The story of the SA Under-23 team’s recent qualification for next year’s Olympic Games in Japan is incomplete if nothing is mentioned about the team’s unsung heroes.
And among the unheralded is head coach David Notoane’s lieutenant, Kwanele Kopo of SuperSport United.
Kopo, who turned 44 last weekend, has dedicated most of his adult life to youth football development in South Africa And he has been ticking off all the key boxes almost unnoticed.
Besides being part of the technical team that spearheaded the qualification for the Tokyo Olympics during the CAF Under-23 Afcon tournament in Egypt last month, before then Kopo was assistant to Molefi Ntseki when they guided the Under-17 to their maiden World Cup qualification in 2015.
Kopo switched to coaching after his small physique stood in the way of his aspirations to become a professional footballer.
This week he recalled how he was rejected by coaches due to his unimposing size. He said he was told “you’re too small” each time he tried his luck at some of the local clubs, among them Moroka Swallows and the now defunct Mahwelereng Real Rovers.
As a result, he was confined to a reserve team player at Wits University FC – before it was renamed Bidvest Wits – until an Achilles injury forced him to quit playing. He was only 24 years old.
It was a huge setback for Kopo, considering that he had made the great trek from his hometown of Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape in 1994 to “study and pursue football” while studying law at Wits University.
Kopo, who rose through the university’s inter-res football tournaments, grabbed the opportunities that opened up later when former Wits head coach John Lathan introduced him to administration in the club.
Lathan, who arrived in South Africa from England in the 1980s, had his office littered with coaching study material from the English Football Association.
The documents were so useful for Kopo that he developed an interest in coaching.
“It’s funny that I started coaching the Wits University women’s team at the res, then the provincial women’s teams until I became the national students’ team coach,” recalled Kopo, who was later recruited by SuperSport to start its youth academy during the 2000/2001 season.
Among his prominent first recruits were former Orlando Pirates captain Benson Mhlongo and Daine Klate, another former Bucs and SuperSport player who went on to become one of the PSL’s most decorated footballers, bagging six league titles with three clubs.
Kopo wished the same for the current generation.
“From a development perspective, when I look at the best achievements, it is these players’ progress.”
He goes a long way back with most of the Under-23 players who did duty at the youth Afcon – the likes of goalkeeper Mondli Mpoto, Athenkosi Dlala and Katleho Mohamme – who all came through the SuperSport development ranks.
“The [SuperSport] academy did not only help grow players but coaches as well. I was the academy manager in the morning and the coach of the Under-15s as well as the reserves in the afternoon,” reflected Kopo in an interview this week.
He has been exposed to international football through SuperSport’s previous partnerships with Dutch club Feyenoord and later English football powerhouse, Tottenham Hotspur.
“From the coaching education point of view, I gained valuable knowledge as well as new ideas. We can’t be ignorant and [we cannot afford] not keep up with what the rest of the world is doing. So I consider myself a product of South Africa and international club coaching,” added the Safa Pro-Licence coaching badge holder.
At SuperSport, Kopo learnt the ropes of senior team coaching as an understudy to various head coaches, among them Pitso Mosimane, Stuart Baxter, Cavin Johnson, Gavin Hunt and the current tactician Kaitano Tembo. It is this kind of experience at club level as well as with local youth, that made Kopo the obvious choice to assist Notoane with the Under-23s.
Kopo is hoping for a good ending of the Olympics project.
“Considering that this is the biggest sporting event in the world, it will be a greater achievement if we do well at the Olympics in Tokyo.
“The stage can’t be much bigger [than this] for the players. They have the experience of qualifying for the tournament and competing in it.
“Some of them have been to more than one World Cup and Afcon tournaments. A player such as Kobamelo Kodisang has already played at three World Cups and he’s still 20. It’s unbelievable.”
The Portugal-based striker from Rustenburg in the North West debuted at the global championships with the Under-17s in 2015 and later joined the Under-20s at the 2017 and this year’s World Cups.
As much as Kopo travels the length and breadth of the country – and the world – he still spends quality time with his three daughters and wife.
“I am married to a sportsperson and my family is the support structure that enables me to progress.”