Benni McCarthy: from gangster leagues to Cape Town City

The press room is full until the very last seat: Benedict Saul McCarthy is back, he accepted the challenge. He’s the new head coach of Cape Town City, a club founded just one year ago that has the ambitious aim of building an alternative football pole to Ajax Cape Town, the academy that for 20 years has been selecting the best Cape Town local talents.

Also Benedict passed from Ajax, the Amsterdam one, in 1997. That was the moment when he realized he had actually made it, finally leaving a difficult life in the suburbs behind him.

The origins of the best South African goalscorer need to be investigated in the streets, a few miles away from the Cape of Good Hope. The end of the 80’s brings in an authentic revolution for the country’s history, with the end of the infamous apartheid era. In Hanover Park, the democratic transition isn’t however so simple, and random anarchy erupts. There, a young McCarthy grows up, under the careful eyes of his parents: every day his father orders him to avoid the local gangs, that are gaining power all over the neighbourhood.

A culture of violence and possession, the one of the gangsters in Hanover Park, as they want to control everything. Football included.

The most loved game of South African townships gets thereby under the local bosses’ control, as they schedule matches and calendars. Meanwhile the little Benedict, already known as Benni, clearly shows he’s a different kid, and wants to show his qualities by any means. He would tell journalist Graham Hunter, in a beautiful interview, the secret of so-called gangster leagues, the amateur leagues completely run by local bosses. Most of the games were played on Sunday and mixed up kids with drug dealers, as if everything was normal. “Football was the only moment in which there was no fight,” says McCarthy.

We beat other gangsters’ teams, we went to rival gangs’ territories, we had fear. Usually going there meant being beaten up. But with football we could go anywhere.

A game that sometimes becomes traumatic, even for a mature kid like Benni. At the age of 11 he loses his best friend, Reginald, shot by mistake while they were playing football in the streets. Benni will then say: “Reginald would have been a footballer and a half. He had everything. He was quick, very skillful and mentally he was very strong. He would have been the complete player, but he never even got to see 15.” It was a difficult wound to heal, but he had to mend it. And football helped him to do it.

We played with our own style called “shoe-shine piano”. We had to polish the ball we were so good not to making it dirty while we were playing with it.

It’s talent, clearly superior to his friends’, to save Benni, that already plays with older guys. Always on Sunday, always in the gangster league, a championship he won’t even abandon when he’ll get a contract from Seven Stars, his first pro-club.

Meanwhile his mother’s shouts press him harder than center-backs and full-backs: “you need to go to school or you won’t play anymore. You have to go to the university, then you’ll think about football!“, McCarthy recalls. The controversial but fundamental relationship with his parents, with his mother reportedly beaten by his father, will be an important matter in Benni’s life, as he’ll always wish to give her “the life she deserved“. He’ll manage to do it thanks to the Game, in South Africa still called with two words, both Football and Soccer. Instead of making different (and probably wrong) choices, as his former schoolmate Gavin did.

He was bullied as a kid because he was small, quiet and a good-looking boy. I was the school’s soccer star and he hung out with me a bit to be on the safe side. The skinny little lad had become the top dog. He was a friend, but their line of work had no place in my life – I don’t like to have to look over my shoulder.

These are the words said by McCarthy in 2015 to FourFourTwo magazine, the untold story of his former friend, at that moment apparently “the number one of drug business in Cape Town“. Benni’s path thereby takes right ways as well as fortuitous opportunities. As the one arrived in 1997, when a fabulous Under 20 World Cup convinces Ajax he’s the right profile: they bring him to Amsterdam and then they would invest a good part of their budget in building the now-famous South African academy, currently in Parow, in the Eastern suburbs of Cape Town. His Seven Stars don’t exist anymore, part of the new Dutch-made project.

Benni says farewell to the world that grew him up, “gangster leagues” and suburbs, and in fact leaves a heavy legacy, Ajax Cape Town.

He’s already focused to Europe, where he finds “fantastic coaches“, decisive in his formation: Co Adriaanse, Louis van Gaal, Morten Olsen and, last but not least, José Mourinho. Benni learns from them every detail and saves in his mind the different styles of his coaches.

The rest is history. McCarthy becomes the first South African player to win the Champions League, an apparently-impossible challenge won by Mourinho’s FC Porto. Then he obtains satisfactory records for both Celta Vigo and Blackburn Rovers, before coming back home to Johannesburg and wearing Orlando Pirates‘ shirt. His future already seems clear.

I think there’s room in football for people like me. Because I know where I come from, what I had to do to arrive where I am now, and I had to work damn hard, probably harder than many other people.

His homecoming would have happened just two weeks later. Benni is convinced by the Cape Town City project, a club founded in 2016 with the ambition of unifying in one soul the many faces of Cape Town. That’s the dream of John Comitis, entrepreneur, president and founder of the team that openly challenges the Ajax model, a club of which he had even owned some shares and that did never really conquer the many supporters’ hearts beating in the South African metropolis. And how did the chairman chose him? By asking directly to the football fans in town. From one taxi to another, there’s just one answer: Benni McCarthy, a man that knows by heart the local reality and has a clear opinion on the recent developments of local football schools.

When I look at clubs and academies, I see so many wrongs in our football, that’s because they forgot the essence of being a football player. That’s to have the passion, to play football purely because you love it, not because of what you can earn from it. Sometimes football players feel too comfortable. We have to get back to the time when you had to earn every single thing.

Surely anything was gifted to Benni, and he learnt how to build his career step by step. Now he’s looking forward to his new challenge, Premier Soccer League, certainly one of the most interesting championships of the whole African continent: the giants in Pretoria and Johannesburg in Football could finally have an opponent from a different town. This is Cape Town City‘s most demanding challenge, as even Ajax couldn’t manage to achieve the most difficult feat: bringing back the title under the Table Mountain’s shadow.

And for Benedict Saul McCarthy, once a kid from the streets and now a head coach, that’s impossible to refuse such a difficult challenge.

Photo McCarthy Porto ©LaPresse
Photo McCarthy Seven Stars and McCarthy/Comitis ©GalloImages
Photo Hanover Park ©Emily Jan
Cover Photo ©Cape Town City FC