TIEKIE has always been better.

No. Correction. Better suggests a comparison.

Former Moroka Swallows star Joseph Rapelego was in a league of his own from as early as German Tigers, the amateur side in Kagiso on the West Rand.

This much is echoed by none other than talent scout supremo Jomo Sono, who said: "He had something that other players did not have, which was that rare ability to entertain and bring fans to the stadium."

For your average talent, entry into the Dube Birds in the late 1980s was akin to a flight into the hornet's nest.

Not so for the gifted ball juggler who made a place in the starting line-up under the mentorship of such greats as Eddie Lewis as personal as a birthright.

Another beautiful Bird, Andries "Chaka-Chaka" Mpondo, who in later life would also eke out a living as a warder at Krugersdorp Prison alongside Rapelego, recalls their playing days thus: "As a player, he was brilliant."

One memory comes to mind for Mpondo, who worked the belly of the field with Rapelego - against Mamelodi Sundowns: "We beat them 5-1 in the Bobsave Super Bowl final in 1989. Although he did not score, Rapelego tormented Sundowns and was our best player that day."

A picture that will stay embedded in the collective memory of the Swallows soccer fan is one of Rapelego - Manelo to the maroon and white faithful - in full flight, the left hand knotted into a ball of concentration.

When he stopped playing professionally after more than a decade of endearing himself to the hearts of many, he took up employment as a jailer.

A week before his sad demise, he had gathered at Toekomsrus, also on the West Rand, with the creme de la creme of his peers, to mark the launch of the western chapter of the South African Soccer Legends (SASL).

Still a picture of good health at 43, he cut a suave figure in the SASL-issue suit. An introvert who socialised with a small circle of friends, none of those gathered here - among them Kenneth "The Horse" Mokgojoa, Joseph "Banks" Setlhodi, Vincent "Lastborn" Makroti, William Bareki Lerefolo - could have guessed that in a few days, Manelo would be gone. Too soon, no doubt.

Asked for a thought on the alleged suicide, former Orlando Pirates strongman Toy "Digger Jazz" Ramosa, who virtually raised Manelo, having lived three houses away from the Rapelegos, could only shake his head in disbelief.

The SASL's raison d'etre is to impart their skills to the youth. Had they known who the fallen hero was, the youth could rightly cry "We Wuz Robbed" by his death.

But those of us who were lucky enough to have been dazzled by his wizardry can only borrow from the lyrics of Chico Twala's song - We Miss You Manelo (Where Are You?)

A great man has passed and this Nomathemba and their two children - Tebogo and Rethabile - know very well.

All Swallows can do - more out of sympathy for the current crop of players than respect for Manelo - is to retire the Number 21 jersey.

Rapelego will be buried tomorrow at Kagiso Cemetery. The service starts at 8am at the Kagiso Hall.

The cortege will leave at 11am.