Interviews

The big interview: Benni McCarthy – “I was heartbroken to score twice against Man United – and Mourinho hammered me for it”

Benni McCarthy
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Some of Europe’s biggest clubs wanted you after a great season at Ajax. So why move to a middle-of-the-road La Liga club in Celta Vigo, and did you quickly regret living in Europe’s biggest fishing port?
Diego Garcia, Galicia

After establishing myself at Ajax, I felt ready to move on. My dream was to go to England. I could have gone to Tottenham but my agent persuaded me that Spain was the place with the best teams and the best lifestyle. I should have done more research. I didn’t realise how difficult it would be to learn Spanish, and not a single person spoke English at Celta.

I had to guess what people were saying to me, or what they wanted. I watched TV with my little book full of words and learned Spanish. My team-mates would teach me all the wrong things. They told me that the words for ‘good guy’ were ‘you motherfucker’. So for two weeks I was going up to people all over Vigo and calling them motherfuckers!

The lack of Spanish affected my game because I didn’t know what the manager wanted. I played off instinct and everyone had a go at me because I did the wrong things, but after eight months I could speak Spanish. As for Vigo being an ugly port, well... when I went to sign, they used an attractive translator to show me all the best bits of the city and the beaches full of half-naked girls. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and I was thinking, ‘This is the life’.

Living in Vigo made me grow up. After costing the club so much money, I was under pressure to perform, and I got criticism at the start. I felt pressure for the first time in my life. But things worked out well and the Celta fans took a liking to me. Scoring goals against their rivals Deportivo and celebrating wildly helped a lot. I was told I should never step foot in La Coruna again. I have no intention of doing that when beautiful Vigo is next door.

You once said: “If you throw one punch at Jose Mourinho, he’ll throw two back at you.” Who would win in a fight: you or him? And was he the best coach you played under?
James Davis, London

If it’s physical then I would knock Mister out with one punch – no danger! In football terms, though, he’s Mike Tyson. I’d have no chance. He was the best coach I played under: the most skilled, intelligent and clued-up.

I’ll never forget your brace in the first leg of the 2003/04 Champions League last 16 tie against us [Manchester United]. The header, especially, was incredible. Even Fergie described it as “out of this world”. Was that the best game you ever played?
Ian Johnston, Manchester

I support Man United and always wanted to play for them. I loved players like Mark Hughes, Andy Cole and Ryan Giggs. So I was heartbroken to score twice. My dream was to score once at Old Trafford – not to knock United out. I got hammered by Jose Mourinho after the game because I wasn’t very happy. He told me that if I didn’t cheer up, I’d never play in his team again.

How did Mourinho mastermind the win over United? What did he say before the second leg at Old Trafford, and how did the team react when you went 1-0 down to fall behind on away goals?
Sean Warner, via email

United scored and we crapped ourselves, but before they could attack us again, we went full steam ahead

He said to keep the shape, keep it tight and prevent them from scoring – because if they score, we’re screwed. But if they manage to break us down and score, that’s when we attack and play against them like we played in Porto. If they don’t score, a 0-0 draw suits us fine.

United scored and we crapped ourselves, but before they could attack us again, we went full steam ahead. I don’t think they’d been bullied like that. Ricardo Carvalho was exceptional; our defence was magnificent; Nuno Valente kept Ronaldo at bay. We’d done our job and United were out. It was a great night for Porto, but a mixed one for me.

HONOURS

  • Champions League 2004
  • Intercontinental Cup 2004
  • Eredivisie 1998
  • KNVB Cup 1998, 1999
  • Primeira Liga 2004, 2006
  • Taca de Portugal 2006
  • Telkom Knockout 2011
  • Premier Soccer League 2012

What were the celebrations like after you won the Champions League? Did Jose join in, knowing he would be leaving for Chelsea immediately after the game? And was there any chance of you following him to Stamford Bridge?
Rob Cotton, London

It was the greatest moment of our careers, yet the celebrations were odd because Mourinho wasn’t there. He knew he was leaving for Chelsea; the club knew it, too. Crucially, so did the fans, which meant death threats for him. I thought he’d still celebrate, but I think Jose was worried about the safety of his family. He threw his medal into the crowd and simply came to us one-on-one, told us it had been a pleasure and said goodbye. He told a few of us that he wanted to take us with him.

How close were you to joining Everton after that Champions League victory? Is it true Porto blocked the move?
Gareth Mallarkey, Merseyside

I was close. My agent knew David Moyes and he said he was interested in me. I just needed to sign on the dotted line, but the new Porto manager wanted to keep me as I’d been the top scorer. It was ironic, because the new manager was my old manager from Celta Vigo (Victor Fernandez), and we’d fallen out: he called me a son of a bitch. If I had heard, I’d have smashed him.

At Porto we continued to have serious problems. At the start he tried to be friendly and we agreed to put our differences behind us, but the chemistry wasn’t there and the problems resurfaced.

Would it be fair to say you had wanted to play in the Premier League for a while before eventually joining Blackburn?
Shane Loughton, Blackburn

Yes, it was my dream to play in England; I would have chosen Everton over Real Madrid

Yes, it was my dream to play in England; I would have chosen Everton over Real Madrid. Spanish football hadn’t existed in South Africa when I grew up. I had options or interest to join Manchester City, Middlesbrough, West Ham, Spurs and Liverpool, as well as Rangers in Scotland.

When none of them came off for various reasons, I felt I was cursed never to play in England. When Blackburn came in for me, I spoke to Mourinho at Chelsea. Porto refused to sell any players to Mourinho and he advised me: “Move to England, do well for a season and if you’re still the player I had at Porto, I’ll come and get you.” I did well for Blackburn, who got me for just £2.5m. Then they wouldn’t sell me to Chelsea.

You had a great first season at Blackburn, but then it went downhill. Why? Was the writing on the wall when Paul Ince arrived and you didn’t get much of a look in?
Robraf Melcer, via Twitter

After that Chelsea move fell through, my career went up in smoke. Paul Ince wasn’t a good manager for me. I think he had an issue that I’d done well playing for Mourinho – he used to make little digs.

Who’s the better player: Deco or Robbie Savage?
Edd Langton, via Twitter

[Laughs] They are two completely different players and it’s not really fair to compare them. Deco’s still my mate. He was a magician – he could do anything with a football. But he didn’t have the same work ethic that Savage had. Robbie had a very successful career in England and I really respect him for that.