11 October 2019, by:Leonard Solms for Extra Time Media

Waseem Isaacs — from right-back reject to PSL powerhouse

About a 30-minute drive from his home in Bonteheuwel, Waseem Isaacs has finally found a football home in South Africa’s Premiership at Stellenbosch FC. With four goals in four starts, the 28-year-old striker has announced himself on the big stage in his first top-flight season.

The stocky Isaacs’ physique is not too dissimilar to that of Brazil’s Ronaldo, one of his football idols. That’s Ronaldo in his prime, not Ronaldo these days. His smile is as contagious as that of Ronaldinho, another player he looked up to.

But don’t be fooled by the boyish grin and relaxed demeanour – Isaacs is an old soul. And his story personifies the immortal words of former Baroka coach Kgoloko Thobejane:

“Football can kill you; it will kill you real death.”

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Mother City Kid

Isaacs is a veteran of Western Cape football. His CV includes FC Cape Town (before and after they became Ubuntu Cape Town), Vasco da Gama (before and after they became Stellenbosch FC), Milano United, and Cape Town All Stars.

But it was his spell at Slovakia’s MFK Zemplín Michalovce after joining from FC Cape Town that set the tone for struggles to come.

“I think I was 19. I went to SuperSport United for a week [on trial]. Then, I came back, and I think in January [2011], I left to go to Slovakia for two years,” Isaacs recalls.

Slovakian nightmare

Not only did he face a culture shock and struggle with the language barrier, but life on the pitch changed too. He played on the right wing and then at right-back. Isaacs was happy with the way his football adapted, but at heart, he did not feel at home.

“Basically, it was religious reasons,” says Isaacs of his motive for leaving Slovakia. “There was no mosque, no Muslim people around. Culture to me is very important because that’s how I’ve been raised.”

Isaacs struggled to find food that was to his fancy and fitted his dietary requirements. The cons added up quickly and he wanted to return to South Africa. Michalovce didn’t make it easy to leave.

“I had an option [to stay] and they wanted to exercise the option, but I didn’t want to stay and it was a whole dispute and a court case. They wanted me to come back and I didn’t want to come back,” Isaacs recounts.

“At the end of the day, I won the case because my contract wasn’t in English. That was the main thing that gave me the right to just leave. Basically, I didn’t understand what I was signing because I was still 19 or 20 when I signed it.”

Back home in Cape Town

Isaacs trained with Vasco da Gama during the 2012-13 season but was ineligible to play until the following campaign.

After scoring four National First Division (NFD) goals for Vasco in 2013-14, he opted to sign for Milano United. Isaacs chose them ahead of a University of Pretoria side then playing in the Premiership under Steve Barker. His decision was motivated by a desire to remain in Cape Town.

But Milano let Isaacs go after one season. It took him until the 2016-17 season to return to the NFD with Cape Town All Stars after a spell with ABC Motsepe League side Crystal Palace.

“For about six or seven months, I didn’t play any football,” recalls Isaacs of a time he ranks as one of the darkest of his career — up there with the period following his return from Slovakia.

Isaacs appeared stuck in an endless loop, fighting for his survival in South African football. Some players might have fallen out of love with the game, but Isaacs refused to give up on his childhood dream.

A career back on track

After half a season with Cape Town All Stars, he was on the move again — back to FC Cape Town, who became Ubuntu Cape Town soon thereafter.

Here, Isaacs put himself back on the radar. His 2018-19 season grabbed attention. He netted 13 NFD goals, second only to Stellenbosch’s Iqraam Rayners.

The season ended in tears. Ubuntu were relegated, but Isaacs felt his luck was about to turn.

“I knew something was going to happen because I ended up being second top goalscorer in the NFD, so I knew there was a possibility of going to the [Premiership]. I just wasn’t sure which club it was going to be,” Isaacs says.

Stellenbosch comes knocking

The turn was Stellenbosch. Isaacs finally had his chance to play for Steve Barker, but proving himself at the top level was tough.

Rayners provided competition for a starting spot, but the August signing of former Kaizer Chiefs striker Ryan Moon further complicated things. He made his first three Premiership appearances off the bench.

Isaacs earned his first start against Bloemfontein Celtic, retaining his place after scoring in a 2-1 defeat. It was Stellies’ first goal of the season bar a Thulani Hlatshwayo own goal against Bidvest Wits.

Isaacs then bagged a brace against Black Leopards only for Lidoda Duvha to twice level the scores. He started upfront again in another 2-2 draw against Golden Arrows.

“It starts in training. Like they always say, what you do in training is what you do in the field,” reveals Isaacs of the secret to his sudden breakthrough.

“In training, you’ve been scoring, you know, then once you start getting confidence in training, you end up being selected by the coach.”

Isaacs’ hard work may have been producing goals, but Stellies still had yet to clinch their first win of the season seven games in.

“Obviously, it was nice to score, but we weren’t picking up the results and it wasn’t a nice feeling. You always want to win. Me scoring is to help the team obviously. That was more important to me than scoring goals,” Isaacs says.

“I just wanted us to win, whether it was me scoring or whoever.”

Then came a 2-0 away win over Polokwane City on 2 October, with both Isaacs and Rayners getting on the scoresheet.

“You can see everyone is smiling a lot. You can see the confidence is growing. One win makes the confidence higher than what it normally is and the mood is always better,” Isaacs reveals.

“You’ve been searching, searching for the win. Now, finally, it came.”

Looking forward

In a sense, this is a microcosm for Isaacs’ career at large. He has been seeking his top-flight breakthrough for a decade with near misses and heartbreak along the way. Finally, he has his moment to shine, and his joy is infectious.

Five years from now, he hopes to still be playing in the Premiership.

Established clubs will likely ask questions should his fine form continue, but Stellies are fortunate to have a player who feels at home in the Western Cape.

The boy from Bonteheuwel’s career has come full circle, but if his current form is anything to go by, Isaacs’ Premiership journey has just begun.

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