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Percy's Tao: The South Africa striker's winding road to Brugge

As a kid dashing through the streets, ball at feet, in the mining town of Witbank in Mpumalanga, South Africa striker Percy Tau was at his happiest. 

Now, watching him, it's obvious nothing much has changed. Tau is still famously driven by this same child-like love and passion for football. It kept him going during a difficult childhood growing up, and it energised his efforts to make the sport his family's route out of hardship.

It was this same passion that inspired his success with champion South African club Mamelodi Sundowns, and with his country's national team, Bafana Bafana (The Boys).

It fuelled his first foray on the European stage with Royal Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium's Second Division last season - and it will, no doubt, continue to influence his latest venture at Club Brugge in Belgium's top division.

Signed by Brighton & Hove Albion last year, work permit issues have prevented Tau from actually playing for the English Premier League club. South Africa's lowly FIFA ranking, outside the top 50 required for a permit, continues to scupper his EPL chances.

He was sent on loan to Saint-Gilloise -- the club is owned by Brighton chairman Tony Bloom -- and the South African made a huge impact by scoring six goals and seven assists, which led to him being crowned Player of the Season in the Belgian Second Division.

Again on loan, which is certainly proof of Brighton's continued interest in the player, the striker scored on his debut for Brugge earlier this month, and will hope to add to his tally when he faces Genk on Sunday.

Tau's tale is similar to that of South Africa legend Benni McCarthy, who hauled himself out of adversity and danger in the gang-ridden Cape Flats township of Hanover Park to go on and win the UEFA Champions League with FC Porto.

Now, like McCarthy back then, Tau is South Africa's most talked-about footballer. He's a man on the move. He may only be at the start of his European journey, but McCarthy has no doubt the striker will succeed.

"At this moment in time, I think Percy Tau is the best player we have in the country," McCarthy tells ESPN.

"I think he is mentally very strong-willed and he has great way about him, in that he is always looking to improve himself as a player.

"When you see him on the pitch, he is always so confident - and that is so important; it's not something you see with a lot of South African players at the moment, even at international level.

"So, for me, I'm a big Percy Tau fan. He has an incredible future ahead of him. He just has to stay as positive as he is, and play with the creativity that he's got, and it will come."

An all-action footballer, Tau's every touch of the ball is driven by passion. He revels in the joy of playing football. The animation that drives his game is the same ardour which triggered his childhood ambitions.

Tau, then still a teenager, joined up with Sundowns' senior squad in 2013 and made his debut in SA's Premier League the following year.

The main man in the Sundowns team at the time was Teko Modise, twice a winner of the country's Footballer of the Year award (2008 and 2009). Tau won this same award in 2018.

Modise clearly remembers when a young but highly ambitious Tau first came into the Sundowns senior team.

"When Percy arrived as youngster, we could all see the talent that he had from the get-go," Modise tells ESPN.

"We could see the potential he had. He was still developing, but it was clear he just needed a chance to showcase his talent. When he started his first game in the first team, he scored - and it was from an assist by me. He was so happy. He has always been a player who wanted to learn and wanted to grow.

"I saw his progression first-hand. Fortunately, for me, he always wanted to be next to me and I was always advising him about football. It wasn't difficult to see that he was going to be great.

"But, to be honest, I didn't think it would be that quick. We knew he had massive talent. But I think it was his confidence that gave him the edge over his peers. His confidence helped him to progress very quickly.

"We always spoke football. But he never asked me about wanting to be a superstar. For him, it was advice about what he should do when receiving the ball in tight spaces, or about situations in the game itself. Or asking how he played - he wanted feedback.

"He wanted advice on how could improve, and that brought great joy to me because young players today think they know it all. But Percy wanted to learn; he wanted to know more, and that attitude helped a lot in him making such huge strides as a player over the last two or three years."

Modise and McCarthy believe Tau will get even better now that he is at Brugge and, sooner rather than later, he will have an opportunity to shine in one of Europe's elite leagues.

"It's a matter of time before he eventually gets into England," says McCarthy. "But, for now, staying in Europe, he will be [visible to] the big European leagues.

"He may not get the opportunity to go to England now because of the work permit situation, but he is in Belgium and it will allow him to be seen. If Brighton don't move on him next season, he can then make a move to a bigger team in Germany, in Spain or in Italy.

"When you are in Europe, you are in competition against players from so many different nations - and the longer he stays in Europe, he will gain more experience, he will get better as a player, and Bafana will benefit from his stay overseas."

Modise agrees, adding: "Percy's still young, but he has a bright future. It takes time, he needs to be patient. I think he's an amazing player, and this season we will see a different Percy - he will be even better, for club and country."

But Tau is not all football. He's a thinker, a planner, an individual who sets himself goals and then goes after it, with steely determination.

Example: During his time with Sundowns, when travelling to games in South Africa or on the rest of the continent (for the African Champions League), Tau would also be focused on his books, reading and studying. Earlier this year it paid off, when he graduated from the University of South Africa with a B.Com degree.

In a modern football world populated by ego and avarice, Tau's passion and devotion are a throwback to the sport's good, old days: when it was played for fun; when love for the ball was all that mattered. It may seem quixotic, but it's certainly refreshing.

"If he eventually does get to Brighton," adds McCarthy, "he will succeed. Percy is a tough boy, he is not a softie. He can withstand the tough tackles.

"He's got the speed, which is so important playing in the top European leagues, and he's got the guile, skill, and intelligence.

"I will put my head on the block, Percy will be unbelievable, incredible, when he gets to England."

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