From the rough and violent streets of the Cape Flats one of South Africa’s all time greatest talents Benni McCarthy was found.
Born in November 1977, the South African football legend has one of the most successful and inspiring football stories in Mzansi.
As a youngster, McCarthy played for youth teams Young Pirates and the Crusaders before signing his first professional contract with Seven Stars from 1995 to 1997, which is where he showed his early killer instinct as a lethal striker scoring 38 goals in 56 appearances for the club in the two-year period he spent with them before moving to Cape Town Spurs.
Stars would later merge with Cape Town Spurs to form Ajax Cape Town which became a feeder team for Ajax Amsterdam. McCarthy, meanwhile, travelled with the SA U20 squad to the 1997 Africa Youth Championships and eventually to the World Youth Championships held in Malaysia, where he caught the eye of the European scouts.
McCarthy eventually decided to join Ajax Amsterdam in Holland a football club famously known for having one of the best football development structures in the world.
McCarthy would play alongside the likes of Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and many young talented players who went on to make a name for themselves in world football in the 90s and early 2000s.
In his first season in Holland McCarthy scored 9 decisive goals in the Eredivisie which helped the Dutch giants to a League and Dutch cup triumph.
The striker would have a great second season in the 1998-99 season going on to be one of the club’s top scorers and winning the Dutch cup again in the process. It was only a matter of time before McCarty’s performances earned him a move to a bigger League in Europe and indeed Spanish La Liga side Celta Vigo came knocking for his signature in 1999 paying a reported 6.5 million Euros which was big money for a player at the time.
This made McCarthy the most expensive South African player at the time, just 21 years old. He left for Spain having scored 20 goals in 36 league appearances for Ajax Amsterdam. McCarthy played in the UEFA Champions League with Ajax and in the two seasons he spent in the Netherlands he already had three trophies to his name at just 21, not a bad start to a career in Europe.
In 1998, McCarthy played in the Africa Cup of Nations, helping Bafana Bafana to a second place finish. He was named the Best Player in the tournament after finishing as joint top scorer alongside Egypt’s Hossam Hassan, whose country beat SA 2-0 in the decider.
The same year Bafana Bafana featured in their first ever World Cup, hosted by France and were knocked out in the first round, but McCarthy was in the history books as the first South African to score in the World Cup when Bafana drew 1-1 with Denmark.
Between 1999 and 2003 McCarthy would experience a lot of ups and downs in his career as he hit a stabling block in Spain not being able to break into the starting XI of then Celta coach Victor Fernandes.
In the 2001/02 season he was loaned out to Portuguese giants FC Porto where he had a successful loan rediscovering his form under a young upcoming coach by the name of Jose Mourinho who would go on to change McCarthy’s fortunes in the near future.
In 2000, McCarthy went to the Sydney Olympics with SA’s U23 side under coach, Shakes Mashaba. Even though they did not make it out of the group stage, they surprised all and sundry by beating Brazil 3-1, with McCarthy amongst the scorers.
In 2002, McCarthy was part of the Bafana squad that was knocked out in the quarterfinals of the Africa Cup of Nations by hosts Mali and McCarthy later on played for the senior national team at the World Cup and McCarthy managed to score in the 3-2 defeat to Spain, but Bafana were again knocked out in the first round.
After the Afcon a confident and rejuvenated McCarthy would go back to FC Porto to score 12 goals in 11 matches to help them secure an automatic qualification spot to the UEFA Cup after finishing third in the league. Porto was desperate to make McCarthy’s stay permanent in Portugal but the club was struggling financially and could not succeed which led to McCarthy’s worst nightmare of having to go back to that very same fellow who didn’t like him at Celta, Mr Fernandes, who would take the striker back to the bench again for the 2002-03 season – a very frustrating time for the man from Cape Town.
That season Porto was back to its best under coach Jose Mourihno winning the Taca de Portugal and the UEFA Cup which was heart breaking for McCarthy who had been part of the initial foundation of that project.
After a frustrating season with Celta, McCarthy’s wish came through when Porto sold Helder Postiga to Tottenham Hotspur and would immediately use that money to but him from Celta and take him out of his misery and bad dreams with Fernandes.
Benni McCarthy scored 10 goals in 66 appearances for Celta in his years there.
McCarthy, now back at Porto during the 2003-2006 period, was a machine helping FC Porto to their famous fairytale Champions League triumph in 2004, a Taca de Portugal and two Primeira Liga titles. His tally of 20 goals won him the Golden Boot as well in the 2003/04 season, which was his highest league scoring season in Europe and it showed that the former Amsterdam man was now entering a big stage in his career.
McCarthy also scored a memorable two goals in the Champions League knockout round to eliminate giants Manchester United, a memory which still lives long in the memory of many South Africans.
Every good story comes to an end right? Well, this was the case when FC Porto had to sell McCarthy to English Premier League side Blackburn Rovers before the 2006/07 season after McCarthy had contributed 46 goals in 85 games overall during both the loan spell and his time as a permanent player in Portugal.
McCarthy would make an instant impact in Blackburn scoring on his debut for the club against Everton and later scoring on his European debut against Red Bull Salzburg which made most Rovers fans start to like the player in his first few months there. McCarthy continued his super goal scoring form where he left off at Porto going on to score 18 goals in the EPL just a goal shy of top scorer Didier Drogba with 19.
The striker then finished the season with 24 goals in all competitions, a dream start to what was considered one of the best Leagues in the world.
In the 2007/08 season an opening day injury took him out for months which led to him not being able to permanently come back to the team with new striker Roque Santa Cruiz banging the net for Rovers in a season where he finished with 11 goals in all competitions.
The following season McCarthy would struggle even further as he was out of favour with coach Paul Ince. The striker decided to leave Blackburn after making 140 appearance scoring 54 times in all competitions at his time there.
Halfway through the Premier League season McCarthy signed for West Ham United and moved to London in another period that was met with a lot of criticism about his weight.
A knee injury took him out of action for weeks and later he would fail to make an impact upon his return which led to him eventually mutually terminating his contract with West ham in 2011 after just 14 appearances in all competitions without scoring a goal for the London club.
McCarthy was then left out of SA’s 2010 World Cup squad, a decision that divide the nation.
After 14 years abroad, McCarthy would make a decision to come back home to end his career in South Africa and he signed a two-year-deal in August 2011 with Soweto giants Orlando Pirates scoring a goal on debut against Black Leopards in a 2-0 victory at the Peter Mokaba stadium.
McCarthy would go on to help the Buccaneers retain the Absa Premiership title in the 2011/12 season. The striker had now won three league tittles in his career having won titles with Ajax Amsterdam, FC Porto and now Pirates in his home country.
McCarthy retired from football at the age of 35 after having scored 10 goals for Pirates in 24 games in the League.
Overall, McCarthy scored a total 161 league goals in 387 appearances.
In international football, he is still the all-time leading scorer for Bafana with 31 goals from 80 appearances.
A few years later, McCarthy would be involved in the youth set up a Scottish side Hibernian before later acquiring a job at Belgian top tier side Sint-Truidense as an assistant coach while in the process of acquiring his football coaching badges.
In 2017, McCarthy made a move back to Cape Town joining newly formed Cape Town City whom he helped to MTN8 triumph in 2018.
He was sacked in 2019 due to poor League form despite having had a few good seasons with the club. McCarthy later came out and claimed that there was interference from the club’s management about player selection and transfers.
It remains to be seen what McCarthy’s next move will be, but with his success on the field in his career he deserves the status of a South African legend.
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By Prince Sobayeni