An ode to Benni McCarthy

Guest Post by Mohlomi Maubane

“Why the f**k did he not do that at West Ham!!!” reads a YouTube comment in response to the video clip above featuring Benni McCarthy’s superb free kick in the 2011 Telkom Cup quarterfinal between Orlando Pirates and Moroka Swallows. This is the best goal I have seen in the PSL era: an extraordinary strike in a tense match Pirates were losing by a goal to nil. And while Swallows players were still scratching their heads in bewilderment, he got a second and sealed the match.

West Ham were the last European team McCarthy played for in a chequered 14-year European career whose highlight was a 2004 UEFA Champions League medal with FC Porto under Jose Mourinho. A sometimes controversial character who had endless run-ins with the South African Football Association, Benni set tongues wagging in the local football scene when he decided to return to South Africa. Some critics believed he was over the hill while others knew he still had something to offer. The man himself said he still had a lot of football in him, and with the right service, he would excel. At Orlando Pirates, he found the perfect setting to shine although he would have to do it without Dutch coach Ruud Krol who had just left after three years at the helm.

The Mighty Bucs boasted one of the best squads in the country and were brimming with confidence after winning a treble the previous season. Krol’s long term (at least in South African terms) afforded him the required time to build a team and mould plentiful talent in service of the collective. Team-play became paramount above all else, and prima donnas were booted out. The defense became mean. Opponents learned the hard way that beating Pirates meant playing to the final whistle. For example, in a November league game against Swallows. The Dube Birds looked set for a 1-0 victory, but as my friend Katiso Motaung wryly noted, Pirates managed to turn defense into attack and Jele equalized in the nanoseconds it took the referee to lift the whistle to his mouth to blow full time.

So McCarthy joined a highly motivated and talent-rich team whose only major weakness was the lack of a prolific goal scorer — a problem that went back to the tragic passing away in 2003 of 21-year-old Lesley “Slow Poison” Manyathela. At the beginning of the season, McCarthy promised to score more than 20 goals. While he did not reach that ambitious target, his first touch, his distribution, his intuition, his smarts, and his finishing proved world class. For all the material riches he earned and the medals he won in Europe, watching him in action at the ripe age of 34 left many observers with a lingering feeling that he could have achieved so much more.

That McCarthy managed to adapt so quickly to the South African PSL must also not be taken lightly. PSL football is played at a frantic pace, but the ball actually moves slowly. Players this side of town prefer running with the ball than passing quickly when launching an offensive move. So despite the fast pace, the rhythm is out of tune and many returning football expatriates have been deceived by this factor; running into space expecting an early ball while the midfielder continues to run another 15 or so meters with the ball, which usually leads to the striker being picked up by a defender or caught offside.

But McCarthy always seems to know what to expect. His outstanding displays considered, this Pirates team is by no means a one-man team, and that is perhaps their secret to success. There has always been a player who has risen to the occasion when the need arose. Defenders scored decisive goals when a defeat or loss seemed probable, and the goalkeeper, Moneeb Josephs, turned seemingly guaranteed goals into brilliant saves. Having won consecutive trebles, in the future Bucs’ supporters may well lament underachieving Pirates teams by saying: “If only they were great like the class of 2010/2011 and 2011/2012.”

* This post is republished here with kind permission of Football is Coming Home.

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