Kaizer Chief's midfielder maestro Willard 'Salt and Vinegar' Katsande always leads by example - on and off the field.
He is such a robust roughneck that you’d be forgiven for thinking Kaizer Chiefs skipper Willard Katsande eats bricks for breakfast, half a rock for lunch and stones for supper. Dessert? Cement. The man who skippers South African football’s most-supported side takes no prisoners on the pitch. If there were an award for the most aggressive player, he would be a serial winner.
The aggression of the Zimbabwean didn’t escape the eye of his mother, a street vendor who staunchly supported her son.
“During the time when she was alive, until she died, she watched every Kaizer Chiefs game. Sometimes she would even send me messages to say, ‘Hey my son, you are too aggressive.’ Then we would just laugh about it.”
Off the field, the captain of the country’s elite league championship hopefuls may need to escape the fashion police before they imprison him and throw away the key.
Soccer stars across the world have resorted to various ways of adapting to the months-long hiatus enforced on sport by the coronavirus pandemic.
To fend off boredom, players such as Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Marcelo took on the “toilet roll challenge” — in which they juggled said item with feet and knees without letting it hit the ground.
Katsande didn’t join the fun but chose instead to use his Twitter feed as a fashion catwalk, showing his softer side. Fans feasted on the sartorial fare dubbed “Saturday swag” by the footballer-turned-fashionista. Some cheered. Some cringed. Each gushing comment was matched by a scathing denunciation.
Whether it was a hit or a fail, Katsande couldn’t care less. The man fancies himself as the epitome of sartorial elegance.
The clothing parade is a personal journey, a storyboard of his life, if you like, which includes a throwback to the tough times of his school days. For this he wears a tattered shirt, as though he had just escaped an attack by a machete-wielding mob.
Found in Katsande’s boutique is a medley of styles inspired by myriad sources ranging from flags to school uniforms, all infused by the sounds of a singer/songwriter from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “My aim is to impact, not to impress,” he says. “When I dress up I feel like this is the best and I am the best. I’m a guy who is confident in whatever he tries.
“Ja, it just comes with confidence, confidence, not arrogance. I’m very confident. I say, ‘Let me pull out this, this is gonna look good.’
“And also I listen [to] and watch Congolese music videos. Those guys are very good in dressing. So they are not shy to explore.”
He is on a drive to change the public perception of how a soccer star should dress.
“People see us as soccer players, like we just wear track pants and the high-cut Air Jordan sneaker and a T-shirt, or a tracksuit, or jeans and a T-shirt. So you just need to try to change so that people see us in a different way.
“Let’s take the example of a flag, it can be a Brazilian, a South African or a Zimbabwean flag; the colours going through it, I’d say, ‘Look, let me try to be in this way so that I see how it comes out.’ ”
Appearances to the contrary, there is nothing arbitrary about his choice of clothes for his Twitter parade.
“The story about the blue shirt is quite tricky and very, very interesting,” says Katsande, the only boy among his parents’ seven children.
“It is something I grew up in. There was a time when we used to go to school in a torn shirt. Not because of choice, but because of the situation.
“When my father died I didn’t have money to afford a school shirt. So you end up going with the same shirt, maybe for the whole year, or two years, you know. It ends up being torn in the armpits, at the back, in front.
“I took a picture with that tie and torn shirt with a book … I just woke up and said, ‘Let me try this.’ And boom! I try.
“I’m not one to chicken out. I’m very confident. It’s modern fashion. It’s a matter of Saturday swag, replaying my childhood.”
He tells me that childhood quickly turned into surrogate fatherhood when one of his sisters was dumped by a boyfriend who had made her pregnant.
“Ja, mister, my life is more like a good novel, if I may say. There is mixed emotions in it. I grew up in a family of seven kids, six girls, one boy. Most of my sisters got married when I was still young.
“My father died in 1996. I was just 10 years old. My mom relocated to a rural area in Mutoko and I stayed with my two younger sisters. My youngest sister got pregnant when she was 15 and I was 12. She gave birth when I was 13, she was 16.
“She gave birth to the boy I’m always with, called Kelvin. Many people think he is my brother. He is actually my sister’s son. I turned him to be my son.
“The father of this kid rejected my sister. He said no, he doesn’t want anything to do with her. He didn’t even buy a nappy or any food for my sister’s son.”
Katsande put junior football behind him to go and train with older players and make some money on weekends to support his nephew/son.
It imbued him with a sense of responsibility.
“I had to dig deep. I had to work hard each and every day. I’m the one who looked after that child when I was the age of 13, till now.
“So that’s when I started knowing responsibility and leadership. Imagine at the age of 13, 14, you’re already thinking of the other child. How are they going to eat, soap to wash nappies? Back then it was [cloth] nappies. There was no amaKimbies, amaPampers.
“[Kelvin] grew up knowing that his father is me. And ja, my mom also showed him so much love. Maybe that’s what made it so easy for me, because she never held a second son in her arms. So ja, then from there I grew. So now, he is a big boy. I’m proud of myself. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in terms of that boy.”
Katsande allows his imagination to run away with him when he prepares items to display on his Twitter runway. No restrictions. No boundaries. Anything goes. Even a doek.
“Yes, the doek. People who have me on WhatsApp know my profile picture never changes, it’s [of] my mother. So many people say, ‘You look like your mom, man.’
“She was very close to me. Why I wear the doek was my mom. Her appearance inspires me. So I thought, ‘Let me just try it.’
"I even have a neck chain with her face and her doek. So I tied my head with the scarf. I said ‘No, it looks nice but let me put it with a blazer.’ I follow an artist called Fally Ipupa in DR Congo. He does this.”
Social media popularity is akin to being rich in Monopoly. It is an exercise in vanity. Katsande laps up the attention.
“The doek divided lots of people and got more than 1,000 comments and retweets I don’t even know.
“The ‘likes’ were close to 10,000. That’s how we do and you know, if you dress nice you feel good.
“I really like and enjoy to try to give people
‘My aim is to impact, not to impress’
Something to talk about. That’s one thing in terms of these difficult corona times.
“I could have tied my doek and not posed for pictures. It makes me happy that people look to see what Katsande is going to bring.
“Some women, they really appreciate it and actually made good comments about it, saying how nice it looks on me. It’s just trying to bring something different in men’s attire.”
For many children in the black community Christmas Day without new clothes would be a calamity.
“As a child I liked to look nice and my parents played a part by giving me certain clothes.”
Once his mom bought him clothes for Christmas, a Brazilian national team uniform in the colours of the country’s flag.
“She kept telling me, ‘You have to tuck in, it makes you look good.’ I cannot say the clothes were the best but I was [a] clean and presentable person. I just wanted to look good.”
When his dad took him to the stadium, “he made me dress in a way I didn’t understand”.
“He bought me nice pants, nice shirt and a waistcoat. I felt like I’m dressing like an old man. Now that I’m reflecting, it’s OK. It’s cool.
“My mom was a vendor, selling veggies. Taking them from the market and reselling. At some point I helped her to sell sugar cane and cabbages around the ’hood.
“At the same time I needed to go to training. My mom was like, ‘This football of yours is not bringing us anything, my friend. So you need to get a job and help so that we get food on the table.’ ”
He tried to balance everything. His hard work has paid off, with his commitment to the Chiefs spanning 10 years and including a handful of silverware. Half of that time has been as captain, but the trophies have dried up.
Is that about to end for the log leaders? “Everything is still under our control,” Katsande says.
“This pandemic is a blessing in disguise We were coming from a defeat by AmaZulu.
“We need to sharpen our swords. We were losing our grip. We are going back with a vengeance for this trophy.” Cleanliness is the creed of the 34year-old.
“I need to be presentable, especially now that I am captain of Kaizer Chiefs, one of the senior players, one of the respected guys.
“You don’t need to be told by anybody, ‘Kaizer Chiefs, come on, these guys are getting paid.’ My thing is like, ‘Let me dress according to the brand I’m representing.’ ” He feels like a prophet who is not celebrated in his own city.
“I didn’t finish school properly. That was the other thing that made me work hard in football, because I knew that football is gonna change my life.
“In my city, to be honest, I’m underrated. Nobody thought I’m gonna make it in football and be a captain of Kaizer Chiefs.
“It is natural that where you grow up people don’t appreciate and recognise you.
“If I take two scenarios: Katsande walks through a mall here in SA, people see a role model and a hero in me.
“Then Katsande walks in my city, they say ‘OK, so what?’ But it doesn’t bother me. “They thought maybe I’m limited in terms of talent. Nobody understands my hard work, the work I put behind the limited talent I have.
“The day I lose that work rate, that’s the end of Willard Katsande. I was a kid who had a vision in terms of football.”
He signs off his tweets with Boss ya mboka. Kitoko Makasi. It is Lingala for “boss of the country, everything is nice and beautiful”. The fashion boss has spoken.