The next six months will go a long way to deciding Lebo Mothiba’s career path, writes WADE PRETORIUS in SoccerClub magazine.
It wasn’t that long ago that the relatively unknown striker Lebo Mothiba, plying his trade in the reserve leagues in France, was being heralded as the man to end Bafana Bafana’s search for a consistent goal-scorer. Time can be the biggest aid and the worst of enemies for a young professional, with the guillotine ready to end a fledgling career in an instant.
Growing up in Tembisa, Mothiba’s love for the game and finding the back of the net began as a four-year-old. It was at his dad’s team, Mighty Bucks, that he was spotted by the Mamelodi Sundowns academy, who wasted no time in offering him a place. While the academy failed and was shut down two years after his arrival, it proved no obstacle for the prolific teenager who lifted the Premier Championship as a 13-year-old; his 32 goals in half the number of games enhanced his reputation before the Diambars Academy came knocking in 2009.
Mothiba’s story could’ve taken a massive detour after he suffered a serious ankle injury, which sidelined him for nine months. He was still recovering from that blow when scouts from Ligue 1’s Lille arrived in South Africa on the lookout for a physical striker to add to their youth system. Mothiba was unable to impress due to his injury but fortunately, a Diambars coach intervened and persuaded the scout to look past Mothiba’s lack of game time in the hope of handing the young Phomolong kid a trial in France.
Mothiba took care of the rest as he made his presence felt in France. After sealing a dream European move, it’s understood that Mothiba slammed home 18 goals and chipped in with eight assists in his first season with the Lille U19s, a return that caught the attention of the club’s hierarchy and kept the national youth team coaches interested.
After a brace for South Africa’s U23s against Tunisia towards the end of 2015, Amaglug-glug coach Owen Da Gama heaped praised on Mothiba, telling Goal: ‘The players don’t even call him Lebo, they call him “striker”!’
Mothiba will be hoping to have done enough between then and now to book a ticket on the plane to Rio 2016. He appears to have won over Da Gama, who speaks highly of not only his on-field ability but also his attitude and desire off the pitch – attributes the coach has identified as key to his squad’s requirements heading into the Olympics.
‘We are in constant communication with his club and his coaches. We keep in touch as best we can to stay updated with his situation over there,’ Da Gama tells SoccerClub.
Mothiba’s Lille career was in full bloom before the departure of manager Herve Renard. The former Ivory Coast and Zambia national team mentor was sacked just five months into his three-year contract and in the process dashed the South African’s chances of stepping into the senior squad.
Shortly before the axe fell on Renard, the former Sochaux manager had called Mothiba into training with his first team but he failed to make the match-day squad. Renard’s exit meant Mothiba was left in the reserve squad and he has struggled for goals, netting just two in his 11 appearances this season, with many pundits concerned the striker may
miss out on the Olympics as a result.
‘He is at a crossroads in his career right now,’ continues Da Gama.
‘Will Lille offer him a new contract and move him into the first squad or will they loan him out? It’s a difficult period for him but he is training every day and he is playing regularly for the reserves. I think he’s a fantastic player; his attitude is just spot-on and his work ethic is something else.
The only thing is we would’ve wished him to have broken into the first team by now.’
Mothiba’s immediate senior national team ambitions appear to be on hold as he attempts to get his club career back on track and prove himself once again. A place on Team South Africa’s roster for Rio may be just what is required.
*Ed’s note: Since the writing of this article, Mothiba has signed a professional contract at Lille and has been selected for South Africa squad that will do duty at Rio 2016.
– This article first appeared in issue 70 of SoccerClub magazine.