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Rulani Mokwena on leadership style and youth development

FIFA, 14 Nov 2023

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Last year, at the age of just 35, Rulani Mokwena was appointed head coach of the most decorated club in the South African game, Mamelodi Sundowns. Despite his relative youth, Mokwena boasts a wealth of coaching experience. The FIFA Training Centre recently caught up with the Johannesburg native in an interview that explored topics such as his leadership style, the wellspring of his inspiration and his passion for nurturing youth talent.

Part 1: Mokwena's journey in Football
Part 2: Evolving leadership
Part 3: The path from youth to first team success

Part 1: Mokwena's journey in Football
In the opening part of the interview, Mokwena discusses his pathway into football and coaching. He explains that he was raised in a family with a rich footballing heritage, with his grandfather, father and uncle all having starred in the professional ranks of the sport. Mokwena recognises that this family connection with the game has had a profound impact on his career. He goes on to reflect on his first steps in coaching, which came at a remarkably young age. Indeed, he was just 14 when a chance opportunity ignited a passion. However, it was not until the age of 19 – when a knee injury forced him to call time on his playing career – that his focus switched to coaching as he initially occupied a number of roles at academy level.

The talented tactician comments that his grounding in academy football has given him an unwavering passion for developing and nurturing youth talent. He has plied his trade at a number of clubs and academies in his homeland, admitting that he has often secured roles by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. Throughout his career, the Sundowns’ chief recognises that he has been fortunate enough to work alongside, and learn from, some acclaimed coaches. In particular, he notes the valuable insights he has gained into the importance of paying attention to detail and the key takeaways learned about structured defensive set-ups. He states that he has been influenced by a handful of European coaches, revealing that he has kept a close eye on the approaches adopted by esteemed mentors such as Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, FIFA Chief of Global Football Development Arsène Wenger and Roger Schmidt, whose coaching philosophies and training sessions are an inspiration as he continually seeks to refine his own approach.

Part 2: Evolving leadership
In this part of the interview, Mokwena discusses his leadership style and how it has evolved over time. He explains that his approach has shifted from a more authoritarian blueprint to a delicate blend of offering players guidance while affording them the autonomy to find their own way. The coach of the Pretoria-based outfit emphasises the importance of developing players both on and off the pitch in an effort to produce well-rounded individuals.

Part 3: The path from youth to first team success
In the third and final part of the interview, Mokwena underscores the crucial role played by a club’s youth set-up in helping young talents to successfully transition into the first team. He refers to a number of success stories involving players who were reared in academies and have gone on to establish themselves at senior level. Mokwena talks about the obstacles that such up-and-coming players face when they make their big breakthrough. He closes the interview by sharing his belief that many of these challenges could be managed more effectively by providing South African youngsters with the appropriate infrastructure and opportunities at a younger age.

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