There are times when interviewing footballers feels like trying to squeeze blood out of a stone. They bombard you with meaningless clichés about taking things one game at a time – as if it’s possible to take it two games at a time. A Mamelodi Sundowns player, caught up in this robotic speak, once declared he was happy that his team got the three points they were looking for after they had won a cup game.
That player wasn’t Teko Modise. In fact, the two-time PSL footballer of the year is a pleasure to interview with his candid nature, insight and engaging personality. It’s a skill the 31-year-old honed at a young age.
“It’s funny because I always used to practise signing my autograph,” Modise told Phakaaathi, The Citizen’s local football supplement. “I knew in my mind that one day I would be a professional player. I didn’t know for which team. It started as a dream to me. I was passionate about football at a young age. I was hungry. There were guys more talented than me but I worked harder, even when no one was watching,” he said.
“I would read every interview in Soccer Laduma, go with it to school and read it so I would know what the players were saying. I was interested in football and what the players were saying, and I started preparing myself for how I would conduct interviews. When I got an opportunity – because I was from the township, I played there and went to the PSL just like that, and that doesn’t happen often – I took it with both hands. That’s why I want to have as much fun as I can, because I know it will come to an end. I want, when my career ends, to look back and not have regrets.”
Failing to lift the Absa Premiership trophy would have been Modise’s biggest regret if he had retired before last season. His failure to win the trophy made him the butt of many jokes, and it was made worse by the fact that when he left SuperSport United they went on to win a hat-trick of Premiership titles, and when he left Orlando Pirates they won the Premiership twice during a two-season spell in which the Soweto outfit won six trophies.
But Modise had the last laugh last season when Sundowns beat his former team, Matsatsantsa, 3-0 on May 6 to win their sixth PSL title. It was Modise’s first. At last the curse was broken. He topped it off by contributing a beautiful goal to beat goalkeeper Ronwen Williams, the two-time Absa Premiership young player of the season, in style.
“It was never about proving anything to anyone,” Modise said.
“The satisfaction that came from knowing I worked so hard in my life was unbelievable. To even score that kind of a goal was impressive, and I was happy. I was happy more for Sundowns than me. I always thought that if I win the league I would celebrate like this. I won it and I didn’t celebrate the way I thought I would. I had a different feeling after winning it. I didn’t know how to react. It’s something I will never forget.”
‘The Navigator’ had finally found his way to the Holy Grail. But the league title wasn’t the only thing Modise found; he also found himself. He transformed from a star player to a team player. He put in as many defence-splitting passes as he made tackles in Sundowns’ half to help in defence. It was a welcomed change from a man who was described as a diva and troublesome when he left Pirates, where he was to appear before a disciplinary committee for going AWOL before Sundowns snapped him up in January 2011.
“The demands of the game need energy and hard work,” Modise said.
“Me being the type of a player that I am, I enjoy working hard – it makes it easier. It comes naturally for me to do that. Being given a platform to do what I want on the pitch, without any restrictions, is what makes me want to give my all. At first when I was told to go back and mark I didn’t want to, but when you are given a licence to play the way you want to play, going back and helping the team is no stress. I don’t mind going back to tackle. I don’t mind playing right-back when Bryce [Moon] is forward. It doesn’t bother me at all. People see me and ask themselves why am I playing right-back, but I enjoy that – my job is to help the team. I am in a position where Teko Modise doesn’t matter much – Sundowns matters. I am prepared to die for the team, irrespective of the position I am playing.”
Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane played a huge role in Modise’s transformation. The former Bafana Bafana coach stripped him of the team’s captaincy at the start of last season, giving it to Dutch defender Alje Schut. Modise and Mosimane understand each other well, having worked together before at SuperSport United and the national team.
“The understanding between me and Pitso is fuelled by the passion for the game,” Modise said.
“He understands how passionate I am. He doesn’t have to tell me to train well – I always train well. He doesn’t have to tell me what he wants from me in a match – I automatically know what he wants. That’s why we click. That’s why everyone can see that when we have issues it’s because of the passion. It is nothing personal, but because of the passion we have.
“I am happy for him that he has finally won the league. All the hard work he has been putting through is paying off. I am glad because I was a part of SuperSport United when we were both starting out. He gives other black coaches, especially South African black coaches, an opportunity to be given more respect.”
But Modise’s success story also contains a cautionary tale about South African football. Despite showing brilliant talent when he made his debut in the PSL as a 19-year-old for the now defunct Ria Stars, he never played for any junior national teams. The first time he donned the green and gold was at national senior team level for Bafana Bafana. South African football scouts need to be able to identify talented young players early on rather than just finding them through luck – or not at all.
But Modise didn’t let that get to him, nor did the fact that he didn’t go through any development structure. What we see on the field is his raw talent that he has refined through the years. And there are many like him, which shows there is talent in the country – it is just a matter of guiding that talent at a young age so that when they turn professional, the basics are already second nature.
Modise said appearing in the tabloids has become second nature to him. He has kept many rags in business with the sales they make by splashing his dirty laundry on their front pages. But just as he learned to handle interviews at an early age, he learned not to let bad press get to him.
“It is the passion I have for the sport that keeps me going,” Modise said.
“It was never about the money, the fancy cars or the women. It was never about any of those things that people are writing about. It was the passion. All the guys I played with at a young age will tell you about the passion I have for the game. I would play three games a day – 90 minutes each without a rest no problem. That’s how passionate I was and still am. That’s what keeps me going. The day I am going to stop playing is when I realise there is someone who is as passionate or more passionate than me, playing in the same position as me. That’s when I will say, ‘Okay, I need to give him a chance’, because when I started I was also given a chance. I am not comparing myself with any of my colleagues, but I know that the passion I have is different from other guys.”
Main Pic courtesy of www.tekomodise.co.za