The life of a goalkeeper, if he isn’t the first choice, is like a scene from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
While Estragon and Vladimir wait under a tree in the Irishman’s play, the goalkeeper has the bench. He waits there for something special: getting a chance in the team. There is no certainty when or where it will come, only the promise that it may eventually arrive.
Senzo Meyiwa knew that better than anyone.
The 27-year-old – who was shot-dead in his girlfriend Kelly Khumalo’s home in Vosloorus on October 26 – had to wait a long time for his chance at Orlando Pirates and Bafana Bafana. Sadly, he was killed when he was finally living his dream: captaining his childhood club and the national team.
The criminals who took his life ended a journey that took shape when Meyiwa was a 13-year-old, moving from the Durban township of Umlazi to Johannesburg to join Pirates’ reserve side Yebo Yes. Four years later, in 2005, he was promoted by then-coach Kosta Papic into the first team as a 17-year-old.
“Nzori”, as he was nicknamed, got his debut in November 2006 against his hometown side, AmaZulu. For the next six years he spent most of his time as Pirates’ second choice goalkeeper, waiting for Francis Chansa and then Moeneeb Josephs to slip up so that he could get his opportunity.
That happened in November 2012 when then-coach Roger de Sa started with Meyiwa in goals against Mamelodi Sundowns. Meyiwa replaced Josephs whose slip-up in a previous match had been one of the contributing factors to Pirates being eliminated from the Telkom Knockout Cup.
This chance was unlike Meyiwa’s previous ones. De Sa, a former goalkeeper himself, backed him. Meyiwa never looked back, finally making the number one jersey his own and helping Pirates reach the final of the 2013 Confederation of African Football’s (Caf) Champions League.
“Senzo was a patient and loyal person,” Pirates chairman, Irvin Khoza, said of Meyiwa. “Senzo was never selfish. When he didn’t get the chance against Moeneeb Josephs, he always supported Josephs. You could see when the goalkeepers were warming up. He would be there with a smile.
“When the players were singing in the dressing room, he would be the first to sing. He was a team player. That’s what players need to understand, that if you aren’t a team player, you won’t play football. If it is someone’s turn, you must support them because they should also support you when it’s your turn. Senzo encouraged that ethic. We are going to make sure that we drive his ethics and values to all our players: that this is how to do it. He was honest and patient. The rewards came for him after that and they were there for us to see,” said Khoza.
“I must confess. I was surprised when Shakes [Mashaba, Bafana head coach] said Senzo can be a [Bafana Bafana] captain. And how wrong I was, because there was something in him that made him an excellent choice. He was a unifier. There was always positive energy around him. When we went to DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo to face TP Mazembe], what he did there, it can only happen to somebody who has invested immensely,” said Khoza of a performance that, including two penalty saves, was instrumental in securing Pirates a place in the Champions League final.
Meyiwa’s heroics in the Champions League made him the toast of Africa. That’s why the entire continent mourned his death: from Egyptian club giants Zamalek and Al-Ahly to Ghanaian Michael Essien and Nigeria’s Ogenyi Onazi – all sent their condolences. Onazi came up against Meyiwa as the Bafana Bafana captain in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
In that campaign, Meyiwa led Bafana Bafana to the top of Group A – ahead of Congo, Nigeria and Sudan – where he kept four clean sheets in as many matches.
Coincidentally his last matches, for Bafana Bafana against Congo in Polokwane, and for Pirates, against Ajax Cape Town at Orlando Stadium, experienced heavy rain.
The deluge during our trip to Orlando Stadium on October 25 made me regret my girlfriend and her friend twisting my arm into accompanying them to the match on my day off. But the festive atmosphere at the stadium soon washed away all that regret, as did the subsequent realisation when we heard the news of his death, a day later, that those who braved the weather went there, unknowingly, to say goodbye.
Captaining the team he had joined as a teenager, Meyiwa had looked confident against Ajax. He looked in control even when the ball skidded under his foot from a back pass, his blushes saved when it did not cross the line.
It was a totally different Meyiwa from the one who made a similar mistake against Thanda Royal Zulu when Orlando Stadium was opened for the first time in 2008 after renovations for the 2010 Fifa World Cup.
That mistake highlighted his early career at Pirates. He had the misfortune of the team losing whenever he made a mistake. The impatient “Ghost” found an easy scapegoat at whom to point fingers – such is the fate of the goalkeeper.
“They call him doorman, goalie, bouncer or tender, but he could just as well be called martyr, pay-all, penitent or punch-bag. They say where he walks, the grass never grows,” Eduardo Galeano writes about the goalkeeper in Football in Sun and Shadow.
“He’s alone, condemned to watch the game from afar. Never leaving the goal, his only company the three posts, he awaits his own execution by firing squad… He wears the number one on his back. The first to be paid? No, the first to pay. It’s always the keeper’s fault. And if it isn’t, he still gets the blame… [W]ith a single slip-up the goalie can ruin a game or lose a championship, and the fans suddenly forget all his feats and condemn him to eternal disgrace. Damnation will follow him to the end of his days,” Galeano continued.
Damnation followed Meyiwa like a shadow. He and his family, in Umlazi, were attacked last year following a loss to Mamelodi Sundowns which opened the way for Pirates’ arch-rivals Kaizer Chiefs to win the 2012-13 Premiership title.
It seems damnation never really stopped following him, but like the shadow it left him alone momentarily only to return in full force.
The brutal manner of his death signals that. It’s a death no one deserves, let alone a national asset who was the face of a rejuvenated Bafana Bafana that was moving away from being the object of ridicule to that of admiration.
Dead. Just for a cellphone, reportedly.
Meyiwa leaves behind a solid legacy. Khoza has promised to retire his number one jersey. It will join Lesley Manyathela’s number 22, Jomo Sono’s number 10 and Clifford Moleko’s number 13 in the other jerseys the Buccaneers have retired in honour of their heroes.
As Bafana Bafana coach Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba said, “whoever will replace Meyiwa has big shoes to fill because he wasn’t just a goalkeeper, but also a leader and a peacemaker”.
That particular goalkeeper’s wait will be over. Beckett’s words should be cherished by whoever will take over the gloves for Bafana.
“Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. But at this place, at this moment in time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!”
Main Gif: Celebrate by The Con Artist (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3GPqC-WJcg)