Johannesburg - At 4:58pm on Sunday, May 15, as the setting sun was fast turning the Atteridgeville horizon a beautiful dark orange, Jomo Sono strolled off the pitch at the near-empty Lucas Moripe Stadium sporting a smile that masked the reality of his situation.
For in addition to disappearing into the bowels of the arena, Sono was also making an exit from the local professional football scene – his club, Jomo Cosmos, relegated from the second-tier Gladafrica Championship to the amateur ABC Motsepe League.
It was a dignified exit, if ever there is such. Cosmos recorded an impressive, come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Pretoria Callies, a win that would no doubt have given the club’s El Supremo confidence he can stage a swift comeback.
And his demeanour as his colourful professional coaching career went into the proverbial sunset, told the story of a man not only at peace with his fate, but one who also believes he can turn his fortunes around.
Resplendent in luminous green sneakers, grey tracksuit pants and a black bomber jacket, Bra J walked with a spring in his step and his head – covered, as usual, in a black cap – held high.
That walk was a huge contrast to the one in 2001 at the FNB Stadium during the halftime of the Coca-cola Cup final against Kaizer Chiefs. Back then, with Ezenkosi trailing Amakhosi 1-0, he looked a defeated man as he headed to the dressing room. His back hunched, he had his eyes on the floor and hardly engaged his players as they went for the break. I remember telling some colleagues in the press box that there was no way Cosmos would get back into the game. They didn’t and instead got hammered 5-1 as Jabu Pule (now Mahlangu) delivered a masterclass.
At the Lucas Moripe Stadium on Sunday, however, you got the feeling he was a man with a plan to change things for the better. And that will not be buying someone’s status as he said immediately upon confirmation of Cosmos’ relegation two matches earlier. The team’s performance against Callies suggested they will be too good for the ABC Motsepe League.
No doubt, many will agree that Mjomana belongs in the professional league, his stubborn insistence on remaining coach and club owner notwithstanding.
This, after all, is the Black Prince of South African football – arguably the best player the country has ever produced and a scout supreme, whose eye for talent has seen to the discovery and development of many of Mzansi’s top players over the years.
I saw him play towards the end of his career at a Cosmos side he had formed by buying Dion Highlands Park in 1983, following his summer experiences of the North American League. He named the club after his first American side New York Cosmos, at which he had the great Pele for a teammate. Jomo played for Colorado Caribous as well as Toronto Blizzards.
And though he was no longer the lean wizard of dribble who turned out for Orlando Pirates in his younger days, Matsilele Sono still had it alright. Apart from Mlungisi "Professor" Ngubane, I have never seen anyone locally bend the ball from a free kick as brilliantly as Bra J did.
One match I remember him for is the 1986 Mainstay Cup final against Mamelodi Sundowns. Jomo dictating play in rainy conditions and almost scoring, only to see his attempt getting stuck, stopped in the puddle on the goal line with Mark Anderson a beaten man.
I digress though, for it is Jomo the coach we are talking about here.
To say he was a shrewd coach would be putting it mildly; Bra J was a master of gamesmanship. I covered a lot of Cosmos’ matches when they played at the Pam Brink Stadium in the early years of the Premier Soccer League – and visitors to the Springs. One trick of his was to have milk sprayed in the opposition’s dressing room to leave them thinking there was muti being used against them. A few clubs refused to use the dressing room and kitted up in their bus, making for uncomfortable pre-match and halftime team talks.
If that pre-match intimidation failed, opposition clubs always knew they were in for it on the field of play – Sono having strangely gotten Cosmos to play the kind of football at odds with the player he was.
A mesmerising ball player and lethal attacker in his day, he inexplicably had Cosmos playing defensive football, distinguished by his players being hard tacklers of note. Any team that was to square up to Ezenkosi knew there was to be no mercy from the likes of Andrew "Jaws of Life" Rabutla, Hilton Jordan, Collen "Stone" Tlemo, Thabang Molefe and others.
Mkhalele himself was one of the many exciting stars to come out of the Sono production line before the advent of the Premier League, along with luminaries such as the late Sizwe Motaung, Phil Masinga and Thomas Madigage, as well as the likes of Eugene Zwane, Mark Fish, Innocent Mncwango and Linda Buthelezi.
Year in and year out we saw him introduce a new talent – the likes of Benjamin Mwaruwaru, Nkosinathi Nhleko, Chris Katongo, Macbeth Sibaya – only to sell them to overseas clubs just as we were beginning to think he was building a team capable of challenging for honours. You wonder just what would have happened had he not been as business minded as he was. It should not be forgotten though that he managed to win two trophies – the 2002 Coca-cola Cup as well as the SAA Supa8 in 2003.
He had also coached Cosmos to a fantastic run in the 1993 CAF Cup, colleagues thought it was a good idea because it would “bring South Africans together”. Boy it succeeded.
Watch: Today we pay tribute to African football giant, Dr Jomo Sono who goes down memory lane in this interview about what it took to achieve greatness.— Min. Nathi Mthethwa (@NathiMthethwaSA) May 20, 2022
At the age of 18, he won sportsman of the year after winning 5 trophies with @OrlandoPirates & scoring 58 goals. 🇿![CDATA]>🇦 pic.twitter.com/U4rlHJFzHj
That successful’ safari on the continent cost them their elite league status, Cosmos getting relegated and Bra J selling a good number of his stars to Orlando Pirates.
Not surprising then that the Buccaneers were crowned league champions in 1994, before going on to conquer Africa a year later.
Most of those graduates from the "Sono School of Football" were in the Bafana Bafana squad that won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996. The man sometimes referred to as the Troublemaker was also the squad’s technical director, a fact he loves to point out whenever someone showers all praises for that success on Clive Barker.
Cosmos' demise as a professional club gives credence to the general assertion by many in the game that Sono overstayed as a club coach.
Yet if anyone can rescue Ezenkosi and bring them back up to the professional ranks, it is Bra J. And last Sunday, as he scrolled into the sunset, he had the aura of a man assured he would do exactly that.