Gordon Igesund can sum up in two words why his high-flying Moroka Swallows came tumbling back down to earth against Orlando Pirates at the Dobsonville Stadium on Saturday night: “Benni McCarthy”.
The exquisitely experienced 55-year-old Dube Birds boss was unlucky not to steal a win off the Sea Robbers when Soweto’s oldest pairing met in the League last Wednesday. A last-gasp very Happy Jele equaliser after a spectacular Moneeb Josephs save denied the Swallows three points.
But in this Telkom Knock-Out clash four days later, there was big, bad Benni, the man declared unfit to play in his own World Cup last year, the ridiculed striker who left West Ham under a cloud of fatness jokes earlier this year.
Fit after pulling a hamstring while scoring the early goal against Black Leopards two weeks ago, McCarthy, who turns 34 on November 12, returned to bang home both goals – one a contender for goal of the year - and send his side into the Telkom semi-finals with a dramatic 2-1 quarter-final victory after trailing 1-0 to the Swallows.
Amid calls for South Africa’s top scorer (32 goals in 79 games) to be recalled for next Saturday’s Bafana Bafana friendly against the Ivory Coast in Port Elizabeth, McCarthy banged a long-range free-kick past Greg Etafia – you won’t see many better than that 35-yard scorcher – and followed it with the killer second goal 11 minutes from time when Luvhengo Mungomeni – scorer of the Birds’ opener – was robbed by a piratical Oupa Manyisa, who slid Benni in for the winner.
Igesund, who guided the Pirates to League glory in 2001, sighed afterwards: “I knew it. He was always going to be a problem for us. Benni’s a class act. He was the difference today, the difference between us winning and them winning.
"Benni doesn’t just score, he holds up the ball nicely and brings other players to the game."
The only South African currently in possession of a Champions League winners’ medal – McCarthy came on as a sub for Jose Mourinho’s Porto when they crushed Monaco 3-0 in 2004 – said: “We have a never-say-die attitude at the Buccaneers. When we were trailing 1-0 people thought we were dead and buried but there is unity among these Pirates!”
As for his international recall, McCarthy shrugged: “You don't want to be having old throngs hanging around the national team. You don't want players like myself, Bhele(Siyabonga Nomvethe), (Macbeth) Sibaya and Sibusiso Zuma.
“We've passed it now. Now is the time where they should be building a new talent of players.”
And on the longevity of his future, Benni said: “I'm taking it step by step, but it's important to keep myself fit. I have to be careful and not push myself to the point where I will get injured again.”
McCarthy’s timely brace takes the former Seven Stars, Ajax, Celta Vigo, Blackburn Rovers and West Ham striker to five goals for the season despite the predictable injuries and suspensions incurred since his surprise signing for Irvin Khosa’s Pirates. I make that 191 professional goals so far in his career spanning 16 years – that’s an average of about 12 per season.
Buccaneers Brazilian boss Julio Leal, under immense pressure ever since he took over from treble-winning Dutchman Ruud Krol at the start of the season, is now looking good for a second trophy – the Telkom was the only one to elude them last season - after the Pirates successfully defended their MTN8 title.
Leal said: “That was a good game of football, attacking from both teams. Overall I was happy with the commitment shown by our players.
“Benni is a very smart player with experience. I think he is really an outstanding player. He has not been able to perform as much as he is capable of because of his fitness level after the injuries, but if we can get him to recover completely and put him in the best possible shape, he will be amazing to watch."
Pirates go into the semi-final draw with Cape Town outsiders Santos – they put out Phokeng’s Platinum Stars 5-3 on a penalty shoot-out after a 1-1 draw at Athlone - along with Golden Arrows - surprise winners over Ajax Cape Town - and Wits, who saw off the League’s bottom club Jomo Cosmos.
In direct contrast Soweto rivals Kaizer Chiefs - who had their defence of the Telkom ruined by Platinum Stars a fortnight ago – found themselves without a game on a weekend when they were rapped over the knuckles by the PSL Disciplinary Committee for “failing to submit a teamsheet within the stipulated time” before their exit against the Platinum Stars. They were reprimanded and warned against repeating the offence.