Willard Katsande: From herding cattle to playing for legendary football club in South Africa

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Named after a Zimbabwean footballer, Willard Katsande felt destined to play professionally and so he pursued it tenaciously.

Willard was born in a remote part of Zimbabwe in Mashonaland, in the East province. But his father moved the family to the city of Mutare in Anyikaland so he could get work. Life in the city was rough. First they lived in a shack, then a one bedroom flat, and it was his father that got him into football. 

‘My father gave me the name Willard after a Zimbabwean legend who used to play for the Highlanders (a local league soccer team). He was somebody who loves football but he never played. So he used to take me to meet us there. But I think three years later he didn’t want me to play football, at all. It was horrible, he used to beat very very hard because he didn’t want me to go there to play football.

So I would go behind his back to go and play because you know when football is in your blood you don’t care about how risky it is. My mother was so supportive because I was the only boy so I was more like a mummy’s boy, she used to cover for me when I go for training.’

Willard’s father died when he was just ten years old and he never did figure out why the man was so against him playing football especially after encouraging a love for the sport to start with. 

At some point Willard had to return to the village to herd cattle in order to help his family stay afloat but even there he practiced his ball skills whenever he could using whatever was around. 

‘Sometimes I used to leave the cows there and try to play with balls made from plastic. We used to play when the cows were grazing or sleeping.’ 

It wasn’t east back in his village. His daily routine wouldn’t even allow him to make room for a bath but Willard pressed on.

‘I woke up at 3am to work in the field till 6am or 7am, take them to graze, then milk them, and then take them to the mountains. I didn’t even have time to bath. So it was tough until my mother told me I can’t stay in the village for long. She told me this is not life, I need to go out and do what other kids are doing in town.’

Willard was about 19 at this point, and when he returned to the city his old football coaches were impressed with his parents. He had grown taller and had muscles from working the fields and rearing livestock. He eventually got scouted by the national team coach and landed success playing at the highest level in Zimbabwe’s premier soccer league.

It was not only until he started getting great feedback that he realised that he has something extra special to offer on the field.

‘I think when I moved to the city, and played in the league, being the driving force of the team, I would get feedback from people and they will say you’ve got potential so you need to keep on working hard. When you hear such things like that it motivates you.’

For any Zimbabwean football talent, hoping for the best basically means getting spotted and signed by a foreign club which is exactly what happened to Willard when an agent from South Africa saw him play for his country’s national team. 

Willard Katsande playing for Zimbabwe’s national team

After the match, the agent tracked him down and offered him a path to the big time in top flight South African football. 

‘I knew coming to South Africa was a good thing but I was a poor kid who was just in the dark. I started with a team which was very very small and the demands were very limited. 

Until I came to Kaizer Chiefs FC, that’s when my eyes opened and I said this is real football and there was so much to learn. This is more than the game.’

The Kaizer Chiefs Football Club is known for having its own clan of legendary footballers in the southern African area of the continent. The Chiefs have won 12 League titles (4 in the PSL era) and over 50 club trophies. 

Former South African national team captains Neil Tovey, Lucas Radebe and also Patrick Ntsoelengoe, Gary Bailey, John “Shoes” Moshoeu, Shaun Bartlett, Steve Komphela, Siyabonga Nomvete and Doctor Khumalo, played for the team that has always held its own in football.

It is also the most supported team in sub-Saharan Africa with a support base of over 16,000,000 fans. In January 2020, the Chiefs celebrated their 50th anniversary.

With legends paving the way for Willard, setting records, and Willard’s great potential, the pressure does amount.

‘To be in this situation, kids back home, kids in the country, can sit and admire Willard Katsande. But if they can open my heart, the things I deal with everyday like the pressure, I still get anxious like what if I don’t perform well. You don’t want to let everybody down. 

You just want to give your best. But it’s a sweet pressure because in life you don’t have pressure, you don’t have a purpose of living so I just tell myself to embrace it because of where I am coming from.’

There’s been a lot of pressure on Willard this past season because he’s also had to deal with a bigger personal tragedy. His mum, one of his biggest supporters, died recently.

‘When you lose someone who is close to you, who shows you love it is very very painful. I don’t think there’s something which is going to hurt me more. I know she loved me. She used to watch all the games and whenever we lost she used to ask me if I was okay. She’s been somebody who has been there for me and she’s always in my heart.’

From time to time, Willard checks old text messages he exchanged with his mother when she was alive to feel the closeness they once shared in their relationship. He is also comforted by the fact that his mother got to see him make it in football and get to the point he could provide for his family and give them a much better life.

‘Now I can afford to take my niece to school and also provide for their needs and when you’ve made it in life, don’t forget where you are coming from.’

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