After reaching a record 100 caps for his country, South Africa skipper Aaron Mokoena has two people to whom he remains eternally indebted to for his success with the national side: his mother and South African footballing legend, Jomo 'The Black Prince' Sono.
Mokoena praises his mother for the role she played in raising him up in the poverty-ridden streets of the Vaal area, just outside Johannesburg. And, in Sono, he sees a father figure, who not only gave him his big break in professional football, but has mentored him and helped him make some of the toughest decisions in his life. Sono was one of South Africa’s best and most iconic players, but his talent was never displayed on world stage as South Africa was, at that time, in international isolation. He is a man whose sharp eye for talent has helped some of the country’s top players make their names overseas.
“It’s a bit of an emotional moment for me, to sit here knowing that I will play more than 100 games for my country, it’s really emotional,” Mokoena said just before the 5-0 friendly win over Guatemala in which he hit the century mark. “As a youngster from the Vaal, I would have never even dreamt of this. But I have my mother to thank, the woman who gave me so much strength and stood by me all the time.”
Then Mokoena switches his attention to Sono: “What can I say about him? Where do I start? Jomo is a legend, he is one of the finest players to come out of South Africa, but for me he has played the role of a father and a mentor. He has been a huge influence in my career. When I a lot of people criticised me, Jomo would stand by me, not too many people have done that consistently. You will never forget the person who gave you a chance to express yourself on the football field, and Jomo did that for me. He is a legend, he is an example to me,” an emotional Mokoena exclusively told FIFA.com during a one-on-one interview with the man fondly called ‘Mbazo’.
When growing up, Mokoena earned a reputation for being a tough-tackling defender who often gave strikers nightmares. In the townships, they nicknamed him ‘Mbazo’, or the ‘Axe’ because of his tough play. Off the field though, he remains a gentlemen with a soft voice and, to his admission, a bit of a “mama’s boy”. In his homeland, he sometimes polarises opinion, but the man from the Vaal has now entered the record books after being the first South Africa to earn 100 caps in Bafana Bafana colours.
Mokoena marched to his century at the newly-built Peter Mokaba Stadium on 31 May wearing a special jersey that read '100' across it. It was an apt reward for a man who has worked hard and served his country with distinction for more than a decade. It was a journey that started back in 1999 when Mokoena, then 18, made history by becoming the youngest player ever to earn a Bafana cap. It didn’t take long for people to start drawing comparisons with legendary defender Lucas Radebe, who was then in his last few years of national team play. After Radebe’s retirement, the South Africa armband exchanged a few hands, but it didn’t take long for then-Bafana coach, Stuart Baxter to ordain Mokoena as his skipper - at a time when South Africa was trying to qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
All-time best is yet to come
Mokoena talked openly with FIFA.com about his lowest moments and proudest achievements in the Bafana jersey. “For me, the biggest disappointment was when we couldn’t qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. I was so hurt,” he said. “I didn’t think I would recover from that. A lot happened during that period. Then another moment was when I had to withdraw from the squad in 2008 on the eve of the Africa Cup of Nations, that was hard for me man, but there were a lot of reasons.”
Tough times, so the old adage says, don’t last. Now “Mbazo” is awaiting his biggest moment. The discussion of South Africa’s opening contest against Mexico in Johannesburg makes him light up. “11 June? No doubt that will be my proudest moment,” Mokoena said with a chuckle. “Walking down the tunnel at Soccer City, I can’t imagine the feeling, it’s going to be crazy man. No other moment comes close to that.”