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The South African Making Waves In France’s Ligue 1

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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.

READ MORE: How One Female South African Footballer Is Forging Ahead

“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.

Strasbourg’s South African forward Lebo Mothiba celebrates after scoring a goal during the French L1 football match between Strasbourg (RCSA) and Dijon FCO on September 29, 2018. Photo by Frederick Florin – Getty Images.

“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

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African footballers are a wanted commodity but are not necessarily from the continent

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By the time the mid-season transfer window closed at the end of January, an estimated 2,000 footballers used the month-long opportunity to transfer from one club to another.

It is one of the two periods in the year when clubs are allowed to buy and sell players and although not as busy as the June-August window, it is a frenetic time as clubs in the major football-playing nations look to strengthen their teams for the second half of the season.

Among the list of movements this January were a bevy of common African names: Bangoura, Boateng, Diaw, Kamara, Mendy, Owusu, Sissoko and Touré.

But while this might suggest there is a healthy exodus of Africa’s top talent to the bigger, and more lucrative leagues of Europe, it is but an illusion.

READ MORE | The Million Dollar Game

African footballers are still a wanted commodity, but not necessarily those from the continent.

Instead, it is the ever-increasing numbers from the diaspora – second- and even third-generation kids born in Europe to African parents who are prized for the physical prowess and creativity that their African genes provide, but also having had the benefit of a more formal footballing education in Europe.

France has always been the primary destination for African footballers with the top clubs long casting an eye over the best that the continent has to offer.

But while there were many African footballers moving to and from French clubs this January, not one arrived directly from an African team.

In England, Germany and Spain, none from them either. Two Belgian clubs took players from academies in Mali and Senegal but not from clubs.

Only Italy’s Atalanta spent €200,000 ($225,533) on William Tabi  from ASEC Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. His teammate in the Ivorian under-20 side, Wilfried Singo, also went from Denguélé  to Torino.

It is as if the market has dried up and a lot of it has to do with the age restrictions on player movements,” London-based agent Rob Moore tells FORBES AFRICA.

South African Moore was at the heart of the biggest move of the January transfer window as American Christian Pulisic went for some €60 million ($67.6 million) from Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea.

“There is little doubt that when FIFA brought in the rule that restricted the movement of players aged 18 it put African players at a severe disadvantage,” adds Mike Makaab, whose agency has moved players to Belgium, Germany, Greece and Italy in the past.

“Clubs want younger players because they believe they can still mould them. It has been a major blow to the market although I wouldn’t be surprised if that rule is changed.

“Obviously, it would have to come with strict rules and restrictions on potential exploitation.”

But African football is about much more than only an incubator of talent. It has established competitions like the Nations Cup, Champions League and Confederation Cup, which now all enjoy fulsome coverage with matches broadcast live around the world.

“Football clubs in Europe are spoiled for choice,” Makaab adds.

“The market in Africa is competing with players from Eastern Europe, from the Americas and now increasingly Asia. There is a lot of choice.

“I find that sometimes the clubs in Africa are not realistic in their pricing of players. They want too much for players who have already established themselves, not cognisant of the fact that clubs can find similar quality elsewhere in the world.”

READ MORE | Unequal Pay for Equal Play

Moore says clubs in Africa must also realize that the increasing sophistication of football and its growing technicality demands better developed players, with physical prowess and skills now needing to be matched by decision-making and sporting intelligence.

“This is probably why now there are so many young players from the USA that are making a breakthrough in Europe. American youngsters grow up with a lot more of theory of the game than those from Africa. It’s the way they are coached at an early age.”

Historically, most transfers from Africa are from the west. Players from north and southern Africa are paid better in their domestic leagues and, therefore, tend to stay home.

“You find that South African footballers don’t really have that ambition to go overseas anymore as the money in the Premier Soccer League has improved. Once they get to the PSL, many of them tend to sit on their laurels,” laments Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter, who feels it is imperative that players move to Europe for the experience and increased competition.

Our national team is stronger if there are more players based at European clubs. I try to encourage players to get out there but not many make the move.

“The best African national sides are those with the most players at the biggest clubs. That’s the reality,”  Baxter adds.

When South Africa won the African Nations Cup title in 1996, the majority of their players were either already at European clubs, or on the brink of making the move.

Fast forward to this season and the country does not have a single player in the top leagues in England, Spain, Germany and Italy, and just a handful plying their trade in France.

It’s a fact that correlates with the downward turn in fortunes for the national team.

-Mark Gleeson

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The Million Dollar Game

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Waves of fans poured into the FNB Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg, in regalia rivalling the world’s most jubilant festivals, to watch South Africa’s biggest Premier Soccer League teams Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs clash it out for the Soweto Derby.

The stadium, also known as The Calabash and home to the Chiefs, seats 87,436 fans and rumbled with vuvuzelas and unbridled euphoria. The Soweto Derby is one of the most fiercely-contested matches in African football. Between the two rivals, there have been 163 past derbies‚ and of that, 67 won by Chiefs and 39 by Pirates.

However, it would seem that Pirates are making inroads to close the gap. Chiefs have not managed to claim a victory against Pirates since 2015; the equivalent of 12 matches and 1,496 long days.

READ MORE | Unequal Pay for Equal Play

In this image, fans wear the traditional team colors; gold and black for Chiefs, black and white for Pirates. They wait with bated breath and watch the players who will control the course of their destiny – for at least the next 90 minutes.

The whistle blows and the stadium roars in anticipation. This is an event that spectators and organizers alike bank on.

“Just out of this event, we are looking at just over R30 million ($2.2 million) contribution to the local economy. We are talking sales from a granny selling pap and vleis, to the guy selling merchandise and the guys helping to park cars. That’s what sports does,” says Barba Gaoganediwe, Head: Destination Promotions and Marketing for Gauteng Tourism.

Unfortunately, the match ends in a draw and neither side is pleased as they disappear into the changing rooms to plot the defeat of the other side for when they meet next.

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Can Football Stand On Its Own?

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Some African football teams view the exorbitant cost of CAF competitions a penalty. 


In the days before commercialization, when nationalism was growing and newly, or recently, independent countries looked to make a mark, winning an African football competition carried great currency.

It also carried the financial backing of the state, oftentimes, with limitless expense as national prestige and pride were on the line.

Effectively, national teams and top clubs were able to enter and compete in continental competitions with little concern for costs.

The downside was that it also meant that football associations had no independence. Their reliance on the state coffers – meaning their business – was dictated to them by the government of the day.

That is still a factor in some African countries but these days, football seeks to stand on its own feet, assert itself and get by on its own resources – earning revenue from television rights deals, sponsorship agreements and gate takings, which are all important to fund the expense of participation.

But the reality of travel on the African continent is one of enormous expense and football clubs are increasingly wondering whether prestige and national pride is worth the end result, as they expend great fortunes on playing against the other top teams from the continent.

Some nations place more value on it than others. In the Arabic-speaking north of the continent, the long-time dominance of clubs from Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia is a source of regional pride and a massive spur to remain as competitive as possible.

West African clubs still also attach a high value, but it has been years, decades even, since they were regularly among the winners. The independence of their football structures nowadays means resources are limited.

Clubs from West Africa  do well with the patronage of  benefactors as was the case with Accra’s Hearts of Oak, who were assisted by businessman Harry Zakour, in the early 2000s when they were African champions. More recently, Guinea’s Horoya, enjoys the backing of entrepreneur Antonio Souaré.

The deep pockets of mining magnate Patrice Motsepe allow Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa to consistently win domestic success and qualify for the African Champions League as a result… and be competitive. He has pumped an estimated R200-million ($14.4-million) into the club over the last decade and encouraged his coachers to chase African success.

But this is not the attitude of most South African clubs, who largely see competition north of their border, such as the Champions League and the Confederation Cup, as a bothersome exercise. They participate with clenched teeth as if carrying out a chore they have to complete but want to dispense with as quickly as possible.

There is a two-fold reason for this. The distraction from domestic competition that remains a priority for insular-thinking South African clubs and the exorbitant cost of participation in the Confederation of African Football (CAF) competitions. “It is money that, quite frankly, would be better spent strengthening our squad with more players,” says a candid Ari Efstathiou, the Ajax Cape Town owner who says it costs anything between R250,000 to R750,000 ($18,000 to $54,000) per game in African competition.

His side are now relegated but just two seasons ago were competing in the African Confederation Cup.

“Of course, it is an honor to be able to represent the country but in the long run, unless you actually win the trophy, it is a big financial burden and there is not much to show for it at the end.”

Travel in Africa is exorbitantly expensive and when you are forced to move a squad of some 30 players, coaches and support staff around the continent, it quickly adds up into a massive bill.

Rarely are flights direct, with many clubs using hubs like Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Dubai and Doha to move from one side of the continent to the next.

The game costs are made up of travel, match-day security, hotels, ground transport and paying for the referees. In a bizarre system, open to much abuse, CAF forced the home club to pay for the flights and the daily allowances of the referees but have since taken up much of their bill themselves.

There is still a fulsome entry list each year for the two annual CAF club competitions and the controlling body will point to an almost 100%  success rate in the fulfilment of fixtures.

But there is a growing sense that changes are needed to make the competition more viable, otherwise they face a slow demise. -Mark Gleeson

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