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Tonic Chabalala: People Who Criticize Happy Jele Don’t Know Football

Tonic Chabalala: People Who Criticize Happy Jele Don’t Know Football
They say strikers win you games and defenders win you titles. We caught up with Tonic Chabalala, a no-nonsense defender who is famous for putting Collins Mbesuma in his back pocket in the famous season of 35 goals scored by the then Kaizer Chiefs striker. The Limpopo-born defender captained Orlando Pirates in the 2006 CAF Champions League semi-final under the Buccaneers’ current coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic. The former ruthless defender tells us the importance of man marking and how it can still be relevant in the modern game.

Banele Pikwa: Tonic, how’s life after football, are you involved in any footballing activities?

Tonic Chabalala: Yeah, you can say so because I’ve just launched my foundation like two weeks back. I’ll be focusing on scouting, grooming and developing players at a young age. I’m also involved in business, I have my own company. So yeah, I’ve been very busy.

BP: Let’s talk about your battle against Collins Mbesuma. You were one of the few defenders that managed to keep him quiet. How was it to face such a prolific striker and what was the instruction from the coach?

TC: There was no instruction from the coach. As you know, Mbesuma was a very good striker at that time, maybe he is still good even now as he’s still playing. It was not easy playing someone like him at that time, he was full of confidence and he use to score in each and every big game. There was no specific instruction, I just did my homework on him and it worked on the day. I still remember playing him at FNB and I played him out of the game, but it was not easy, he is very clever and strong striker. It was not easy, I had to do my homework and I’m glad it worked. 

BP: Do you think the man-marking tactic is still relevant?

TC: Even during my days, it wasn’t as relevant. Football has changed, players are more advanced and they are very clever. I think zonal marking is the best because it allows you to track a player from a distance. It’s better than having to follow a player like how it is with man-marking, when you follow him, you leave a big space and players can easily capitalize on that space. These players are very clever so it’s best to close the space and press them from far. It makes it easy to predict the move and you’re then able to close him down before he gets to dangerous areas.

BP: Having worked with coach Micho, do you think he can win the league or the Champions League this season?

TC: Yes, I think he can. I played under coach Micho and I know his capabilities, he knows how to analyse the games and can plan very well for every game. He’s a coach who could just cover everything in one practice. And then, with the likes of coach Rhulani [Mokwena], I think they can do good. I’m just worried with the youngsters that we have, as you know, younger players don’t win leagues so that’s my only concern. But I think under the guidance of Micho and Rhulani they will do better and they will know how to calm them down. I think they are in good hands and they can come with something positive at the end. 

BP: People say Rhulani is the man behind his success. Having worked with him, do you agree with that or do you think he is the boss at Pirates? 

TC: I’m not going to comment on coach Rhulani because he's never coached me. What I know is that coach Micho is the best, I still remember when we played in Africa [the CAF Champions League] he would analyse each team well and he knew each and every player we played against. For me, he’s a very good coach, he knows what he is doing and even other guys who worked with him can say the same. Not taking anything from coach Rhulani, as I said, he has never coached me.

Read: Sikhakhane: Solinas is very different to Micho, Rhulani and Mngqithi

BP: Would you consider it failure if Pirates don’t win the league or Champions League?

TC: Coach Micho knows African football, he has been in the continent for the past 20 years, he knows the game. I’m just worried about the level of consistency we’ve seen from our players but if they can stay focused and concentrate throughout, then I’m confident they could win something, Pirates can achieve with this group.

BP: What about mind games? Do you think it’s something we need, especially with coaches indirectly attacking other teams?

TC: Football is something else, you don’t go around saying we are going to win, we are going to beat Sundowns or whatever. You have to keep calm and be humble, do your homework well on the opposition. But I’ve seen mind games work, they test if you are weak or strong.

BP: The Pirates captain Happy Jele is often criticized since being converted to a centre-back. What is your take on converting full-backs to a central defenders and has it worked against Jele?

TC: I don’t think the people who criticize Happy Jele know football. If you remember even Lucky Lekgwathi was converted and look how well he did. And that’s the same with Happy [Jele], and for me, he has done well since playing centre-back and you can say he is the pillar of the Pirates defence.

BP: How do you think Micho will approach this game? Should he stick to the same tactics he used in the 2-1 win over Chiefs last month in the league?

TC: This is a different game, this is a semi-final and if you sleep, you are gone. This game will be difficult and different, he will have to approach it differently. Cup games are all about who wants it more and as I said, you sleep once and you are gone. 

BP: Who do you think will win the derby?

TC: Because I’m a Buccaneer, I will just say the Buccaneers. 

BP: Thanks a lot for your time, Tonic.

TC: Dankie Ngiyabonga sisonke