For the last 20 years, Tshepo ‘Talk Talk’ Motlhabankwe has been an ever present in local football, with many managers building their team around the versatile star.
The 38-year-old Digawana native announced his retirement at the end of last season – a season which saw the Township Rollers stalwart walk away with a fourth consecutive Botswana Premier League (BPL) winner’s medal, his seventh overall.
Although he preferred playing in midfield, “Talk Talk’ could play anywhere in the back four, making him one of the most adaptable footballers the country has ever produced.
With close to 100 caps for the National Team, Motlhabankwe became the talk of the town back in 2005 when his late goal secured a 3-1 victory over Malawi – the Zebras first ever away win in a World Cup qualifier.
He was also an integral part of the squad that qualified for the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) back in 2012.
The Voice’s Portia Mlilo sat down with the softly-spoken, slightly shy footballing legend to look back on his career and what the future holds for one of the country’s favourite sporting sons.
Q. When did you start playing football?
A. You will be surprised if I tell you that I never went through proper football development structures but ended up being a professional player!
I was a runner at school and played Table Tennis, I was even the captain for Nthwalang JSS.
In 1997, when I was doing Form 3, my father started a football team called DACARA.
The team did not have enough players so he asked me to join and I impressed many during the Christmas tournament.
Two years later, when I was doing Form 5 at Lobatse Senior School, we were coached by the current Security Systems Coach, Chico Nare.
In 2000 I joined Gunners, got exposure and was eventually called up to the national team.
Q. What are some of the high and lowlights of your football career?
A. I would say when I joined Zebras. That was the greatest achievement and every player’s dream because you became an ambassador for your nation.
I was part of the team that qualified and represented the country at AFCON.
I played against professional players and learn a lot. When I was at Mochudi Centre Chiefs, I was very instrumental.
The club won three league titles in 2008, 2012 and 2013 – something I had not experienced when I was at Gunners.
That was a great moment!
Lowlights I would say I am disappointed that I have never won any individual award yet I was active for two decades.
Q. Who was your inspiration?
A. My late uncle Patrick Chencha Mogale taught me to play this game.
He was a good player also – it is just that during his day they did not get exposure to professional clubs and they were only playing in the village for entertainment.
When I started, he advised me that if someone passes the ball to me I should kick it forward and after a while he told me to hold it.
He was very patient with me and I believe he made me love the sport.
I am what I am today because of him.
May His Soul Rest in Eternal Peace.
Q. Was it a difficult decision to hang up your boots?
A. It was a painful moment because football is my life.
I was playing for a team with lots of talented youngsters and I thought I should give them space.
Joining another team was going to be very difficult because they would expect miracles from me.
My intention was to play until I turned 40 but I realised it was too far, I needed to retire and focus on other things.
Q. What makes a good footballer?
A. Confidence and passion.
You need to love it because that is when you can achieve a lot.
They always say a player should be disciplined on and off the field but you can have the best player who doesn’t have manners.
When you are a player your life is controlled by your fans, so you have to behave like a role model.
Q. With the current squad, do you think Botswana can qualify for CHAN?
A. Batswana sometimes behave like a country that once qualified for the World Cup!
It takes years to build a team. During our time when we qualified for AFCON, we played together for about six years.
I think recently our team does not get enough support.
When a team loses, we disperse them and for the next competition we call a new squad and fire the coach.
This will not take us anywhere!
When Coach Vassalin Jelusic and Rowe coached us they said our team can be good after five years and it happened, we qualified.
I think they are a talented squad and we should give them time.
They also need to control their lives outside football, that is the only problem.
They are too excited or maybe it’s because they are getting paid and we were volunteers?
Q. Any decision you regret in your football career?
A. I was once offered a contract at FC Cape Town and I turned it down.
That was the biggest mistake ever.
The salary was little compared to what I was earning at Chiefs but I regret because if I had accepted it, it could have opened further doors for me with big clubs.
When I declined, I thought the owner of the club would increase the offer.
Unfortunately it did not happen!
Mogogi Gabonamong was at Santos and advised me to sign.
I was with Pontsho Moloi and we decided to come back to Chiefs.
When I was at Gunners in 2004 I left to Pretoria for trials at Swallows and when I got there I was told to go for trials at SuperSport.
When I was training there it was Pitso Mosimane and Madigaga but after a week Mosimane went to coach Bafana Bafana before we could finalise.
The new coach Gavin Hunt was not interested in signing me and I came back home.
Q. Many young footballers are accused of being womanisers and heavy drinkers – what is your take on that?
A. That is what cuts the careers of many short.
Football is a hectic sport and you cannot do alcohol and girls at the same time.
The two demand energy and football.
O a kgauthana (You will get tired) and lose focus.
You will not be able to play until my age.
When you are famous, not focused, you will get tempted.
Women will throw themselves at you and you have to control yourself!
Q. Much of your last season at Rollers was spent on the bench. Would you say you leave the club feeling fulfilled?
A. No. I had wanted to quit football playing full time, not coming in as a sub in most games or even sitting on the bench for the full 90 minutes.
I am a frustrated man and the other reason I retired is because of sitting on the bench the whole season.
I never started any game or played more than 20 minutes this season.
Last season I played league games and CAF and Nikola rested me so the new coach put me on bench the whole season.
It is painful to see a player not training and given an opportunity to play while I never miss training.
We could have finished this season earlier winning the league with a much bigger margin.
Q. After 20 years on the football pitch, what’s next?
A. Life is tough out there.
I am a Tenderpreneur doing Construction and Supplies and I service car batteries when owners renew their registrations.
I have been doing it for years but I did not have much time as I was focused on my football career.
Now I have enough time and there are other things I am working on and negotiations with financers are at an advance stage.
I have a team at Digawana, which I am working on registering as a company and affiliate to Botswana Football Association.
My future plans are having a football academy because we have talent in our region.
I don’t want to be a coach because I am a reserved person and I don’t talk a lot but I can be a good coach because I know how to read the game when playing or on the bench.
My friend, Nayang, has organised a ‘Talk Talk Farewell Tournament’ on the 6th of July as a way of saying thank you to my fans.
I will play three games for Digawana Breed, Gunners Former Players and Zebras X-Players against PV Monko Club.
Q. What message can you give to upcoming players?
A. My advice is that they should not join football for fun. Football can change your life.
Be passionate about this sport and be disciplined, you will see the results!
Q. Finally, Thank God it’s Friday, what are your plans for the weekend?
A. It is AFCON time so Friday I will be watching TV.
On Saturday I will be travelling home because our social club Digawana Breed will be playing on Sunday against a team from Ramotswa.
Franco will also be there, one of my favourite musicians, so it is going to be lit!