The Special One: Coach Benni McCarthy is lifting Cape Town City to new heights. Photo: Bertram Malgas/Gallo Images
Praise be to the Premier Soccer League gods. Just as it looked as though Mamelodi Sundowns would run away with it, the deities of football stepped in and postponed the party. Praise be. Now we have a five-horse race in March — seven if you think Polokwane City or Kaizer Chiefs could make up their greater deficit.
Cape Town City is perhaps the most surprising of the legitimate contenders. Having spent the past few years trying to force their way into the dominant elite of top-flight football, the club now has a serious chance to become champions. They sit in third place, four point off of top spot.
“I think with the position we’ve put ourselves in, it’s time to work even harder for the last seven games and the Nedbank Cup,” says Siphelele Mthembu, who has scored seven goals for the club this season. “So far I’d say it’s been pretty good but we have to put in more energy. We’re taking it one game at a time. The position we put ourselves in requires a high level of concentration. We have to be aware and on top of our game at all times.”
Siphelele Mthembu, aka Shaka Zulu (in blue), makes opponents fearful. Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images
Mthembu is an example of City’s transfer business savvy. Although not exactly the pauper of the league, they don’t have the money or influence to stockpile weapons like the Brazilian log leaders either. To achieve their ambitious targets in such a short space of time, every player signed must come with the potential to make an immediate contribution.
That wasn’t a given in the case of the man known as Shaka Zulu. Something of a journeyman, the 31-year-old has played for seven PSL clubs. He barely settled at any of them either. Chiefs, where he played between 2014 and 2017, was his longest stint. With a career high of six goals in a league campaign, there was always a sense that the big centre forward could offer a lot more.
Enter Benni McCarthy.
Mthembu came to Cape Town City at the start of the season after leaving Free State Stars. As befits a football nomad, he had left under a cloud. Then coach Luc Eymael said he had left the province “using a false family excuse”.
By November, McCarthy, in his typical bellicose fashion, had the pleasure of rubbing it in the Belgian’s face.
“Yes, he’s ‘Shaka Zulu’, but on the pitch, people must be bloody scared to play against you,” he said at the time. “When you look at the history, the British, when you hear Shaka Zulu, you fear, so that’s what I want it to be like on the pitch … Luc Eymael said Shaka’s biggest mistake was to leave Free State because he’s the best coach Shaka will ever have. But no! Here is Shaka’s best coach ever. I don’t want to take the credit, but I’m the first coach to make him score seven goals, more than he has ever had. I can smoke a cigar now.”
Mthembu can’t speak highly enough of McCarthy. Almost every answer he has given about City’s performance this season involves an anecdote about how the legendary Bafana Bafana striker has improved the team in one way or another. From the first game of the season he pushed the squad to go places they didn’t think they could. “He’s a winner,” he says, and that belief has permeated the team.
For Mthembu, in particular, the benefit of being taught by a former poacher with international goal scoring experience has been invaluable. With respect to his other mentors, he insists, this is the best coach he’s ever had.
“I normally call coach Benni ‘the special one’. The coaching that he gives to strikers … he always says ‘hey my man, don’t be far from the box, you understand? Don’t worry about playing to receive the ball, just make sure when we get there you’re in the box.’ So if someone says that every day, every training session, it gets into your head.
“You no longer care how you score. You touch the ball and it’s in. It becomes a habit. I’ve never had a coach who does that. Normally you do extra training or if you don’t score in the next two games you’re out of the team. But with this guy, as long as you work hard, he’ll let you play.”
Thanks in part to Mthembu, City have notched up an inordinate goal tally this season. They’ve scored 39 from 23 games — the highest in the league and six higher than second-best. It’s already 13 more than they achieved the whole of last term.
It’s not all one-way traffic, of course. Given that only Black Leopard and Ea Lla Koto have conceded more, watching their games can often be an enthralling experience. There’s a genuine uncertainty about what ride you just signed up for when they kick off.
To their credit, that effervescent spirit has been appropriately funnelled into consecutive wins against rivals Sundowns and BidVest Wits. The scent of a potential league title now lingers in the Cape Town air. Even with the MTN8 already in the bag and a Nedbank Cup quarterfinal spot booked, finishing merely in the top four with nothing more to show will be tantamount to failure for many in the ambitious group.
“I won’t be happy,” Mthembu says begrudgingly, struggling to even comprehend the possibility. “We have fought so hard to be where we are. If we let it go now … Right now we have a chance of a league and a cup. We have to fight as a team. I’m praying. I’m praying to the holy spirit that he will help us achieve.”