From Durban, to Jozi, to Oulu: How Ryan Botha carved a unique path to Europe

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Ryan Botha Moroka Swallows
Retired South African footballer Ryan Botha speaks on his nomadic journey that saw him go on trial with Manchester United as a 17-year-old

Ask a follower of South African football and there’s a fairly good chance they will tell you that they do not know who Ryan Botha is. This may be down to Botha's short-lived career as a professional footballer, but with that, is a story worth a thousand words.

Ryan Botha spent eight years in Europe where he featured mostly in the Veikkausliiga. He later featured in the Turkish Super Lig for Danzilspor and also featured in the Uefa Super Cup before making his return to South Africa to join Thanda Royal Zulu. He also turned out for Moroka Swallow where he scored what would go down as one of the greatest strikes in the PSL history, and later Platinum Stars.

He hung up his boots six months into an unsuccessful spell with Vasco Da Gama in the National First Division, putting an end to a nomadic career that has taken him to Oulu, Paralimni, Myllykoski, Johannesburg and Denizli.

Most certainly, Botha is not the first South African to spend time playing abroad, but what makes his tale an interesting one is the unique manner in which he carved his journey.

Blistering pace, a sweet left foot which also packed a powerful shot and his impressive strength are some of Botha's qualities that saw him court the attention of Manchester United from as early as 16-years.

Ryan Botha interview resized

"I obviously come from Durban, but I have always known that Johannesburg is a hub for professional soccer players. In other cities, it's difficult to come through so I had to make the move," Botha told Goal.

"At 16, I had Fulham watching me and I didn't realise it because I was a youngster playing first-team football for Stella FC, an amateur side from Durban.

"But at the club, was another agent who had spoken to Manchester United about having me over for trial.

"So, when I was 17 in 1998, I went to Man United for a trial and I trained there for three weeks which was amazing. They offered me to come back for a second assessment and a possible offer for a junior contract.

"I went back there but there were difficulties with a South African passport."


As you would imagine, upon his return from the Leigh Sports Village, Botha and Dillon Sheppard had been the most spoken about talents in Kwa-Zulu Natal. To no surprise, he walked straight into the Natal U/20 side that was to play a tournament in Pretoria.

"So, when I returned back home I was pushed to the U/20's Natal team which was playing in Pretoria. I had missed the trials because I was in Manchester.  At the tournament, I scored a few goals there and while I walked into the bathroom, I met Glyn Binkin.

"And I signed with Glyn and Gareth Bloomberg back then, they took me back to AmaZulu where I stayed for three months but never signed a contract.

"Glyn then got on the phone and arranged me a move to SuperSport where it was really tough as we were fighting relegation. I was still a young player and had just moved from home.  So again, Glyn moved me around to Wits. But as I got to Wits, Jomo Sono called Wits and asked them to lend me for a tournament in Italy.

"I got on a plane as a player signed by Wits but on a plane to Italy with Jomo Cosmos. It was one of the best youth tournaments in the world and again I played without knowing the scale of the tournament, and from there I had opportunities to go to join a club in Italy, an Austria Vienna in Austria and a team in Finland.

"The team called FC Tervarit in Finland was back then owned by Dick De Jong and Glyn advised me it is better to go to a team in Finland because it is a better developing ground. So, as we landed back in the country, Jomo had already bought me from Wits and I trained with Cosmos for three months while he finalised the deal.

"It was such a journey with all happening in 18 months.

Glyn Binkin Agent during the 2016 Nedbank Cup Keyona Ring of Steel Launch on 19 April 2016 at Urban Brews Studios

Glyn Binkin, former agent of Ryan Botha

Botha eventually made his long-anticipated move to Oulu to join Tervarit. From growing up in the relatively humid Durban temperature with a majestic deep blue ocean, white foam, golden sand, shimmering sunlight and summer sky beating down on his exposed body clobbered with sunscreen, he now had to endure the air as a frozen lace on his skin, delicate and cold, like winter waves on sallow sand.

In some moments he had to watch his boots over the frozen sidewalk, perfect concrete slabs, flat and square, and in others transfixed to the interplay of cloud and sun above.

"I remember walking towards the traffic lights one morning, I had just seen the sun, but I had to stop a little and try to feel if I still had toes," Botha reflects on his early days in Oulu.

"Literally, the sun would come out early morning and at about 10:00 am, it would be gone again."

Ryan Botha Moroka Swallows

Despite his relatively young age at the time, he insists he saw the move as an opportunity to draw closer to his dream of playing for his childhood favourite club, Liverpool.

"I took that as a challenge as I felt it was great for my career."

"The team I signed for were knocked out of the Uefa Cup by Liverpool, a childhood dream team of mine, the season before I signed.

"So I saw it as an opportunity, to draw closer to my dreams.

"In South Africa, myself and Dillon Shepard were highly spoken of in Durban and in ‘Joburg’, I didn't really know what to expect and so I never got my break, so I couldn't find my feet.

"And going to Finland, I took it a step closer to realising my dream of playing for Liverpool.  It was tough, never got to see the sun in three months and it was always freezing but there was always hope and I also enjoyed my time there and football was competitive and great.

"It was good developing ground for me.

"It also gave me a leap to fall back into South African football. From that I got an invite to the national U20 and that took a lot from my agent because nobody had known about me, so every time I scored a goal, he had to get a tape and send it to the national team coach up until the day they gave me my break and I scored a brace against Algeria for the national U23."  

Ryan Botha (R) and Saku Puhakainen (back) from Myllykosken vie with Sylvain Monsoreau (L) from Sochaux, during their first round UEFA Cup match, 15 October 2003 in Sochaux

On 1 September 2004, Botha signed for Denizlispor in the Super Lig but his stay in Turkey was short-lived owing to injuries. His desperation to play for Bafana Bafana - with the 2010 World Cup also drawing closer-  saw him opt to move back home to increase his chances of being Selected for Bafana.

"When I got to Turkey I played four or five games and did really well to get one of the bigger clubs' attention.

"It was a funny situation because initially, they wanted to give me a three year contract, but my agent wanted a one-year contract with an option for renewal because he thought the way I was playing, one year would propel me to another club and with England being my ideal destination, my thoughts were set there because I also wanted to represent South Africa.

"But I picked up a bad injury at training, blew my knee and that cut my stay short. It came at a time where Stuart Baxter was giving me a look in.

Stuart Baxter on Ryan Botha

Baxter, who has since returned to the helm as Bafana coach for his second stint, still has a startling memory of the now 38-year-old winger.

“There is a lot of players abroad who represent South Africa without that much of recognition because they are not playing in La Liga, they are not playing in the Premier League,” Baxter said.

“Ryan was one of those unsung soldiers that did a great professional job, and I know about this because I was there as well.

“And [he] had very little or no recognition at all and it’s good to see that maybe after the fact he will get some recognition for not being one of those South Africans who goes abroad and drinks too much and make the rest of the footballing world look sideways at South African football. Ryan was not one of those and for that, he should be applauded.”

However, Baxter feels that Botha’s decision to return home from Turkey was somewhat premature.

“I think it will always be a question [whether Botha came back home too early],” he added.

“I don't know [if he came back home too early] because I am not Ryan, he made his decision.

“But it’s a little bit of luck and a little bit of timing. I feel he could’ve looked in a different direction and tried to move to a higher league. 

“His decision was to come back and give it a go. He obviously felt strongly that he wanted to represent his country on home soil, but I can’t say if it was the right or wrong decision.

“But he could’ve, if the timing had been right, because, at one point, he was playing very well in Finland. 

“So, if the timing had been right I am sure he could’ve moved on to an even better league.”

He then returned to South Africa and signed with Thanda Royal Zulu in 2007/08, playing regularly for the KwaZulu-Natal club, but a subsequent transfer to Moroka Swallows proved a disaster with just five league starts in two seasons.

"At Thanda, I played under Roger Palmgren, and I played really well and scored some really good goals. But with that, I found it very challenging to how the game was played here, I was still used to the more direct European way and so I struggled a bit reading the local game but Palmgren being a Swedish coach, helped me find my stride.

"Leon Prins then brought me over to Swallows hoping for the similar impact but the coach then, Julio Leal, just never liked me.

"To his credit, he was very honest with me and told me my style of play was too European and he wanted more of tag-tac with the ball and so he used me as an impact player, which also went well.

"I remember when we played against Celtic, I scored what would be voted the goal of the season and create the other and drew that game 2-2."

"But him telling me that my style of play is too European was devastating, everybody wants to play an educated style of football. In South Africa, our players are very skilful and coaches like that, with me, I would always look for that pass behind the defence because, in Europe, that is a commodity.

"Our players want to hold on to the ball and 'jiga'.

Ryan Botha Moroka Swallows winning winning absa-lutley awesome goal PSL 2008/2009

Things did not get any better in 2010/11 at Stars, where he left having made just a single substitute appearance all campaign, and after a reported spat with then coach Owen Da Gama, Botha left the club.

"Professional footballers have always had that belief and desire and you never want to mess around because the career is so short.

"If you are playing and earning so much money, there's some sort of due diligence that you owe to the game of football. Football will always be there, but the player won’t always be there.

"So, I think, if you are wearing a jersey, you always put your best and you give your utmost.

"Eddie Lewis could see my frustration, he came up to me one day and asked me why am I frustrated?

"I said, coach, I just want to play. Week in, week out and my goal was to get to the world cup and I haven't got that.

"He then said, for any relative footballer, it’s not about how many games you play a season, it's about how many seasons you play as a professional.

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"And that expression hit home to me because it didn't make sense how I didn't play, how Dillon Shepard and OJ Mabizela didn't play. It was an unfortunate incident because the coach at Platinum Stars, whom I joined after the World Cup, drained every inch of football passion out of me, to a point I couldn't keep it inside and it's where I decide to call my time on football."

And after many years away from football, and the now 37-year-old is back in the game as a coach alongside friend and business partner Neil Winstanley, the duo recently sealed Nova National's qualification to the 2019 edition of the U19 Metropolitan Premier Cup