Bafana Bafana midfielder Lehlogonolo Masalesa is back in the national team after a long absence – he was called up during the era of former head coach Pitso Mosimane, although he was never capped.
The 25 year-old Masalesa burst onto the scene when he made his PSL debut for Platinum Stars back in the 2009/2010 season. He then joined Wits and after some fine displays, moved to Orlando Pirates before being snapped up by Greek side Larissa in January this year.
Stuart Baxter has now called upon the lanky midfielder to do the job for Bafana Bafana in the 2017 COSAFA Castle Cup currently underway in Rustenburg.
SAFA.net spoke to him about his career and life in Greece.
Matlhomola Morake: Back in the national team after a long absence, how do you feel?
Lehlogonolo Masalesa: I am really glad to be back, it has been a long time in indeed, in fact back then Pitso Mosimane was the coach, even though I never played a match for Bafana Bafana. I am glad to be working with the new coach because I believe as a footballer, working with someone like him will take me to the next level at club level. And I am also happy to be part of the national team, and I hope, as we will be participating in the COSAFA CUP, we will do well and make the nation proud.
MM: Relishing a chance to play this time around?
LM: As a football you always have to fancy your chances to play, you always need to believe in yourself, and, given the opportunity, I think I can show what I am capable of.
MM: So how are things going in Greece?
LM:The fact that I am here means things are going well for me, as my career got back on track the last six months. I got to Greece and I did what I had to do so things are really looking up, we will see what the future holds.
MM: What’s the difference between the football in South Africa and in Greece?
LM: The level of training is at a higher notch, the football is a lot tougher, you need to concentrate a lot, you need to work very hard and be very sharp in your approach and execution of your duties. There are no easy games in the league and all of that has and will help me improve as a player because when you train well and play well you become a better player.
MM: You left Wits, moved to Orlando Pirates where things did not go very well and then you left South Africa.
LM: I started very well at Pirates and I believe I did well, especially in the CAF competition. But as you know things change in football – unfortunately towards the end of my stay there things changed for the worst for me, but luckily the overseas move came unexpectedly. I believe it was more for what I did for Pirates in the CAF Competition as people still valued me and wanted me all because of that, so I will always appreciate the opportunity I got at Pirates because it is the reason why I am where I am today.
MM: What can you tell us about Larissa?
LM: It’s a club with a lot of passionate supporters – everyone in the city supports the team. It’s the only team outside Athens Thessalonica (which is the major city in Greece) to have won the league and cup, and participated in the Europa League, so they want to bring back the glory days, and I believe they have the right personnel to do just that.
MM: Take us through your game last season
LM: When I got there it was tough, we were just above the relegation zone with 17 games to go. I played 14 of those games and missed two matches because of suspension and injury, while the last one was a dead rubber so they played the youngsters, but I think I contributed well to the survival of the team and that is why I already have a fan base that side.
MM: What do you do in your spare time?
LM: There are some African players that are registered in the league, I also have a few friends from Brazil, Spain and Holland, so we just hang around and be on the PlayStation or watch movies together. But when you are in Europe, football is mostly like a job so there is not enough time to relax and do nothing. You find that even on your rest day, you may be required to come in for a video session or go to the physio or even just for a massage (even though you are not training), in short there is not much of a spare time compared to back home where you will get a chance to go out for a braai. The environment is different and you have to readjust to how they do things outside.
MM: The language and the food?
LM: The good thing is that they speak English, even though it’s not perfect but it’s enough for us to communicate. The Greek language is hard to understand but I am getting to grips with it, I have picked up some important words and phrases – I know how to order when I am at a restaurant, I know how to greet or say thank you. I still can’t have a long conversation in Greek but I getting familiar with the language. The food is just great, I love it.
MM: You must be missing family and friends in South Africa?
LM: I am in Greece to work for my family and I hope they will enjoy the fruits of my labour. As for friends there will always be time for those, fortunately technology is advanced these days and you can always get in tough with them one way or the other, unlike back in the days when people used to send letters. Besides I have always wanted to be abroad, even the first time I travelled there I told myself if I get a chance to come back I will. I think my mind had already prepared me for what to expect, that I will be spending time by myself, so I am really going through something I anticipated and that is why it is not so difficult.
MM: Back to the national team, what can we expect in the COSAFA CUP?
LM: We have a very good crop of players and it makes me wonder how we lost in the U20 FIFA World Cup with such good players. I think there are a lot of young players who want to showcase their talent and there is a good blend of experienced guys like Mario Booysen and Aubrey Ngoma, so we can do well, we must just apply ourselves and we will see what will happen.
MM:As one of the experienced players in the current team, how are you encouraging the youngsters?
LM:I believe you have to give them respect so that you can get it back. You also have to try and blend in as much as possible, you don’t want them to be intimidated by you. Also, football is a learning game – we learn from them as much as they learn from us. Where we can guide them, through our experiences, we try to do so but at the end of the day when you are on the pitch you all equal and have to treat each other with respect because the main goal is not my success or of the next person, but of the country and that’s how we should handle it.
MM:Looking at the young talent in the squad tells you that the future of SA football is bright.
LM: That’s exactly what I was talking about – that’s why I asked myself why didn’t we do well in the U20 FIFA World Cup with so much talent. It goes to show that there is a lot of belief in the younger players and participating in such tournaments will give them more experience going forward and even help them become international superstars in future, and if I can contribute to that success I will be happy.
MM: What next for you in Europe?
LM: I don’t want to say much, but I can proudly say there is something cooking in the oven – in fact there is a lot of interest, but sometimes it’s better to keep quite and let things unfold in their own pace. There are a lot of possibilities – I could go back to my current club or I may not. But in due time all will be revealed.
MM: What is your advice to the youngsters?
LM: They must just learn to apply themselves, but the most important thing is to remain focused. Over and above everything is to believe in yourself and your ability. There will always be a player stronger or even quicker than you, but because you believe that you can get better or get to the next level, that’s what makes the difference. If you don’t believe in yourself, then what’s the point of other people believing in you? Anything is possible in football. You could be just one of the youngsters today, and tomorrow you could be the captain of the national team, so one needs to be prepared.
- AEL F.C. also known with its full name Athlitiki Enosi Larissa (Athletic Union of Larissa), simply called AEL or Larissa, is a Greek association football club based in the city of Larissa, capital of Greece’s Thessaly region
- The first season back in top flight was a difficult one, with 4 managers employed.
- The team managed to keep its top flight status by finishing 14th, just above the relegation places.