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There’s a fascinating quote by popular Hollywood actress, Lupita Nyong’o:

“No matter where you come from but your dreams are valid”

These words have tautened, inspired and have left a taste similar to fresh figs in the millions of people across the globe.

Born 12 November 1977, in Hannover Park, Cape Flats, one of the famous townships in South Africa, located just 14km away from the city of Cape Town; effectively known as Mother City and one of the oldest cities in the country. The distance between the two places might suggest the standard of living doesn’t comprise of a big gap but that isn’t the case at all.

Cape Town is made of beautiful scenery, precious buildings, and historical Table Mountain that have attracted millions of tourists from around the world. Meanwhile, Hannover Park is a place gravely affected with poverty, high rate of unemployment, social illness diseases, and notorious criminal gangs.

Besides poor social development struggle,  there is a boy that battled away from a war-torn zone who defied all odds to shine from the dust street of the township to become a golden boy and a much-celebrated national idol in his homeland. 

A standard Wikipedia search result shows that there have been only two prominent people that have come from this dangerous township, which is amongst a red-hot zone in terms of shooting and killing in South Africa. One of them is Benedict Saul McCarthy, commonly known as Benni

The lethal striker is recognised as the greatest South African player to ever ply his trade in Europe and the Champions League medal achieved during his tenure with FC Porto, the second-most successful team in Primeira Liga in 2004, makes him the only South African to achieve this feat.

The 41-year-old retired footballer is his country’s all-time leading goalscorer with 31 goals in 80 appearances. His achievements were the results of hard work, dedication, passion, and sacrifice of avoiding peer pressure which may have taken his talent before being recognised by football fanatics.

The former Bafana Bafana striker had two siblings, the older brother Jerome, who went on to play professional football for teams like Kaizer Chiefs and Manning Rangers while younger brother Mark played football at Franklin Pierce University in the United States of America. He revealed in an interview that appeared on Timeslive on how late father, Dudley, was in an abusive marriage with his mother – oftentimes he would have to bear witness with his own eyes.

“My mom, unfortunately, was on the end of a beating, and because I was the youngest of three kids at the time, I was always in the house and I was the one who was witnessing all this. Yeah, I just made a promise to myself that I want to work my socks off and make a success of my life so I can get my mother the life that she deserved”

His tough upbringing wasn’t just restricted to the home itself. Outside of it, the trouble seemed never-ending. 

Like every kid growing in Hannover Park, to hear a gunshot isn’t a big deal – recently, the government finally deployed an army unit after more than two decades of outcry from community members requesting better protection as shootings and killings have turned to be a norm to residents. 

Even Benni does carry some scars from the past. At the age of 11, he lost his best friend Reginald through shooting  “We were playing football on a little pitch between the houses. During a break, I went back inside. Suddenly, we heard a couple of gunshots but we didn’t take any notice because you’d hear that all the time. It was no big deal. Then, our little cousin came running in and said our friend, Reginald, had just been shot. We went out, and he was just lying there on the ground.  Reginald would have been a footballer and a half. He had everything. He was quick, very skilful and mentally he was very strong. He would have been the complete player, but he never even got to see 15.” said Benni in an interview. 

He described football as the only thing that made children move from one territory to another. For him, growing up was difficult. Violence at home, losing his best friend and the constant state of fear that every night has to be slept with, this was not easy. It is perhaps this part of his life that made his future success even sweeter, though.

He started amateur football at Cru­saders AFC of Grassy Parks, before securing a first professional contract with Seven Stars in 1995. In the first season with the club, he struggled to hit the ground running, scoring only one goal.

The second season proved to be fruitful as young teenager mes­merised opponents, sharing the club’s Golden Boot award with a veteran, Sean Lodewyk. That season, the pair netted a remarkable 26 goals each. For his great contribution, he was voted as the Seven Stars’ Young Player of the Year. 

Then McCarthy was selected to play for the South Africa U23 side. This came before making his U20 international debut and spoke vol­umes about the player’s quality. 

He joined the top-flight side Cape Town Spurs but didn’t last for too long. Significantly, following just seven games for John Comitis’ Spurs, the 19-year-old was soon making waves in Europe having joined Dutch giants, Ajax Am­sterdam, before the season’s end.

1998 was the year that 20-year-old McCarthy earned international plaudits. The moment of magic came when he netter four times in 21 minutes during an Africam Cup of Nations clash against neighbouring Namibia. He proved his worth with a stellar performance in which his country finished the tournament as runners-up, while McCarthy grabbed the Player of the Tournament award.

Things were certainly moving in the right direction for Bafana Bafana considering that they were already assured of a golden ticket to France to take part in their maiden World Cup finals. That came courtesy of a great strike by Philemon Masinga in a clash against Congo at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg.

South Africa was drawn in Group C along the hosts France, Denmark, and Saudi Arabia. They got thumped 3-0 in the opening by hosts and had to wait to register a first-ever World Cup goal. 

In the second game, they trailed inside 12 minutes against Denmark and there was to be a huge mountain to climb. The moment of brilliance was delivered by McCarthy, beating former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel in the 52nd minutes and that was the first-ever World Cup goal and point for a nation from the Southern African region. There was no better man to put himself into history books rather than the in-form McCarthy and that June day remains one of the finest in South African football folklore. 

McCarthy’s Bafana Bafana career was then filled with high/lows as sometimes the striker opted not to honour the national team call-up and blamed by coaches of being disrespectful. Many football fanatics expected Benni to make the top three of African Player of the Year Award in 2004, after winning Uefa Champions League accolade but failed to make the cut – in which close sources revealed that the selection criteria was based mostly on the national team level. He failed to make a 23 man squad to play 2010 FIFA World Cup in his home soil after facing some stiff competition to Katlego Mphela, who was a goalscoring machine in the ABSA Premiership that time. The striker, however, made a comeback to a national team set up in 2012 in a 1-0 loss against Brazil in which served as his last game wearing Bafana Bafana colours.

Benni wasn’t only clinical in front of goal for the country but he continued to shine in the club level too. He was doing well at Ajax Amsterdam before eventually being sold in 1999 to Celta Vigo for an estimated €7 million, a record fee paid for a South African footballer. 

A new club, a new country, a new language so everything turned to be too much for a striker. He never lived up to the expectations and failed to adapt in Spain. The Sky Blues’ manager back then Ricardo Fernandez, preferred to bench the South African for much of the two years McCarthy was at the club, before being loaned, out to FC Porto. 

He found goalscoring form with 11 goals in 12 games in his loan spell with Porto, but the financial crisis for Portugal outfit was the deciding factor which saw McCarthy heading back to Spain to fight for a place in the starting eleven. In the 2003/04 season, Porto completed €7.8 million transfer to sign the striker on the permanent basis – that time the club had a new manager: a young José Mourinho. 

The South African repaid the club’s faith by hitting the ground running as he won the Golden Boot award in his first season with 20 goals and having a major impact in their Champions League success in 2004 when they beat Monaco in Gelsenkirchen. McCarthy didn’t, however, start the final, instead of coming on as a late substitute once Porto was 3-0 up.

In a side of fine players such as Maniche, Deco, and Costinha, McCarthy’s contribution sometimes goes under the radar, but he was the club’s leading goalscorer that season. Amongst a good crop, his 20 goals also spurred the club to the league title.  

One of the best moments for Benni that season was the crucial brace to sink Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg match in which Porto won 2-1 after United took an early lead in the match through Quinton Fortune.

The big European teams came knocking for Porto stars signatures after they won Champions League trophy as a result in 2004, Deco joined the Spanish giants Barcelona, Pedro Mendes made a switch to Tottenham Hotspur. Meanwhile, Ricardo Carvalho followed coach Jose Mourinho to Chelsea – even Maniche found himself in Russian Premier League outfit Dinamo Moscow. Benni remained the vital cog into the team besides the transfer rumours that he wanted to leave the club. During his three years with Porto, he won two Primeira Liga titles, two Super Cups, one domestic cup and scored 43 goals in 104 appearances in all competitions.

In July 2006 McCarthy flew to England to undergo a medical test ahead of a possible move to Blackburn Rovers. Three days later, he completed a dream move to the Premier League club for an estimated €2.5 million transfer fee and signing a four-year contract. His first season at Ewood Park turned to be a phenomenal one as he scored 18 goals in 24 matches to help Rovers finish 10th in 2006/07 and he finished as the second-highest goalscorer in the league behind Chelsea legend Didier Drogba, who scored 20 goals.

The talisman struggled to replicate the good form he showed in the first season and faced bigger competition from his striking partner, Roque Santa Cruz of Paraguay. He continued to battle for game time which resulted in a move to West Ham in 2010 in the undisclosed fee and ending a challenging four years at Ewood Park.

The reviving career move to Boleyn Ground hammered his career into pieces as he failed to even reach 500 minutes on the pitch for the new club. The issue of being overweight came into light as the club and McCarthy struggled to keep the striker in shape. Age wasn’t on his side and both parties reach an agreement to terminate Benni’s contract in April 2011. He finally opened up about being criticised for being overweight in an interview with Forbes Africa in 2012. 

“I am now finding it easy to stay in shape. The weight issue really came up when I was living and playing in Europe and experimenting with all kinds of food that were new to me. Most of it clearly didn’t agree with my metabolic system, which resulted in me packing on the pounds, but now I know what works and that is how I’m keeping the excess weight off,” he concluded.

Return to South Africa and retirement

Despite receiving good money offers from the USA, China, and Qatar – Benni decided to ignore all of them and made one more impact in his own country. The rumours circulated for quite some time with the most publications in South Africa claiming that only Mamelodi Sundowns could manage to give him a better offer.

On August 2, 2011, it was Orlando Pirates, commonly known as Buccaneers, who announced the signing of veteran striker on a two-year club. The 34-year-old striker back then showed no signs of ageing as he scored a crucial free-kick on the last day of 2011/12 ABSA Premiership League in a 4-2 victory over Golden Arrows as Buccaneers claimed back to back titles. He won two domestic cups, MTN 8 and Telkom Knockout before announcing his retirement from football in 2013.

From a township crippled with criminal activities, drug abuse, the high employment rate, and other social issues, Benedict Saul McCarthy proved that earlier Lupita Nyong’o quote correct. He is a truly South African hero.

Siyabonga, Benni McCarthy!