JOHANNESBURG – Only a man comfortable with his own mortality, which Tefu Mashamaite is, would describe coming close to death as a “nice experience”.
The SuperSport United defender used those words as he reminisced about the trips the club took in their Caf Confederation Cup campaign.
Those trips have a special place in Mashamaite’s heart.
They formed an integral part of his road to recovery from the knee injury that kept him out of action just after he signed for Matsatsantsa a Pitori from Swedish side BK Hacken.
SuperSport fielded their fringe players in the qualifying rounds of the Confederation Cup - which included trips to Madagascar, Sudan and Liberia in the play-offs - while the first team was fighting for the Absa Premiership eventually won by Bidvest Wits.
“There are two trips I will never forget,” Mashamaite said. “The first is the Sudan one. We had to drive three hours from the hotel to the match venue. We spent more time getting there than actually playing the match because of the tough terrain. It tested our mental resolve.
“The trip in Liberia is the second one I’ll never forget. We waited in Nigeria for three hours in transit. As we were about to land in Liberia, we were told that the airport is closed and we had to be airborne for an extra two hours.
“The guys started panicking, thinking that if the plane runs out of fuel, we are going to crash and die. It was a nice experience.”
Such encounters created a strong bond among the SuperSport players because they only had each other in those trips in front of packed stadiums.
Matsatsantsa should have plenty of support tonight in the second leg of the Confederation Cup final against TP Mazembe, trailing 2-1 from the first leg, since the club decided to grant fans free access to Lucas Moripe Stadium if they wear any blue shirt.
This will be the second successive continental final played in Atteridgeville, with South African clubs not only taking these competitions seriously, but also holding their own against the best on the continent.
“Whatever career you're in, it’s good to broaden the horizon, to swim with the big sharks. The moment you discover you are as good as them, it builds the confidence not only of the club but the country too. We hope other clubs will continue with this trend.”
Being at the top is nothing new to Mashamaite. He left the country for Sweden in 2015 at the peak of his career.
He was named Footballer of the Year after playing every match in Kaizer Chiefs’ record-breaking season, inspiring the club to winning two trophies - something they haven’t done since then.
“If you find yourself at the top of a mountain, you will want to get to another mountain top because of the feeling of being at the top, that means going down first,” Mashamaite said.
“I went down due to the injuries I picked up and coming into a new team where I had to start from scratch. The little challenges in front of you shape you more than your accomplishments because they bring out the best of you.
“You can’t always be at the top. You just have to be strong enough to deal with the challenges that will come when you’re down so that one day you can look back and say that I overcame this and that to be at the top.
“That’s why everything you fought for means more than something handed to you. Having been at the top, the drive when I came to SuperSport was to return there.”
And things didn’t come easily for him at SuperSport. He had to fight for his place. He was ironically kept out of the starting XI by Morgan Gould, who deputised for him at Amakhosi until Stuart Baxter decided to field three centrebacks.
Mashamaite will start tonight like he did in Lubumbashi because Gould is suspended.
“It'd mean a lot for me to be an African champion for the first time. At age 33, there aren’t too many years left in my career. This will top every achievement I have accumulated.”