Triumph & heartache: Neil Tovey's book details Bafana's road to historic Afcon win
In his long-awaited autobiography, former Bafana Bafana captain Neil Tovey recalls the road to victory in the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996 — and the tale of Clive Barker and his superstitions
Our opening match of the Africa Cup of Nations would be against Cameroon on 13 January 1996. As a result, there was little time to celebrate over New Year and we came together on the second at Johannesburg's Sunnyside Park Hotel.
The security was tight in order to control the flow of people in and out of the hotel. We had a games room where we could relax and play pool, darts or table tennis. I was pretty average at all those things. I can't remember who shone in those games, but I do recall Mark Williams and Mark Fish were the loudest. They were forever talking, but all in good spirit.
We trained at Marks Park, which was close to the hotel. In the beginning we trained twice a day, but only once a day when the first game drew closer. We also had to negotiate our bonuses with Safa [the South African Football Association] for the tournament. Sizwe Motaung, Phil Masinga, John Moeti, Shoes Moshoeu and I, as the captain, were part of the negotiating team, although we never decided on anything without consulting the other players. We dealt with Safa's president, Stix Morewa.
Coach Clive Barker didn't want to get involved in the discussions. The negotiations went smoothly, and we were promised around R100,000 per player if we won the Africa Cup of Nations. The final amount would depend on the number of games the player had participated in.
Clive kept the team's spirits high, combining tough training sessions with time to relax, even allowing the players an afternoon off here and there. A few players, including myself, continued to play golf, which helped to relieve the pressure of competing for a few hours. It was necessary to be able to relax, especially from a mental point of view. To perform to the best of their ability, a player not only needs fresh legs but a fresh mind.
'MR MANDELA WOULD LIKE TO TALK WITH YOU
During those golf outings we'd have a good laugh with Mark Williams, who regularly hit the ball in the rough. "Mark, you always opt for a caddy without shoes," we joked, "because then he can carry your ball under his toes to a better position on the course." We knew that he moved the ball, but it was fun to play with Mark because he'd crack one joke after the next. And that's what the golf sessions were about: not winning but being with your teammates and releasing the pressure for a few hours.
Francois Pienaar, who captained the Springboks to victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and Hansie Cronje, who led the South African cricket side, came to the hotel for our pre-tournament dinner to wish us well. Pienaar advised, "Neil, try to keep the media at bay, because the more you progress in the tournament the more everybody will want a piece of you, including journalists from other countries, and more so when you're the captain." He was right; we were always open to the media and it could become mentally draining to talk to them and give interviews. We had to find a balance and I think we succeeded. On some days we allowed the journalists to come and watch our training sessions, while they were closed to outsiders on other days.On the evening prior to our first match, Madiba came to the hotel. On this occasion it was not just the players who were present; our families were there too. I took the opportunity to give President Mandela my number 9 jersey. It was such a rewarding moment and I remember that while I was extremely proud to hand him my jersey, he seemed equally pleased to receive it. That's just the person he was. President Mandela never took anything for granted. He wanted us to do well, not just for the sporting prestige but for the country. The president wanted people of all races to come together and feel proud of South Africa. We, as Bafana Bafana, were a true reflection of the Rainbow Nation as we had players of all colours and backgrounds working together as one towards a common goal. With us it truly was, "One Team, One Nation".While holding my jersey in his hands, Mandela said, "This is a good omen. I also have one of Francois's jerseys. However, the fact that the Springboks won should put no pressure on you guys. Just go out and play." The president called me regularly during the tournament, usually before a game. We all had cellphones, given to us before the Germany game by Vodacom, one of our sponsors. The president's private secretary, Zelda la Grange, would get me on the line and say, "Mr Mandela would like to talk with you." He would say, "Captain, how is the mood in the camp?" and apologise for not visiting us more often, explaining that he had a very tight schedule. Naturally, we all understood. I would generally answer, "President, the mood in the camp is great. We are all ready for our next match."GAMBLING ON LUCAS RADEBEWhenever President Mandela came to the hotel, I was always struck by how humble he was. He wouldn't just talk to the coach and the players, but also to the waiters and the security guards. He did not say much himself but listened attentively to the other person. He didn't care about anyone's position or status; to him, everyone was equally important. Watching him taught me a huge lesson. If a man of his stature could do that, acknowledging people from all walks of life equally, surely we should all be able to follow his example.Meanwhile, the day of our first game against Cameroon was getting closer and closer. Clive Barker had selected a strong and competitive squad. A surprise inclusion for many, but not for us, was Lucas Radebe, who hadn't played a competitive match for about 14 months due to a knee injury. He was on the books of English side Leeds United, who were reluctant to let him go as he wasn't fully match fit yet. However, the decision about whether he should play rested with Lucas and Bafana team doctor Victor Ramathesele. Clive took a big gamble on him and it paid off big time.
Just before the Africa Cup of Nations kicked off, Nigeria withdrew because their military ruler, General Sani Abacha, was upset that South Africa had criticised the country for hanging nine human-rights and environmental activists, the most well known being Ken Saro-Wiwa. We didn't pay too much attention to Nigeria pulling out as we were fully focused on our group, which included Cameroon, Angola and Egypt. Cameroon and Egypt were previous winners of the Africa Cup of Nations, which meant that we were in a tough group. Being the host nation comes with a different kind of pressure. We were all aware that two years earlier, hosts Tunisia failed to progress past the group stage. This was something we wanted to avoid at all costs. Most African observers thought that Cameroon and Egypt would progress to the next stage.
We surprised virtually everybody by convincingly beating Cameroon 3-0 in the opening match. The crowd in the packed Soccer City stadium [aka FNB Stadium, Soweto] was magnificent, a dream start to the tournament. We had the same great start that the Springboks had had the previous year when they beat Australia in their opening game at the Rugby World Cup. That gave them momentum going forward and it was the same for us. It wasn't just the win over Cameroon that was important - it was also the way we played. Before the game, we sang in the dressing room as usual. Sizwe Motaung led the singing. This helped take away our nervousness. President Mandela was at the stadium too. His presence inspired Phil Masinga to put us ahead in the 14th minute, followed by a goal from Mark Williams eight minutes before the break. Shoes Moshoeu added another in the second half.
We were elated, but also exhausted, especially mentally, because the build-up to the opening game was so intense. That's when Clive Barker once again showed how good he was at reading the team's mood. After we had supper, he allowed our families to join us at the hotel for a few drinks. Eric Tinkler's father played the piano.
We were also given time off on the Sunday. Players who lived further away got flights home to spend quality time with their families. It was typical Clive. He knew exactly what was needed.
A FISH TO WATER
We were back at training on Monday, our minds were refreshed and we were ready for our next opponent, Angola, on Saturday 20 January. We beat them 1-0 thanks to a second-half goal from Mark Williams.
Next up was Egypt. We had already qualified for the next round and the coach gave a few players a break, including Doctor Khumalo, Linda Buthelezi and Shoes Moshoeu. Meanwhile, Lucas Radebe got his start. He hadn't figured in the first match, but had come on against Angola in the second half. We lost 1-0 to Egypt, despite creating numerous scoring opportunities. The Egyptians netted in the seventh minute.
We faced Algeria in the quarterfinal. They had some big defenders and were excellent in set-pieces, scoring many goals from free-kicks and corners. It was raining cats and dogs on the day, which made the pitch, although still in a good state, a bit slippery. It meant that we had to be extra cautious from a defensive point of view. Mark Fish was one of our defenders, but he was a young live-for-the-moment kind of player. He played on instinct, often moving forward whenever spotting an opportunity to do so, but on a rain-soaked day, this would not have been wise. I remember Clive pleading before the game, "Fish, the conditions are not good out there. Please, we need to consolidate defensively for the first 15 minutes - be cautious, don't make any forages into the opponent's half."
However, within 15 minutes, there went Fish . He moved forward right through the middle before releasing a powerful shot at goal, which just whisked past the wrong side of the post. Clive threw up his hands, obviously thinking, "What the hell is he doing?" But you can't curb a player like Fish and another forage forward resulted in the opening goal in the 72nd minute. It was a result of his courageous nature, toe-poking the ball into the back of the net from close range. I once again looked at the coach, who was having a little giggle. After Fish's goal, he must have wondered, "What am I doing trying to restrict Fish?" Mark did what he loved to do, making those runs forward. At the same time we were covered defensively, being very well organised. Besides me, we had a block including Lucas Radebe, who was on my side, and Linda Buthelezi and Eric Tinkler just in front of us. Lucas was actually positioned at left-back, but he would fill in at centre-back if Mark went up field.
We had gone into the break with the game still goalless, despite us getting a penalty just before half-time. But Doctor Khumalo missed from the spot, which didn't happen too often. It was one of those moments when you think, "Is this just not our day?" but it's important to put those negative thoughts behind you. Soon after Fish's goal, Algeria equalised. One minute later, however, we were 2-1 up, thanks to a goal from Shoes Moshoeu, who unleashed a rocket that thundered into Algeria's goal. The ball hit the back of the net so hard that I could clearly see water splashing up. That's when Shoes took the tournament by the scruff of the neck. He was a great, agile player in terrific form. The crowd was fantastic, with about 40,000 having turned up despite the heavy rainfall.
'FROM THEN ON WE WERE BRILLIANT'
Clive was quite superstitious and wore the same tracksuit to every game of the Africa Cup of Nations. I suspect he wore the same underwear as well. As part of his superstitions, he allowed us the same rituals we'd enjoyed after the other wins: we had dinner, Eric's father played the piano and we went out to Barney's at the Waterfront in Randburg. We were two games away from winning the competition and there was no way Clive was going to break that momentum. He respected the players and we respected him. We enjoyed our time at Barney's, relaxing with a beer or a glass of wine and refreshing our minds. Mark Williams was once again hilarious when he started to imitate Michael Jackson's moves on the dance floor. It was great fun. The only one having a nightmare was [team manager] Glyn Binkin, who had to look after all the players at the bar.
We faced Ghana in the semi-final on Wednesday 31 January. They had beaten Zaïre in their quarterfinal with the powerful striker Tony Yeboah netting the winner. He was Lucas's teammate at Leeds United. However, they were without Sammy Kuffour, due to suspension, and Abedi Pelé, who was injured. We had a few anxious moments early on, when Yeboah hit the cross-bar. Otherwise, Lucas kept Ghana's danger man quiet. Moshoeu scored our first goal with a superb bicycle kick in the 22nd minute. It was an important moment as the goal settled our nerves and we started to play in a more controlled way. From then on, we were brilliant and could have beaten any team. Shaun Bartlett scored just after the break, with a volley. That's when I knew it was our day. Moshoeu made it 3-0. He had really come alive after his goal against Algeria, combining superbly with Doctor Khumalo in midfield.We were in the final.You could feel the tension on both sides when the referee blew the whistle at the start of the game. There was the punishing heat to deal with as well. What was marvellous, though, was seeing all those South African flags in the stadium and knowing that many fans of all races had come out to support the team. It was still goalless when Clive decided to bring on Mark Williams for Phil Masinga in the 65th minute. You could see that Mark was all pepped up, probably not too happy about not being allowed to start the game. He clearly wanted to prove a point. Seven minutes after coming on, Mark put the ball into the back of the net, and scored again two minutes later. He was a real fox, usually in the right place at the right time in the box or, as Mark would call it, "the kitchen". We'd dealt Tunisia a double blow in the space of two minutes and thereafter we just consolidated. After the second goal I told Linda Buthelezi and Eric Tinkler, "Guys, keep that block in front of the defence, keep it tight . There is no need to go for the third goal."After the final whistle, we burst out in joy. We had won. We were the champions of Africa! It was truly incredible. I can't even describe what went through my mind. I thought about Madiba, as he had been such a support during the tournament. He had visited us on the eve of the final, telling us, "I support you guys all the way, whatever happens tomorrow." After hearing his words, we knew that we had one thing to do and that was to deliver the Africa Cup of Nations trophy to him. We couldn't let Madiba down. A year earlier, about 10 percent of the country had come to a standstill on the day of the Rugby World Cup final. This was different: nearly the whole of South Africa came to a standstill when we faced Tunisia for the Africa Cup of Nations final. It brought the entire country together, regardless of colour, background or age.The adrenaline was pumping through my body when I was handed the trophy. It was heavy, at least 40 kilos, but I was so pumped that I raised it above my head as if it were a feather. My only regret of the day was swopping my jersey with a player from Tunisia. It happened in the euphoria of the moment after the final whistle, and I ended up wearing a Tunisian shirt when I lifted the trophy with Mandela at my side, while he was wearing the number 9 jersey that I had given him before the tournament.I've already mentioned that Clive was a superstitious person who made routines out of things that happened when he won. It was no different during the Africa Cup of Nations, as he demonstrated with the dinners, the piano playing and the trips to the Randburg Waterfront. He even endured a painful routine that I started with him. Before the Cameroon match, we had breakfast and I sat next to him, as usual. Clive, who was a bit nervous but otherwise chirpy, was rocking back and forth on his chair. "Clive," I said, "you can't do that." But he continued to rock back and forth. I took a teaspoon and hit him in the balls. He cringed. "Neil, how could you do that?""I warned you," I answered. "This is no classroom. You have to be respectable!"TRIUMPH AND HEARTACHEThat day we beat Cameroon 3-0. For the next match, against Angola, he was rocking in his chair again. This time, I hit him with a dessert spoon. He moaned and cringed, but laughed at the same time. We beat Angola and had basically qualified for the quarterfinal. However, before the Egypt game, Clive said, "Neil, you are not going to catch me again." I didn't and we lost. Then we had to play Algeria in the quarterfinal. Clive, superstitious as he was, started rocking in his chair and allowed me to hit him in the balls with a spoon. We beat Algeria. From then on, the spoons got bigger, but so did Clive's balls. They must have turned blue but he took the punishment, all for the team. Before the final, I used a salad spoon. He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye when he saw the spoon approaching and took it again with a cringe. The rest is history - we won the Africa Cup of Nations.The euphoria lasted three weeks, until 26 February. That day I was brought back to earth when my dear mother passed away after suffering from breast cancer. My wife, Nadine, my brother, Mark, and his wife, Rose, had brought her from Durban to a hospice in Johannesburg on the 19th. My family had kept from me how sick she really was so that I could focus on the Africa Cup of Nations. She deteriorated very quickly.The passing of my mother was extremely tough. I loved her so much and suddenly she was gone. Going from the euphoria of winning the tournament to losing my mother was not easy to deal with. I struggled. But I had to cope and football helped me to get through it. A new season started with Kaizer Chiefs and my life as a footballer went on. The highs and lows in life are often the way God keeps you in check.