By Briar Napier
COLUMBIA, Sept 25 (Columbia Missourian) – Any questions about how valuable Mako Makoanyane and Lesia Thetsane are to Columbia College men’s soccer were answered on August 28 in Omaha, Nebraska.
The then No. 20-ranked Cougars were neck-in-neck in a scoreless match vs. the then-No. 15 Bellevue Bruins on a neutral pitch at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
CC had more than doubled the Bruins in shot attempts for the game as it remained even late into the second half, with the Bellevue defense holding firm and preventing the Cougars from breaking the deadlock.
As the clock reached roughly 15 minutes remaining, Makoanyane utilized his lockdown defensive skills to snatch a pass from a Bellevue player. Doing what he’s done countless times playing soccer in Lesotho and in the United States with two different colleges, he ran.
He ran with the high-energy motor that propels him and the legs that perform clean tackles more often than not. He ran like he had done constantly in training sessions in his native country where, only playing once a week compared to multiple times a week in college soccer, his only coaching was to run.
On this instance, he ran roughly 25 to 30 yards in space, speeding away from defenders behind him and making defenders in front of him make a split-second decision on how to stop him. He ran, and he ran and he ran.
Until he stopped. Not because he wanted to, though: a Bellevue defender had tackled him poorly just outside the 18-yard box, setting up a free kick in prime territory for the Cougars in the 76th minute.
That’s where Thetsane stepped in. He stood over the stationary soccer ball, his rocket of a left foot that frequently tests opposing goalkeepers from long range lined up and ready to strike. He’s Columbia’s set-piece specialist, the man with a plan for dead-ball scenarios like this.
The official whistled and signaled for play to resume, and all Thetsane did was expertly drive the ball under the Bruins’ defensive wall and perfectly slot it in the net past a bewildered Bellevue goalkeeper.
Columbia went on to win that game, with Thetsane’s kick the difference in a 1-0 result, and haven’t lost since on its way to a No. 6 national ranking. But without CC’s two midfield maestros from Lesotho, they likely wouldn’t be in this position in the first place.
That special moment in Omaha was a long ways gone from Makoanyane and Thetsane’s days playing soccer as children in Lesotho.
A small mountainous nation entirely enclaved by the Republic of South Africa, many Americans haven’t even heard of Lesotho, much less about its soccer pedigree. The men’s national team is currently ranked 137th in the world by FIFA — in between Yemen and Latvia — and has never qualified for a World Cup or an African Cup of Nations.
Lesotho’s soccer community struggles not because of its talent, Thetsane and Makoanyane said, but because players who are talented enough to play abroad often suffer from the country’s low soccer standards and lack of chances to leave.
“A lot of kids back home don’t have opportunities to come to the U.S. and I think it’s because of our soccer back home; it’s not that good,” Thetsane said.
“It’s very hard for our players to come out of the country. Our football standard is not up to par yet, but we have a lot of talent,” Makoanyane said. “I feel like our country is overlooked to be honest, maybe because of that football standard. But there’s a lot of talent out there, it’s just unfortunate that they’re overlooked.”
What prevented Makoanyane and Thetsane from being just two more neglected footballers? For starters, while kids their age in America were playing in high school, the duo in Lesotho was tearing it up against adults in the Lesotho Premier League.
After playing with numerous developmental sides in their youth, both joined Kick4Life F.C., a not-for-profit club based in Maseru that plays in Lesotho’s top division, enrolling in the club’s academy at 14 years old. At 17, both were promoted to the senior team as teenagers, playing as unpaid amateurs against grown men as much as double their age.
Battling against aggressive and more experienced competition week-by-week, the two thrived. In the 2015-16 season, Makoanyane was named Kick4Life’s Young Player of the Year while Thetsane was awarded the Players’ Player of the Year award. Both were just 19.
Today, the two are proudly displayed on Kick4Life’s website as examples of what’s possible for the program’s players.
“Back home, it was tough with the age difference between us and the players that played in the Premier League,” Makoanyane said. “Here we are playing against our age mates, so it’s not too bad. It’s not too difficult for us, but it’s also not too easy for us. (In Lesotho) they were more experienced, they were more physical. It helped us a lot to grow and become the players that we are today.”
Kick4Life says its success in the Lesotho Premier League takes a backseat to developing its team members as human beings.
Founded in 2005 by British brothers Pete and Steve Fleming, the club was initially started as a foundation focused on education surrounding Lesotho’s high rate of adults infected with HIV and AIDS. Data from the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook shows that approximately a quarter of Lesotho’s adults aged 15 to 49 are infected with HIV/AIDS, the second-highest rate worldwide behind fellow southern African nation Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).
Kick4Life’s academy has a “three pillars” system of developing its players: character development, education and soccer. It’s the same system that Makoanyane and Thetsane went through as they were residential students within the academy.
“We use football to scout young, promising students, and then we vet them quite intensively … to hone these young men and hopefully women in the future to become those change makers in Lesotho,” Lepo Seetane, Kick4Life’s academy director, said. “Our model helps the student’s development because we’re not only interested in seeing them be successful as football players; we’re more interested in seeing their growth and success as a holistic person.”
Makoanyane and Thetsane return to Lesotho when they can to help out Kick4Life, usually during summer breaks. They each coach, train with and help tutor academy players while also cleaning, serving food and doing office tasks at both a hotel and restaurant also owned by the club.
“When we go back (to Lesotho), most of our time we spend at Kick4Life,” Makoanyane said. “We spend our entire day at Kick4Life every day. We help in sessions like coaching and we also help in the social enterprise … during the free time we just help in the restaurant cleaning, serving, stuff like that, (and) helping the office.”
Seetane, who played collegiate soccer, himself, at Northwestern from 2010-13, knows Makoanyane and Thetsane well and considers them ideal role models for what Kick4Life graduates can achieve abroad.
“In a way, they’re giving back by volunteering within the program and making sure that they help other students that are aspiring to do well in their footsteps,” Seetane said. “We are hopeful that they continue to flourish and pave the way for the current residential program participants and beneficiaries.”
Columbia College coach John Klein’s first association with Makoanyane and Thetsane came with a heads-up from a fellow coach just over an hour away in Sedalia.
It was there where Makoanyane and Thetsane, then both freshmen, were making waves on the junior college soccer scene with State Fair Community College. Despite having a losing record with the Roadrunners, both had been named to the All-Missouri Community College Athletic Conference First Team.
Former State Fair coach Eddie Horn, now in the same position at William Jewell, let Klein know that his Lesotho duo in midfield would be a coup for the Cougars. CC offered a scholarship to both.
“(Eddie) was the first one to let me know, ‘Hey, you need to look at these guys,’” Klein said. “I watched State Fair a couple of times and had to get them. They’re the hardest working players I’ve ever had in the program. They’re no nonsense. Any type of organized practice drill, they compete to win, and of course they do it on game days.”
Despite both being All-American Midwest Conference nominees in their first years at CC, they were primarily used in a defensive role and didn’t go forward in attack often.
But now with last year’s top attackers lost to graduation and top returning goalscorer Parker Moon out with an injury until October, Makoanyane and Thetsane have been given more freedom to attack and it’s worked wonders for CC. Through seven games in 2019, both players have already equalled their entire goal tallies from last season. Each are on-track to well eclipse their amount of shots taken from 2018.
“They’re a coach’s dream,” Klein said. “These guys find ways to strip (players) and in turn create tremendous counterattacks for us. They make life difficult for every central midfielder who wants the ball … they just come to be about business with a smile on their face.” NW