Defensive star awaits Pirates

[caption id="attachment_71583" align="alignright" width="270"] POWERFUL DEFENDER: Kaizer Chiefs defender Tsepo Masilela in full flight Picture: GALLO IMAGES -[/caption]

Chiefs’ Masilela has even marked Ronaldo

LET US make this very clear: no one passes Tsepo Masilela.

Not even Cristiano Ronaldo.

Bafana Bafana’s second-best left-back after David Nyathi – perhaps even better defensively – has had one of his best and, importantly, most injury-free seasons in the gold of Kaizer Chiefs, starting every league match but one.

That perfection in defence and those trademark overlapping runs were a key cog in the Chiefs machine that went 19 matches unbeaten from the start of the season.

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s Absa Premiership Soweto derby against Orlando Pirates at the FNB Stadium, Masilela was humble about his form.

“It’s difficult because I’m not a player to give credit to myself. I’m a team player,” he said.

“But I can say, ja, I had a good first half of the season. It’s not over yet, so I can’t say it’s one of my best.”

South Africans identify Masilela, 29, with his term on loan to Getafe in Spain, but the player sees his more injury-free period in Israel as his peak.

“I had a season where I had plusminus 15 assists. But because people here don’t know about Israel, which doesn’t get televised here, they don’t realise that. I won two championships in Israel, and was twice a loser in the cup final. And I played Champions League. In Spain I was troubled by injuries so it’s been a roller-coaster of a career.

“In Israel I played about three seasons almost injury-free, and for the national team travelling up and down. Maybe that’s how my body started to give in. You play qualifiers, you prepare for the Confederations Cup, the World Cup, you have no off-season. Plus there was big pressure on all of us going into the World Cup.

“Not being part of the national team, I’ve had off-seasons and time to recover – it’s made the difference.”

In Spain, Masilela famously marked Ronaldo with credit at the Bernabeu. It was a remarkable sequence of events that led to him walking out onto that famous field.

“From Maccabi Haifa I was supposed to go to Leicester City in the Championship. The deal fell through when they signed Paul Konchesky from Liverpool just before the transfer window closed. I couldn’t go back to Haifa, because they’d filled their foreign quota.

“I was stuck and hadn’t played a match for about three months because of knee surgery. I was going to train with Moroka Swallows, until I got a call, saying we have something for you in Spain. I was like, ‘Are you guys for real – La Liga?’.

“I flew there, did my medicals, trained for a week. In my mind I was thinking maybe they would give me a month then play me.

“The first league game I was on the bench. The left-back got injured in the first half. I played and it was televised on SuperSport so my family got to watch. The next game was Real.”

The Madrid game, Barcelona and Lionel Messi at the Nou Camp, and the 2010 World Cup opening match against Mexico at the FNB Stadium are career highlights not many footballers can tick off from a to-do list. Masilela lists his Soweto derbies right up there with them. All part of a long road travelled from his beginnings in the pale blue of Benoni Premier United in the mid-2000s.

Masilela does not dwell any more on the irony that, after a European career cut short by being injuryprone, he has finally found fluent fitness at home.

This from a player who could have been more recognised as one of the best left-backs in Africa of the past 10 years if his overseas career had been prolonged.

-Marc Strydom