Among the 280 or so players that will feature at the COSAFA Castle Cup in South Africa’s North West province from June 25-July 9, there will be many with fascinating backgrounds and heart-warming stories of how they made it to the top.
But few will be as intriguing as that of Lesotho midfielder Napo Matsoso, who is a new name in the national side but from a family well-known in football circles in the country.
Matsoso was raised in Maseru and watched his father, Thato, play for local side Arsenal FC and the Lesotho national team.
But he moved to the United States eight years ago in search of educational opportunities and has only now in recent weeks returned to Southern Africa to follow in the footsteps of his dad.
He won his first cap for the national side in the 1-0 win over Swaziland on May 28, which also happened to be his 23rd birthday.
His parents encouraged him to leave for the United States, where he has been looked after by American couple Marc and Pam Maguire, who previously adopted two other players from Lesotho, Sunny Jane and Lepe Seetane.
“It was pretty hard but I knew it was going to be better for me, and my parents knew it was going to be better for me,” Matsoso told NBC Sports. “They knew if I didn’t make the decision, things would’ve been different because not many people go to school [university in Lesotho]. They knew at the end of the day that I’d be happy.” Matsoso says it was tough to adjust from the rock-hard pitches of Maseru to the lush fields of Louisville, Kentucky.
“The dirt hurts your body pretty bad,” he said. “When you slide or someone trips you … I played barefoot until I was 12 or 13 years old. My father bought me cleats [boots], they were not labeled, they were just random cleats. “It took me a long time to play on turf, then on natural grass. It also took me a long time get used to the cleats.”
Matsoso has become a star of the American university scene, where he turned out with huge distinction for University of Kentucky and scored 19 goals and laid on 20 assists in the 73 games he played for the team over four seasons. He was described as “one of the most influential attacking midfielders in the country” at that level. He has been able to take the next step in his career now after being selected by Major League Soccer side New England Revolution, elevating him to the professional ranks.
“I’ve come a long way and hard work pays off,” he told The Bent Musket. “Every athlete out there knows how much work they put and that it’ll hopefully pay off. I’m so thankful to the game, the Revolution, and I’m really excited to put in the work in. “I like to bring 50-50 balls and keep possession when the team has it, because I like to have fun on the ball. Everyone enjoys soccer more on the ball than off the ball – keeping the ball and getting everyone involved on the team.
“I’ve always wanted to take it to the next level. My dad, when I was young, he would take me to his professional soccer games and I just saw how much fun he had and how excited people were to watch him play. I was like, ‘I want to be like him, and I want to make the fans happy to come watch soccer’.”
His American ‘parent’, Marc Maguire, reveals that Matsoso is a lot more than just a fine footballer.
“He’s a great kid,” Maguire said. “As we got to know him better, we discovered he’s quite hilarious, maybe the funniest person I know. He’s conscientious, he’s a hard worker.”
Matsoso will hope to make an impact for Lesotho at the 2017 COSAFA Castle Cup as they enter at the quarterfinal stage against Namibia on July 1.