Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Benni McCarthy: The bee's knees or busted knees? That's the question that has to be asked

In so many ways, Benni McCarthy's much-hyped move to Orlando Pirates is exactly what the South African Premier League has been crying out for.

An experienced, Champions League-winning South African professional arriving back in Soweto's District 18 eager to end his career with a bang. Bafana Bafana's all-time top-scorer joining South Africa's treble-winning Champions promising to become the first man to win Champions League medals in both Europe and Africa.

On Robert Marawa's excellent Discovery Sports Centre (you can't miss it from 6-7.30pm every day on Benni told us on Tuesday night: "I'm not here for a holiday, I'm here to give something back. This is not my retirement plan, I want to get out there and score goals for Pirates."

In my story which ran in the Cape Argus two Saturdays before, I expressed exactly those sentiments. Hoping the new, svelte Benni would return to South Africa for one final goal rush. You can read it here:

Since then, Benni has left Ajax Cape Town where he was "getting back to full fitness" and, barely 24 hours after being seen with Pirates' supremo Irvin Khosa at last Saturday's Carling Black Label Cup final, he signed his lucrative two-year deal and inherited the No17 Buccaneers shirt. Cue wild celebrations nationwide, except for jealous fans of Kaizer Chiefs, Ajax and Sundowns.

So everyone’s happy. But the worrying aspect is this: Benni gushed similar sentiments when he left Blackburn Rovers to join West Ham United for £2.5m (R26m) in January 2010. He called it his “dream move” and promised he had plenty of goals left in him at 32. But when push came to shove, he went down injured after a single game (a brief appearance in the defeat against Burnley), put on weight, was fined twice and missed the World Cup in his home country, dropped by Bafana Bafana despite claiming to be fit.

While his agent Rob Moore insisted he was "back to his fighting weight" after the World Cup, West Ham then left McCarthy out of their playing squad at the start of the year and despite a goal-scoring trial at Queens Park Rangers, the Hammers offered the 33-year-old £1.5m (R16m) to cut short his contract at Upton Park earlier this year.

The British newspapers had a field day, describing McCarthy as “a flop” and “a fat misfit”. And now I've got West Ham fans blowing bubbles over the concept of McCarthy being the next big thing in the South African Premier League. Some of them even tuned in to his live interview online at MetroFM on Tuesday night. They were flabbergasted to hear the man who failed to score a goal for relegated West Ham promising the world, telling us: "My love for football is back, I can't wait to start playing."

But he may have to wait. After Wednesday's open session with his new team-mates, Pirates tell us McCarthy is not fit. That he won't play in the opening MTN8 clash against Santos on Sunday at Orlando's Super Stadium. He needs "more tests".

Officially, his new boss Julio Leal said: “It was a good deal for Benni to come back home, to play under the eye of his critics. He’s a player who’s got international experience. He played at the highest level and scored goals there. He needs to work on certain aspects to be fully fit. We will do tests and take a decision on whether he plays on Saturday.”

I put up the picture above on Facebook and Twitter and took some fierce stick for suggesting the blood tests he was being subjected to on Wednesday should have been taken before a 33-year-old who couldn't get fit at West Ham for a year was signed on a two-year contract.

I’ve been accused of having something personal against McCarthy. But, with player, club and fans in mind, I'm right. Nobody wants Benni to succeed more than me. Both my son and I wear Orlando Pirates jerseys with pride, happy to make the Buccaneers' skull-and-crossbones sign to friend and foe alike.

But has Benni had the full medical? Has he got another two well-paid years at the pinnacle of African football in him? I certainly hope so. Google “Benni McCarthy” and “medical” on google news and there are no results. The club won’t comment.

Why am I so concerned? Because I can't help going back to that moment in early February 2010, when a man called Kevin Keen, the former West Ham first team coach now at Liverpool, wandered over to me while our boys were playing football together in Buckinghamshire.

I asked Kevin, who had just attended my World Cup book launch in our village bookstore at Chalfont St Peter, if Benni would be fit to spearhead South Africa's World Cup challenge on home soil.

He grimaced and said: "Benni's not looking good. He has a knee problem. South Africa may be in trouble if they think he's going to be their major World Cup striker."

I wrote on February 26 last year, nearly four months before the World Cup kick-off. His agent Rob Moore rubbished my story as "lazy journalism" and “pure speculation”. It wasn't. It was fact, as we found out on June 1, when Benni was axed by Carlos Alberto Parreira and I wrote this:

Now decide for yourself. Read those stories. Read the more recent blogs on McCarthy. Have a look at the picture above. Am I simply having a go at the great Benni McCarthy, South Africa's all-time top scorer? Or am I hoping he had a full medical before he put pen to paper at Pirates and that he will, gloriously, go on to lift an African Champions League medal to go to the one he won with Jose Mourinho's Porto in 2004?

Truth is, I wish Benni McCarthy all the best. He talks a great game, he has scored great goals, he will sell tickets all over South Africa this season. But that will only happen if the knee, originally injured while playing for Blackburn in 2007, stands up to the strain, his weight stays down... and he really is here to do the business, not enhance his retirement fund at the expense, ultimately, of the Buccaneers fans who pay to watch him and buy his replica shirt.

There is no hidden agenda. I just want Benni to go out with a bang. Not a whimper.

1 comment:

  1. i have never forgiven him for showing us the middle finger in his pomp. pirates fan or not he acted like a diva when he was riding the high wave of the epl. all of a sudden his stock(or rather stomach) drops we must all pretend that the squad couldn't have done with a benny in his prime during the downward spiral that bafana went on over the years. im more than happy for pienaar. he gave us many years of loyal service and im still happy to call him my kaptein and celebrate his successes with everton despite his retirement from international football. he's a great south African. stevie played in the same league and he made it back, sometimes late but he always put his country 1st. cant say the same for benny.

    good riddance to bad rubbish I say. even if he had scored 100 goals for pirates id loath him. but, he didn't. his finishing has always bin impressive but him being 15kg overweight and playing for one of the continent's biggest clubs was a humbling, if not depressing, reflection on south African football. it is embarrassing to see a sea of black and white in a packed soccercity chanting his name while he bulged out his shirt while he walked to the opposition box on a counter after defending a corner, completely out of breath.

    we need to relook at our standards. not only in terms of football. yes, his return added something to south African football. but he should never have bin allowed to. i'll cheer a one legged steven pienaar any day of the week in this country but benny can go fly a kite. he got paid by the kilo-lol, thank you de sa- and he can go have all the burgers he wants with that pretty penny but he must just not be on damn football pitch! not here! not after letting us know exactly what he thinks of us and our useless bafana bafana!