NEW LEOPARD SPOTS
If you can't beat them, join them!
So the saying goes.
Well, not Thabiso Hlalele. He is not your conventional player who follows the norm.
The 26-year-old from Botshabelo in Free State surely deserves a place in some form of history book, not only sports.
Hlalele is on the books of relegated Jomo Cosmos after being signed from another relegated team, Black Leopards, at the beginning of the 2008/09 season.
Both teams are now campaigning in the National First Division's inland stream.
What sets Hlalele apart from your "normal" professional football player?
Well, he is a rare breed. One of a kind.
In their last game of the past season, Cosmos needed a win to at least feature in the play-offs that would determine the team that would join Maritzburg United in the Absa Premiership.
Leopards were 15th on the log while Ezenkosi were languishing at the bottom of the 16-team league.
They were both in big trouble, facing the dreaded chop.
Both had their hopes on at least a play-off spot that gives the last but one team another chance of fighting for their elite status.
Off they went to Orkney Stadium in North West on a Wednesday afternoon to settle the matter.
It was tense. The air was thick with anticipation.
The stadium was not full. But, those who were there were very vocal.
But this game was different. Not your ordinary Premier Soccer League game between the two. Here it was a matter of survival.
As Bill Shankly, former Liverpool manager, once said it was not a question of life and death, it was more important than that.
A lot was at stake.
Not only was the PSL's monthly grant of a R1million plus going to be lost, but families and their futures were involved here. Some players were breadwinners and had a lot to play for.
It was with this in mind that Ezenkosi and Lidoda Duvha took to the field in the scorching sun at the James Motlatsi cauldron.
Leopards were deemed coachless then as Shepherd Murape had been sidelined amid misinformation and blatant lies.
Joel Masutha was in charge.
That Cosmos eventually lost that game 2-0 is now history.
It is what happened and what followed that's intriguing.
Myron Shongwe, who is now with Amazulu, scored the first goal and put Cosmos on the backfoot.
Jomo Sono's boys saw red and fought back.
While for some time it had seemed they would come back and snatch a miraculous victory, the soccer gods had other ideas.
Those ideas were in the form of Hlalele, who had been uneasily warming the bench.
He was brought in in the second half. At this stage Cosmos were taking the game to Leopards but were caught on the counter.
Jabulani Maluleke came tearing down the left and passed on to Shongwe who had Hlalele running on the blind side.
A deft pass from Shongwe was met first time by the nippy Hlalele who sent Avril Phali the wrong way, sealing a by then priceless victory for Leopards.
He had scored with his first touch and Cosmos were not going to come back from that.
And so it was. Ezenkosi bid the Premiership goodbye, while Leopards were to live to fight another day.
Leopards could, however, not negotiate their way back as they lost out in the play-offs and Bay United gained promotion.
Now, after beating Cosmos, Hlalele has joined them.
How does that happen?
"Because I want to help them regain their professional status. I am here to help Cosmos go back where they belong, the elite league," says Hlalele.
"I still had a contract with Leopards until 2010 but I requested a transfer after relegation. I was eventually placed on the transfer list after convincing the club's management why I had to move."
Hlalele says he had offers from some teams in the PSL but they had failed to meet his financial demands. He did not want to mention names.
"Then Bra J called. We met, agreed on terms and I signed a one-year contract because my aim is a quick return to the PSL, hopefully with Cosmos."
But, he was the reason why Cosmos are now in the first division.
To that he says: "I was angry seating on the bench and wanted to prove that I deserved to play. It is every player's wish and dream to be on the field when their team plays, not on the bench or stands."
Hlalele believes they had a good team at Leopards and that the only reason they were relegated was because of the chopping and changing of coaches.
"It takes time for both the new coach and the players to get to know and understand one another. While we did our best, it was not easy to adjust to new methods every time we changed coaches. We were also unlucky at times but I had a good time at the club and left with fond memories."
But now that is all over and Hlalele just wants to play football for Ezenkosi.
"Our first game was great. We beat Witbank Spurs 1-0 and are ready for the tough war ahead. At the moment I won't talk too much as I want to do the talking on the field of play. While we are training hard, we also know that in this game you also need a good dose of luck," he concludes.