JOHANNESBURG - Kaizer Chiefs's senior statesman Siphiwe Tshabalala speaks in a slow, measured and assuring tone regardless of how troubling the situation is or how awkward the question.
He has faced plenty of awkward questions in the troublesome and barren last three seasons. He handled those questions with diplomacy. “Shabba” is the embodiment of Chiefs’ ethos of “love and peace”. He carries himself with dignity and respect on and off the field, and if you look close enough - he is even starting to look a lot like the Chief on the club’s logo.
Instead of the war bonnet, the feathered-hat worn by Native Americans, Tshabalala wears his signature dreadlocks like a crown. He’s been with Amakhosi so long, this being his 11th year at the club, it feels like he wore the red and white of Free State Stars a lifetime ago.
“Free State Stars will always have a special place in my heart. They gave me a platform when I was a nobody. They gave me the opportunity to play at the highest level. I’ll always be grateful to them. Funny enough, whenever I play against them I always score. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. But it’s not personal, it’s business. I love them,” Tshabalala said on Wednesday at Altmont Technical High School in Soweto.
Siyabonga Ngezana matriculated fromm Altmont Technical last year and Chiefs were there as part of 67 Minutes for Mandela. Tshabalala’s new coach, Giovanni Solinas, also called Bethlehem home in his two stints at Ea Lla Koto in 2015 and 2016. “He had a brief chat with me,” Tshabalala said. “He said that when he was at Free State Stars I used to kill him, so now we will kill other teams together.”
The Italian has a huge responsibility on his shoulders: he not only has to win trophies, but also has to play attractive football. His spells at Ea Lla Koto showed that his teams can play good football. But his lack of pedigree in terms of winning trophies is a concern for the Chiefs’ faithful who haven’t seen their team lift a cup in three seasons.
“The coach was well-received by the players,” Tshabalala said. “We know what is at stake. For the mere fact that the club brought him here shows the quality and the knowledge that he has for football. We need to respect that and we need to help him so that he can bring success to the club. He can’t do it alone. Players need to come to the party.”
Steve Komphela and the club’s football manager, Bobby Motaung, faced most of the wrath from angry Chiefs fans while the players walked away scot-free. That anger reached boiling point at Moses Mabhida Stadium in April in Chiefs’ Nedbank Cup semi-final clash with Ea Lla Koto. Angry fans stormed the pitch, destroyed property worth millions and beat one security guard to a pulp. Komphela resigned after that and the almost three-month long coach search ended last week with the appointment of Solinas.
“We know that we didn’t do justice to the brand,” Tshabalala said. “We’ve let so many people down, including ourselves. This is an opportunity for us to redeem ourselves and win games. Obviously we won’t do that through talking. Action is very important.”
For our last activation yesterday, we landed at Almont Tech High School, Ngezana’s former school. What a special experience! We'll be back to reconnect with the students. A big shout out to Mrs Baloyi and the teaching staff who hosted us so well#HailTheChief #Madiba100 pic.twitter.com/QVxexKMmXl
Tshabalala doesn’t only talk, he also leads by example. The 33-year-old has carried the team’s attack for years. Last season he played in every league game, silencing the critics who believe that his time might soon be up at Amakhosi because he committed the cardinal sin of going over 30 - a sin that only exists in South African football.
“I am still hungry. I believe that I still give my best. I am still not familiar with the environment. Whenever I arrive at the (Chiefs) Village, I make sure that I work hard. I make sure that I don’t have that ‘I know I am going to play on Saturday’ attitude. I always push myself. Mentally, I am okay and strong. I am physically okay. I take care of myself. I rest a lot. I’ll always be there whenever the coach wants me. If he feels like, let me rest you, I’ll respect that. My energy will always be there, even if I don’t play. I will give good energy to the team.”
He won’t have to carry the team alone this season. Chiefs’ have assembled a good offensive unit with the arrival of Khama Billiat who will complement Leonard Castro, Siphelele Ntshangase and Kabelo Mahlasela who were still finding their feet at Chiefs in the second half of last season. There’s also Dumisani Zuma and Ryan Moon.
“We’ve got good ball players,” Tshabalala said. “We’ve got the talent. We just need to show that now. We’ve got good players, now we need a team. We need to complement one another and know each other’s strength. Once we achieve that, we will have a team, a very strong team.”