TWO YEARS AGO, a 24-year-old named Roland Putsche stood on the field in front Borussia Dortmund’s famous Yellow Wall, feeling the reverberation of the fans’ chants ebb through the studs of his boots. Two years on, the Austrian now finds himself plying his trade in the most unexpected of places: Cape Town, South Africa. But how exactly did he get there?
In the land where vuvuzelas caused the ultimate shockwave to the masses of tourists who visited Mzansi back in 2010, playing regular football on the southern tip of Africa can often be a culture shock to many foreigners. Many Europeans come, and most of them go, cashing in on their African adventure prematurely.
Not Putsche, though. The ambitious midfielder came to Cape Town looking to do some charity work, and shortly after, found himself a new home. “I had been in Cape Town for a holiday on two previous occasions, where I met a bunch of people and I became friends with them. One of them was Bernd Steinhage – the founder of the Young Bafana Soccer Academy,” reveals the Austrian.
In the Mother City, football can best be described as a shape-shifter. Teams come and go, players graduate through academies such as Ajax Cape Town, only to be palmed off to one of South Africa’s ‘Big Three’ – Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates, or CAF Champions League winners, Mamelodi Sundowns – while some, like Steven Pienaar, Benni McCarthy and Thulani Serero, secure a move abroad. The pressure on Cape Town clubs to maintain a certain standard and compete against South Africa’s best, with a limited budget, is astounding.
One man out to prove everyone wrong is John Comitis. Seventeen years after merging Seven Stars and Cape Town Spurs to form Ajax Cape Town, Comitis found himself in charge of a new and exciting project – Cape Town City FC. Established after buying the rights to top-division side Mpumalanga Black Aces, the hospitality mogul went in search of players who could help fulfil his dream of creating a team worthy of competing in the top flight of the Absa Premiership.
As fate would have it, a deep-lying midfielder was in the final weeks of his contract, and willing to go down a different and rarely trodden path in his career. “My contract was running out in Austria, and I felt like I wanted something new,” adds the 26-year-old, who signed for City in July 2016. “I met Bernd in Austria at the time, and he said to me: ‘What do you think about South Africa?’ I had never thought about moving to South Africa.
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“We had a good conversation. It took us about two hours and he convinced me to take this step. He told me about a new club called Cape Town City that would maybe be the perfect opportunity for me. From the beginning, I always said, ‘The place I want to be is Cape Town’. I have always said that Cape Town is a little bubble within South Africa, and with a new club building a legacy, it was a great opportunity.
“South Africa is one of the countries with so much talent, and with there being so much to improve on, I want to be a part of that. I want to be a person who can change something.”
In May, City wrapped up their debut campaign in the Premier Soccer League’s primary division, seeing them reach an incredible third-place finish and, against all odds, claim their first trophy, the Telkom Knockout, just six months after their inauguration.
At the centre of their success was Putsche, a commander in the midfield who, by the displays he put in, seemed to effortlessly adjust to his new surrounds and teammates, despite admitting it wasn’t always smooth sailing. “To be honest, I struggled a little bit in the beginning,” recalls the former Wolfsberger man. “I had to sort out all my private stuff, to settle down in the city, because that affected me on the football pitch.
“My teammates were very friendly from the very beginning. As soon as I settled in, I could adapt to the style of football – it is a little different to Europe. The individual skill level is very high here. The players like to make a show sometimes; there is a little bit of a difference. The quality of football is quite high and the people sometimes don’t appreciate it enough.”
Unlike in Europe, the archaic side of South African football is deeply rooted within a spiritual culture, where talk about Muti – a form of magical charms implemented to bring misfortune to the opposition – is often considered taboo. However, for a foreigner, it is something simply unheard of. “Everything was new to me. I had never heard of Muti before, and it was quite surprising when I saw it for the first time,” Putsche warmly reminisces. “It was against Orlando Pirates. We played an away game, and I saw a guy walking on the pitch. I don’t know what he did exactly, but it’s cool, it’s like a ritual. It is important to believe in something – it doesn’t matter what it is.”
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Currently, Putsche is one of just five Europeans plying his trade in South African football, and the only non-African foreigner at his club – a stark contrast to when he first joined Cape Town City, who also added Renars Rhode (Latvian), and the Australian duo of Matt Sim and James Brown to their books.
The latter terminated his contract with the club after just a handful of appearances for Eric Tinkler’s side, while Sim also ended up leaving South Africa prematurely, proving that it takes more than just skill to survive in South Africa. “I am definitely not the type of guy who gives up. Sometimes it takes a little while to adapt,” continues the Klagenfurt-born player. “In one case with James Brown, he didn’t have the patience to wait a little longer. He said himself that maybe he should have worked a little bit harder for it, and spent a little bit more time here to adapt.
“The lifestyle is very different, especially the culture. In Europe, everything is very strict. Here, the Cape Town people are little bit more lazy and relaxed – it’s sometimes good in that way. However, it comes down to attitudes and mindsets to adapt to all of that. I still enjoy it. Cape Town is the place I want to be, but I do say, ‘If you can change the attitude a little bit, there is so much potential’.”
Since the 2010 World Cup was hosted in South Africa, new facilities have popped up all over the country, and while City may boast one of the most picturesque training grounds in world football, large portions of South Africa are still lacking first-class training centres. It takes a strong personality to switch from one’s comfort zone to a completely different culture, lifestyle, and game.
“It wouldn’t be easy for everybody to find a place in the team, and to adapt to the culture and the type of style. Also, we talk a lot about facilities and training conditions. What is obviously on another level in Europe, took me a while to get used to [what we have here],” says the midfielder.
“I am a player who needs a top pitch – my heart is so happy when I walk on the field and there is light and top-quality grass. That is what you find at that level. Even when I come to the Cape Town Stadium sometimes, I just look at the field and I have a smile on my face because I want to play there.
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“To miss the Europa League, it wasn’t like I was playing in front of 65,000 fans like in the away game against Borussia Dortmund every week. Let’s see how the continental games in the CAF competition will be – it will be something very, very interesting, and, a new experience again. It is a different style of football, and that is what I miss a little bit,” he adds.
Even though the statistics indicate most Europeans return to their homeland after just a year or two of playing in South Africa, Putsche’s success with City could see him influence more of his countrymen and former teammates to test their luck in the PSL. “I get so many visitors from Austria coming down. I had football coaches come down, I had my family come down, because they all want to see Cape Town,” he declares. “They say the football is very entertaining, and, obviously, there is a lack of tactical work, but I think [the players] know what they have to do – it’s just a little bit of laziness in a few situations.
“I am in touch with my old teammates on a daily basis. [My friends and family] really enjoyed coming to the stadium and watching our games. We were joking about it a few times, but quite a few of them would be interested to come down and find a new place to play football.”
Away from Cape Town City, free time is a rare commodity, but what Putsche does have available to him, he exchanges for the ultimate selfless act, The Young Bafana Soccer Academy. At the academy, the footballer explores methods to help provide underprivileged children with an education in sport. “It is an NGO. We work with children from underprivileged backgrounds. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to go there, but I hope to find some sponsors for the foundation and give them advice. I want to get more involved with Young Bafana,” continues the 26-year-old.
“When I have time, I go and train with the kids for a little bit. It is nice to see because they are so honest, you know? When you see the smile on their face – when a professional football player comes to train with them – that is more than what money can give you. It is just an honest happiness that is rare to find.”
Less than a year after winning their first trophy, Cape Town City faced SuperSport United in a cup final – the first under new coach Benni McCarthy. And while they have lost that final on penalties, Putsche has no ideas of leaving the sunny Cape any time soon. “I’m glad I am here. Cape Town and Cape Town City is the place I want to be, at the moment – I can’t see myself somewhere else now,” concludes Putsche.
As Cape Town City’s media officer, Julian Bailey, often says, “We didn’t find him, he found us.” Further proof that not everything that is found is necessarily lost.