There was only one player reporters wanted to speak to in the mixed zone at Brasilia’s Estadio Nacional on Thursday evening: South Africa keeper Itumelang Khune, who played an instrumental part in ten-man Bafana Bafana’s remarkable 0-0 draw with hosts Brazil in their opening match at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016. Aside from the custodian’s many saves, however, the match threw up one other eye-catching story: that of a man called Rivaldo doing his bit to thwart the Brazilians.
“I’ve had a ball with me ever since I was a little boy,” Coetzee added, recalling his childhood in Kakamas, a remote town of less than 10,000 inhabitants a little over an hour from the Namibian border. He inherited his passion for the game from his father, Trevor: “He played in goal for an amateur side. When he was out on pitch, I was behind his goal with my friends, kicking my ball around.” The youngster’s seemingly unusual name made perfect sense to everyone who knew him: “I grew up in a small place, and everybody knew how much I loved football. Maybe they thought it was just the right name for him to give his son, because football was his life.”
Having grown up watching videos of Rivaldo on YouTube, Coetzee also admired the likes of Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Robinho in his younger years: “I liked all of them because of the type of football they played. They were unstoppable.”
My father is a huge fan of Brazilian football and Rivaldo was his favourite player, which is why he named me after him.
The centre-half and his team-mates did manage to stop Brazil’s new generation on Thursday, however, making up for their numerical disadvantage and neutralising the likes of Neymar and the two highly rated Gabriels, Jesus and Barbosa.
“We knew that Brazil are under pressure here,” explained Coetzee. “There’s a lot weighing on them and we used that to our advantage. The longer the match went on, the more the fans were getting on their backs. We could see that they were getting frustrated and started shooting from distance, which is something they don’t usually do.”
The South African centre-half is still very much a teenager, as he showed by kicking off our chat with eyes wide in wonder and the comment: “I’m over the moon”. That said, he does not lack in maturity. Though proud of both his performance and the team’s in their tournament opener, he is determined they should not lose focus: “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.
“I think keeping a clean sheet after playing with ten men for most of the second half is something we can build on. We created a few openings, but we need to get back on the training ground and make sure that we take those chances when we get them. If we concede opportunities like that to another team, we’ll lose. It’s up to us to work now and sharpen our finishing.”
Coetzee has been forging that steely character since making his debut as a mere 13-year-old in South Africa’s Second Division, the third tier of the country’s league system. He had to work hard to get his chance to make it to the top flight, suffering several rejections by Ajax Cape Town – Ajax’s South African sister club – before eventually convincing them to take him on. Within a month, he had earned promotion from the U-15s to the U-17s, and within two years he was running out in the top-tier Premier Division for a side that likes their centre-halves to be cultured, as he explained: “It’s a team that enjoys having possession. I learned that I have to be comfortable on the ball and be able to start moves, as that’s what the foreign teams want. And my ambition is to play abroad.”
Judging by his display against Brazil, a move to foreign climes seems only a question of time, though his performance may well cause his father to consider his lifelong allegiances: “I don’t think he’s going to be supporting Brazil any more. I don’t think so, not after this,” joked Coetzee.
Whatever the case may be, it does not seem that Trevor will be too concerned that his beloved Rivaldo has stymied his dear Brazil: “I spoke to him last night. He told me he couldn’t sleep because he was so nervous for me. I hope what I’ve done will make him feel proud. For me, it’s all about taking one step at a time so that I can make him feel even prouder.”