Goodbye John Shoes Moshoeu

The writer recalls his admiration for the South African midfielder, John Moshoeu, who passed away on April 21, 2015.

Photo Credit: Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Though Shoes Moshoeu and I never met in real life, when I was young he handed me his name and shared his memories with me. If he played well, the admiration rubbed on me. This is not true, the part about him handing his name down to me, it was given to me by an older soccer player in my village. Growing up people supposed we shared a similar playing style. I was never however disillusioned about the inaccuracies of that supposition. Shoes was always the player that I aspired to be but also knew that this was impossible because to achieve this I would have to on the field dribble, think and make the runs he made. In that department I was more like Doctor Khumalo, skilful and a good passer but lacked the speed at which Shoes moved on the field, gliding across like a dancer on stage with movements that because of their cohesion appear to have been rehearsed far too many times and yet are still confusing to the opponent.

There was also the jittery right foot of Shoes, the swinging waist, appearing detached from his entire body. Watching it, one felt as if they were being deceived in some magic trick, one could never tell what he was about to do. The only similarities that Shoes and I might have shared is the absence of mind, the ability zone out of the match and be somewhere else entirely and then arise, causing mayhem to the defence, when they least expect it. Shoes succeeded in doing this more effectively than I did. For him, it was recharging, even predetermining the movements of the opponent and knowing where to penetrate them. On my part, it was the sheer competence of a player who got tired far too quickly and was lazy to run.

Soccer nicknames are however tricky in that there is sometimes no logical reason in earning them. There is a difference between one loud person calling you Shoes and you actually playing like him.

I had played proudly with the nickname of Shoes attached to me for a long time before I saw Shoes Moshoeu play. Before this, I had mimicked him, crafted his skills, passing, scoring and running from radio commentary. Unlike TV, where one has their own perspective of the match and how players are moving on the pitch, radio offers one the imaginative perspective which is somewhat better I think. One can imagine a player running the entire field for the 90 minutes. Even after a soccer match concludes, radio commentary stays with you, not to be argued against, not to be disputed but to be relished and cherished. The first time I saw Shoes play is still clear as if it had happened yesterday.

My home had no TV and watching TV elsewhere in the three homes that had them in the villages was 50c and this I could not afford. The day I saw Shoes began as all weekend begin in villages, a cock wakes up everyone, mornings are for milking goats and cattle and then playing soccer the whole day whilst keeping an eye on the animals as they graze below the river and ascending the mountain as the day passes.

On the day, we were walking to the mountain in the afternoon to collect cattle and we walked on the main path in front of houses. One of the houses that had a TV, running on battery as there was no electricity then, Chiefs was playing Swallows and they had the door open. I remember two things about this, a door slamming in my face and the unfamiliar sight of Shoes Moshoeu running in the same place, almost backwards. I had not seen much TV and had never seen soccer on TV at all, watching this match, the five minutes before we screamed and the door slammed in our faces, was the first time that I had seen a soccer match. Shoes Moshoeu was not the first player I saw but he is the first player that I watched running. Then I did not know how TV works or the mechanism of TV transmitting, so the sight of Shoes Moshoue, a player that I had imagined from the radio commentary to run like wind, appearing to be running in the same place, almost backwards was disappointing.

The rest of our journey was us screaming about the soccer match, imagining what was happening then, and if someone had scored. Though I never said anything, I thought about the image of Shoes I had made from radio commentary and the image of him on TV, bewildered by the contradiction. I later watched more TV and Shoes had not slowed down, in fact he was running faster, playing as skilfully and cleverly as radio had made me imagine, except now every run and skill was captured on video.

Back in the villages, playing soccer was the only sport at our disposal, you either played soccer or did not play any sport. I played soccer all day, never got hungry, tired. I played as Shoes, never was as good, but nevertheless, the majority of us then watched TV infrequently and inadvertently I became the less better Shoes Moshoeu that people heard about on radio even when though I played my own game.

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