CAPE TOWN – When Benni McCarthy walked into Tuesday's press conference, after being announced as the new head coach of Cape Town City, that persistent but always evocative camera lens in my mind started whirring and rewinding through the years.
It went back to the early 1990s when the spindly McCarthy was just a slip of a lad – he must have been around 13 or 14, but he was a regular visitor in the Santos dressing-room, where his big brother Jerome was my teammate. Even then, the teenager was spoken of as being hugely talented and a kid to watch.
A few years later in 1995, at the age of 17, he was given his start in big-time football by current PSL title-winning coach Gavin Hunt at Seven Stars in the First Division. In 1997, John Comitis, then the owner of Cape Town Spurs, took McCarthy on loan to the PSL side.
The exciting, burgeoning teenager took the top-flight by storm, scoring both Spurs' goals in a 2-1 away win over Kaizer Chiefs.
After that performance, Comitis said Chiefs boss Kaizer Motaung phoned him and asked: “Where did you get that player from? I have never seen a young footballer with such a football brain in a long time.” The rest, of course, is history.
At that time, I had just quit my job as an English teacher at Elsies River High School (we were semi-pro footballers because there wasn’t a lot of money in the game), and I had started to work as a football journalist at kickoff magazine.
Again, McCarthy and I were to cross paths. He was on his way to take up his contract with Ajax Amsterdam – and I had the honour of doing the final interview he gave before he left for the Netherlands. On Tuesday, when we had a quick chat, we spoke about both incidents – and how, amazingly, it had all come full circle. I guess, life’s just like that
But, once all the glitz and glamour, and hype and hysteria, have died down, McCarthy faces a real tough challenge. He’s a hero in Cape Town, there’s no doubt about that – but now he will really be tested. And he cannot bank on his hero status. As a player, you rely on yourself, on your own ability. But, as a coach, it’s out of your hands, you have to rely on the men you send on to the field.
City have set the bar very high – third on the PSL standings and the Telkom Knockout Cup. McCarthy will have to hit the ground running next season, not only because of what the Cape club has managed to achieve in its debut campaign, but also because of the expectation and excitement around his appointment.
The one thing in McCarthy’s favour is his ambition, something he spoke about quite frankly. Like his predecessor, Eric Tinkler, McCarthy is just as aspirational, just as determined to ensure his coaching career emulates the success of his playing career.
McCarthy used the example of the time he joined FC Porto. They were Portuguese champions and had won the Europa League. What more could he add? Simple, he worked harder, he pushed himself, he inspired those around him – and FC Porto went on to win the UEFA Champions League. They had gone one better.
At City, he wants to bring the same. After all the team had achieved last season, he wants them to be ambitious, he wants them to go one better, to achieve even more. He has the ambition, and he wants the squad to tag along for the ride, with the same ambition.
It’s certainly a huge task. The challenge will probably be a lot more difficult than anything McCarthy experienced during his playing days. And it’s not just the PSL, where City are now a team to watch, but also the CAF Confederation Cup which the Cape club has to tackle next season.
McCarthy doesn’t have the experience, but he has the drive. He may be green, but he’s really keen. It will be interesting to see how he goes.