Malepe talks Neymar, character and lifting South African spirits

  • Tercious Malepe is South Africa’s captain at Tokyo 2020

  • He and his team-mates endured a COVID-hit build-up to their opening match

  • Malepe spoke to us about foreign adventures and Olympic experiences in Brazil

For South Africa’s players, the past week must have felt like the proverbial leap from frying pan to fire.

Having left behind a homeland suffering amid riots and widespread unrest, Tercious Malepe and his team-mates might have hoped for a period of pre-tournament calm in Tokyo. They enjoyed no such luck.

The news that two players and a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19 threw into turmoil their Olympic preparations, and at one stage even threated their participation.

Training sessions were cancelled and squad members confined to their rooms for days as attempts were made – with success, thankfully – to contain the outbreak.

Yet despite the worst and most stressful build-up imaginable, South Africa emerged with real credit from their opening match against Japan. Unfortunate not to emerge with a point after holding the hosts at bay for 71 minutes, they certainly earned every word of warm post-match praise from coach David Notoane.

The players also maintained a sense of perspective throughout their ordeal and, as Malepe told, they are firmly focused on raising spirits in their beleaguered nation.

“That’s something we’ve always had in our minds as a team: to bring happiness to the people back home,” he said. “It’s very important to us as players.

“The people need something right now and, to be honest, we haven’t done as well in these big tournaments in the past as everyone wanted. I believe we can change that here, and I think too that it will help bring some peace and belief to everyone in South Africa.”

Malepe is the captain and leader of this Young Bafana squad, and the only player with prior experience of Olympic football. The 24-year-old is, in fact, the first South African footballer in history to play at consecutive editions of this global event, having been part of the team’s Rio 2016 adventure.

“When I tell the young guys here how important this tournament is, and how special it is for us to be here, they understand I know what I’m talking about,” he said. “I’ve been in their position – I was the youngest player in our squad in 2016 – and I’ve been telling them: ‘The atmosphere of this event, the surroundings, the level of play, is something else’."

Neymar of Brazil in action during the Men's First Round Group A match against South Africa

Malepe and his team-mates experienced that from the very start in Rio, going up against the hosts and eventual winners in front of a partisan, 70,000-strong crowd in Brasilia. And while Neymar ended those Games clutching a historic gold medal, the South Africa defender remembers A Seleção’s star man enduring a tough afternoon in that goalless opening encounter.

“What Neymar does on the pitch is amazing - just beautiful to watch,” he said. “But I was on the bench that day and I remember watching how our defenders, guys like Abbubaker Mobara, played against him. Cool, calm, collected – it was amazing.

“I could honestly watch the moments from that game over and over again: Neymar bringing everything he had to score, but our guys doing such a good job to contain him and keep a clean sheet. It showed me what you can achieve, even against great players and teams, if you believe in yourself.

“Character is so important; showing people ‘I might not be a big star, but I have what it takes to be here’.”

INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 26:  Repo Malepe of South Africa poses at Oakwood hotel on May 26, 2017 in Incheon, South Korea.  (Photo by Joern Pollex - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Malepe brought that attitude to his club career, too, signing up for a massive culture change in 2020 by agreeing a switch to the Ukrainian top flight with FC Mynai.

“I feel I am a better player for playing on that stage and facing teams like Shakhtar Donetsk, Dynamo Kyiv and all the top players they have,” said the 24-year-old, who recently returned to South Africa with Amazulu following Mynai’s relegation.

“I remember going in to play Shakhtar the weekend after they’d beaten Real Madrid and, again, thinking, ‘This is all about character’. And I did well - I dominated my battles. When I was watching the EURO, I was watching Ukraine play, thinking, ‘That guy was chasing me when I played against him!’ (Laughs) “So yeah, I enjoyed my time in Ukraine. I think the way I see the game definitely improved while I was there. That’s one thing about me: I won’t stop learning. Whatever happens, I’ll always be a student of the game.”

And as Malepe well knows, there are few better classrooms than an Olympic Games.