Cape Town - Matthew Booth has always vowed that he would bow out of football while at the top of his game.
Last week, the 37-year-old centre-back announced his retirement from the sport and, true to his promise, he is able to hang his boots up with pride. He is still as sprightly as ever - and could, if he really wanted to, continue to play in the Premier Soccer League.
In fact, Wits, the club he played for last season, offered him a lucrative one-year contract extension. The Joburg side was so impressed with the job he did for them last season that they were determined for him to keep going for one more year.
Booth, though, had made up his mind.
He wants to be remembered fondly, for his prowess while still capable at the highest level, rather than - as so many footballers tend to do - go on for too long and finish a career in mediocrity and disappointment.
It has been a long and successful road for the lanky lad from the Mother City.
From Fish Hoek, Booth attended the high school in the area and started his junior career at the suburb’s eponymous football club.
“I was in the Fish Hoek United squad for the under-19 Bayhill tournament and it was there that I was spotted by Mich D’Avray, the coach of Cape Town Spurs,” said Booth. “He persuaded me to come to Spurs and I joined their under-17 squad.
“After leaving school, I was working at Mike Sports in 1994, they were based in Woodstock at the time. I had graduated to the Spurs colts team by then and, after work, had to travel by train from Woodstock to Parow.
“Spurs used the Vasco da Gama fields at that time. After training, it was then all the way back to Fish Hoek. It was tough, but it was worth it. I knew what I wanted to achieve.”
Spurs won the league and cup double in 1995 - but the owner, David Rodwell, soon sold the club to the Comitis family.
Most of the top players left the team and youngsters, like Booth, were drafted into the first team squad. He started his professional career in 1996, alongside experienced players like Shaun Bartlett, Manny and Sebba Rodrigues, Craig Rosslee and Michael Jacobs.
The amalgamation of Spurs and Seven Stars in 1999 led to the formation of Ajax Cape Town.
“I was deemed not suitable for Ajax at the time,” said Booth. “They wanted to fob me off on Mother City, a new club that had started in the Cape. But I wasn’t interested. I took the fight to the owners and eventually became a free agent. I joined Mamelodi Sundowns in Pretoria, where I stayed for three years.”
Booth then went on to play with great distinction in Russia, for clubs like Rostov and Krylia Sovetov.
“I knew nothing about Russia when I made the move,” he said. “To be honest, I went for the money, but, looking back, it was a good decision. I learnt a great deal from the experience and it was a real education for me as a person and a footballer.
“At the time, Russia was starting to spend a lot of money to grow their league. I was able to play with and against top players like Branislav Ivanovic (now with Chelsea), the fantastic Brazilian Wagner Love and Jan Koller (ex-Borussia Dortmund striker).”
Booth was an integral member of the SA under-23 squad that played at the Olympic Games in 2000 in Sydney, and he racked up 37 appearances for Bafana Bafana.
He played in every game of the 2009 Confederations Cup, held in South Africa. He was also in the squad for the 2010 World Cup, but did not get to play.
Having had such a storied career, both locallly and internationally, Booth has strong ideas about the direction of football in the country.
“I think the main issue is that South African football always believes it has to throw money at the problem to make it go away,” said Booth. “And then, when they do throw money, they throw it at the top - PSL and Bafana.
“The problem, of course, is far deeper than that. The word ‘grassroots’ is always bandied about, but that essentially is the problem. There is no developmental system that brings players through to Bafana.
“The money is there, but it appears we don’t have the motivation or the necessary skill to make things happen.
“To add to that, I think far too many people today are involved in the sport for the wrong reasons.”
Booth is married to Sonia (nee Bonneventia), an international model and a former Miss South Africa first princess. They have two sons, Nathan, 9, and Noah, 5.
For now, Booth says he will be staying in Joburg, but the intention is definitely to, some day, return to settle in Cape Town.
As for future plans, Booth said: “It may be a cliche, but I want to give back. Football has given me so much...
“At the moment, I have already started junior coaching clinics in a few public schools. I am starting small, but it will grow bigger over time. I will also be getting other former professionals to get involved in the project.
“In addition, I have been doing some television work for the SABC and some writing for the Sowetan. This is also something I would love to continue.
“And, then, I have also registered to do a BA degree through Unisa, so I have a lot on my plate. I certainly won’t be idle.”
As a final farewell, Booth insisted that this article pay a special tribute to the people of Cape Town.
“With my retirement from the game, I would like to say a big thank to the football fraternity of the Cape. They supported me throughout my career and have always made me feel special. I will always remember that, and treasure the memories.”