WHEN his knee started swelling mysteriously in 2012 and eventually prematurely ended his career, former Likuena goalkeeper, Phoka Matete’s dreams were shattered.
Little did he know that eight years down the line he would be graduating from the North West University with a doctorate in law.
At the time, Matete was at the peak of his career with the senior national senior team in Bujumbura, Burundi. The team was preparing for the World Cup qualifiers.
“I still remember the day like it was just yesterday. It was during the evening hours in my hotel room, then all of a sudden; I noticed that my knee was swelling,” Matete said in an interview with the Lesotho Times this week.
“I called some of my teammates to witness the mystery and they only had one thing to say: ‘You have been bewitched’. I couldn’t believe it. I called the technical team and was rushed to the hospital and there was nothing wrong with the knee. From that time, I just knew that my football career was over,” Matete said.
Growing up playing football on the dusty streets of Ha-Hoohlo, Matete never saw himself as nothing besides a professional footballer in one of the professional leagues. Had he not encountered the mysterious knee injury; this is a fete that he thinks he would have achieved by now.
“With my qualities, I have always seen myself making it into a professional set up but the dream of playing beyond the Lesotho border went up in flames after the injury. I had to switch my focus completely to my studies. I completed my Bachelor of Laws, and my Master of Labour Law at the North West University (Potchefstroom) for which I was lucky to get a scholarship until completion of both. I completed my Masters’ in 2014.
At 30 years, Matete became the second ex-footballer, after former Mphatlalatsane and Likuena midfielder Molefe Makhele, to obtain a doctorate. He graduated last month with a Doctor of Laws (PhD) in Perspective on Law at the North West University.
Picasso, as Matete is known in football circles, grew up in Ha-Hoohlo where his parents were residing before moving to Thetsane West in the late 90s.
What started as a hobby to the then Phethahatso English Medium Primary School learner later turned into a serious career, thanks to the late former Likhopo founder, Bishop Molatoli, who spotted his talent and nurtured him from 1999 to 2007 when he eventually left to join Rovers.
“I started playing football on the streets just like many of Basotho boys and luckily, some of the boys I was playing with were playing for the Arsenal developmental side which was training at Maseru Club. So, I joined them from 1996 to 1998 before joining Likhopo,” said Matete.
Matete’s rise to stardom began when he was elected into the national under-12 team which was supposed to play South Africa in Bloemfontein as curtain raisers for the Bafana Bafana versus Likuena match in 1999.
“I think everything started when I was picked for the under-12 squad which was coached by Ntate Bishop.
“Unfortunately, when we were supposed to leave for Bloemfontein, there was no transport and Bishop had to use his vehicle to deliver us. Only 11 players made the trip and I was left behind. Lerata Tšalong (former Matlama goalkeeper) travelled for the game as the first-choice goalkeeper.
“It was at that time when I started getting close to Bishop and he was also starting his own team around the same time. I was still playing for Arsenal but he went to my parents and asked them if I could join his team, which they had no problem with, so I joined Likhopo,” he stated.
Matete comes from a football family. His father Rantsubise is a former Lesotho Football Association (LeFA) second vice president and a former sports journalist. His older brother, Matlere was also a star during his hey days.
“My family is deeply rooted in football, so I think that is where the love comes from. My brother was very good during his playing days so I used to be so proud of him. I would practice with him, throwing the ball at him and I would try and catch it; I think that is how I became a goalkeeper.
“I would also accompany my sports journalist father to matches. I watched more soccer than cartoons at home.”
During his Lesotho High School days, Matete played for Likhopo until the side was promoted into the premier league in the 2003/04 season. However, he was forced to choose between playing for Likhopo and his studies and he chose the latter, of course with the influence of his parents who believed that playing for a premier league side would come with lot of pressure for a high school student.
He then joined Likhopo’s developmental team, Little Flowers, which was playing in the B-Division.
“That was my best footballing year as we went on to win promotion having only drawn once and conceded three goals the whole season. We had a team of dedicated players. I felt bad seeing my peers proceeding to the premier league while remaining behind, only to play my best football.”
Matete left Little Flowers after enrolling for his Bachelor of Laws at the National university of Lesotho in 2008. He then joined the university side, Rovers, which was competing in the premier league where he became the first-choice goalkeeper during his first year.
By then he was already playing for the national under-20 and under-23 sides.
In his second season with Rovers, they got relegated to the A Division and to cement his place in the national teams, Matete had to look for a new top flight side. That was when he decided to join his friend, Mabuti Potloane at Linare.
“I was approached by Mabuti to join him in Linare. I believed in him and his vision so it didn’t take him much to convince me to join them. I played for them as goalkeepers with Dyke Tšiu and the team after a long time finished into the top four.”
“I was called-up for Likuena. At the time they were coached by Savisa Milosavljevic (Serbian) and I was only 17 when he took me from the under-20 to join Likuena. I regret the call-up because I didn’t really get to enjoy myself as I was the third-choice goalkeeper behind Sam Ketsekile and Lekunutu Tšoeunyane
“The following season, we had some misunderstanding with the Linare management, so I left them. Linare were playing in the Top4 tournament and I was left out. I felt that they were sabotaging me, so I left and re-joined Rovers.
“A season later we ironed out our differences and I re-joined Linare.”
While in school, he found it easy to balance football and academics, thanks to his no-nonsense parents who were always demanding that he gets good results. I would read my father’s articles and that helped me improve my English. I had a strong support structure at home while the schools that I attended were results’ oriented. They didn’t care about my football fame and it helped me.”
Matete advised young aspiring sportspersons to dream big for “everything is possible”.
“Our athletes should know that talent alone is not enough. Talent should be complemented by hard work and unfortunately, that is one element that our athletes lack. We need to get mentors from a young age who guide young people. The government must also play its role wisely. Developed countries are making money through sports and our leaders must invest in sports.
“Teams also have roles to play. They should ensure that at the very least, their players complete high school. They must support them to have meaningful lives after their playing careers. Instead of focussing on results only, management should treat players humanely.
“That is what separates most football administrators from Bishop. He knew that as much as we are footballers, we still had school commitments. He was more of a parent than just a football coach and administrator.”
While Lesotho soccer is still in the doldrums, that some are now paying their players is a positive sign that Lesotho must build on, he said.
“Just seven years ago we were playing to appease our passions but now most teams are paying players and that is positive. We should build on that and improve in football and in sports in general.
“Players should start treating soccer as a profession. After all it puts food on the table. That should motivate them to deliver whenever they take to the field of play.
“From a young age, one must be technically and tactically disciplined if they are to make a positive impact. That is one of the areas that we get wrong by focussing on the end product instead of the developmental processes.
“Football is a huge industry; hence I am saying our leaders should start looking at it from that perspective to relieve employment stress on the economy.”
He advised players to invest time in harnessing their abilities.
While he has played his part on the field of player, he hopes to become an intermediary, assisting players get good deals from prospective clubs.
“I want to help our players get good deals because I have learnt that they are vulnerable and in most cases, teams take advantage on them,” Matete.