CAPE TOWN – In 1976, in the era of segregated football, Cape Town City were crowned champions in the white-aligned National Football League (NFL).
The following year, 1977, in circumstances far removed, and totally different from the contented, closeted surroundings within which City were operating at the time, Benni McCarthy was born.
Perhaps back then, when the world was dark with oppression, destiny was already starting to pave the path that would eventually bring us to where we are today.
In the intervening decades, there has been plenty of joy and pain, much to celebrate and even more to lament.
So, McCarthy’s appointment this week as the new head coach of City is a metaphor of what this country has been through, and he’s a symbol of the resilience of the South African psyche.
Growing up in impoverished Hanover Park, as a football-mad kid, McCarthy was always regaled about tales of the success of the old City, and also of the great professional clubs within his own community, like Cape Town Spurs, Glenville, Glendene, Santos and Battswood.
Today, in charge of the new City, he is chuffed at the progress we have made as a nation.
The club he is in charge of now is representative of the entire country. It attracts followers from all races, cultures, creeds and communities. He is hoping that his elevation as the club’s new coach will add to the team’s growing cross-spectrum appeal.
“It’s an opportunity to unify everything, to put behind us what was there before,” said McCarthy. “While our people may have been excluded from this club before, this is now a club for everybody, from all walks of life.
“I have been overwhelmed with the reception I have received and the support I am getting. I’m looking forward to it and keen to take Cape football forward. This is my first opportunity as a head coach, and it’s in my home town. For me, I love this game, it gave me everything I’ve got and just can’t be without it.
“I will work hard and, together with the club, my technical staff, the players and the admin staff, we will endeavour to change football in the Cape.”
Fully aware the challenge facing him in his first job as a head coach, the 39-year-old former Bafana Bafana striker gave some insight into his plans.
“City finished third in the PSL last season and that was an incredible achievement,” he said. “They were amazing and did a lot more than many would have expected. This team has already got something going, so, in looking forward, I want to add to that success.
“Firstly, we will definitely have to have a bigger squad because of next season’s participation in the CAF Confederation Cup. I’m not coming in to disrupt things, just tweak here and there, and bring in some reinforcements where needed.
“I just want to add on to the team’s success and get them to achieve even more. Most importantly, I want there to be competition for places among the players because that brings the hard work out in everyone.
“I still have to discuss with the chairman (John Comitis) how important the Confederation Cup ranks for the club. For me, on a personal note, I want to win everything. If we are capable of mounting a challenge on the continent, then I want to go for it. Every game is an opportunity to win, an opportunity to prove yourself.”
One aspect that always dominates discussions in local football concerns style, and how a coach sees his team playing. McCarthy, too, has been pestered with such questions; new to the coaching game, what are his objectives in this regard with City?
“The way I see my style of play is that I want my team to dominate games,” said the coach. “I know that there will be times when it will be difficult, when we are on the back foot, but even then I want my team to control the outcome of the game.
“Last season, you saw that City used the game plan of sucking in the opposition and then hitting them on the counter, so that already is a missile I have in my arsenal. But, importantly, I want to go toe-to-toe with the big teams who are comfortable on the ball and love to have possession.
“I want my team to play good football when they can, but I know that sometimes it will be tough, it will be ugly. It is during such times, though, that I still want them to get the result. Because, in football, it doesn’t matter how, it’s always the result that counts, it doesn’t matter how you get it.
“So I want variety – I want to play attractive football, but at the same time, I want the team to be just effective when they are on the back foot.”
The major stumbling block to progress in South African football is the absence of goals. There is a lack of composure in the penalty area and a dearth of top-class, quality strikers.
With McCarthy’s experience as a forward who has scored goals across the world, in the major European leagues and at international level, he believes he can a play a role in trying to improve this area of the game.
“Obviously, working on the strikers is something I will do at training,” he said. “But the important point is that players have to realise that a coach can only do so much at training. At the end of the day, it’s up to them to put in the extra work. I remember back in my playing days, I used to use my off-days to keep practising, to keep hitting targets with the ball, to keep working on my finishing.
“Importantly, though, a team shouldn’t just rely on strikers to get goals, the entire team must be ready to score when the opportunity comes. Look at City’s Lebogang Manyama, he’s a midfielder, but he can get you more than 10 goals a season.
“But goals, scoring and improving strikers will be something I will be very hands-on with at training.”
With this being McCarthy’s first stint in charge, there’s no doubt that he will need support, advice and guidance as he finds his feet as a coach. He cannot do this alone – the sink or swim approach will be very detrimental to City’s ambitions.
It is with this in mind that club boss Comitis has stressed that the new coach will be given every support from everybody at the club. The priority is to make McCarthy’s transition from player to coach as easy as possible.
“I’m just glad to have found a coach who relates to me in ambition,” said Comitis. “Yes, he’s a new coach, but I can assure you that the entire club will be fully behind him in support. He won’t be alone, we will make sure that he has everything at his disposal to make a success of the job.”