The Cape Town City leftback dropped out of university to further his professional football career. It didn't work out. Then he picked himself up, earned his first Bafana cap and is studying again.
"People just see you on television assuming that you have it easy and do not know what happens behind the scenes. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes," says Bafana Bafana and Cape Town City defender Terrence Mashego.
Born in Mamelodi, Pretoria, 25 years ago, Mashego has enjoyed a breakthrough this season with both the Citizens and the South African national men's team where he was part of the squad that registered back-to-back victories over Ethiopia in the second round of the Fifa World Cup qualifiers. But his journey to the top has been far from smooth despite bursting on the scene in style in 2019, when he was part of the TS Galaxy side that stunned South Africa's cup kings, Kaizer Chiefs, to become the first team from the lower divisions to win the Nedbank Cup.
Mashego's structured football had started much earlier, in 2006, when he joined Arcadia Shepherds' Under-13 side. "To be honest, when I started football it started as a game, as a young boy growing up in the township of Mamelodi," he says, laughing. "The only activity that was available or accessible was football and I started by playing street football."
After completing matric in 2014 at Bona Lesedi Secondary School in Mamelodi, Mashego could not immediately go to university to study further. He would eventually do so in 2016 through a scholarship from the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) to study towards a diploma in sport and exercise technology.
"When I was at TUT, I could feel that I would not be there for a long time. I felt that I did not belong there and it was just a feeling that I had, with no explanation to it," he says.
Mashego left the institution and its football team after just eight months, having had a successful trial stint with Mthatha Bucks, who were campaigning in the first division. "When I left TUT, I made a decision that I was going to play football, pausing my studies and shifting my focus from school to football. I wanted to focus on football and that was the only thing that I wanted."
A slow start
But the move brought its challenges. For one thing, he played just one match in the 2016-2017 season. "At some point, I felt like leaving Mthatha Bucks and going back to TUT because I had had more game time [there] and I could study. [But] there was also this thing that I had made a sacrifice. As much as I was not playing, I told myself, 'Let me just keep on working hard.' I got encouragement from the coaches and other players who were always saying to me, 'Don't worry boy, you will get your time, just keep on working hard," says Mashego.
At the end of the next season, Mthatha Bucks were relegated and Mashego had to go back home. Instead of sulking, after his gamble didn't work out, Mashego threw himself into a new challenge and joined TS Galaxy in 2018. The Rockets were participating in the first division for the first time.
"As I was back home preparing and in talks with my agent, Basia Michaels [of Quality Talent Sports], she told me that there is a new team in Mpumalanga called TS Galaxy and they had bought a status in the NFD [National First Division]. She suggested I join them. I went there and saw that it is a new team, the chairman [Tim Sukazi] has goals, and I felt that this is a good team and I joined them."
Mashego reached for the stars with Galaxy, even bagging the award for Nedbank Cup Most Promising Player, beating fellow teammate Zakhele Lepasa and Chiefs' Siphosakhe Ntiya-Ntiya. He had two great seasons at the club, even captaining the team, but a bigger stage was beckoning.
"I told the chairman that as I have played for this team for two seasons and we won the Nedbank Cup [and I] made a name for myself, I felt I was too comfortable at the team and needed a new challenge. When Cape Town City approached me, I saw that it was about time for me to move to the PSL [Premier Soccer League] because at that time TS Galaxy was still in the process of buying the PSL status," he recalls.
In one of the biggest moves of his career so far, he finally entered the top league after spending five years in the first division. "I was at the mall and then my agent called me and told me that we are leaving for Cape Town City. She said, 'The chairman of Cape Town City has already organised a ticket for you, we are leaving.' It was on a Friday and she told me we needed to be there on Monday for the first training session. I agreed and she told me that everything is sorted. It came as a surprise. l didn't believe it until I did my first training session and that's when I saw that this is it."
A year after he joined the Citizens, he achieved one of the objectives he had set for himself when he chose to step out of his comfort zone and join the side.
"I joined Cape Town City because it is a good team. [They are] well structured and their goals of winning the league and competing in the top eight align with my goals," Mashego says. "I saw that it would be an advantage for me to play for them. I knew that if we compete in the top eight, top four or win the league, I would also get an opportunity to represent the national team and get an opportunity to be scouted overseas.
"If you could compare the TS Galaxy that won the Nedbank Cup to the style of play of the Citizens, it is the same style of play because we [Galaxy] used to play like that. It was not difficult for me to adjust as it was the same system, same philosophy, so it was easy for me to adjust."
Mashego made his debut for Bafana this month in the 3-1 win over Ethiopia in Bahir Dar. He played 90 minutes in the return leg at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on 12 October that put South Africa in the driver's seat of their group, with two more rounds to go. Later this month he will play in the MTN8 final against the team from his hometown, Mamelodi Sundowns. These strides make everything he endured to get there worth it.
"To be honest, as much as I started in the NFD and played there for five years, that five years had prepared me because I struggled a lot in football. I played with a lot of PSL players who were at the NFD with me and they constantly gave me advice. They told me about things that I had to do. I had all the information about the PSL."
But the step up to the premier division hasn't been as easy as he has made it seem to be. "As much as I was prepared and I managed to fit into the system of the team, at some point it was difficult as this was a new stage for me. The PSL is different from the NFD as here opponents analyse you every week.
"They look at everything you do - how I pass, how I move, how I run and how I defend. Those are some of the things that are not happening that much at the NFD. That is one thing I'm struggling with at the moment."
Mashego understands the importance of education, which is what has brought him back to studying. He is now pursuing a degree in law at the University of South Africa.
Having realised his first dream, which was to play for Bafana, he has now set himself an even bigger goal: playing for Liverpool in the English Premier League. And he might just make it. After all, playing at the highest level after he left Mthatha Bucks with only one game in the bag and no plan B worked out well for him.
"You need to know who you are and what you want in life," says Mashego. "Commitment is important. You need to commit yourself to the game, you need to make certain sacrifices. I made a sacrifice to pause my studies when moving to Mthatha Bucks."