A footballer in limbo

If there is one memory of former Moroka Swallows striker, Shaun Haschick, I would hold dearly onto, it would be his free-kick taken at a high school cup semi-final in 1999.

We were both playing for Hudson Park High’s first team against John Bisseker High. The game was played out on a dusty pitch at the Clarendon Showgrounds in East London, South Africa. Besides having to tussle with the opponents, we had to contend with the divots and knee-high reeds on the field. We were down 2-1 and were sustaining a lot of pressure from the Bisseker attack. I came off late in the second half, exhausted and my face covered in a thin layer of dust.

I was sitting beside the substitutes when the referee blew for a foul against Bisseker. It was more than thirty metres from the goal, too far to drive the ball home. I saw Haschick place the ball on the ground and take a few steps back. He lifted his gaze at the goal before focusing his eyes on the ball. Some beside me thought he was going to make a mess of the opportunity. These, I believe, did not have faith in him. Throughout his high school years, he was taunted by jealous teammates. One time, while riding on the team bus back to school after a loss, two teammates tore Haschick apart, saying he was not good enough to win us the game and that he only made the national under-17 team because he cried his way into it. A source close to me and Haschick once said he never wore his South African team tracksuit because he was afraid of the jibes he would receive from school teammates if they saw him in the street. So he just left his tracksuit hanging in the cupboard.

But when I saw Haschick’s eyes fixed on the ball that day, I knew something special was about to happen. He ran up and, with the instep, struck the ball with such power I could hear his foot thumping the leather. It looked as if the ball was going to strike the wall, but it rose and passed over their heads. It did not show any sign of dipping. It continued its upward trajectory with rapid speed, passed the goalkeeper and hit the roof of the net. It was the best free-kick I had seen from any footballer of any level. He did not celebrate the goal as much as we did. He ran back into position for the kick-off, with an expression of purpose.

We went on to lose the game 3-2 but the result did not matter to me in the end. I was just glad he got to prove to his critics – one of them was standing beside him when he took the free-kick – that he was, indeed, the best footballer among us.

After high school, I met Haschick a few times but only two encounters were memorable. The one was on a sunny autumn afternoon in 2012 when we had coffee at a café in East London and he told me about his plans for a football novel. The other time was in the spring of 2005, when I interviewed him for a football magazine called Soccer Time, which closed down before it could print its first issue.

Haschick had just returned from his one and only season with Apollon Limassol in Cyprus and was re-joining Bush Bucks, the Premier Soccer League club that gave him his professional debut against Ria Stars in December 2001.

When my editor heard the striker was back in the country, he wanted me to write a feature on the his experiences in Cyprus.

I met Haschick at his home in Cambridge and we spoke for two hours. The story he told me was a colourful recollection of the island, its football and its people. Since the magazine never went to print, Haschick’s story was never told. Below is the full story from that 2005 interview as it was supposed to appear in Soccer Time.

An explosive debut season for Bush Bucks was the only thing Shaun Haschick needed to be thrown into the limelight. He scored four goals in 16 appearances, one of which was a stunner against Sowetan giants, Orlando Pirates. He caught the eyes of opposition managers and the under-23 national coach. The press loved him. His imaginative skills were not only noticed in South Africa, but in Europe as well. Apollon Limassol, a club competing in the Cypriot First Division, signed him in 2004. Bush Bucks, it seemed, had released one of their gems, the same way they let go of Brendan Augustine in 1995 when he left for Lask Linz in Austria.

But Haschick has returned to the East London club after just one season in Cyprus. The challenges he had faced there made him wiser as a footballer and as a person.

“You can go overseas for a season, play well and be propelled to a higher status, but it is tough. Going there on your own, to a country where you do not speak the language and where you have to adapt to the culture is difficult.”

Haschick found it hard to become a regular in the starting line-up, saying that one would have to be from the “right country” to maintain their position in the side.

“You are fighting for acceptance from the supporters, coaches and the players. As an African, they looked at me in a different light. They look down upon us.”

Haschick said when foreigners sign for European clubs, they arrive with the expectation of being better than the locals.

“I went over and took a while to gel with the style of play. As a young player it is not easy to come in and expect a place in the side. I was competing against full internationals from Romania, Poland, Hungary and Slovenia. I was even competing with the president’s son, which had an impact on my chances of playing. The level of competition is high.”

Many who knew him wondered why he had left the European stage, which is a great opportunity for any South African footballer’s career.

“I felt I stood a better chance of making the South African team for the 2010 World Cup if I came back,” he said.

Haschick’s reason was not unreasonable. He initially thought moving abroad would help his chances of making the Bafana Bafana side but soon realised his efforts in Cyprus went unnoticed when the South African manager at the time, the former England under-19 coach Stuart Baxter, decided to fill his team with home-based players, which was part of his development strategy. Footballers at overseas clubs suddenly found themselves without a nation to represent. When I met Baxter at a press conference earlier in 2005, he said he wanted to develop local talent by starting with the youth structure, which was in a mess. Those in the upper echelons of the South African Football Association did not see things his way. Baxter eventually quit after he failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.

For Haschick the difference between South African and European football was clear. To start with, he bemoaned the fact that South Africa did not have enough qualified coaches to effectively boost the game. He said Europeans maintain a professional quality on and off the field. Coaches in Cyprus did not even form intimate bonds with the players as they would do in South Africa. The relationship between player and manager is strictly professional. The managers gave out orders, and the players followed them. As a result, he found it difficult to confide in them about challenges in his personal life.

Additionally, football infrastructure in Cyprus was of a higher standard, which Haschick said would go a long way in improving the performance and morale of a player.

“The facilities are top class as each club has their own dressing room, club house and fields. It is more organised.”

The difference in style between South African and Cypriot football also lends to Haschick’s idea that their league is “a notch or two above the Premier Soccer League.” He said the South African game is more skill-based and there is a reliance on individual brilliance while the Cypriots focus more on tactics and team-based football.

In spite of the obstacles, Haschick took some positives from his experience, the first being the tremendous atmosphere the spectators conjure.

“There are full stadiums at every game. The atmosphere is phenomenal with the singing and the chants.”

Cypriot football fans often disrupted the game with their unruly behaviour. Throwing objects onto the field and fireworks on the stands were a regular occurrence. He recalled one such incident where a firecracker, thrown from the opposition crowd, landed on the Apollon goalkeeper’s knee. The Apollon spectators sitting at the other end of the stadium saw their goalkeeper lying injured and decided to taunt the rival goalkeeper at their side of the stands.

“There are riot police at every game as the spectators are fanatics,” said Haschick. “At least every second game had drama.”

Having played in league, cup and even UEFA Cup games, Haschick had accumulated experience he would not have acquired in South Africa.

“What I learnt in one year there would have taken me three years in South Africa. I have definitely moved up a notch. Now, I want to take my game to the next level, use my experience [from Cyprus] and bring it here.”

He aims to find a higher level of consistency in his performance and play a pivotal role in Bush Buck’s attack.

Despite having tasted European football, Haschick is happy to be back home and believes his second stint at Bush Bucks is the first step in rebuilding his career. He hopes it will be a move that would lead him back to the European stage.

“I do wish to return some day. But what I have learnt from my experience in Cyprus is that you have to take two steps back for you to take one step forward.”

Unfortunately, Haschick never got to realise his dreams. He was not picked for the South African team that played at the 2010 World Cup and he did not get the chance to play in Europe again.

After playing one season with Bush Bucks, Moroka Swallows snatched him in 2008. He went on to play three frustrating seasons that were marred by injury and a clash in styles. He only made 36 appearances, most of them as a substitute, and scored seven goals. Eventually, his contract ran out and the club decided not to renew it.

In 2012, when Haschick was 30 years old, I saw him training with Stars of India, an amateur outfit in the North End Football Association’s Premier Division in East London. Later that year, I had to mark him in a pre-season friendly.

When I met Haschick for that coffee in 2012, he was a footballer in limbo. He was not earning a regular income and his spell at Stars was proving to be a challenge. The players in North End, he said, did not know football was more a mental game than physical. He added that it was about building a collective consciousness with your teammates rather than gaining praise from the crowd after executing a cute trick. He looked at the 2012 FC Barcelona side as one which embraced this sort of synchronicity. He said no other team transformed the game into a spiritual endeavour as much as the Catalan club had done.

He spoke about how Barcelona’s Lionel Messi embodied Zen Buddhism in his style of play. His advanced intuition allowed him to anticipate the movement of his teammates and opponents, and perhaps foresee three or four passes ahead. Messi, he said, was operating at a higher state of consciousness.

“There is a moment Messi, while running with the ball, looks for – that perfect position for a shot at goal. It occurs at a point when defenders are just about to tackle him. When he finds it, he releases a shot and it is bound to be a goal.”

Haschick paused and ponderously stared at his cup of coffee.

“That is what I had,” he said.

– This article was previously published in The Football Journal on 4 March 2014. Visit http://www.footballjournal.net for more features on the beautiful game.

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