Likuena legend speaks on Al Ahly, America’s MLS
PLAYING for Egyptian powerhouse Al Ahly is a dream come true for most African footballers and that is one achievement former Likuena goalkeeper Thabane Sutu (TS) will continue to cherish for the rest of his life.
The former Arsenal goalkeeper is also making a name for himself abroad, where he has been working as the goalkeeper coach for Orlando City in the Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States of America.
In this wide-ranging interview, Lesotho Times (LT) correspondent Mikia Kalati goes down memory lane with Sutu.
LT: Where did it all start?
TS: I only joined a formal team when I was about 15 having spent part of my childhood in Hlotse in the 70s before moving to Maseru. I got to witness Linare at its best. Ronnie Malefetse was my favourite player by a mile. He was unbelievable, I’m talking about him as a goalkeeper. He used to play as a striker occasionally but as a goalie he was and remains the best goalkeeper we’ve produced. He had everything…great physique, fantastic feet, which was rare at time… he was a supreme shot stopper and had an immense presence. I never missed a game when Maseru United were playing at home (at Pitso Ground and National Stadium [now Setsoto Stadium]).
I grew up with guys like Theko Moholisa, “Chukza” Kotola, Statue and Lemi etc among others. We usually played some pickup games during school recess (with the then St Saviours students) and then go to the stadium and watch the Linare first team practice. Linare was so good then. I remember the likes of Kubutu “Softie” Lefunyane, Saxaphone Thejane, Lumumba Mosia, Blue, Bambatha Molapo, Slow Poison, Wolkswagen etc. That team was loaded.
I moved to Maseru in late 70s and attended St James Primary School. I reconnected with two of my close friends Mopeli and the late Mojalefa Lebesa with whom I grew up with in Moshoeshoe II. The two were instrumental in persuading me to join Arsenal in June 1981. At the time, Arsenal was a collection of kids who used to come for afternoon kick around sessions held by the late coach April “Styles” Phumo.
Arsenal became a team in December 1993 and we registered in the then SFEC C division. We quickly established ourselves as one of the best teams in that division. Many of us were still in high school at the time and we used to play against grown, married men in some instances. We only lost one game that year against Libata. Those guys were the wildest team I’ve ever encountered but the loss was academic really.
We won the final in our first attempt and then we campaigned in the B division in 1994 and 1995. We made the finals in both years. The first year was painful because we played against Liphakoe in the first game and we missed so many chances in and ended up losing 1-0.
We won the next two games against Sea Point Killers and Maputsoe Aces and then our fate was really dependent on Killers winning against Liphakoe. Killers were winning that game and if the result went their way, we were to get promoted into the A division as it was called then.
Unfortunately, one Sea Point Killers defender whom I won’t mention by name, blatantly threw away the game in the closing minutes and Liphakoe got promoted.
We made the finals again the following season and still didn’t make it. It was on our third attempt that we absolutely killed teams in the finals. This time we had some help from Swazi internationals who came and played with us in those finals.
Zwelibanzi “Botsotso” Khoza, the late former Mbabane Swallows chairperson-Victor Gamedze and a Zambian forward reinforced our squad and those three guys put on a show, especially against Sea Point Killers. We had an old score to settle against those guys and we won 5-0. We won all three games and got promoted to the A division in 1998.
LT: How did you end up at Al Ahly?
TS: I had played as a forward up to 1991 when I got injured. The recovery was long and arduous and I decided to focus on goalkeeping when I recovered in June or July May 1992… My first game was against Royal Lesotho Mounted Police (RLMP)… We had a decent showing at the Independence Cup that same season.
Matlama won double that year, so Arsenal qualified for the African cup winners cup (as league runners up). We played against Silver Strikers (from Malawi) and beat them 4-1 on aggregate. I played the second leg with a fractured thumb. Then we played against Clube De Gaza of Mozambique and advanced on an away goal rule. We drew 2-2 in Mozambique and 1-1 in Maseru. Then we drew Al Ahly in the next phase of the competition.
I think they were the best team we had ever played. I thought Nkana (Zambia) were a great team and they were. However, their game was more about power and raw athleticism. Al Ahly were technically and tactically at a different level. They made runs and found channels that we never knew existed before. They ran rings around us, especially in the return leg in Alexandra. I had prepared thoroughly for these games and I think I played well. They were looking for a goalkeeper at that time, so it was a fairly straight forward transaction.
It was a great experience but it was extremely difficult in the beginning. Egypt is totally different from Lesotho. From religion, weather, food, language etc.
The period for adaptation was a bit long for my liking. I had two fantastic but stylistically different coaches during my time there. Allan Harris was my first coach. He used to be Terry Venables’ assistant coach at Crystal Palace, Tottenham and Barcelona etc. He introduced a different way of playing. Most teams in Egypt at the time used to play with a back three, wingbacks, two holding midfielders, attacking midfielder and two forwards (3-5-2).
Harris introduced a flat back four, five midfielders and one forward. He also introduced a high line. So, for me as a goalie, I was suddenly required to defend a much bigger space than I was accustomed to. At Arsenal, the late Tlhokomelo Api played as a sweeper, so I played a lot deeper.
Reiner Hollmann was my second coach. He was stoic, intimidating in his demeanour but the opposite was true of his character. He is a fantastic coach who improved the general fitness of the team. My time with him was short-lived though.
LT: After a successful playing career, you are making a name for yourself coaching in the US. How does that make you feel?
TS: My coaching career has been very good and rewarding so far. I started with United 1996 Futbol Club in 2001. It’s basically a youth academy with under-18 and under-19 players. I was also involved with Kentucky’s Olympic Development Programme, PDL teams and some colleges at Hanover College. In December 2014, I joined Louisville City FC in the USL to work as their goalkeeper coach.
That’s second tier in US soccer pyramid…MLS, USL championship, League One and PDL. We won back to back national titles with Louisville City in 2017/18. Unfortunately, there’s no promotion/relegation system in the US. Since July 2018, I have been working with Orlando City SC in the MLS.
I have mixed feelings about my experience in Orlando and MLS in general. But it was a worthwhile experience nonetheless. I’m back home now in Louisville and I’m going to be the director of goalkeeping for the newly formed Louisville City Academy.
LT: How did you end up working as a coach in America?
TS: It’s a funny story really. Mojalefa Lebesa introduced me to Motselisi Moseme (Sutu’s wife) in June 1996 and things developed quickly really. They used to work together at Lesotho National Broadcasting Service (LNBS). A year later, she came to the United States to attend graduate school. Her late father studied here in the 80s.
So, I followed her a year later and attended college here. Eventually, I started to immerse myself with adult league soccer on Sunday’s. Eventually, I met a guy called Andrew LaFramboise. He asked me if I was willing to help him with goalkeeper training at a local boys’ high school called Trinity High School.
The boys’ varsity coach was gracious enough to allow me to join the programme. He, in turn, introduced me to Muhamed Fazlagic, who ran a local youth academy club called United 1996 FC. This was in December 2001… One thing led to another and I eventually found myself rubbing shoulders with some the best players to have played the game. Kaka, Nani, Zlatan among others. I have been extremely fortunate, yes but I’d like to think I did enough of hard work to deserve that luck.
LT: How was the experience working for Orlando City, with big names players like former Manchester United winger Nani?
TS: Working in the MLS was a great experience. I have a very close personal relationship with him (Nani). He’s got a calm demeanour but also demands very high standards from everybody. The first thing that I saw with him when he first attended practice was his high level of skill and technique. It’s ridiculous how good he is. Another attribute that stood out was his speed of thought.
He saw things none of his teammates did, and that led to some frustrations, especially in the beginning. Orlando hosted the MLS All Star Game in July last year and Orlando City coaching staff had the privilege of coaching the All-Star team vs Atletico Madrid. I had the privilege of working with and seeing Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Nani, Alejandro Pozuelo, Carlos Vela, Brad Guzan etc up close. The level of training was insane; the best I’ve ever seen.
LT: Will you ever come back to work in Lesotho especially with the national team?
TS: For sure; I’d love to come back home and help our national team. It would be my greatest honour really. But a lot must change. I don’t think we are remotely even close to other national teams in terms of organisation and structure.
I’ve watched a few of our national team games. Do we have a sports scientist? Athletic trainers etc? How do we analyse performances? Do we video tape our training? Football has become increasingly scientific and it’s time we kept pace with everybody else.
Liverpool rely on a guy with a PhD in theoretical physics to sign players. Naby Keita, Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane etc were signed after he recommended them and he didn’t even watch their videos. It was all driven by data and analytics. We must improve. Not just soccer. Even as a nation we must improve.
My daughter is a junior in high school now, that’s the equivalent of Form IV back home. So, one more year of high school but she’s started college search in earnest. That’s the biggest reason I’m back home in Louisville, to help her navigate that process. I hope to get her through college and then maybe I’ll have time to explore other alternatives, Likuena being one of them. But that’s five years down the line at least.
LT: Your era produced some of the best players to have played in Lesotho. Who were best players during your playing days?
TS: Ntate u tla nkenya litabeng (You will get me in trouble.) I played with and against some fantastic players during my time. Too many to mention. I will leave my Arsenal teammates off this list, otherwise I may be accused of bias.
Linare’s Thulo Leboela was a fantastic player who possessed every single quality necessary to play football. He was blessed with wonderful technique, great balance, flair, awareness, he was ridiculously ambidextrous, could pass, score, defend (when he chose to). He was that good. Motlalepula Majoro was a diminutive, dynamic winger with great speed, game intelligence and dribbling ability.
The late Thabo Mofelehetsi was another great player. He was ahead of his time in the way he played the game. Very quick over small distances, he was blessed with great vision, could slow the game down and then suddenly he’d speed it up when necessary. So good. Lekoane Lekoane was a pure gem. His technique, coupled with remarkable skill were out of this world. Basically, every team back then had three to five great players.
The late Popo Matšoara, Kabelo Mosothoane, Thabiso Ntulo (my personal favourite) Matete Matete and Motheo Mohapi (were all exceptional). I was on my way out when Lehlohonolo Seema began to emerge. He’s got incredible pedigree. His dad was a fantastic player back then for PMU and the national team.
I still talk to him periodically and I’m so happy to see him not only having a successful playing career but an equally good start to his managerial career. A great player who had presence and great leadership qualities…the list is endless.
LT: To this day Basotho continue to talk about the historic victory over Cameroon in 1994. Take us back to that match and the Likuena team of that year.
TS: Well, the game against Cameroon in November 1994 was and remains the highlight of my football career. I was playing in Egypt at the time and this was my first official game back home since my departure. So, that generated an immense amount of pressure on me.
“Ha ke re ‘mone hore na u khutla a le joang Egypt koana ena enoa.” (Let’s see what he will be bringing now that he plays in Egypt). Things weren’t smooth when I arrived in camp.
It was a week before the game and the team was on strike over unpaid allowances. Yes. Sounds familiar? We finally agreed on a deal on Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning. The Lesotho Football Association (LeFA), under the leadership of the then president and the late Ntate Bambatha Tšita, basically told us that if we won the game, then we would split the gate takings.
I’m 100 percent convinced that they made that promise fully convinced that Cameroon was going to win the game. How wrong they were. I remember that game vividly and thanks to Tumisang “Koakoa” Mokoai I still have a video of that game. On the line-up was: Thabane (Gk), Mphanya Thakaso (RIP), Ntsane ‘Mbela’ Ramabele, Mahlomola ‘Pinono’ Ramafikeng, Motlatsi Maseela, Motlalepula ‘Dona’ Majoro, Molefe Makhele, Likhetho Mokhathi, Lefika Lekhotla, Lekoane Lekoane and Thuso ‘Basil’ Maliehe. We played the whole 90 minutes + stoppage time without making any substitutions…and we had some gems on the bench. Teele Ntsonyana, Thulo ‘Touch’ Leboela, ‘Fire’ Mokhothu, Tšeliso Thite (RIP), Paseka Khetsi and Khauta Monyobi were all ready to step in if needed.
As expected, we started the game conservatively. Cameroon competed in the World Cup in the USA a few months earlier, so we were obviously a bit apprehensive in the beginning. Midway through the first half, we began to make some inroads into their half and settled down. We went to half tied nil-all and we knew that if we got the first goal, there was no way Cameroon were going to cope. And we got one very early in the second half through Lekoane Lekoane.
It was actually coming from a goal kick by Motlatsi. Later on, in the game Majoro (Maradona) slipped in Lefika and he unleashed one of those thunderbolts he was renowned for into the top corner. The whole stadium went nuts. Good thing he scored because Maradona had made a fantastic run into the box. Had he missed; he was a dead man.
After the game, we had a few players set camp at LeFA headquarters to ensure that we got our money. They spent the night there, no kidding. Motlatsi Tampoki led the charge. And several other players joined him. It was funny.
And it’s not like Cameroon brought a weakened team. They had several players who had played in the World Cup earlier that year. Boukar Alioum, Hans Agbo, Jules Onana, Rigobert Song, Georges Mouyeme, Nicolas Dikoume etc started this game for Cameroon and all those guys plied their trades in Europe at the time. I was the only foreign-based player in our squad. The legendary Roger Milla led their delegation and was on the bench.
LT: We have had several of our players who have come through the ranks in the USA. Why have they struggled to make it big and play in the MLS?
TS: Well it’s a combination of factors that have prevented the boys from making that jump into the MLS. Perhaps the biggest factor comes down to luck. As you know, the MLS (and many other sporting codes) use the draft system. The draft is divided into four rounds in which each club has a selection, the order of which is determined by a combination of teams’ playoff and regular season positions, with the last placed team (or expansion teams) getting the first pick.
In order to be eligible for the draft, you must become known (by having a stellar collegiate career) and recommended by a number of sources to gain a draft invitation. More importantly, players must also gain entry to the MLS combine (select). This is four to five-day process where “the best” college players undergo a series of physical testing and also play scrimmages in front of mostly MLS coaches and to some extent a few USL coaches.
Lepekola Seetane had a fantastic college career but he decided to take a different approach by furthering his studies. I don’t think Tšotleho Jane ever got the invite, despite being one of the best players in the country during his time at Maryland. The system is a bit flawed, to be honest. Napo Matsoso was picked by New England Revolution in the second round of the draft. He attended preseason camp for close to a month but New England decided not to offer him a contract.
I think being an expatriate international also played a big role in preventing them from getting drafted. MLS teams can only pick seven international players and they usually reserve those spots for players who can make an immediate impact.
LS: Your hard work has not gone unnoticed in the USA and you have received a few accolades for your contribution as a coach…
TS: Indeed, some of the accolades I’ve received include the Kentucky Coach of the Year (2006), the Kentucky Colonel (highest honour bestowed on an individual by the Governor of Kentucky) in 2018 and being inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 2018.
LT: You played under the late April “Styles” Phumo for both Arsenal and the national team. Is he the one who influenced you to become a coach?
TS: Coach (Styles) was massively influential not just for me but a whole generation of players, perhaps even more. I was always fascinated with tactics/formations etc and I used to spend countless hours at his apartment watching football.
It’s a pity he didn’t live long enough to see and enjoy my successes because he played a huge role in shaping me become the man I am today. I also had a close relationship with Teboho ‘Keeper’ Sopeng, Mahao ‘Bomber’ Matete, Dr Kelello ‘Kelly’ Lerotholi, Tlholo Letete and the late Thabo ‘Pres’ Makakole also played a huge role in my development.
My only regret is that Keeper came into my life a bit late. Had we met earlier in my career; my game would’ve scaled to even greater heights. He was such a goalkeeper coach. But Coach was the driving force behind most of my achievements. There is also Les (Leslie) Notši.
We go a long way back. We used to meet at Sefikeng almost every morning. I used to jog from Khubetsoana and he used to come from Ha-Thetsane (neighbourhood across from Sethaleng sa Mopapa) and we’d train and then jog back to our respective homes and turn around and go to our respective places of employment. It was brutal but it paid off for both of us.