Not many people may be familiar with him, but Fezile Hlophe made news recently as the youngest referee ever in South African football history to officiate in an official game.
The 16-year-old took charge of a MultiChoice Diski Challenge match involving Kaizer Chiefs and University of Pretoria.
It capped a remarkable journey for the Grade 11 pupil, who has been through a lot in his short life thus far, including a battle against throat cancer.
This week PSL caught up with him to find out more about his journey to the top.
PSL: How did you feel during that debut game in the MDC?
Fezile Hlophe: “I took that game as a normal game. I didn’t feel so scared even though it was Kaizer Chiefs and it was my first time doing a game like this. To be honest, I never even thought of it as being something difficult to go in and do. It was just a nice experience.”
PSL: Where you intimidated or even scared at all?
Fezile Hlophe: “Not at all. Those senior guys showed a lot of professionalism, They showed they were there to do their jobs and not for me. They gave the necessary respect to the referee and there was a lot of discipline in the game as well. There weren’t many yellow cards or tackles that needed yellow cards to be shown. No one swore at me either. And I even remember some of them asking amongst themselves, ‘who is this young boy’? Some of them felt I was a ball boy on the pitch. They were a bit confused, but as the first few minutes ticked by they saw that I was the referee. So it was wonderful.”
PSL: When you returned home after the game, what was the reception like? Everyone must have seen you on TV.
Fezile Hlophe: “Most of them were excited. Some of them saw the game and others wanted to know when the repeat was and they watched it then. So everyone was happy for me. There was a lot of encouragement, people saying that if I continue doing a good job then I will get somewhere.”
PSL: And the reaction from the other kids at your school, Emdeni. What was that like?
Fezile Hlophe: “They were very proud of what I achieved. They were all very impressed because first they saw it in Sowetan, then in City Press and a few magazines like Drum and now SuperSport. It was exciting for them to have someone they know in the media. It put this name of Emdeni Secondary School on the map.”
PSL: How about the girls? What where they saying?
Fezile Hlophe: “You know girls (laughter)…they get even more excited by these things.”
PSL: Which team did you grow up supporting?
Fezile Hlophe: “With that question I would say no comment. I think I can say I supported Bafana Bafana, they are the best.”
PSL: Let’s turn the clock back a little bit now. Tell us where it all began how did you get involved in football and becoming a referee?
Fezile Hlophe: “I started out playing soccer when I was six and I use to play striker for my team. Before that when I was even younger I use to draw a soccer pitch on the floor and use bottle caps as soccer players in my one imaginary game.
“In terms of refereeing, that started when I was 11. I recall we were playing in a game they were looking for someone to officiate in a few Under-11 and Under 13 games. That’s when I said I can do it. It was in 2011. After doing that, I thought to myself I can continue and that’s from when I started to take a strong interest. I would watch a lot of games and look at the referees, both live and on TV. I would watch Soccerzone on SABC and see how they analyse officials. In 2013 I got involved with SAFA and that’s how I got more recognition.”
PSL: Which referees do you look up to?
Fezile Hlophe: “I looked up information on Victor Hlongwane and Victor Gomes, how they started and got involved. I noted it down and I have met many of these referees over time. Many of them have interesting stories, so I admire all of them for what they do.”
PSL: There is also another side to the story of Fezile Hlophe, one of suffering and illness in the form of cancer. Tell us more.
Fezile Hlophe: “It was something that I didn’t expect at all. It just came up and was terribly difficult to get used to. It made me feel very weak, but I told myself I’m going to fight. The tough part was attending the doctor week after week, this disturbed my normal life because I had to stop going to school, I had to stop attending matches and there were so many things I couldn’t do because of the illness.
“But as time went on and the treatment took effect, I started getting better, I was in hospital for nine months…so almost a year. I couldn’t go to school, but I managed to fight and get through it. I told myself I am normal and that’s it.”
PSL: Is the cancer now behind you and a thing of the past?
Fezile Hlophe: “Yes, I’m over the cancer now. It’s been well over two years now, so I’m strong.”
PSL: What advice can you offer to others in same position and going through illness?
Fezile Hlophe: “Always remain strong. In life, whatever you do, there must always be a spirit to do it. You have to have determination. They should never get offended and take their life seriously. What I would like to emphasis is that they shouldn’t allow illness to bring them down, they need to have fight and realise that the future is bright.”
PSL: Finally, can you tell us about some of your goals, both short and long-term?
Fezile Hlophe: “I want to see myself on the PSL panel within the next four to five years. I want to be officiating in the Absa Premiership, the MTN8, the Telkom Knockout and the Nedbank Cup, so that’s what I want to do. In the next six or seven years I’d like to make the step up to CAF competitions, so looking at the Champions League and Confederation Cup and also some international games too. So that’s the path I’m hoping my refereeing career follows. This is what I am working towards.”