‘Team has proven the trainer right’

During the first weeks of this season, he was the surprising link in coach Frank de Boer’s team: Thulani Serero. A red card in the match against Heerenveen and a lingering groin injury have been a thorn in the side of the 23 year old South African. However, another national championship for the man who has come from far away would be well-deserved: from a hard life in the Soweto ghetto, from bitter poverty.

When Siem de Jong hopefully raises Ajax’s third consecutive championship trophy, it won’t only be a reward for the steady core of squad players who have brought Eredivisie dominance back to the team in the last few months, and coach Frank de Boer, and his technical and medical staff. It will just as much be the victory of many others, such as the focus of this story, Thulani Caleb Serero.

At the beginning of last year, Serero earned a leading role – both positive and negative. The South African opened the score in the away match against Heerenveen, and scored Ajax’s second goal soon after the break. Barely five minutes later, he tried to prevent a threatening breakaway with a tackle on Filip Djuricic, but this was a failure. Serero missed the ball and the Serbian Heerenveen player slid with two legs out. One suspension and three weeks on, Serero returned to the team for the away match against ADO Den Haag, but his return would prove to be a short one. After just twenty minutes, Ajax’s then top scorer needed to be substituted due to a groin injury. His recovery would take four months, and, just as if often happens in these situations, other players made the most of this opportunity.

Since he’s become fit again and returned from the Africa Cup in February, Serero has had to content himself with substituting in the first team and playing matches with Jong Ajax. “Of course I’d love for things to be different, but this team has done right by the coach in these past few months. The only thing that matters now is winning the championship. Yes, the title will also be mine, that’s how I’ll experience it. Despite the fact that I haven’t played as much as I would have liked to, I still feel that I’ve made a substantial contribution.”

Serero hopes that he will start next season in a comparable way as he started this one, and obviously to continue like that for the entire season. Much will depend on his fitness. “My first season here has been a learning experience, although in a different way than I wanted” he says in soft English. “I’ve actually been struggling all year because I wanted too much, trained to hard, without listening to my body and I wanted to play football too soon. I should have built it up more slowly, I can see that now. But as a young player, I didn’t have much basis for comparison. You can’t draw on your own experience. That’s what I’m trying to do now. The fact that things went so well at the beginning of this season is due to the fact that I learned so much from the previous season.”

Of course, it makes a difference that he’s been able to get used to life in Europe, to being a football player in Amsterdam. The contrast with ‘home’ is quite big. Serero was born in 1990, a few months after Nelson Mandela was freed from prison on Robben Island, and South Africa slowly started to become a different country. He grew up in Soweto, the South Western Townships near Johannesburg under difficult circumstances. The bitter poverty around him, the violence on the streets: all of this made Serero hard. “I’m a kid from the ghetto”, he says, describing his roots, not without pride. “We played football on the street. There wasn’t much else to do.”

Serero said that he learned some important lessons during that time. “They always say that the strongest survive. But that’s not always the case in Soweto. There, you need to be smart and make the right decisions. There are many temptations, mistakes you can make as a young kid which can taint your whole life. I’ve lost enough friends to crime, and especially to drugs. The fact that I stayed away from all of that is mostly due to the fact that I was afraid of my parents, who were very strict. As a kid I was sometimes naughty, but I knew what would be waiting for me at home if I really messed up. That helped me through. That, plus playing football.”

Playing football brought him to Europe after several successful years with Ajax Cape Town. He was ready for the next step in his career, to play football at a higher level. “In South Africa I had won all individual prizes that you can win as a football player. Talent of the year, player of the year, you name it. Winning the championship with your team would have been the only reason to stay. But although football is obviously a team sport, as a football player, sometimes you need to dare to choose yourself.”