Benni in the dugout: The big City gamble and his first love
The kid from Hanover Park on the Cape Flats has played football around the world. Now he’s back in his home town to take charge of a club with an illustrious past and perhaps an even brighter future
The eyes are moist when the conversation shifts to his children.
His voice cracks as he speaks of his adoration for Minna, 12, Mya, 11, Allegra, 9, and Lima Rose.
"Anything I love more than football, it's my children," says Benni McCarthy. "They give me sanity, peace and bring out the child in me. They make me want to be successful even more. They make my life a joy."
Lima Rose turned five in May and with McCarthy belonging to the football tattoo tribe, her portrait takes pride of place on her father's left arm.
She is the family chief spy "who always shouts to my wife 'Mommy, daddy is playing Candy Crush again' every time I'm playing the game on my phone", McCarthy tells me during our interview at the Southern Sun hotel in Hyde Park, Johannesburg, his home away from home.
It is June 16, a few days after John Comitis lived up to his maverick approach to soccer management by announcing the untested McCarthy, 39, as the new coach of Cape Town City, currently the country's hottest football team.
Strain of shuttling
I am here to find out if this one-time "bad boy" of South African football is ready for his new role of guiding the fortunes of this ambitious club that stunned the local soccer scene by winning a trophy and finishing third in its maiden season in the Premier Soccer League.
Shuttling between Scotland - where his wife of three years, Stacey Munro, and the children live in Edinburgh - and South Africa - where his bread is buttered - puts a strain on his young family.
"I miss the innocent joys of life, not seeing your kids waking up in the morning or jumping on your head while you're still sleeping."Obviously daddy still has to provide for the lifestyle that they do live, like good schools, good education. I want my kids to be very educated and get degrees. That ain't gonna be paying for itself."
It will be even more difficult for him now because his new job means he will be in Cape Town for at least 10 months a year.
His road to being named Cape Town City coach started with a five-letter SMS.
Club chairman Comitis was wading through a mountain of CVs, contemplating who to hire. The job had been made vacant by Eric Tinkler's sudden decision to resign and join SuperSport United. Comitis's son Michel, named after French football great and since disgraced former Uefa president Michel Platini, sent his father a text saying simply "Benni".
"For your brand," Comitis says Michel told him, "for Cape Town, for football in South Africa, have the balls to take the decision because if it pays it would be a double pay."
Change football landscape
Michel is the commercial director of the club, responsible for brand positioning and social media. He figured a union with coach McCarthy, an international icon, would be a masterstroke that would solicit more media mileage for the one-season-old club.
The Citizens have changed the Mother City football landscape. They have a bolder approach of becoming bigger and better than floundering Ajax Cape Town, of which Comitis was a founding member.
Comitis's decision to hire McCarthy left me wondering whether his mental faculties were fully functioning.
An evergreen striker in his heyday, with a career spanning 22 years, McCarthy is a greenhorn in coaching, a novice armed only with an assistant coach experience at Belgian First Division A club Sint-Truidense. Coaching is not Candy Crush.
Giving McCarthy his maiden coaching gig with no proven track record is a gamble, an admission Comitis is happy to make.
"I was scratching my head and Michel sent me a one-liner: 'Benni'."Thriving in uncharted territory and rising to the occasion is in McCarthy's DNA. He captured the national consciousness as a skinny 17-year-old who shocked Kaizer Chiefs with two goals while on loan to Cape Town Spurs from Seven Stars.
Clive Barker, who coached Bafana to victory in the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations, lost his job partly because he deemed McCarthy too young for the rigours of international football.
Barker's successor, Jomo Sono, gambled on the prodigy and the dividends were delightful as McCarthy's seven goals propelled Bafana to the final of the 1998 tournament, with him ending as joint top scorer.
But McCarthy was also an incendiary. He made common cause with team truants. When he was on camp, he thought nothing of throwing a payment contract at former Bafana team manager Stanley "Screamer" Tshabalala in disgust during a bonus protest.
In Korea, at the 2002 World Cup, he threw eggs at a Sunday Times reporter (not this author) whose reporting he had deemed unkind.
He fell in love with sport at school. His talent in different sporting codes made him popular with fellow pupils and teachers at Groenvlei High in Lansdowne, Cape Town.
"I was the darling 'cause I was good at all sports. I was very athletic: 100m sprinter, 200m, 800m. It was football, cricket bowler, rugby flyhalf."
"Yeah, my man, flyhalf. I could go because I was quite small in my schooling days - and very quick."
Dora's third child of four children believes that he understands the players' psyches from his playing days. This, he argues, will give him a great advantage in the change room. He obtained his Uefa A coaching licence last year.
He has seen the full spectrum of ups and downs, of players falling by the wayside.
Comitis says: "He forced his hand all the way to the top. He understands what is in the change-room, technically and tactically. He has to be prepared.He was robbed at gunpoint at a barbershop in Johannesburg in 2015. Three robbers, in their act of radical economic transformation, repossessed his wedding ring, watch and a diamond earring. A flashy dresser with a penchant for fine threads, he is in denims and a black T-shirt for the interview.
His raw, from-the-gut speech will have to resonate with one Ayanda Patosi, the 24-year-old forward signed from Belgian club SC Lokeren. Their life stories are similar. Both were born and bred on the rough side of Cape Town. Both left South Africa in their teens.
Patosi has dabbled in delinquency, developing a somewhat legendary affair with the bottle.
It is not the kind of behaviour that commander McCarthy wants from his troops.
Does the former problem child, whose childhood friends nicknamed him Skelm, have the emotional intelligence and capacity to deal with problem children?
"The name alone tells you I'm a Skelm. I know how to manoeuvre. I'm no longer that snotgat laaitie [young, inexperienced boy]."
Why did he get the nickname Skelm if he was a goody two-shoes at school?
"I'm not saying it's gonna be easy, or I have all the answers. I will work my socks off until I sweat blood. I'm not gonna stop trying to get these guys on the right path.
"You see how our country is growing. All the opportunities are there for the taking. If these guys really want it that much, they'll get it. When you come to this side of the world, you have to be a whole squad of 23 players.
Like a father figure
"I'm guessing I learnt as I grew older that I can't be that stubborn kid any more. You've got to be sort of like a father figure to these guys because obviously there's going to be a few of them that has the same mentality and attitude as what I did. I must be able to guide them in the right direction and have patience with them."
It is easy to understand why McCarthy's choice of reading comprises books on his idol and former mentor, Jose Mourinho, and on Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, two other top, super-passionate coaches. They are what McCarthy aspires to be.Mother Dora made sure that he buried his head in his books during his school days.
"She didn't want to have a son that made it at football, famous, adored by the world but there's nothing in those brains of his, no education, no nothing because of always football, football, football.
"She'd drag me, literally, to school. Eventually I caught on and just started studying because you don't want an old lady nagging on your head constantly. I put my work in to get her off my back.
"Instead of being a C student I became a B+ student. You see that when you do study and you put your work in, it is not as difficult as it seems. You also start to see the rewards."
I never shot a gun
That snotgat laaitie did break a few laws, but it was petty theft like stealing fruit from the gardens in the suburbs.
"It was still illegal 'cause it wasn't ours, it wasn't our property. We were sometimes sent by the older gang members to go shoot the rival gangs.
"But me, I never ever shot a gun 'cause my dad would have killed me. I would go along but there in the background."..