By MTHOKOZISI DUBE
THE day is 19 October, the year is 2003. It is a cloudy autumn day in the East Midlands in England.
The day feels particularly gloomy for Tottenham Hotspur fans.
They trail Leicester City by a goal at the Walkers Stadium, which is later to be reincarnated as the King Power Stadium, the home of the Foxes.
But there is hope. A 23-year-old boy from Pietermaritzburg in South Africa has been thrown into the Spurs fray.
Yes, he is young and yes, he has an odd name, ‘Old John’, but the rumour is that this boy can play a bit.
A few minutes after his entrance, he receives a ball that bounces kindly towards his right foot.
He approaches, as a hunter approaches his prey, and with his right foot, he lets it fly.
He hits the Nike Geo Merlin II ball with such ferocity it screams towards the top right corner.
It bounces off the net, the commentators are tongue-tied. In the stands, the supporters are screaming their lungs out, some have tears in their eyes.
Welcome to the English Premier League Old John!
That match at the Walkers Stadium indeed seemed to be a statement of arrival by Old John.
It seemed to be both the start and end of a journey. It was the start of OJ’s career in the big leagues where, even at that early stage, it seemed he had always been destined to eventually arrive.
“What an amazing talent he was,” recalls OJ’s former agent, Mike Makaab.
“Mbulelo Mabizela was one of the greatest talents I ever laid my eyes on and I’m not only talking about South Africa.
“I’m talking about the continent as well. I mean for someone to go straight to Europe, to play his debut match for Tottenham Hotspur and to score that incredible goal against Leicester.”
It was also the end of another journey for OJ. It was a journey that began, professionally, in the Maritzburg City dressing room at the start of the new millennium.
Manqoba Mngqithi remembers how back then a young OJ, still a greenhorn barely out of his teens that had been plucked out of the relative obscurity of developmental football to the National First Division, was a soft-spoken young man that never raised his voice.
This was, after all, understandable. OJ was still a rookie.
Sure, it might not have been the top flight league but OJ was in a room full of seasoned players, veterans hardened by the rough and tumble world of first division football.
As he located his seat amongst the big boys, table manners were expected.
That would all change when OJ stepped on the football field. On green turf, the proverbial quiet mouse would lose its whisper and discover its roar.
“He was normally very quiet and whispering in the dressing room,” Mngqithi recalls.
He would speak very softly but, on the pitch he would shout and tell people where to get off.
“…Off the pitch he was an ordinary player, the moment he walked into the pitch he was your captain without even being given the armband. He was a leader on the pitch.”
According to Mngqithi, OJ was the stereotypical strong, silent type, a leader of men who just exudes strength.
At such a young age, he seemed to have maturity beyond his age.
This did not apply only to his leadership qualities. At even such a young age, OJ looked like the perfect physical specimen.
He had a rare cocktail of attributes – he was tall, psychically strong and yet also technically proficient.
“He was an unbelievable player. He was not just a player that could play in Europe. He was a player that could play in Europe for the big teams.
“He had the physical profile and for his size it was surprising that he was also quick and though he was right footed he could use the left comfortably.
“Very serious athleticism, strong, powerful and very quick,” Mgqithi says.
While Mngqithi got to witness what was clearly a generational talent when he was in his late teens, others had got to see him bloom earlier than that.
The son of former Amazulu striker Dumisani “Guarantee” Mabizela, football ran in his Mabizela blood.
This is something that became obvious to Ashdown Young Bucs’ owner Thulani Nene when he saw OJ as an adolescent.
“I actually watched him as a 13-year-old, you could see he was such a promising youngster.
I knew his dad Dumisani, he was also a footballer and played as a striker. We called him Guarantee during his playing days.
“He played for teams like AmaZulu, Benfica, and Swift Swallows.”
It took a five-minute audition for OJ to sparkle bright enough to impress the renowned talent scout.
“It was clear to me that he was going to become big when I first saw him. It literally took me less than five minutes to be convinced he was a gem when I first saw him. I just knew we had something special on our hands. Unfortunately, things didn’t end as we had hoped,” Nene says.
As he continued to shine in Maritzburg, it would only be a matter of time before the big dogs came calling.
It would be no surprise when Orlando Pirates snapped up the young defender in 2001.
What would surprise many, including Mabizela himself, is the speed at which his star rose once the skull and crossbones rested on his church.
“If you take a youngster to the senior team, they would have fear, but he fitted like a glove,” recalls former teammate Edelbert Dinha.
“He knew exactly what he was doing. There was no mistake, there was no fear, no panic. When outside he would greet and sit alone quietly.
“He hated losing at training, he didn’t want to lose. He’d lift you up even when he was younger. He wanted things done the right way.
“He’d focus till the last minute. There was no slowing down even when you were winning 4-0, he wanted focus till the end. He didn’t want mistakes.
“He was brilliant, he was playing as a centre back, I could tell this is the future before Bafana Bafana, I told him if he doesn’t play for Bafana now at 21, he’d never,” recalls Dinha.
While he didn’t want mistakes on the field, off-field his life was ridden with mistakes – alcohol, several disciplinary infractions including missing training sessions- and women.
Back when defenders were not supposed to be all brawn and no guile, when they were expected to be hatchet men who hacked both the ball and the feet of more skilled forward players, OJ was the picture of elegance.
As his leadership qualities shone at Bucs, where he was given the rare honour of steering a ship that included some seasoned old hands, his level of comfort on the ball was also acknowledged.
“I coached him at Pirates, he was something else,” remembers Augusto Palacious. “He was extremely good technically. He could read the game well, he could actually play the ball nicely from the back.”
People remember Pirates’ match against Tottenham Hotspur in 2003 for different reasons.
Some remember it for the Buccaneers’ win against the odds, a 2-1 victory that, even if it came in just a friendly, made the world sit up and take notice.
Some remember it for the showboating at the end of the match, as the likes of Sailor Tshabalala, Steve Lekoelea and Thabo Mngomeni humiliated Tottenham players and had them running around, gasping for air in the Durban night, as they tried to get the ball back.
Some, however, remember it as the match in which OJ put up a masterclass.
“When we played Tottenham in the Vodacom Cup, they said they wanted him after the game,” former teammate Dinha says.
“I remember we were playing in Durban. I said you’re not coming back to South Africa. When he got there, you’d think he knew all these players, he easily fit in at Tottenham.
“He became the youngest captain of Bafana Bafana. He had all the qualities to be a leader. When he played for Tottenham, he was destined for greater things. He belonged in that league.”
The former Zimbabwe international runs short of words during the interview, until he says; “Maybe I’m not putting it in the right way. OJ was unbelievable in that game. I guess he was waiting for that Tottenham game.”
That wonder goal on his debut in England seemed to suggest that Tottenham’s scouting team had made the right decision.
Mabizela looked like the real deal.
But it was after his sparkling arrival that rumours of misconduct began to surface. He was missing training, rumours said, and when he did turn up, his breath reeked of booze.
For those that knew him from his earlier days, this was the unwelcome return of the old Mabizela.
“His private life has always been a question mark even from that time,” remembers former gaffer Mngqithi. “I remember one of his teeth was broken in a pub and we were going to play in Cape Town. It was midweek.”
Far away from the warmth of Maritzburg or Jozi, OJ never settled in London.
“The technical director of Chelsea was previously at Tottenham, he told me about OJ. He spoke so highly about him. But he said his only challenge was that OJ was homesick when he was at Tottenham. If he was born in Spain, he would have been something else,” Palacious says.
For Mngqithi, the gradual fall of OJ was a national tragedy. Here was a player, he believes, who could have been even better than his illustrious predecessors in Bafana, men who are today regarded as legends in the EPL.
“He was a crest above Lucas Radebe, just that he never went on to realise the potential he had because of what was happening outside the field of play. In terms of ability, he was not a comparison to Mark Fish, Lucas Radebe and all these top legends we have. He was the best centre back I’ve ever seen.”
Clearly, there’s a big contrast between his life off and on the pitch. As soon as he got onto the pitch, he took the team and carried it on his shoulders.
“When things were tough, he would rise above everyone, he would never allow opponents to dominate him. His situation just pains me, he was one of the best talents that South Africa could ever produce,” Mngqithi says.
The Mamelodi Sundowns coach says given his technical ability, Mabizela would have probably surpassed today’s elite ball playing centre backs.
One only wonders what he could have been worth in today’s market, where such defenders cost an arm and a leg.
“That boy was incredible. I don’t think Varane is a better player than Mbulelo, I’m just making an example using defenders who are playing at the highest level. Pique, John Stones, they have nothing on him,” says Mngqithi.
For Makaab, OJ is the ultimate case of what could have been. In the end, when he hung his boots unceremoniously after fleeting stints with Sundowns, Platinum Stars, Bidvest Wits, Chippa United, Mpumalanga Black Aces and AmaZulu, it was the sad end of a career that had promised so much.
“It’s very sad for him because I don’t think we saw even one percent of what Mabizela was capable of doing. He could’ve played for any club in the world,” he says.
His last stint was with the unfashionable Royal Eagles.
Those that often see him in his hometown claim he has since turned into somewhat of a drifter.
Who would have thought OJ would be reduced to nothing when he notched that all-important goal for Spurs?
But the biblical verse “a fool and his money are soon departed” aptly describes his demise! – Zambezi News