Cairo, Egypt — The Bafana Bafana winger would have liked to be at his uncle’s funeral on Saturday, but he had to bring him to Cairo International Stadium in spirit instead to witness his greatest performance in national team colours.
The morning of the night Thembinkosi Lorch will never forget was an emotional one for the Bloemfontein-born Bafana Bafana winger. While many South Africans wanted him to be in the starting XI against Egypt at Cairo International Stadium on Saturday 6 July, he would have preferred to be back home.
That morning his family was burying his closest uncle on his paternal side, Lebohang Mokoena, who died in a car accident the previous week. The 25-year-old was in camp with the senior men’s national team when Mokoena died and was buried. Lorch never got the chance to say goodbye to a man he speaks of fondly. Instead, he said hello to him on the other side with a goal that shook Egyptian football from its axis and took Bafana Bafana to the quarterfinals of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).
The South Africans who wanted the Footballer of the Season to start got their wish. Lorch didn’t get his because teleportation only exists in movies. But the show had to go on. Instead of teleporting home to bury his uncle, Lorch brought his uncle to the biggest stage of his football career. The silence that swept Cairo International Stadium – at the heart of a city that never sleeps and doesn’t keep quiet, with its almost 20 million population communicating with their hooters on the roads – after Lorch’s goal had a supernatural quality to it.
The Cairo silencer
The crowd was definitely stunned into silence, but there was also a spirit that ran across the pitch to celebrate its child scoring his first Afcon goal in his first start in the continental showpiece before going to the other side.
“I played that game for my late uncle,” Lorch says from Bafana’s base just outside Cairo International Airport. He doesn’t make eye contact when he says these words and his soft-spoken nature holds him hostage.
“I couldn’t make it to the funeral, so I had to give my best in his honour. We had a very good relationship. He accompanied me when I signed for Orlando Pirates. He always supported me. Whenever I play in the Free State, he and my father would come to watch me.”
The ripple effect of that goal was massive. Bafana went on to produce one of their most famous wins after the wall that is Mohamed El Shenawy was finally beaten in this competition. Egyptian Football Association (EFA) president Hany Abou Rida resigned in the early hours of the following morning, on Sunday 7 July. But before he and several board members tendered their resignations, he fired coach Javier Aguirre, who was responsible for Egypt’s worst showing at Afcon as hosts.
While the resignations were trickling in on Sunday morning, Lorch was awake because he struggles to fall asleep after Bafana’s night games here. So how did he keep it together, not only playing against the host nation but also with the weight of expectation from those who called for his inclusion and dealing with a personal loss without grieving properly?
“I had to be strong because he isn’t coming back,” Lorch said. “If I then sat and felt sorry for myself, that wasn’t going to help me. It would have made it worse and I wouldn’t have been able to perform. His loss motivated me to work even harder. He would have been happy to see me play at my first Afcon. He would have told me to make the family proud. When he passed away, he was wearing my jersey with Lorch written at the back. That shows that he loved me.”
How Lorch’s character was built
Lorch met Mokoena in 2010, five years before he signed for the Buccaneers and three years before Maluti FET College thumped Pirates 4-1 in the 2013 Nedbank Cup. Lorch was on the bench in that famous victory by the then ABC Motsepe League side. He cut his teeth at Maluti after moving to Ficksburg in 2009 to stay with his father. His talent was first noticed by Brebner High School in Bloemfontein, giving him a scholarship to nurture his talent while also taking care of his academic needs.
He signed for the Buccaneers in 2015, but was instantly loaned out to Cape Town All Stars in the first division.
“I am a strong person,” Lorch said. “That’s why when all of these things happen now [being benched at Afcon] they don’t affect me. It started when I was young. I was disappointed when they decided to loan me to Cape Town All Stars. I wanted to at least go back to Maluti because they were also in the NFD [National First Division]. But they decided to take me to Cape Town, which was a challenge at first.
“I had to adjust and get used to the weather, the environment and understand coach Dan Malesela and what type of person he is. I think that helped me grow. If I had gone to Maluti, I would have relaxed because it was home. Being out of my comfort zone helped me grow and be stronger.”
Injuries and different loan spells held him back in his attempt to stake a regular starting berth in the colours of the Buccaneers. He prayed hard, especially for the healing of the shoulder injury that hit him twice. He didn’t look back when he was recalled from Chippa United in 2017.
Two years later, his peers and coaches in the elite league of South African football named him the best player in the country; he walked away with the Footballer of the Season and Absa Premiership Players’ Player of the Season awards at the ceremony in Durban in May. The journey to being the country’s best started in November 2018, just after his lowest moment.
“These things don’t go to my head, the success and the worst moments. I have always wanted to be named Footballer of the Season. I remember some of my teammates told me after the Telkom Knockout that if you can keep this performance, you will be the Footballer of the Season. I said let me push and see if it will really happen. They told me that there’s no one who performs consistently like you do. So, I decided to work even harder.
“When we had a morning session, I would go to Virgin Active at night just to make sure that I am stronger. People didn’t know why I was doing that, but I knew. And now that I have it, I don’t read much into it. I don’t look at it and say now I am a big player. Even the people ekasi are surprised that this person is still the same, he doesn’t behave like the Footballer of the Season. It has passed and I am no longer even focusing on it.”
Bouncing back from adversity
It was telling of his talent and the faith his teammates had in him that they told Lorch he could be the best in the country after missing a penalty that handed Baroka FC the Telkom Knockout trophy while extending the Buccaneers’ barren run that stretches as far back as 2014. It could have been motivation, or it could have been genuine praise from teammates who saw something special.
“We wanted to win the cup. I missed the penalty. You know eMzansi, people were talking. I didn’t take that to heart,” Lorch said. “The following day, I removed it from my mind because we had to play Free State Stars on Tuesday. I scored in that game. I am the type of person who believes that if something bad happens to me, that means God is preparing me for something greater. I have that belief, that tragedy comes before great success.”
The win over Egypt was the great success that was preceded by tragedy. Bafana were on the brink of elimination in the group stage with three points from three poor performances against Ivory Coast, Namibia and Morocco. That was enough to take them to the last 16, where the seven-time African champions and their passionate crowd waited in what was once a fortress of Egyptian football.
The 75 000 fans who filled Cairo International Stadium created an electric atmosphere, but it wasn’t like the one that engulfed the same venue at the 2006 Afcon or any other Pharaohs match before the Arab Spring.
Egyptian stadiums used to be the closest thing to hell for visiting teams. The ultras, those tough bastards with menacing stares and the energy to fire up a city, have been banned from Egyptian football. That is because the current regime aims to depoliticise stadiums after ultras stoked the flames that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak. Without their energy, the iconic Cairo International Stadium lost its spark. Football “tourists”, mainly those from the middle class because of the exorbitant ticket prices, crammed into the iconic venue.
It was advantage Bafana before the ball had even been kicked. Egyptian forward Marwan Mohsen started the show at 9pm. Lorch and his band of brothers then went and stole the show with a spirited performance that knocked the Pharaohs out of their own party. Now Egyptians have to watch others enjoy the spectacle they have put together.
Local fans going to Cairo International Stadium on the night of Wednesday 10 July would have purchased their tickets in anticipation of watching the Pharaohs move a step closer to claiming a record eighth title. Instead, they will see Bafana Bafana and the Super Eagles of Nigeria renew their hostilities in a rivalry that started in the political arena and seeped into sport and business.
Bafana no longer fears Nigeria
Previous Bafana generations would have gone into this match fearful of the Nigerian juggernaut that crushed so many South African dreams. But this group of players will be confident that they can turn the Super Eagles into timid chickens by beating them like they did in Uyo in the qualifiers of this Afcon.
“I would be happy if we at least reached the semifinals,” Lorch said. “It’s possible. We showed that we are a good team. Maybe we can even win the Afcon. I am not saying that’s what is going to happen, but God works in mysterious ways. We just have to focus on each and every game. But first we have to focus on Nigeria. We have shown that we are capable of changing the dominant record they have on us. All we have to do is believe in ourselves. We have more talent than the other teams. We just have to support one another.”
South African fandom is a mystery. Supporters have two default settings when it comes to Bafana. They either think that the team is shit, or it is the greatest thing to have happened to football. There’s no middle ground.
Bafana also has no middle ground. They are either so woeful you want to pluck your eyes out, or they are so great that even the dead want to witness their miracles before heading to their final resting place. They have shown both sides against Nigeria and during their stay in Cairo. How Bafana control their emotions and success will determine which side comes out for this crucial clash.
Lorch controlled his feelings well to not only deal with his loss but also the calls for his inclusion by putting on a Man of the Match performance against Egypt.
“I saw that after the loss to Morocco, that people wanted me to play,” Lorch said. “Obviously, that added pressure. You can’t have so many people calling for you and don’t deliver. I asked myself, what if I don’t have a good game after all their calls? What was going to happen to them? How were they going to feel? I had to keep calm and play my normal game.”
“What happened next was the greatest moment of my career. I haven’t been given much of a chance to play in the national team. That goal and performance was a big deal for me. I’ll never forget that moment. I’ll always cherish it. This was the biggest game I have played for Bafana. But I would like to play more big games and create more great memories.”