FORMER Likuena defender, Mpitsa Marai is part of an elite group of players globally that has achieved a rare feat of captaining and coaching their countries at the highest level of international football.
June 14, 2022
4 min read
How Marai was transformed from player to coach
Mpitsa Marai (fourth from the left in the back row during his days with Likuena
- Marai represented Lesotho from Under-20 level
- Ex defender currently coaches Lesotho Under-23 squad
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Marai represented his country from the Under-20 level and moved way up to the senior national team, where he was a member of the Likuena squad that reached the final of the COSAFA Cup but lost on lifting the trophy with Zimbabwe walking away with the big prize.
After hanging up his boots and moving into coaching, ‘Fish’, as the big defender is popularly known in local football circles, got his big breakthrough as a national team coach in 2016, when he was roped in as assistant coach to Moses Maliehe, prior to the COSAFA Cup in Namibia.
Marai, who is currently the head coach of the Lesotho national Under-23, also had a brief spell as the interim coach for Likuena during the 2019 COSAFA Cup after Maliehe missed on the tournament owing to ill-health.
“With the national teams, I started at the Under-20 and the team was coached by Ntate Seephephe Matete, who handed me the captaincy. From there, a majority of us graduated to the Under-23 and eventually the senior team,” Marai recalls.
“That team had the likes of Thabang Mahlakajoe, Shalane Lehohla, Lehlohonolo Seema and the late Eric Makara. It was a big group of that moved from the Under-20 to the senior team. It was not surprising that all of us played a major role in helping Likuena reach the final of the COSAFA Cup in 2000.”
Marai developed amazing leadership qualities from a young age, hence, most coaches and clubs he played for handed him the captain’s armband.
“It was an honour for me that during my career I captained each team I played for, including all the national teams. I’m really honoured that I was given such a responsibility as a player. It shows that they saw great potential in me,” the retired defender says.
Marai, who at club level started his coaching journey at LCS, where spent over a decade as a player, reveals that he was inspired by the likes of former Likuena defender, Tlhokomelo Api and international players including Franco Baresi, Neil Tovey and Jaap Stam - all three were centre-backs like him.
“Locally, I loved the late Tlhokomelo Api with all my heart, maybe because he played as a centre-back like me. In South Africa, I liked Neil Tovey, and therefore when I started playing, I used jersey number nine like him. Abroad, I loved former Italy’s captain Baresi and Dutch legend, Jaap Stam. They inspired and influenced my choice to play as a centre-back.”
Marai fell in love with the beautiful game at a tender age, growing up at the Ratjomose Military Barracks, where his father worked as a soldier.
“I started playing under the current LDF coach, Ntate Motheo Mohapi and Ntate Montšo,” Marai says.
His father was later redeployed to Makoanyane Barracks and he joined another youth team called Texas, coached by former Likuena coach, the late Mafa ‘Ribbo’ Ramakau.
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At that stage, Ramakau also mentored the LDF senior team.
“Ntate Ribbo was assisted by the late Ntate Thapeli and may their souls continue to rest in peace. When I went to Sefika High School, I played for the school team under Ntate Mofihli Makoele.
“From Sefika, I proceeded to Masianokeng High School and later joined Liphakoe in Quthing. When I finished my studies, I returned to Maseru and joined the now defunct Arsenal. That’s where my career began to take off, winning trophies and being selected for the national team starting with the Under-20 going up to the senior team.
“I started playing for Likuena in 1998 and remained with the squad until 2009. At club level, I had moved to LCS and retired while playing for the club. I immediately moved into coaching, working as the assistant coach to Head Coach Mosholu ‘Shoes’ Mokhothu and we won back-to-back league titles,” he says.
After years working at LCS, Marai decided to take a new route, joining Bantu as assistant coach to the late Motlatsi Shale.
They both managed to end the club’s trophy drought of 80-years, delivering A Matṧo Matebele’s first ever league title during the 2012/13 season.
They also won the Independence Top 4 title as well as the LNIG Top 8 but failed to defend their league title the following season, losing out to arch rivals, Lioli.
Marai returned to his beloved LCS after two years at Bantu and led the correctional services side to third position for five consecutive seasons as well as reaching final of domestic competitions.
He worked with former teammate, Khoto Sesing as his assistant coach and later roped in the services of former teammate, Lehohla (Shalane).