South African football might be struggling for strikers at present, but, not too long ago, we boasted one of the deadliest strikers in world football – Benedict McCarthy.
Benni, as he is affectionately known in South Africa, remains South Africa’s all-time leading goalscorer, having netted 31 goals in 80 internationals – while he also netted close to 150 goals in a stunning career in European club football. The list of records continues for the player, as he scored SA’s first ever World Cup goal, back in 1998, attracted the largest transfer fee for a South African (R38.5 million for his move from Ajax Amsterdam to Celta Vigo) and also was the first South African to win the UEFA Champions League.
When McCarthy was growing up in Hanover Park on the Cape Flats, he had only one dream - to become a world-class footballer! It didn’t take him long to illustrate that great potential. After learning the ropes as a junior at Crusaders AFC of Grassy Parks, the rising star joined Nyanga-based Seven Stars in 1995. Fans were left in awe of his wonderful football skills.
Playing in the NSL’s Second Division Western Cape Stream under coach Gavin Hunt, the young teenager mesmerised opponents, sharing the club’s golden boot award with veteran, Sean Lodewyk. That season the pair netted 26 goals each.
For his great contribution, the player who’d become known as “Musso” and wearing the number 17 jersey, was voted Seven Stars’ Young Player of the Year. In 1996 more accolades followed when the Groenvlei High matric pupil won the prestigious Bay Hill U-19 Tournament’s Top Player award before making his Amaglug-glug debut against Australia on 7 November 1996, just five days prior to his 18th birthday.
Around the same time, the teenager also captained the Western Province U20 side to the provincial title and was voted Player of the Final. Soon he was the hottest young prospect in the country.
That McCarthy was selected to play for the SA U-23 side before making his U-20 international debut spoke volumes about the player’s quality.
In fact, after being snatched up by Castle Premiership outfit, Cape Town Spurs during the inaugural 1996-97 PSL season, he netted three goals in two games (including a brace against Kaizer Chiefs on 8 March 1997). This helped to catapult his image even further.
Significantly, following just 7 games for John Comitis’ Eagles, the 19-year-old was soon making waves in Europe having joined Dutch giants, Ajax Amsterdam, before the season’s end.
While McCarthy’s former Spurs’ teammates such as David Kannemeyer, Craig Rosslee, Andre Arendse, Theo Hempe, Matthew Booth, Alton Meiring and Duncan Crowie continued their exploits at the Green Point Stadium, the poacher was quick to hone in on his goal-scoring attributes for Ajax youth team.
First he netted four goals in five games during an international tournament in Dortmund, Germany where he was voted ‘Most Talented Player’. Shortly thereafter he scored another flurry of goals during the early stages of his 1997-98 campaign with seven goals in six pre-season friendlies for the Ajax senior side. This placed the striker firmly on the map.
Two of these came against English giants Newcastle United in the Umbro Cup, and after hitting a total of 20 successful strikes in 35 Ajax appearances, the man with an abundance of natural talent joined Spanish outfit Celta Vigo in mid-1999. This was a record fee of R38.5-million paid for a South African.
But despite the hype surrounding this big-money move, after two mediocre seasons (14 goals in 38 matches), he was loaned to Jose Mourinho’s Porto FC of Portugal where the star quickly rediscovered his form.
In 2002-03 McCarthy returned to Vigo after stunning figures of 12 strikes in just 10 games for Porto before being sold back to Mourinho’s talented team. This clever move proved the catalyst for the sensational striker to show exactly what he was worth on the European stage.
Six goals in January 2004, including two braces against Pacos Ferreira and Estrela Amadora earned him Portugal’s Player of the Month. At that stage he’d scored 14 from 17 starts but there was still a lot more to come.
He eventually picked up the Golden Boot Award with 20 goals and importantly helped Porto grab the UEFA Champions League, thus becoming the first South African to win this prestigious football honour.
The Portuguese National Championship followed in 2005-06 which was his second. Of course there were other trophies but after 43 goals in 99 games, the player decided to move to England where he joined Blackburn Rovers for a £2.5m fee, and netted 52 goals to take his tally to 146 in Europe.
The undisputed teenage prodigy, with all the hallmarks of fame waiting in the wings, made history during 1997 when he famously represented SA at three international levels, before painting his true colours on the wall by bagging numerous explosive goals at the 1998 African Cup of Nations tournament. He made his Bafana Bafana debut against Netherlands on 4 June.
McCarthy returned to South Africa where he enjoyed a magnificent end to his career at Orlando Pirates, and is currently looking to earn his coaching badges overseas.