Orlando Pirates left-back Innocent Maela has opened up about his journey to become a Premier Soccer League (PSL) player.
The 27-year-old is inspired by his older brother, Tsepo Masilela, who is a successful left-back having played in the Fifa World Cup and Champions League. He also helped Kaizer Chiefs win two PSL titles before joining his current team, AmaZulu FC.
“I can tell you now, no left back starts off wanting to play left-back. A lot of us start off somewhere else and then switch later,” Maela told Far Post.
“Tsepo was of great help to me. I remember how I used to talk to him a lot on the phone when he was in Israel and he would advise me on how I could make a career out of football."
Maela's father, Eric Masilela was also a professional footballer having turned out for Witbank Aces during his playing days.
“My father played a huge role because he also played football. He was the only one who really believed I could play football professionally, not so much my mother,” he said.
Maela was nurtured in the Pirates academy before he spent two seasons with then-National First Division (NFD) side Witbank Spurs on loan from the Buccaneers.
Three successive loan spells with another NFD side Thanda Royal Zulu then followed and Maela admitted that “it was very tough" as he was keen to play for Pirates in the PSL.
The Witbank-born player revealed that he nearly quit football after Thanda survived relegation at the end of the 2015/16 season.
“I almost quit football when Thanda Royal Zulu survived relegation, I told my mom that I’d been out on loan for four years, going to five," he disclosed.
"I made it clear that if nothing happened [Pirates recalling him], I’d quit football and go back to school because I’m still young. She said to me ‘give it one more shot, son’."
Maela then captained Thanda as they clinched the 2016/17 NFD title having netted five goals in 29 matches and he was finally recalled by the Soweto giants.
“We won the 2016/17 NFD and gained promotion to the PSL. Winning the League with Thanda was a silver lining in my career,” he said.
However, Thanda sold their PSL status to AmaZulu FC a few days after the KwaZulu-Natal outfit secured promotion to the elite league by winning the NFD title.
“At that point, I thought maybe things were not meant to be. I was back to square one,” Maela explained.
“Days later, the chairman [Irvin Khoza] called to tell me they had been following my development and I was ready to come back to Pirates."
“It felt like God was making up for what seemed like delays in my career."
Maela was then included in the Bafana Bafana squad which participated in the 2017 Cosafa Cup after being recommended by his former coach at Pirates academy, Thabo Senong.
“I had been following him at Thanda Royal Zulu. I told [then-Bafana coach] Stuart Baxter that there was a left-back at Thanda Royal Zulu. I believed he would be one of the best," Senong told the same publication.
"Stuart was initially doubtful about a player coming from the NFD into the national team. But after having a look at him, he said, ‘Thabo, this is the right one’. He had a decent tournament,” said Senong, who was Baxter’s assistant at the time.
Since then Maela has been part of the Bafana squad at the 2018 Four-Nations Tournament in Zambia and 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals in Egypt.
The hard-working player has been able to play in the Soweto Derby and also score with a header as Pirates edged out Kaizer Chiefs 2-1 in a PSL clash during the 2018/19 season.
“If I were to pick my most memorable football moment, it would have to be the goal I scored in the [Soweto] Derby,” he said.
“That goal will always be special because it was in a derby."