Lekhooana rises from ‘the dead’

Lekhooana rises from ‘the dead’

Luciah Phahla

Maseru – The unrelenting pain was one thing, but the exhausting doubts whether would ever return to the field of play were much worse.
It is almost two years since Lioli striker Tšepo Lekhooana suffered a career-threatening broken leg after colliding with Matlama goalkeeper Makhetha Thakeli during an afternoon Vodacom Premier League tie at Setsoto Stadium.

At the time – March 15, 2015 to be exact – there were genuine doubts he would be able to play football again, much less compete at the highest level.
Lekhooana, however, kept his head down and suffered in silence.
Pain and football are often inseparable and, in truth, only the strongest survive the beautiful game.
For Lekhooana the months of rehabilitation were at times unbearable but, renowned for his strength of physique and character from his formative Likhopo days, the striker finally returned to action in May towards the end of last season.

Fast forward a few more months down the line and the burly striker looks as strong as ever.
His impressive return to action has already been marked by winning the top goal-scorer award during the Independence Cup in October.
Lekhooana’s hat-trick against Sundawana in the semi-finals inspired ‘Tse Nala’ to the final where they edged Matlama 1-0 to claim gold.
Now, as Lioli look to secure an historic third successive league title, Lekhooana is set to be an integral part of the team in New Year.
It is a comeback story worthy of the big screen.

“There were times when I had those thoughts that I may never be able to play football again. But then I was hopeful when I saw people whom I thought would not return from injuries come back and play again. I believed I will also come back,” Lekhooana reflects.
His strong comeback has allowed Lekhooana to crack Lioli’s starting line-up over the past two months though he remains far from complacent.
Competition is relentless in a Lioli striking department that includes the likes of Cameroon-born striker Maba Junior, Lesotho internationals Tumelo Khutlang, and Lekhanya Lekhanya, as well as former Likhopo hit-man Thapelo Tale who joined the champions in August in a blockbuster move.
However, it is not just the physical or competitive aspect that has been a challenge for Lekhooana.

It is obvious when speaking with Lekhooana that the psychological part of his recovery was perhaps his greatest struggle. The pain of trying to get his leg to regain full strength was replaced with the fear of returning to the thick of the action as his progress hit the latter stages.
“It happens that you may be afraid of injuries and bad tackles when you come from a long injury. I was afraid in the beginning but as you continue to play more games, it disappears,” he says.

“During the game that thought may come around. After you make a tackle or you are tackled you think: ‘I have just come from injury and it could have been bad’.”
The support he has received from teammates, management, family and friends, therefore, has been crucial.
Lekhooana says they believed he would return to the pitch even when he felt like giving up.
“Their words motivated and helped me stay grounded and confident in myself,” he says.
Looking to make up for lost time, Lekhooana has – as any goal-poacher would do – set personal targets for this season.
He is aiming to dethrone Motebang Sera as the owner of the league’s golden boot. Last season the Matlama hitman claimed the award with 14 goals and although Lekhooana has two goals he isn’t giving up on topping the scoring charts.

Currently, Linare’s Nzenze Nkulu leads those charts with 11 goals.
“As a striker my job is to score goals,” Lekhooana emphasises. “I did not start the season in the starting line-up, there was someone else playing, but I took my chance when it came,” he adds.

“I want to score as many goals as possible and help my team win. I also want to help my teammates if they are in the better position to score than me.”
“If you look at my counterparts from other teams, they have scored quite few goals for themselves and I am still behind, so I want to make sure I score a lot of goals when I come back (for the second round in January).”

Those goals would be welcome. Lioli are facing a gruelling 2017.
In February, ‘Tse Nala’ start their CAF Champions League campaign in addition to defending both the league and Lesotho National Insurance Group Top 8 crowns at home. Lekhooana is looking forward to the challenge and adventure of playing in Africa after missing out on Lioli’s sojourn earlier this year.
And, there are high expectations for Lioli who will be making a third appearance in four years in the continental showpiece.
There are hopes ‘Tse Nala’ can become the first local side since Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) eliminated Botswana’s Mogoditshane Fighters in 2001 to win a Champions League tie.
A focused Lekhooana believes Lioli’s participation in Africa will not hurt their domestic form but, instead, will help the champions’ second half charge.
‘Tse Nala’, of course, trail Bantu by one point in the Vodacom Premier League and face a challenging task of retaining their title in a race that may also include Kick4Life, Lesotho Correctional Service and Lesotho Mounted Police Service.
“We have very good players,” Lekhooana insists, however.

“The president (Lebohang Thotanyana) has invested a lot in this team and I think participating in the Champions League won’t hurt our chances in the league. You will remember we have been there before and we came back and won the league. Instead, it helps us as we come back stronger and more clinical. We get lot of experience playing in Africa that we take advantage of here at home.”
Thankfully for Lioli, Lekhooana knows all about overcoming adversity and coming back stronger.

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