Wednesday, 29 July 2015

South African boxing: why tiny Thabo has to go to work after his fight tomorrow night

Poster boys: Moabi and Kriel
THABO MOABI faces six rugged rounds against South Africa's new Junior Flyweight sensation Dee Jay Kriel at Emperor's Palace tomorrow night.

After their Young Guns encounter I'll be rushing Thabo straight from the sold-out venue - assuming he's in one piece - to do the night shift as a merchandiser, packing shelves in the Colonnade shopping centre in Pretoria North.

Thabo is 24, born in Mamelodi East, with fast hands, a quick brain and perhaps the most ferocious stare I have seen in 35 years of post weigh-in hype.

Moabi knows he's supposed to lose tomorrow night, live on SuperSport (DSTV 207) at around 8.30pm. His predicted demise will also be seen in New Zealand, Australia, USA, Canada and Europe before the SABC show the ninth fight of his professional career "delayed live" on Friday night.

Kriel, signed up by promoter Rodney Berman's Golden Gloves and destined for greater things at the age of 20, has a record of 5-0. Defeat is not an option. Moabi, with eight professional fights, four losses and a draw, knows the odds are stacked against him but insists: "I've been in this position before. I know what to expect. He'll come at me, the crowd will be on his side. But I can jab, I'm tough. I can think on my feet."

The stare: Thabo and Dee Jay at the weight-in
Unlike most young pugilists, Moabi sees beyond the ring, to a degree in criminology and eventually an LLB.  He's not one of those grunt and groan boxers, despite the stare and a physique devoid of any spare weight.

"I can do this, I know Kriel has all the backing... but I'm going to surprise him. I've always been the guy everybody wants to fight because I'm not the biggest. But nobody wants to go in with me again after the first time."

Moabi's trainer, Jan Mathole, runs a gym from an open scrap of land between a school and a church on the dusty streets of Mamelodi. He's been looking after Thabo for 12 years and has a range of hardy battlers from the streets of Mamelodi under his wing.

But he has no gym. In a country awash with over-priced football stadia and expensive fitness centres, Mathole has been fighting a decade-long battle with the local council over his dream of building a boxing facility Mamelodi can be proud of.

"All over the world, there are boxing gyms in areas like the one where we live," says Mathole, "I have the equipment thanks to my employers (Jan works as a clerk at law firm Spoor & Fisher during the day) but every night we have to store it, we have no building.

"I get dozens of young fighters who want to train with me every day, at the weekends we are swamped by boys from this high (Jan holds his hand to his knee) to their 20s. But how am I supposed to train these boys without a gym?"

Tomorrow night, I'll be in Thabo's corner for his Junior Flyweight battle. Jan didn't have anybody else to help. The big-name fighters - Kevin Lerena of Oscar Pistorius trial fame and Deon Coetzee, the old heavyweight Gerrie's cousin - have teams of rugged gentlemen in attendance.

Ready to rumble: Thabo Moabi makes the weight
They work out of well-equipped gyms and parade around in clothes with their names on, cameras clicking as they work the weigh-in room at the Emperor's Palace convention centre.

South Africa boxing is at is ever was. A battle of haves versus have-nots. I don't know if tiny Thabo - at 1.55m the same height as Lionel Messi - can beat Dee Jay tomorrow night, but it would be nice if he didn't have to go straight to work afterwards, if he had an actual gym to train in.

If there are any corporates or multi-millionaires out there who believe that Mamelodi deserves a well-appointed gym to pull young boxers off the streets, please contact me on

Otherwise, sit back and hope boxing will survive on hype and bluster, like our sports minister seems to believe. Floyd Mayweather has come and gone. The money never made it.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

THE BUBBLE BURST: Where it all went wrong for Itumeleng Khune and the Kaizer Chiefs rebel trio

Playing for keeps: Sunday World back page
SO Tuesday is D-Day. The final bloody assault in a two-month campaign to bridge the gap between Itumeleng Khune and Kaizer Chiefs.

We have had weeks of one-sided artillery from AmaKhosi "football manager" Bobby Motaung against Khune, Mandla Masango and Tefu Mashamaite since the infamous press conference when the rebel trio were told to leave on June 2.

In a series of convenient leaks to the Sunday papers, Bobby told us how the three were demanding ridiculous amounts to sign new contracts while simultaneously forcing out his title-winning coach Stuart Baxter.

I have consistently stuck with the players in this debate. I believe the figures quoted in the papers were distorted, that Khune was NOT the highest paid player in the PSL and that both Masango and Mashamaite were asking for reasonable increases given the circumstances.

My argument: that Kaizer Chiefs have won R54m in prize money over the past three seasons (more than covering the cost of three new contracts) and that they bring in millions more from sponsors Vodacom, Carling and Hollard. Bobby knew he could afford the pay rises but steadfastly refused to offer his title-winning stalwarts an extra penny.

Remember, these are not just journeymen hoping for a contract. Masango was Kaizer Chiefs top scorer last season, his seven goals amounting to more than any of the many AmaKhosi strikers in a record-breaking season which saw Stuart Baxter’s men win the PSL with a record 69 points.

Khune, though hampered by injury and club politics last term, remains South Africa’s No1 goalkeeper and captained South Africa in their last two outings against Mauritius.

Yet here they are, cap in hand, begging for a return to the club that discarded them within days of the title celebrations last season.

And standing in the shadows as they approach Bobby Motaung and his admin manager Abdullah Mayet today is Tefu Mashamaite, the man who won every award on offer last season for his stirring exploits at centre-back for Baxter’s miserly Chiefs. 

On May 20, Mashamaite added the Chiefs player of the season award to his PSL silverware. Within a week he was told he would not be getting the new contract he felt he deserved.

The big mistake? All three "rebels" believed the South African soccer market was as it has always been all over the world: eager to pay stars millions while under-paying the up-and-coming hopefuls.

Khune’s agent Dan Lichman, who has now parted company with British agency Triple S, set the trend. He assumed, from 5000 miles away, that Khune could cash in on his reputation and pick up a handy pay-rise after the title triumph. When you look at the ridiculous contracts and transfer fees paid in Europe, it was an understandable error. But unforgivable.

Sadly, with Mamelodi Sundowns now more cautious about splashing owner Patrice Motsepe’s millions, the Chiefs trio miscalculated. Masandawana would no longer come to the rescue in the event of an impasse. And other sponsor-rich clubs like SuperSport United and Bidvest Wits, would not have to challenge Pitso Mosimane's eagle eye.

Bobby Motaung, with his finger on the footballing pulse, knew exactly how the land lay. The bubble had burst. The man who might have objected had gone to Turkey. Bobby knew Baxter would not stay if he wasn’t allowed a say in rejuvenating the squad after two championships in three seasons. Khune, Masango and Mashamaite were defenceless. His play-things.

Right from the start, I spent hours on the phone with a distraught Khune. When newspapers began trumpeting his outrageous demands, Itumeleng denied he wanted something close to R8m a year with some gusto. Even this week, there was talk of R7.8m a year. Khune insists that is way higher than anything he demanded. Even Benni McCarthy and Knowledge Musona only commanded R6m.

Khune told me of dressing room arguments after a rare defeat, the disappearance of the R10000 Chiefs win bonus last Christmas and how he was mysteriously dropped from the team time and again as his contract negotiations loomed.

I cannot disclose everything he told me, especially if a reconciliation with Chiefs remains on the cards, but it was blood-curdling stuff. Footballers have a short career. But in South Africa, where some PSL players earn R5000 a month, even the big names find themselves struggling with debt and broken promises.

What I can say is this. Life at Chiefs was not all plain sailing last year. “The technical team would find any reason to leave me out of the team because my contract was coming to an end,” Khune told me, “I didn’t want to double my money to stay, I just wanted more from my personal endorsements and a pay rise.”

But the battle had already been lost. Bobby knew he didn’t need to keep up with a booming market to force Khune and his colleagues on to the contractual canvas. With Sundowns refusing to splash big cash, the rebel trio had no choice. A possible move to Orlando Pirates was vetoed, the Chippa United offer was a joke, Lichman could find no overseas club to step in other than the usual whispers from Belgium.

Mashamaite tried and failed at New York City. Masango got caught in the Mpumalanga Black Aces “franchise sale” saga. Khune trained alone after leaving the Bafana camp. The AmaKhosi turned against their heroes in a matter of weeks. They were taken in by a second press conference which targeted a host of journeymen masquerading as exciting new signings.

The rebel trio remained out in the cold. Repeated attempts to re-negotiate were denied. First Bobby said he was going on holiday. He said there was nothing more to discuss. Then, just last week, Motaung suggested dismissively: “Itu and Mandla must go to church for perspective. They are trying to play hardball. This club has been there for them for years. We don't need them.”

I pointed out several times on twitter how much Bobby was enjoying the discomfort. Just as he had when he ousted Jimmy Tau, a big character who threatened his hegemony.

When Ugandan Sula Matovu was signed this month on a "free transfer" which cost R3m in signing on fees and agent kick-backs, the AmaKhosi fans refused to make the connection between an honest request for a better contract and what is really happening at their club. Bobby, who boasts about not needing a CV and having serious charges against him mysteriously dropped in Mpumalanga, just laughs and carries on.

Finally, last Friday, Khune turned up without an agent. According to Chiefs sources “he poured his heart out to Bobby” while Masango arrived with his lawyer for a similarly humbling chat.

The upshot? Bobby says: “A meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday (today) to give them a proper hearing. ”

But with the new season looming, Khune, Masango and Mashamaite are getting desperate. There are lifestyles to maintain, debts to service. But in the Sunday Times, Sports Editor BBK quotes Bobby saying: "It is going to be a bit of a process. There is no pressure on our side. It is not cast in stone these talks will result in reconciliation."

Motaung talks of "respect and protocol" and says he must ensure t"he situation does not occur again with any other player". Effectively, he's saying nobody should ask for a pay rise. Nobody should dare to challenge his right to a lavish lifestyle while his players sweat blood on the field.

Sadly, Bobby's won. Khune and Masango - perhaps even Mashamaite too - will have to accept a pay cut to continue playing for the AmaKhosi. We'll see how Chiefs do on the field next season. But from where I'm sitting, football is the loser.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

A BAD WEEK FOR SOUTH AFRICAN SPORT: honest opinion or reason to flee the country?

TOUGH START: Pirates new keeper Felipe Ovono
I feel like a traitor. Just called my British-born son. Asked him if I’m being fair. But some things HAVE to be said after a week of sporting headlines which make tough reading for South Africans.

Given that our sporting staples  consist largely of a patriotic diet of football, rugby and cricket, perhaps it’s time to think more broadly before somebody accuses me of ignoring England’s current plight at Lord’s.

We shouldn’t ignore the positives: a South African team surviving the rigours of the Tour de France on debut, a couple of better athletics performances on the Golden League track, the Davis Cup win against Ireland at Irene and the number of millionaires with Seffeffriken accents doing well in The Open at St Andrews.

But in the back of my mind there’s a little voice shouting: aaaaaargh. Which brings me back to a sporting week which has been little short of embarrassing for South African sport.

Look, when Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs announced they were both off to Swaziland for a pre-season tournament, it sounded quite exciting despite those asking economic and political questions. The chances of a quick Soweto Derby do decide the Kings Cup before the Carling Black Label Cup gimmick was welcomed by many, even on the artificial surface at the Somhlolo Stadium.

When the mighty AmaKhosi were stuck at 0-0 against Mbabane’s Swallows at half-time, the first doubts began to stir. I tweeted about the possibility of our Soweto giants both failing against Swaziland’s semi-professional hopefuls.

To be honest, the idea of both Chiefs and Pirates failing on penalties, even on a plastic pitch in a minor warm-up in the nation ranked 160 in the world, never really impinged on my thinking. But it happened.

The Buccaneers threw away a 1-0 lead, their new Equatorial Guinea goalkeeper Felipe Ovono was beaten and they joined Chiefs as penalty shoot-out failures, leaving us with Swallows against Royal Leopards in the final. As worrying as anything that happened on the pitch was the South African commentators ignoring the plight of our Soweto giants as a third game in three went to penalties and the Swallows took the silverware.

Of course, it’s not a disaster. Just a pre-season blip. Steve Komphela is no mug. Eric Tinkler has proven his bouncebackability time and again.

But while all this was happening, our mighty Springboks hit a speed bump too, losing their opening Rugby Championship clash against Australia in Brisbane 24-20, throwing away a substantial lead with the World Cup looming and Victor Matfield limping.

And then of course, we have to consider those crushing defeats against Bangladesh last week, which saw the Proteas, after their comfortable T20 success, lose the ODI series in a pair of record-breakingly bad performances which resulted in defeats by 7 wickets and 9 wickets.

Heyneke Meyer, Russell Domingo and Shakes Mashaba are the big national bosses in the big national sports. They all seem to prefer picking old reliables than bright young things, though Kagiso Rabada was a shaft of cricketing sunlight in the ODI disaster. None of them are expensive, imported coaches. All three were cost-effective options after the sudden departure of their predecessors.

But let's be frank: none of them inspire great confidence.

And obviously the chances of all three of our big national teams recovering are good. The Proteas begin their Test series against Bangladesh today, the Springboks could come back and thump the All Blacks and Bafana could yet recover from their opening 0-0 draw against Gambia and qualify for AFCON 2017 with good results against Mauritania and Cameroon.

But Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula is uncharacteristically quiet. One of his most verbal critics, a former CNN sports anchor I’ve know for years, Graeme Joffe, claims he had to leave the country after exposing corruption in numerous South Africa sporting bodies.

He says his life is in danger and has exiled himself in New York. That can’t be right. Sport is all about opinions, and when things go badly on the field of play, criticism is a MUST.

We cannot simply ignore results and trends when things go badly. It’s been a very bad week for South African sport. Let’s just be honest about it. And try to make things better.