By Thomas Kwenaite
Thamsanqa Gabuza has overcome painful taunts from a section of Buccaneers fans who were convinced that he was not “Orlando Pirates material” and not good enough to wear the famous black and white to become a key figure in the Soweto team’s go-to man in Africa.
This week, news filtering out of the Parktown offices of Pirates is that the Iron Duke is preparing a contract to keep Gabuza at the team for a further two years after his sparkling performance throughout the CAF Confederation Cup which they narrowly lost 2-1 on aggregate to Etoile du Sahel of Tunisia.
If anything, Gabuza proved with his stunning strike that went in off the top right corner against Etoile du Sahel in the first leg tie at Orlando Stadium that he was blessed with the ability to finish with devastating effect with both legs.
It is exactly a year since the tragic killing of his former captain and goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa, who had at the time of his murder also been nominated by CAF for the African Footballer of the Year award and Gabuza feels that wherever he is, Meyiwa must be smiling that his inspiration has helped transform him as a player.
“Senzo was an inspiration to most of us,” recalls Gabuza. “He has also spent an awfully long time on the bench deputizing for Moeneeb Josephs. So he always reminded us as well not to give up but to continue fighting and working hard, explaining that our time would also come.”
In addition, not only has Gabuza become a key figure in the Pirates line-up but also the Ladysmith-born player is now the the man who leads from the front for national coach Shakes Mashaba since Tokelo Rantie went off the boil and now both club and country rely on him for salvation.
Thami is an old fashioned striker who does not use natural flair and trickery to avoid defenders. Instead, he runs at defenders like a battering ram, forcing them to commit errors from which he benefits or create opportunities for his co-striker Kermit Erasmus.
It has not been easy for Gabuza. When he arrived at Pirates, supporters found it difficult to embrace him as in their opinion he lacked finesse, the silky skills and shibobos that finds expression in South African football and it was difficult to warm up to the man from KZN.
He made his Pirates debut as a substitute in the last 20 minutes of a derby against Kaizer Chiefs in 2013, a game Pirates lost and supporters picked him out as the scapegoat, venting their frustrations on him and their judgment of his abilities was harsh despite the fact that he still needed time to settle in his new environment.
He was confined to the bench. It got to a stage where frustration almost got the better of him and eventually he plucked up enough courage to knock on the door of the chairman (Dr Irvin Khoza) in an attempt to request a loan move elsewhere.
“I will not lie,” he admitted. “I went to the chairman in frustration as I was not used to sitting on the bench and needed game-time. But he sat me down and gently pointed out my weaknesses and strength as a player. Generally he motivated me and encouraged me to work harder, assuring me that my day would come. I took his advice and I am happy I listened to him.”
His big break eventually arrived during a CAF Confederation Cup away fixture against AS Mounama FC in Gabon. He did not score, but his aggressive style was simply too much for the Gabonese as it allowed Erasmus to feed off the big man and scored a hat trick to help Pirates advance to the next round.
“Just before the game, coach Eric Tinkler called me aside and informed me that this was my chance and he believed I could offer the team something. He explained to me that he knew my capabilities and all he wanted from me was to utilize the chance and reciprocate his belief in me.”
Gabuza knew that this was it. He grabbed the opportunity with both hands. He terrorized the Kaloum FC defenders and at the end of the two-legged tie, Gabuza had scored three goals. The critics were silenced, his confidence was returning and his star was on the rise.
Since that fateful day back in February, Gabuza has gone on to deliver on the continental stage, driving Pirates against all manner of opposition on the domestic and continental front. The cherry on top was when national coach Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba called him up for the 2017 African Nations Cup qualifier against Gambia in Durban.
Now after six Bafana Bafana appearances and three goals in the process, Gabuza and Pirates are in the Telkom Knockout semi-final and personally he has been nominated for the CAF African Footballer of the Year for players playing their football in Africa.
“Playing in Africa is difficult. It is a tough business that can test your character. You spend on average 16 hours flying to your destination. Then encounter a hostile environment on landing and the hosts can make things pretty much difficult yet in a very subtle way.
“The food is not what you are accustomed to. Training fields are usually not up to scratch and unless you toughen up and forget that you are not in South Africa but there to do a job, you will never succeed in Africa.”
This is the attitude that helped him and his colleagues to dig deep in their reservoir of strength to defeat Pan-African kings Al Ahly 4-3 in Cairo after going down 2-0 early in the game, a game that qualified them for the final.
“The coach showed us countless videos of Al Ahly in action and together we analyzed their style; their players; their transitional play and by the time we faced them, we knew them like the back of our hands. But I think the fact that they play open attacking football also contributed because we were able to match them player for player.”
Although no longer a spring chicken at 28-years, Gabuza nonetheless still harbors dreams of furthering his career in Europe and it does not matter at which country in particular. The man who admires his own teammate Siyabonga Sangweni said it would be a fulfillment of his dreams to test his abilities anywhere in Europe. Well, anything is possible in life.
Name: Thami Aubrey Gabuza
Date: 27 July 1987
Club: Orlando Pirates
Youth Career: Tornado FC, Maritzburg City; Abaqulusi,
Professional Career: Durban Stars (2008)
Golden Arrows (2009-2013)
Orlando Pirates (2013 – Present)
Bafana Bafana: 6 (3 Goals)