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At the age of 30 and without doubt the best striker that South Africa has produced to date, Benedict Saul McCarthy, fondly called Benni, should be there always for his country.
At the age of 30 and without doubt the best striker that South Africa has produced to date, Benedict Saul McCarthy, fondly called Benni, should be there always for his country. Moreso, he is well endowed to offer his striking services even at short notice, having garnered experience traversing four European clubs and winning a Champions League medal in the process, a feat yet to be attained by any player in the entire Southern African region.
Aside from making it to the national team at such an early age, 20, which by African standard in 1987 was auspicious, McCarthy had been put on steady course of stardom and not a few had believed that his crowning glory as the African Footballer of the Year, as the second ever in that region after the Zambian legend Kalusha Bwalya nicked it in 1988, was just around the corner.
The belief could not have been misplaced. After all, McCarthy, in only his first major tournament at the Burkina Faso 1998, had announced his arrival on the continent not only as a silver medal winner at the event, but also as joint top scorer with Egypt’s Hossam Hassan with seven goals. The glory he attained at Burkina Faso was made even glorious as he was plying his trade with Ajax Cape Town, where he was born, at the time.
It did not take more than five months before Dutch club Ajax Amsterdam snapped him up and the star in McCarthy blossomed to no end. But so did his trouble with South Africa begin.
McCarthy would be snapped again by Spanish side Celta Vigo at the end of the 1998/1999 season. But the move would square him against the South Africa Football Association as the country prepared for the Nations Cup 2000 to be co-hosted by Ghana and Nigeria.
In what was feared as the striker’s collusion with the Celta officials, he announced that he would not represent his country. “I have not closed any possibility of attending the Nations Cup finals, but as things stand, it is highly unlikely that I will be there,” he said.
The Bafana Coach, Trott Moloto, was left with the hobson’s choice of pretending that all would go well without the country’s most potent striker. The team struggled to the semifinal, only for Moloto to discover that he his dream was a mirage after his charges were humiliated by Nigeria. McCarthy would compound Moloto’s (and South Africa’s) woe by announcing his retirement from the national team soon after the bi-annual competition. “I think I have had enough and want to concentrate on my club career,” he said with uncommon fulfilment.
Many South African football faithful had been alarmed that the pronouncement had emanated from a mere 23-year-old.
But McCarthy soon renounced his quit decision with the Mali 2002 Nations Cup finals around the corner. He had declared his “preference” for a Bafafa team now coached by Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, although it was a smokescreen to be selected for the Korea/Japan 2002 World Cup. To his luck, however, Quieroz was sacked and home coach Jomo Sono was handed the World Cup-bound team and McCarthy rode easily into the train.
He did not score more than one goal at Korea/Japan. It was not unexpected, nonetheless, from an unsettled mind worn out by non-committed postured. Again, he retired from the national team, citing “irreconcilable differences” with certain officials at SAFA. As expected, he was absent at the Tunisia 2004 Nations Cup finals where South Africa ended as an “also ran”, its worst result suffered at the hands of Nigeria in a group game.
McCarthy returned to the Egypt 2006 Nations Cup finals. But he was no longer motivated to achieve anything. Even at 29 years of age, his sense of patriotism had been replaced with a commitment to club. Critics charged, though, that he had nothing more to offer his country hence his recalcitrance towards SAFA.
He had sought to shame the critics, as it were, ahead of South Africa’s race to the Ghana 2008 finals. But just when his fans expected him to lead the country’s war song in Ghana, Carlos Alberto Parreira delisted him from the squad. It was a bombshell to McCarthy’s apologists. But the Brazilian minder maintained, after a month-long silence, “I am building a team for the future and I see McCarthy as not being part of it.”
Ironically, Parreira would also not be a witness to the “future” he spoke glowingly about. Apparently realising that he laboured in vain to build a team with genuine talents, the kinds that are readily available in his home country, he opted out of his job on “personal grounds”. But not without recommending compatriot Joel Santana who, it being feared, will go the way of Parreira sooner than later.
Santana gave McCarthy a huge leap back to the national team – for obvious reasons. But the controversial Blackburn Rovers forward had another idea. No sooner was he invited for the World Cup and Nations Cup 2010 qualifiers than he delivered yet another bombshell. “I cannot concentrate on the games as I have got to attend to my ailing father,” he told his bewildered fans in May. As would be expected, South Africa has all but missed out of the Nations Cup finals, no thanks to a team lacking in (striking) quality.
How far McCarthy’s goals could have taken the country is not in doubt, considering not only his exploits at Blackburn, but also hiss resilience in front of goal. But no one surely will fail to reckon that he is South Africa’s all-time highest scorer with 30 goals and, certainly, could have rivalled Kalusha Bwalya as the other African best player to emerge from the Southern African region if he had been level-headed.
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