Lebo Mothiba, only 22, is viewed as a potential rising star who could rival the likes of Benni McCarthy and Steven Pienaar as one of South Africa’s greatest sport exports.
It has been rare for South Africa to have a player in Europe’s heralded top five leagues in recent times, much less one that is viewed as a potential rising star who could rival the likes of Benni McCarthy and Steven Pienaar as one of the country’s greatest sport exports.
But Lebo Mothiba has been making waves in France’s Ligue 1, which sits only behind Spain, Italy, England and Germany among the world’s elite leagues, and for the 22-year-old, this is just the beginning.
Mothiba recently joined Racing Strasbourg from Lille, the club who had scouted him from the Diambars Football Academy in Johannesburg in 2014.
His four years in France have seen a remarkable rise for a player who left South Africa as a wide-eyed teenager, fearful of how he would be received in Europe, but determined to grab his opportunity for fame and fortune.
Now fluent in French and banging in the goals for club and country, he is settled in his new home and more eager than ever to progress to an even higher level in the coming years.
For a young man from Tembisa, a township in Gauteng, South Africa, he is living a life he barely dared dream of when growing up and turning out for his father’s side.
“I played for my dad’s team, it was called Mighty Bucks. I was there for years,” Mothiba tells FORBES AFRICA in Strasbourg.
“When I turned nine, I went for trials at Mamelodi Sundowns and I ended up playing for the Under-11 side.
“I am from a footballing family, everybody plays football except my Mum. My sister played for Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies, my brother played locally in Tembisa and my dad, who has since passed on, also used to play. Football is in my blood.”
Now a hulking forward with a deft touch in front of the goal, Mothiba actually started as a center-back and his early role-models were defenders.
“I was a center-back at Sundowns, I played there for two years up to Under-13. But that’s when Sundowns stopped their academy. I moved on to Kempton Park and that’s when the coach changed me to a striker.
“Because I was a center-back, I used to look up to defenders, especially this one guy from Nigeria, Taribo West. In Tembisa, some of my friends even started calling me ‘West’ or ‘Taribo West’, he was my role-model.”
His fortunes changed when he was scouted for the now-defunct Diambars Academy that had started in Johannesburg, set up by former France internationals Bernard Lama and Patrick Vieira.
“I was at Kempton Park and in 2010, the academy came to South Africa from Senegal. The guys from Diambars Senegal came to scout me playing at Modderfontein. We won 16-1 and I was playing striker. The owners of Diambars obviously enjoyed the game because I was one of the players they took.”
That led to a move to Lille at the age of 18, a top side in France who had hit hard times, both financially and on the pitch.
He was sent on loan to Valenciennes in the division below, and it was there that people started to take notice of this powerful South African.
“It was good for me to go on loan and showcase my talent, because at Lille it was very, very difficult to take that step up to the first team,” Mothiba says. “For me to get more experience, and for my confidence, I think it was time for me to go.
“It was in Ligue 2, but it was very tough. It is not easy at all. It is a tough league and I went there to get game-time, to do my best and I scored goals.”
Such was his form that Lille recalled him early from the loan spell in January 2018 to try and help them avoid relegation. In the end, it was Mothiba’s goals that kept the side in the top division.
“It was a very tough six months for me, because I went back to a club where everybody was stressing and everyone was under pressure because of the potential of relegation.
“But I went there to help them because it is my home. It is a team that took me when I was young and it was hurting me seeing the team at the bottom of the league.”
His eye-catching performances caught the attention of Strasbourg, who paid a reported €4 million (approximately $4.6 million) for his services in August, with cash-strapped Lille reluctant sellers, but needing to bring money into the club.
He started with a bang, netting four goals in his first three starts for Strasbourg up until the international break in October, making him an instant hit with his new club’s fans.
Mothiba is the stand-out performer among compatriots in Ligue 1, Bongani Zungi (Amiens), Lebogang Phiri (Guingamp) and Keagan Dolly (Montpellier), and says the competition is a good fit for the skillset of most players from South Africa.
“If you are a South African player and you know what your goal is, it is a good league. You can learn a lot, a totally different type of play. South African players are technically very good, but here it is more aggressive and faster going forward,” Mothiba says.
– By Nick Said