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Chico dreams of a rebound

Teboho Molapo

MASERU — It was with Likhopo that Lesotho first saw Tefo Maipato (pictured).
His wizardry on the pitch was almost something from a fairytale book — a Harry Potter with a ball hexed between his feet.
As part of Bishop Molatoli’s original barefoot brigade that conquered all at Pitso Ground at the turn of the century, winning in style was a Sunday lunch meal for Maipato.
Blessed with a rare mix of technique, directness and intelligence, Maipato seemed destined for greatness.
Not only were goals plundered from midfield, but Maipato could scheme with his precise passing, or just dribble past the whole defence when all else failed.
In short, he was the perfect number 10.
It was talent that had been obvious from an early age.
Since he was four Maipato ran around Pitso Ground and by the age of 15, clubs, not just in Lesotho, were scrambling for his signature.
In 2003, aged just 16, Chico — as he became known — signed for South African giants Orlando Pirates, choosing them over Jomo Cosmos.
However after years in the doldrums he is back in Lesotho with Bantu — and back at square one.
But somehow Maipato is not bitter, nor is he broken.
Though he does admit he wasted the last three years, Chico is determined to re-find the form that once earned him a dream move to Pirates.
Maipato, only 23, has featured in each of Bantu’s six league games this season.
The Mafeteng side are eighth on the Premier League log— a stable start on their return to the elite league after four years.
“I left when I was very young,” Maipato says.
“This is the first time that I am playing in Lesotho’s Premier League and I have seen that Bantu is a team that has a huge a crowd and quite a lot of pressure.”
“Personally when I rate my performance I can’t say it’s been good or bad,” Maipato says of his displays so far.
After a brief pause, he adds: “I spent two-and-a-half years not playing football. I had left it.
“Even though people don’t know, I was already not training (at Pirates) — I was going to the field (only) when I wanted. Because of things that had happened I didn’t have an interest in football anymore.”
It is in that statement that one gets an indication of Maipato’s experience at Pirates — a time that almost destroyed his love of football.
And it had started so well.
Within three months of joining Pirates, Maipato was the captain of the under-17 team.
By the end of the year his team had won their age group’s league crown as well as two cups.
His inspired performances led to his promotion to Pirates’ under-19 side in 2004 where he was also the captain.
He led the team to the under-19 championship.
The year 2004 also saw Maipato win Pirates’ under-19 player of the season award.
The progress continued the following year when — after his side won the Supersport Under-19 Cup — Maipato was promoted to Yebo Yes United, the Pirates reserve side which competes in the Vodacom League, South Africa’s third division.
Maipato was to be a vital part of the team’s Vodacom League victories in 2005 and 2006.
But progression to the first team never came.
“It’s one of those things that will surprise you in football,” Maipato says.
“Pirates are a big team, I still love them to this day, (but) there are things which happened that I cannot understand.
“I performed well, I did my best.
“In 2004 I took the best player of the season award and as a foreigner it’s not easy to get that award.
“I was promoted to the reserve side in 2005 (but) until this year I had been in the reserves.
“I can’t say I know what happened.
“Sometimes I think maybe it was because I was a foreigner, but even so, according to how I performed I don’t think that would be a reason.”
But in 2007 being a foreigner did affect Maipato.
It was then that non-South African citizens were barred from participating in the Vodacom League, therefore depriving Maipato of any competitive football.
Unable to play and with other South African sides interested, Maipato longed for a move.
But Pirates refused and he became disillusioned.
“There was nothing I could do,” he says.
“I was supposed to play football. Unfortunately Pirates didn’t want to let me go.
“I don’t know what happens behind the doors.
“When you are a football player you are helpless because if another club wants you they go to management.
“They will write to your club and not to you. I was still young at the time there was no way I could talk to teams.
“Maybe it would have helped if I had someone who managed me.
“When I came home it was because I was tired of waiting for something that wasn’t there.
“(The) coaches there had said that by 2006 I would be promoted to the first team but I don’t know what happened.
“It was painful to see players that I played with get promoted while I was stuck in the reserves.”
Tlou Segolela, Excellent Walaza, Senzo Meyiwa, Lindokuhle Mkhwanazi and Kelebogile Mabe, all of them Maipato’s team-mates at Yebo Yes, progressed to Pirates’ first team while another colleague in the reserve side, Thulasizwe Khuzwayo, is now at Golden Arrows.
“Yes, the last three years I spent there have been wasted,” he admits.
“I was there and I wasn’t playing.”
“Football needs luck at times,” he adds.
“Sometimes if you don’t have luck you won’t succeed, no matter how good you are.
“I guess I shouldn’t have given up but I was tired.
“I was feeling like I was one of the bad-luck guys.”
Maipato was born on March 9, 1986 at Sea Point, Maseru.
Growing up in the tough neighbourhood, luck was never an excuse not to play football.
It was in fact the only way to stay out of trouble.
The eldest of three children, Maipato grew up in a Matlama family.
Football was in his blood.
“I began going to Pitso Ground when I was four. I went there everyday, playing barefoot all day,” Maipato recalls with a smile.
At Pitso Ground — a stone’s throw away from his home — he played for Matlama’s youth sides until they were disbanded in 1998.
“I wanted to play for Matlama (but) when their youth team stopped playing I went to Arsenal,” he says.
Maipato’s talent had slipped through Matlama’s fingers and when Bishop Molatoli formed Likhopo in 1999 Chico was the first recruit — his prized asset.
It was in fact Maipato who recruited many of the players that would turn out for Likhopo.
Playing with a refreshing swagger Likhopo effortlessly won promotion from the B-Division in 2000/01 and then followed it up by winning the A-Division the next year.
But before Likhopo joined the Premier League’s ranks Maipato, Neo Makama and his close friend Katleho Moleko joined Pirates.
His finest moment was in 2005 when Maipato was part of the Lesotho national under-20 team which qualified for the CAF African Youth Championships in Benin — a side that was 90 minutes away from reaching the 2005 Fifa Under-20 World Cup.
“Qualifying for that tournament was very hard because it’s not every country that gets there,” Maipato says.
The 2005 Makoanyane XI side was only Lesotho’s second ever team, after the 1989 under-20 vintage, to qualify for a major international tournament.
No side has done so since.
Then in July 2007 Lesotho, with the same group of players, reached the semi-finals of the now extinct SASOL Eight Nations Under-23 tournament in South Africa before losing to Cameroon.
That year, according to Maipato, was the last time he was at his best.
So what is next for Maipato?
“When I came back home I just wanted to cool down and clear my head,” he says.
“I wanted to take a break so I can go to school next year.
“But Bantu approached me and I agreed to play for them.
Maipato says he’s under pressure to relive his best years.
“I would say there’s a lot of pressure especially for me because I’m well known from the past,” he says.
“So for me I think there is a bit of extra pressure.”
But will Maipato ever be “Chico” again? 
“I think I can get back to that level,” he says.
“It is you as the player who tells yourself whether you want to return to that level or not.”

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