As a young girl, Karabo Mathang-Tshabuse would step beyond the confines of her Soweto home to kick around a soccer ball in the dusty streets of her neighborhood. She didn’t play really well, she admits, but in her mind, she heard the rousing cheers of her community, the cheers of a township brought together by sport.
Little did she know these cheers would one day come true – though not for playing the sport, but for getting others to play it.
Soweto, one of South Africa’s oldest and most historical townships, has produced political leaders and Nobel laureates, and some of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs and sportsmen. Among them, star soccer player Jomo Sono, who lived three houses away from Mathang-Tshabuse.
With sportsmen next door, and a father who was soccer-crazy himself, she didn’t have to look far for influences.
“I was a daddy’s girl and I wanted to score points with him, he would watch soccer and I would want to please him and would yell ‘offside, offside’ to show I understood the game,” she says.
When you meet her, Mathang-Tshabuse is petite but ambitious and feisty – she spent nearly a decade battling with club managers, bidding for the best contracts for her clients.
At the age of 21, Mathang-Tshabuse became the first woman in South Africa to be a SAFA (South African Soccer Federation) and FIFA-accredited soccer agent. Soccer was not by design, she says. It happened quite by chance.
“It was never a dream of mine to be an agent; the truth is I fell into it.”
Mathang-Tshabuse was always precocious. She was only 13 when she started working, doing small jobs in radio and retail, whilst figuring out the real purpose of her life.
She went on to do a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Media Studies, subjects she chose on account of her proximity to politics – her father Ruby Mathang is the MMC of Economic Development for the City of Johannesburg.
Her weekends at university were spent watching soccer games with friends, who would later help her start P Management – P for Player, Professional or pomotso, meaning comfort, she says.
“We wanted to do coaching clinics, accumulate money and then represent players,” she says.
Their first cue was media reports of the lifestyles and spending habits of soccer players. She thought it would be a good idea to approach them and say “let us look after your affairs”.
“You have people from a background where there is no education in terms of finance and addressing the media, no education in terms of how to live in the public domain,” she says.
Along with a trio of like-minded friends – one of them now her husband – she launched the company in 2007. Thankfully, the business received a favorable response.
“From getting booked every weekend, it kind of grew and we could accumulate the capital.”
The next step was looking at what representing a soccer player meant, especially in terms of capital.
It took them two years to move into an office and have enough money to manage players full-time, handling their contracts and protecting their interests.
“It was exciting, the terrain was unset, the landscape undefined, it was an area where we could go in and set the tone and there weren’t that many competitors and yet there was a lot of demand for representation.”
The early days, when she was merely in her 20s, were exciting, as she hobnobbed with the chairmen of soccer clubs, and represented those close to her age.
“To have them have confidence in me was the confidence-booster,” she says of her earlier clients.
Her reception from the club heads in this male-dominated industry was a “mixed bag”. Some were intrigued by her presence – “what is this young girl doing?” – whereas others just did not want her there, not because she was a woman, she believes, but because agents are not generally welcome.
The only difference between a male and female soccer agent, she reckons, is the men are more business-minded. As a female soccer agent, she feels it her responsibility to continue to promote female soccer players as most agents don’t do so – there is not a lot of money in their game.
“I’m inclined to find talent so I do approach players that are female but it does not make me inclined to them. I am aware of the limitations of where you can take women because our professional game is not at the same level as the guys.”
Mathang-Tshabuse and her husband Josy Tshabuse have two daughters who are already showing an interest in soccer but she secretly hopes they become anything but a soccer agent, unless it’s a “calling”.
“That is why I believe I fell into football, I wouldn’t have chosen this for myself,” she says, as it’s a taxing job.
From scouting out a player to traveling with them from club to club and marketing them, there may be no returns on expenses incurred in promoting an amateur player, especially if they do not get signed.
“It’s like flushing money down the drain.”
Another concern is the uncertainty in the sector at the moment with the threat of agent fees dropping from 10% to 3%, making it harder to break-even with entry-level players.
It took Mathang-Tshabuse three attempts to get accredited as a soccer agent and as someone who never experienced failure, she would not accept it – but that was the only way up.
“The agent exam that I failed the first time was my first test as to how I was going to respond, I knew what it meant to pass, I knew I wasn’t doing it for myself, I was doing it for the hundreds of other girls that would pioneer in areas that are uncharted.”
She set her mind on passing the exam.
“Once I set my mind on something, I had to get it, I was like, ‘who are you? How dare I fail you’?”
The second time she took the exam, she failed again but by then, she knew she would keep trying until she passed.
Once licenced, another challenge lay ahead: she had to get access into the clubs.
“It was challenging in that you weren’t given the space, you had to create the space for yourself but I must say it was the time of my life, I was making an impact, living for a purpose.”
One story Mathang-Tshabuse relates often is of taking a third division player and getting him into a premier league. She had to negotiate hard for the player and decided to walk away.
The club called back because they realized he was good and offered more than triple the amount they had initially put on the table for him.
He didn’t disappoint, with about 18 appearances in his first season, he was then in demand by other pro teams.
“Taking someone from a third division, to premier, to being demanded is why I do the work I do,” she beams.
South African football club Orlando Pirates’ Mbongeni Gumede and Banyana Banyana’s Amanda Dlamini are a couple of players Mathang-Tshabuse represents.
The future for her company is sports law. Mathang-Tshabuse believes there are areas in football and sports law that are not really addressed; for instance, she says many sportsmen don’t know much about anti-doping regulations.
“This is the one thing that I’m actually more excited about, being able to represent players and not only market them. The legal side fascinates me so much.”
She is now studying for a law degree at the University of the Witwatersrand and eventually hopes to represent athletes in other sports, for example cricket.
Her game has only just begun.