Cape Town - Benni McCarthy used to be a polarising figure; getting under the skin of many as public opinion about him oscillated. It may be early days, but “Benni the coach” is a different breed from “Benni the superstar player”.
McCarthy has made a complete circle in his footballing life, ending up back in the welcoming arms of the Mother City.
The new Cape Town City coach will enter his new phase as a 39-year-old rookie PSL coach, and one with huge boots to fill.
McCarthy went to Spain, Portugal and England before returning to his roots and his mother Doreen’s good advice.
“If you treat someone badly when you are at the top, then when you are going down they will laugh at you,” says Doreen – all related in a remarkably crisp accent by Benni.
Most coaches of this PSL generation are steeped in some variant of an anxiety personality disorder, stemming from Carl Jung’s super ego all the way to Sartre’s existential angst.
McCarthy, the supreme goal-scorer and England’s second-most lethal hitman a decade ago (24 goals in 2006/07), is no brash braggart or petulant prima donna.
The vexatious part of human nature – the one that does not want successful people to be popular – means pundits and fans alike often wear blinkers and have preconceived prejudices.
It is this juxtaposition between the real and the imagined that epitomises the soul of McCarthy.
“I am very positive this team has the potential and will do well. I am here to win trophies. The growth of local players fulfilling their potential is what excites me and the current group I have inherited here at Cape Town City have such an incredible vibe and humility that I did not expect,” he says demurely.
“I acknowledge wholeheartedly what Muhsin [Ertugral] and Eric [Tinkler] have done in assembling such a talented team,” he adds.
“There is such a great mix of experience and upcoming talent … there are two or three players no one has heard of before who I could put into the first team,” he adds with a mischievous glint in his eye, like he may just do that when they take on Bidvest Wits in their first league encounter.
McCarthy’s birth names point to the dichotomy of a spirit that has seen the most influential player in South African soccer chronicles be both a saint and a king.
Benni is a truncation of Benedict, named after the saint who mapped the path between formulaic institutionalism and individual zeal.
His second name is never heard, but is interesting enough to make a comparison – Saul, the first king of Israel and Judah, the leader who brought an end to tribal rule and created a hegemony of statehood.
The names, their meanings – are they not a perfect fit for Benni McCarthy?
At this stage of the season, he is the encapsulation of a person comfortable in his own skin – a coach who seems unaffected by the disingenuous rhetoric written about him, a soccer legend who acts like an everyday soul despite being in an individualistic job.
He knows he will be judged on the success of his predecessor and former Bafana team-mate Tinkler, who left the team two months ago with a swathe of admirers, a Telkom Cup title and a third-place finish in the Absa Premiership.
Realistically, there is only one way a team can go after such a breathtaking debut.
McCarthy is fully aware of the responsibility.
“I am not here to manage a team, I am here to win the league, the MTN, the Telkom and the Nedbank Cup. I also want to win the CAF Champions League,” he says, with a cool, deadpan demeanour.
The confidence of the natural goal-scorer is still there. The swag is still on point. The casual smile and sanguine disposition of a tamed predator remains.
McCarthy is young in coaching terms, but worldly-wise and knows that the glory fixtures against Chiefs and Pirates are not the be all and end all of the league. He states that Wits and Sundowns have better quality players and he sees them as the main title threat. He will have a front-row ticket as his side take on four title contenders in his first five games in charge.
“I believe it is the best time to play Wits and Sundowns; they have new signings who will need time to settle into the clubs. If we can get through this first period, then...” his sentence trails off and it is almost as if he has to tone down his confidence.
The former Blackburn Rovers striker has reason to be confident as he boasts one of the stronger squads in the country, and, with his knack for finding success, he could be right on the money.