Two beers and two goals that sent the nation into party mode in 1996
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By Matshelane Mamabolo
JOHANNESBURG - Tuesday morning in the Mark Williams household and the man of the house’s multi-tasking skills are put to the test as he tries to juggle a newspaper interview with giving his toddler daughter attention.
He does both almost as brilliantly as he did when he performed the role of Bafana Bafana super-sub with aplomb to send the nation into party mode. His brace at a packed FNB Stadium on February 3 helped South Africa win the Africa Cup of Nations.
Our interview is on the eve of the 25th anniversary and Williams fondly remembers that Friday. It was an eventful Friday that involved two fascinating games of pool and a solitary night out on the town for two bottles of Heineken.
Yes, Williams went out ‘partying’ on the eve of the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations final and still got off the bench and scored the goals that saw Bafana beat Tunisia 2-0 to be crowned continental champions for the first and only time.
“Of course, I remember that day,” he says. “I was happy because my mom had made the trip from England to come watch the final. And she and some of my family prayed for me. In the evening I played a game of pool. We had been in camp for over 25 days and I had won every game I played. I was Bafana’s pool champion, but that night Clive (Barker, the coach) beat me. I went to my room devastated. I just couldn’t understand how the old man had beaten me.”
Williams demanded a rematch. “I knocked on Clive’s door at about 10pm and he wouldn’t let me in. I asked that we go and play another game and he told me to go to sleep because there was a big match coming up. But I kept pestering him and his wife told him to ‘just go play with Mark because you can see he’s not going to go away’. He relented and I beat him in about two minutes. I was delighted.”
On their way to their rooms, they bumped into the late Budgie Byrne who was part of the Bafana technical team.
“Budgie had been my coach at Hellenic and he knew what I was capable of as a player. So, when Clive asked him if he thought I was ready for the match he responded: ‘If there’s one guy who’s going to do it for you tomorrow, it is Mark’. I felt good hearing Budgie say that and it made me look forward to the next day with excitement.”
Instead of going to sleep, Williams headed to Rosebank.
“I got to a pub in Rosebank and found a few members of the 1995 World Cup-winning Springbok team there. They were all shocked to see me out so late the night before such a big match. ‘Mark, what are you doing here? You have a match tomorrow.’ But I told them I was just out for a couple of drinks and I got myself a Heineken.”
The pub he was at was owned by the son of Natasha Tsichlas – a member of the South African Football Association’s leadership – and he informed her that Williams was out.
“When I ordered a second drink, he told me the bar was closed, clearly as per Natasha’s instruction. But James Dalton lifted me over the bar and I started pretending to be the barman and shouted that ‘the bar is open again’. I had my second drink and headed back to the hotel.”
Then president Nelson Mandela visited the team to wish them well.
“Mr Mandela said to me ’good morning Mark’. I could not believe it. The president knew my name. It was an amazing feeling.”
What Mark could not believe too – later – was that he was not in the starting eleven.
“Going into the final I was the top scorer. Phil (Masinga) was 80% fit, so I was confident I would be starting. I even put on my jersey only for Andre (Arendse) to tell me I was not in the team. I was a bit disappointed, but I was in the first 18 and I decided I will take my chance should it come.”
Williams went on as a substitute after having ‘schemed with the crowd’ to get Barker to give him a run.
“While sitting on the bench, I moved towards the end of it and took my head out so that the crowd could see me. They started chanting ‘Free Willy, Free Willy,’ and eventually I stood up and warmed up even before Clive told me to.”
Williams scored with a header and a shot across the goalkeeper to give Bafana the title.