Benni McCarthy, One-on-One: “I was heartbroken to score twice against Man United – and Mourinho hammered me for it”

Benni McCarthy

Just how dangerous was Cape Town's 'gangster league'? Was life good at Jose's Porto? And was he really 'too fat' for Big Sam?

Portrait: Chris Close

Images of South African striker Benedict Saul ‘Benni’ McCarthy wearing a kilt “the proper way” isn’t quite what we expected. But then the former striker has called Edinburgh home since retiring in 2013.

“I promised my wife we’d move here and it’s a beautiful place,” says Bafana Bafana’s all-time leading scorer, now 39 and an UEFA A-Licenced coach. 

The 80-cap striker became the first South African to score in the World Cup finals and later the first to win the Champions League. McCarthy is in fine form over lunch with FFT on the historic George Street, as he recalls life growing up in a Cape Flats ghetto before playing in Holland, Spain, Portugal, England, South Africa again and, er, the Scottish Lowland Football League.

His isn’t a well-trodden path, but it’s one McCarthy is only too happy to recount.

Benni McCarthy

Hands up if you're ready to answer FFT's questions

FACT FILE

  • Full name Benedict Saul McCarthy
  • Date of birth Nov 12, 1977
  • Place of birth Cape Town, South Africa
  • Height 6ft
  • Position Striker
 

What is your earliest football memory?
Elizabeth Morgan, Sittingbourne

Growing up in Hanover Park, Cape Town and playing in the gangster league. That helped turn me into the person and player I became. I was 12 and playing against grown men – that makes you grow up very quickly! Cape Town is full of gangs, but the violence stopped on a Sunday to make time for football.

On Monday it would resume. Huge tournaments took place; we called it ‘the Bundesliga’ because the ‘Bundes’ were blocks between the rival gang areas where nobody dared go. I played for the American gang – a wealthy gang because of the drug money. We wore Brazil’s kits and had players who played at a higher level. Tournaments would always be for money – and big money too. We’d share that out between the players.

Cape Town

McCarthy grew up in Cape Town in the 1980s

Is it true that one of your school friends became one of the city’s biggest gangsters? Is he still alive? How did you keep out of trouble?
Nathan Simmons, via Twitter

He started hanging out with the wrong crowd and became an infamous drug lord

It’s true. Gavin. He was my mate and in my class at school. He was bullied as a kid because he was small, quiet and a good-looking boy. I was the school’s soccer star and he hung out with me a bit to be on the safe side. At grade six [equivalent to year six] he grew quickly – and he wasn’t small anymore.

He started hanging out with the wrong crowd and became an infamous drug lord. I met his younger brother years later and he said: “Gavin tells all his friends about you; he’d love to see you.” I went to see him on my next trip to Cape Town. I was earning massive money as a footballer but I couldn’t afford the house that Gavin lived in. It was like something out of a movie: a mansion with rottweilers and bodyguards holding guns.

The skinny little lad had become the top dog. He was a friend, but their line of work had no place in my life – I don’t like to have to look over my shoulder.

Rottweiler

McCarthy couldn't afford his friend's mansion, but he probably has enough for a rottweiler

I’ve read you were a petty thief on Cape Town trains as a kid. Is that true? Did you get into many scrapes?
Stanley Ward, Birmingham

I wasn’t a petty thief who took money from others, but I would steal apples from gardens and farms. We would catch trains to the farms and fill our bags with fruit. If you got caught then the farmers kicked your ass! They would put you in a room and hose you down. It was agony. They’d say: “Tell your friends this is what they get if they come to our farm!” I rarely got caught, though. I was too quick!

How did your move to Seven Stars come about? Were you already talked about as a hot prospect in South Africa?
Ryan Underwood, Lincoln

He told my brother that he’d not been able to sleep for three days, wondering how he could trace me

The manager of Seven Stars had two sons who played on the same pitches as Crusaders, my team. I played in an under-17s cup final and his sons had played before our game. He watched me score four goals in 15 minutes and stayed to watch more. Three days later, my brother and his best friends went to play indoor football with Seven Stars.

The manager came to pick up my brother and he saw me playing outside. He told my brother that he’d not been able to sleep for three days, wondering how he could trace me. Seven Stars were in the South African second division – between 5,000 and 6,000 would watch them play – and I went from playing amateur football to playing for them. The owner of the club was Rob Moore, who would become my manager.

Benni McCarthy

McCarthy spent two years at Seven Stars, before joining Ajax in 1997

How hard was it to adjust to the Eredivisie?
Craig Brock, Southampton

It was extremely tough. I’d come from an underprivileged area where only the strong survive, and entered a world where everything was well organised and done on time. In joining Ajax, I came from having no rules to being told exactly what to do.

CLUBS AND COUNTRY

  • 1995-97 Seven Stars 56 games (38 goals)
  • 1997-99 Ajax 53 (23)
  • 1999-2003 Celta Vigo 78 (17)
  • 2002-06 Porto 78 (29)
  • 2006-10 Blackburn Rovers 140 (52)
  • 2010-11 West Ham United 14 (0)
  • 2011-13 Orlando Pirates 39 (13)
  • 1997-2012 South Africa 80 (31)

How did you find Amsterdam as a city? Was it a culture shock, leaving South Africa to then have much more disposable income in Europe? What was your first impression of the infamous red light district?!
Felix Walton, via email

The food in Amsterdam was intriguing – I was used to my mum’s amazing chicken curry. In Holland there were dishes with names that scared me – and that was before I saw the food itself! I got used to it by programming myself to learn Dutch, out of respect to the people who were paying my wages [McCarthy speaks five languages]. They would see me talking in their language on television, and they liked that. I’d tell any player who moves to another country that they should learn the language and learn about the culture – it will save you.

As for the red light district... [laughs] Fascinating. My eyes popped out of my head looking at nearly-naked and beautiful women in the windows, who looked like they were from magazines. They were calling me! If you tried to speak to a woman in Cape Town they’d chase you away like a dog. And now these women wanted me as I stood in the street. It took me a while to get my head around that.

Amsterdam is a very cosmopolitan city. I loved it. I would walk the streets and get lost, yet it was always a very safe place. I’d smell marijuana coming from every building. I’d never touch it, though.

Amsterdam

McCarthy admits it took him a while to get used to Amsterdam's red light district