South Africa witnessed a breath-taking talent when Mbulelo Mabizela joined Orlando Pirates from Maritzburg City back in 2001. The youngster ‘Old John’, as he is famously known within the soccer fraternity, hit the ground running for the Buccaneers.
Mabizela received a national team call-up to make his Bafana Bafana debut in 2001 against Egypt. He became the country's youngest ever football captain, aged 21, in a match against Trinidad and Tobago in 2003.
The Pietermaritzburg-born defender was known for his calmness on the ball, coupled with good ball distribution – a truly modern centre-back. He went on to join English Premiership side Tottenham Hotspur, where he scored a cracker on his debut. Despite all his troubles, when he was at his best he was the pride of the nation.
Fast forward to 2015 and South African football fans are experiencing another emerging talent in Kaizer Chiefs defender Lorenzo Gordinho. The 21-year-old comes from the Amakhosi developmental structures, and already is showing glimpses of brilliance.
Since Mabizela, we have not really seen a South African central defender that can truly combine a strong physical presence with good technical ability and natural footballing intelligence. Granted, it is early to start making definite comparisons between the two, but Gordinho definitely has the potential to grow into a Mabizela-like defender.
At the end of last season then Chiefs captain Tefu Mashamaite left the club to ply his trade in Europe, a move that has opened the doors for Gordinho at Amakhosi. Last season already, it was ‘Masha’ who was publicly touting Gordinho for big things, but fans were not so convinced. In fact, up until his recent performances, he wasn’t even given a chance by most.
He was named Absa Premiership man of the match for two consecutive tough games, against Bidvest Wits last year, and recently against Mamelodi Sundowns. Showing his calmness on the ball, and good distribution. These two performances struck a strong resemblance to those of Mabizela at his peak.
It is still early to conclude that Gordinho can live up to ‘Old John’s’ level. But from the evidence at hand, it looks like he might well grow into the kind of a centre-back that dictates play from very deep in the field. Very few defenders around the world have the ability to be the initiators of an attack. Mabizela was that kind of player, and it looks like Gordinho could be too. Against Sundowns, the Benoni-born star showed small glimpses of that brilliance. Instead of kicking the ball forward, or only passing to his fellow defenders, he was breaking it through the middle to the feet of Willard Katsande.
Since Itumeleng Khune rise, the Glamour Boys’ development system has barely produced a youngster to write home about. But it seems like they might have finally produced one in Gordinho.
His calmness on the ball and his clear ability to cope with the pressure of massive games sets him apart from other defenders. The big-match-temperament he showed against Pirates, Sundowns and Wits is a really good sign for Amakhosi fans. When Ivan Bukenya, Morgan Gould and even Eric Mathoho buckled under the pressure in those games, he stood firm.
Gordinho is yet to reach the level that Mabizela was at his age at the time, however, with every game that he plays, he seems to get better.
Despite his off the field issues, Mabizela is arguably one of the best centre-backs the country has ever witnessed. Unfortunately he did not live up to his full potential. Although Gordinho hasn’t burst onto the scene in the same way ‘OJ’ did, he seems to have all the right attributes to turn into a top, top centre-back.