is really the first step in a coaching career.”

Women’s football has been increasing in focus, with South Africa making the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France in 2019. Their coach, Desiree Ellis, has spoken multiple times of how COSAFA helped her mould her squad, and her own skills, by providing quality competition at tournaments.

Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Mongameli Bobani, Sue Destombes (Cosafa General Secretary) and Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Deputy Mayor Thsonono Buyeye during the 2018 Cosafa Women’s Championship Zambia team arrival at Port Elizabeth International Airport on 9 September 2018 © Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

“It has long been COSAFA’s wish to grow women’s football and we have made great strides in recent times. Last year was the first in which we held three women’s competitions in the various age-groups, and we will do that again in 2020,” Destombes confirms.

“It is about providing opportunity to girls to both play the game, or be involved in another capacity such as coaching and administration.”

The senior COSAFA Women’s Championship that was held in South Africa’s Port Elizabeth last year drew bumper crowds, suggesting there is plenty of interest in the female game from fans.

But finding commercial partners is more challenging, admits Destombes.

“One of the new tournaments we want to implement is a women’s club Champions League, for teams across the region. That would truly catapult the development of the game. But it is dependent on finding commercial partners.”

That is true for much of the work done by COSAFA. While they do get funding from FIFA for tournaments, it is a finite amount and does not come close to covering the expense.

“Our number one challenge is the financial aspect,” Destombes says. “We are the biggest of the six CAF zones that make up the continent, with the most members, and we would like to include everybody.

“For example, our women’s Under-17 and Under-20 competitions had eight teams competing last year, and we would love to expand that to at least 12 to provide greater opportunity.

“But that is a huge leap in the budget, so we need commercial partners and bullish broadcasters who want this type of content.

Nick Said

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Get Set Mo!

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Morongoa Mahope feeds her love for extreme biking with petrol and adrenaline. The funds for her pet passion come from her nine-to-five accounting job.

About 10kms north of the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in South Africa is another racetrack, where superbikes and sports cars are noisily revving up their engines, getting ready for a practice run on a cold Wednesday afternoon in Johannesburg.

At first glance at the Zwartkops racetrack is a melange of male drivers and mechanics.

But also revving up a superbike, the one numbered 83, is Morongoa Mahope from Mahwelereng in the Limpopo province of South Africa.

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She is about to clock 270kmph on her black bike, tagged #Mo83 in pink.

When she is not burning rubber on the racetrack, Mahope is an accountant working for an advertising agency in the city.

“When I started [superbiking], it was mainly only for leisure because I love the sound bikes and cars make. I’m a petrol head and just wanted it to commute to work,” she says.

Morongoa Mahope

Her journey started in 2013 when she convinced her husband and family about buying a superbike. Her family was initially apprehensive and viewed superbike racing as dangerous.

Her husband finally relented and Mahope went for a day’s training to see if she really would be interested in the bike before investing in it. The 36-year-old sports fanatic succumbed, and indeed pursued her wish.

“I still have my first bike; it’s a green and black Kawasaki Ninja 250cc. I was just using it to [go to] work until I met a biking club, the Eagle Bikers Club Limpopo,” she recalls.

Mahope was riding with the club, doing breakfast runs between Johannesburg and Limpopo; but, in 2015, they took a trip to Nelspruit in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

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Navigating the mountainous, curvy roads, Mahope was overtaking men with her small 250cc bike at the bends.

She was then goaded by her fellow riders to try the racing circuit.

“I went to the track and met a superbike racer; Themba Khumalo, and I started following his journey. I spent more time on the track, practising so I could start racing in 2016. The love for the sport was getting deeper and deeper,” says Mahope.

Khumalo, a professional superbike rider who has raced in the European Championships, says he met Mahope at Zwartkops and it was her first time at the track, and she was quite fast at the corners.

He went up to her to introduce himself because it was rare to see a black woman on a racetrack.

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“I then took her through the fundamentals of racing and the basics; the type of bike she would need and the equipment. I could see how committed she was and how quick she was learning, and her lack of fear. She was going farther than where she was,” says Khumalo.  

However, her male counterparts were not impressed with her pace on the track; they remarked negatively about her. But Mahope didn’t let the minimizing comments derail her mission.

Unfortunately, Mahope was involved in an accident during training on Valentine’s Day in 2017 and fractured her clavicle before her first race. That took her off the bike for six months.

She joked about the incident with friends, but they persisted and told her it’s an unsafe sport. That encouraged her even more; she wore her helmet and gloves, clocking higher speeds than ever before on her superbike.

Indeed, it was a learning curve. A few months later, she was invited to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe to race.

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Her first official race was the same year as the injury; it was a club race in Delmas, Mpumalanga, at the Red Star Raceway. She had never been on the grid nor practised how to stud, but for her, it was more about the experience despite the shivers and nerves.

“I finished the race and I was second last. It’s part of how you start but you will improve to be better. And now, I have lost count of the races I have competed in,” she says.

Mahope is racing in the short circuit series for women who use the 250cc, being the only black woman to participate. She also participated in the Extreme Festival tour series, a regional race in which she used her Kawasaki Ninja ZX600cc, racing men with bigger and louder bikes.

“I am the first black woman to be in the grand prix and the challenges that I faced were having to teach myself a lot of things. I had to learn how to ride on the track, the speed, the decelerating, all was new to me. I wasn’t helped.”

Mahope started at a late stage with the sport, and had to put in more time and effort in a short period to get to where she is currently.

READ MORE: Linda Ikeji : Nigeria’s Queen of content raking in millions

Today, she assists women who are starting with the sport.  

Sadly, in South Africa, there is no national league for women to race and represent the country despite finishing in the top three in the 2019 races.

With all her achievements thus far, Mahope’s salary sustains her motorsport passion.

“Racing is very expensive; the more you practise, the more you get better and the more you spend money. On practice day, I spend about R3,000 ($206) and would practise twice a week at different tracks. In total, I would spend R18,000 ($1,235) a month for the track excluding the travel costs to the track and race day,” she explains.These costs cover tyres, fuel and entrance to the tracks.

A sum of about R40,000 ($2,744) can get you geared up for the bike and track.

It just shows this daredevil accountant can balance both the books and the bike.

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Playing Two Shots Ahead

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The 16-year-old dreams of lifting the French Open title in the future, but also hopes to inspire a generation of black players to take up tennis.

Khololwam Montsi, 16, a rising star of South African tennis, recently broke into the list of top 20 junior tennis players in the world after an excellent year that has seen him take part in tournaments in Australia, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, Belgium and Japan, as well as take the South African circuit by storm.

The young prodigy trains at the Anthony Harris Tennis Academy in Cape Town, the same facility that developed Lloyd Harris into a top 100 player on the men’s senior ATP circuit.

Montsi was not actually all that interested in tennis until his older brother, Sipho, took up the game.

“I was focussed on karate and squash, those were my two main sports,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

“But when I saw my brother playing tennis, I also wanted to join in. You know what it is like when you have an older brother, you want to follow him and impress him.

“At that time, I was representing South Africa in karate, but I decided to drop the sport for tennis because I started to enjoy it more, was getting better and doing well in tournaments. It motivated me a lot.

“I come from a very sporty background, my father, Xolani, played rugby and soccer; my mother, Phumla, was a sprinter. When I was younger, I did everything – rugby, soccer, cricket, swimming, athletics, the lot. I just love to compete.”

Montsi has developed quickly and, despite his relatively short frame, excelled with racquet in hand to emerge as arguably South Africa’s leading young talent.

“For me, since I am usually always playing against guys bigger than me, my game is not all about power,” he says. “My strength comes from my mind, I feel like I’m smarter than everybody else on court. I can pull off any shot.

“I read the game really well for someone of this age. I play two shots ahead of my opponents and can hit the ball into areas where I know where they will return it to me. That gives me an advantage to be ready. It is the big strength in my game.

“I would love to win the French Open, I’m a big fan of clay courts, you get more time to play. It is better for me at my height.”

And as for his personal role model?

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“I would take a few players and combine that. I love Rafa Nadal, he never gives up. I love [Novak] Djokovic, the way he moves across court and is super flexible. Then someone like [Gael] Monfils for the way he can pull off amazing shots.”

South Africa has lacked a black player on the singles circuit and Montsi is hopeful he will break the mould, saying he takes great satisfaction from being a pioneer.

“I want to lift up tennis as a black boy. We do not see tennis as a big sport in South Africa, barely any black kids play. I don’t want to put pressure on myself, but I do feel a responsibility to help black tennis players get opportunities.

“I play for myself, my family, my coaches and for black people. I would like to help grow the game in South Africa for them. It would be cool if I could help get more people to start playing tennis.”

The obvious question is how he juggles traveling the world and his school work, but Montsi has found a solution.

“I do online home-schooling, which means I can do all my work at tournaments, anywhere in the world as long as I have my laptop. It is tough to balance the two, it takes a lot of discipline.

“I do sometimes think, ‘I’m tired today, I won’t do it’ and I was behind for quite a while, but with the home-schooling system, it is perfect, I have caught up quickly.”

Montsi is preparing for the Australian Junior Open in January, the start of a busy year that will hopefully also see him take part in the senior ATP Tour at some stage.

“To be the first black African to win a Junior Grand Slam would be amazing for me,” he says, adding his future success may depend on funding.

“To become a successful tennis player, you need financial support to get to tournaments. I am being helped a lot, but things can change quickly. I do see myself playing on the pro-circuit, that is my dream. I feel like I can keep my tennis up, but if the finances aren’t there.”

By Nick Said

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