I feel sorry for Benni

2010-06-02 15:24
Lost to South Africa, Benni McCarthy. (AP)
Comment by George Dearnaley

Let me just say up front I am a Benni fan! Before you call me a tosser and harp on about his lack of patriotism and his big head and his attitude and his rotund form – let me just put a few things into perspective.

Benni has been a great striker for his various clubs and for his country – he is still the record goal scorer for SA and those goals were mostly scored against decent teams in decent competitions – not penalties against Bangladesh and the Falklands Islands in friendlies.

Think of the sacrifice at 17 to leave your family and friends and go play at Ajax Amsterdam, with the ghosts of Cryujff, Van Basten, Bergkamp, and Kluivert looking over your shoulder. But Benni scored goals and won medals.

Then off to a disastrous stint at Celta Vigo in Spain – new country, new culture, new style – it didn’t work for him. He could have faded into obscurity, but he goes to Porto where he wins the league a few times, wins cups and wins the Champions League! Remember the goals he scored against Manchester United?

Then he’s off to the English Premiership – Blackburn Rovers will never be the glamour boys of the Premiership – anyone been to Blackburn?  Picture Welkom or Potchefstroom,' but more grey, colder, more industrial. And you think it's easy! But he gets on with it and he scores goals, finishing second in the league behind Didier Drogba of Chelsea. Not bad.

But something happened in Egypt during the African Nations Cup of 2006. The organisation and the planning wasn’t great, SAFA stuffed up the issue of bonuses and so it was left to the most experienced player in the squad to stand up for his team-mates. Admirable. 

The SAFA Issue

But SAFA used the media to turn people against Benni. They called him unpatriotic because he complained about bonuses. So Benni sulked and missed more matches. SAFA said he hated his country! Rubbish. His issue was with SAFA – the old regime – the ones who are no longer in power because they kept stuffing things up! But the ‘unpatriotic’ tag has stuck and it’s a pity.

And so fast forward to 2009 and Benni is leaving Blackburn and heading to West Ham. He’s hardly played and so he’s hardly in any shape.  He gets to West Ham, eager to perform, but injures his knee in a freak accident early into his debut. He is out for a few months, in the middle of winter. It’s very easy to sit on your nice couch in front of the TV and have a go at him about not being fit.

It’s easy to think that the World Cup tournament would be the ultimate motivation for him to get fit – and I agree it is – but it’s not that easy when the body is sore and tired and you’re feeling the effects of 4 months or more of inactivity – it’s not that easy anymore to jump out of bed in the freezing cold when the knees are sore and you have to take pain killers every morning before you go for a run. Trust me!

The World Cup in South Africa

And so to the Bafana training camp where Parreira is unhappy with Benni’s condition but hints that his skill and quality in front of goal are enough to keep him in the squad if he can improve his condition. But sadly for SA, the 3 or 4 weeks he has been in camp have not been able to fix the last few months of physical neglect.

Benni is a confidence player, like most strikers – when the ball is flying into the net and you’re feeling on top of your game, no-one can stop you. But when you know you are not in shape, when you know your body can’t quite do what your brain tells you to do, when you feel sluggish and out of rhythm – there is nothing worse for any professional athlete.

I believe Parreira made the right decision to leave Benni out, because an unhappy Benni would be a disruption to this squad. I believe he has picked some players not for their ‘on field’ ability as much as for what they bring to the squad off the field. There are players who are motivators and the ones who are always good for a joke and laugh – you need these guys as much as you need the sombre silent types who just get on with the game.

I feel sorry for Benni, mostly because the public has the wrong perception of him and because they have turned against him – and because people forget very quickly. But I can think of former stars like Neil Tovey, dropped a few weeks before the team took off for France 1998, and Coach Clive Barker who missed out on a World Cup. I think of the number of internationals who have had to pull out of this World Cup because of last minute injury, people like Michael Ballack, Germany’s captain – and I know Benni is not alone in his disappointment.

I know Benni, and I know that when the new Premiership season starts he will be in shape, he will be hungry and he will want to make people eat their words about his ability – he will score goals for West Ham, and whoever takes over from Parreira after the World Cup will have to consider him for future Bafana matches. Whether he has forgiven SAFA is another matter.

George Dearnaley played for Bafana in 1992/93 and tried his luck in England a few times but never made it – because it’s not easy! He’s had 6 knee operations and knows how hard it is to get up on a cold morning. He believes Parreira is a great coach and that Bafana can get to the second round.

George Dearnaley will be writing exclusively for Sport24 for the duration of the Soccer World Cup

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