Perhaps Capetonians should be grateful that the petulant, pouty-mouthed striker, Benni McCarthy, became a footballer. Imagine if he had become a gangster in his old neighbourhood of Hanover Park. "Either you stay out of trouble or you join in,” he explains. “And I've got to say it was fun joining in. When you are a boy, fighting boys from other neighbourhoods ... running around with a gang, it was all like being in a movie." But gangsterism's loss was football's gain…
Benedict Saul Apellido - showman, chancer, rascal, charmer - was born on 12 November 1977, the middle son of Dudley and Dora McCarthy. His older brother Jerome was also a professional footballer who played for Kaizer Chiefs and Manning Rangers among others, while his younger brother Mark played football at Franklin Pierce University in the United States. Raised in the crime-riddled Hanover Park township in Cape Flats, South Africa, the stick-thin 'Benni' played sport while friends and neighbours drifted towards criminal gangs. His athleticism and ability drew him to football from an early age. "Life was good there but it could be tough, and there weren't too many opportunities," he says. "Friends who were talented footballers are now gangsters. One of my friends from school, a small guy who used to get bullied, he's now a main gangster. Me? I'm from a strict, hard-working family and was brought up to have self-discipline. I kept out of trouble and loved sport." His father ensured he remained dedicated to it. "I was always chicken when it came to getting hidings from my father," he admits. "Every time I was going in the wrong direction, he came down on me and made me think twice. I went to church and studied and played football so there was little time for doing bad things. I was actually a better cricketer than footballer and I was a wicked fly-half too. I wasn't made for rugby though... too skinny and a bit of a sissy."
Growing up in a region once termed apartheid's dumping ground, violence and danger reigned all around; never more so than on one fateful day when a drive-by shooting robbed him of a friend. "We were playing football on a little pitch between the houses," he recalls. "During a break, I went back inside. Suddenly, we heard a couple of gun shots but we didn't take any notice because you'd hear that all the time. It was no big deal. Then our little cousin came running in and said our friend, Reginald, had just been shot. We went out, and he was just lying there on the ground." The traumatised youngster couldn't go over for fear of what he'd see. "I know it would have played in my head every single day and never gone away. I think Reginald would have been a footballer and a half. He had everything. He was quick, very skilful and mentally he was very strong. He would have been the complete player, but he never even got to see 15."
McCarthy was luckier and blessed with the talent to escape that lifestyle. "I remember playing against Quinton [Fortune], when we were only eleven or 12, and there were gangsters on the touchline threatening to kill him if he played well against my team. Football took you away from that life." Fortune, born in the neighbouring township of Kewtown, secured moves to RCD Mallorca and Club Atlético de Madrid. It was an inspiration to McCarthy. "All of the subsequent South African footballers who have made it in Europe owe a big debt to Quinton," he admitted. "He carved out a path and I remember thinking 'If he can do it then I'm just going to have to try harder and make it too!'"
The young Benni started playing at a local side called Young Pirates which was managed by his uncles. He then joined the youth structures of a local amateur club called Crusaders. Football's gain meant that by 15 McCarthy was the outstanding player in the South African second division for a club called Seven Stars. He plundered 39 goals in 49 games, enough to attract the attention of some of Europe's biggest clubs. When they were lined up as fodder in a match for the national youth team McCarthy unexpectedly ran the game and was immediately selected. Soon he played at the 1997 African Youth Championship, an oasis for scouts, and was approached by, and signed for, Ajax despite interest from AC Milan, Inter and PSG. Because of him the Dutch club later bought a 51% share in Seven Stars and changed its name to Ajax Cape Town. "I grew up as a footballer and a person when I moved to Holland," he smiles.
Had he been wearing it at the time, Amsterdam would have blown McCarthy's D&G hat off. "As a 16-year-old boy you've had a few part-time girlfriends at school, nothing serious, and you know nothing about nothing. Then in my first free day in Amsterdam my teammates took me to the red light district. A sex lesson! They asked if I'd ever seen naked girls and I said 'sure ... on TV'. I was 16! They said that day I'd see lots of naked girls and they took me to the sex museum, chicks lapdancing - the stuff that they do!" The anecdote involves a banana. The expurgated version has Ajax's senior players telling the girls to give Benni 'a birthday treat'. "I said 'no, my birthday's in November'." Too late - four naked girls descended on him. "The players said 'welcome to Ajax, man, we take all the new players out and give them a good time'." A dirty laugh. "After that day I could find my own way back there!"
Surrounded by idols such as Patrick Kluivert and Jari Litmanen, finding his way into Ajax's first team was not so straightforward. McCarthy eventually progressed to Ajax's first XI, playing 36 times and scoring 20 goals between 1997 and 1999. After two intermittently rewarding years, during which he criticised Ajax for not showing more faith in their youth players and the South African FA for jeopardising his club career by making him travel to international matches, he joined Celta Vigo in the summer of 1999.
The move to "one of the best leagues in the world" didn't work out. "It was like going from heaven to hell," he says of his time in Galicia, where he clashed with his manager over his frequent sorties to play for South Africa. "The whole pattern was killing my career. African football needs the same calendar as Europe otherwise its best players are going to suffer," he adds. By then he had scored South Africa's first goal at the 1998 World Cup (popping the ball through Denmark goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel’s legs in Toulouse), released a rap single and, at 22, got in a huff and announced his international retirement. South Africa's minister for sport tried to change his mind and eventually succeeded.
"There were really good people at the club, but they really didn't know how to treat people," he says. "There were a lot of things that if they did them the right way Celta would be just as big as Real Madrid or Barcelona or Celtic or Rangers - stuff like professionalism, how the club was managed. But they didn't want to learn. They didn't have the big-time mentality."
At Ajax McCarthy played with Patrick Kluivert, Ronald de Boer (a "classy guy") and Michael Reiziger before they went to Barcelona. "I had what they had. Then I came to Celta and my team was always in the top five, always making it to the Uefa Cup, but there was a different lifestyle at the two clubs - a difference in how professional Barcelona is, how professional Glasgow Rangers or Chelsea is, compared to there. The fans were not really behind us. They are good because there is not a lot of abuse in the street. But when it comes to the games they are very critical. When I was suspended I sat in the stand and I was amazed by the stuff I was hearing: 'You fucker! You wanker!' Oh my God - imagine what they'd be saying about me too if I was playing!"
Ajax players went out together for meals, drinks or strip shows. McCarthy enjoyed that and always suspected the social aspect of British football would suit him. Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Rangers all tried to sign him during this period. Dick Advocaat wanted him for Rangers in the Champions League only for Celta Vigo to play him in Intertoto Cup ties. "Then I was cup-tied so what was the point of Rangers signing a player for (pounds) 12m when he couldn't play in the Champions League?"
A fluent Spanish speaker, McCarthy stated the culture and the lifestyle at Celta was great, but "if you don't feel at home it doesn't matter how great the country is or how great the people are." At 25 he still had his explosive speed, imagination and aerial ability, but a cool relationship with Celta's new coach, Miguel Angel Lotina, saw him edged out of the side by the Brazilian-born naturalised Spaniard, Catanha, and the moody Russian, Alexander Mostovoi. Benni has views about that. "Catanha, Mostovoi - for me it was really a problem because I knew I was better than them. But the trainer didn't think so...".
After two disappointing seasons McCarthy was loaned to Porto in 2002, scoring 12 goals in 10 games. Finances meant the Portuguese club could not buy him immediately. He had to return to Celta for another year and only finally in the summer of 2003 was he able to join Porto, a club then beginning a rise that would culminate with them becoming European champions. The fee was £2.5m, paid for by the selling of Helder Postiga to Tottenham that summer. McCarthy may have missed Porto’s UEFA Cup win but it was still a great time to join the club. He hit 20 goals in 29 games on his way to the Portuguese golden boot in 2003-04, and ended the season with a UEFA Champions League winners’ medal (memorably grabbing two goals in the second round defeat of Manchester United).
Apart from his agent of more than ten years, Rob Moore, the key influence on McCarthy's career is Mourinho. The striker credits the Portuguese coach in every interview - even though they have fallen out a few times over disciplinary matters - and was present when Mourinho gave his first Porto team-talk. "Looking back to that moment, when I was only on loan at the club, it is easy to trace the route from mid-table in Portugal to the Champions League final," he said. "I remember clearly that Mourinho drew everyone around him and told them 'We are going to have to fight like dogs to even get into the UEFA Cup next season but we will get there if you do what I ask'."
He added: "By the end of that season, we missed qualifying for the Champions League on the last day of the season and it became a disappointment only to be in the UEFA Cup! He sat us all down again and promised, that if everyone did as he asked again, Porto would win the championship and the UEFA Cup - and they did. None of us were surprised - we had learned that if you trust José Mourinho and do what he asks then what he promises comes true." Things looked like taking a turn for the worse when Mourinho left and, after an unsuccessful spell with Italian Luigi del Neri in charge, Porto turned to McCarthy’s old Celta coach Fernandez. McCarthy reportedly said he would rather quit than play for him again but moves to various clubs failed to materialise and he honoured his contract. He won a Portuguese title in 2006 and then came the move to Blackburn.
Infectiously cheerful, irrepressibly upbeat, Benni McCarthy still can't subdue the sense of regret lingering in the background; ever since he first started kicking a ball about “in the Bronx of Cape Town", this lively South African had longed to play his football in England. That dream had nearly come true on several occasions, only for something or someone to get in the way. Pick a top-flight club. The chances are that they have been linked with the striker at one time or other. Aston Villa, Everton, Middlesbrough, Tottenham, West Ham, Chelsea - most of the interest, what's more, was genuine and serious during the player's up-and-down spells at Celta Vigo and Porto. Yet something always cropped up. If he wasn't too valuable to the team, the fee was too low; if he found himself in the wilderness, unused and dejected, the club still hung on.
"Even though I did well," he says, "I still would have preferred to come here when I was 24 or 25, when I was really fresh, when I thought I was really good at what I was doing. I had to prove a point. Everybody knew I was linked to the Premiership so many times, so they wanted see what all the fuss was about. I felt like I had to prove myself to people all the time. It would have been better for me to come when nobody knew me. Then you can enjoy your football."
So it was in July 2006 McCarthy signed a four year contract with Blackburn Rovers for a £2.5m fee. After a disappointing performance in the side's 3–0 defeat to Portsmouth, McCarthy found the net on his debut at Ewood Park against Everton in late August. McCarthy further endeared himself to Rovers fans, scoring a goal on his European debut for the club in a 2–2 against Salzburg in the UEFA Cup, and scoring another in the return leg. He finished second top scorer in the Premiership in 2006–07 with 18 league goals (24 goals in total).
The following season got off to a bad start for McCarthy when he was stretchered off in the opening day win against Middlesbrough. Benni was out of action for a few weeks and found first team opportunities limited, largely because of the form of new striking arrival Roque Santa Cruz. Despite being limited to largely substitute appearances, McCarthy did find the net a total of eleven times in all competitions.
In the 2008-09 season McCarthy appeared to be out of favour with new manager Paul Ince, as the club's strike force was strengthened with the arrivals of Carlos Villanueva and Robbie Fowler to join the already established Roque Santa Cruz, Jason Roberts and Matt Derbyshire. However, he answered these critics by scoring his first goal of the campaign - a 94th minute equalizer in a Premier League match against Middlesbrough. In a traumatic end to the year McCarthy's father, Dudley, died after a long illness and model Amy Leigh Barnes, whom he once dated, was found violently stabbed to death in her home. That December Sam Allardyce replaced the deposed Ince and McCarthy- with questions over his fitness and motivation- set along an irrevocable path towards the Ewood exit door. In all competitions, for Blackburn Rovers, McCarthy scored a total of 52 goals in 140 matches.
Ever since McCarthy made his international debut in a 2-0 home defeat to Holland in 1997, South Africa has been a different side with him in it. Conversely, gloom has always followed South Africa's footballing exploits during those periods of exile. He first angered Bafana Bafana fans by going into international retirement in 2002 aged just 25. The reason? Traveling to international games was hampering his ability to play European football for Celta Vigo and, later, Porto. He was talked into returning, only to quit again after the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations when the president of the South African FA, Mubarak Mahomad, made an uncomplimentary comment about his performance.
The striker blamed the SAFA for demonising him over a pay dispute. He refused to play again until he was given an apology. That period of self-imposed exile lasted 20 months, until new coach Carlos Alberto Parreira flew to Great Britain to talk to McCarthy, who was now at Blackburn Rovers. But after Parreira quit to care for his sick wife, McCarthy fell out with replacement boss Joel Santana after he refused to play in two warm up matches. Despite pleas from South African President Jacob Zuma, Santana refused to pick him. But a run of eight defeats in nine games, which saw the team slump to 86th on the FIFA rankings, Santana was sacked. With goals being South Africa's biggest problem, it was no surprise that returning coach Parreira made persuading McCarthy to return, for a second time, his top priority.
Sure enough, McCarthy returned to the fray. The 32-year-old told local press: "I want to start afresh and help Bafana do well in the World Cup finals. It is every player's dream to play for his country... and I have matured. In the past I was a loose cannon and I apologize if I was wrong [but] I am still the best at what I do - and that is scoring goals," he added.
Fast forward a few months to a sodden Chadwell Heath where Benni McCarthy is busy giving goalkeeper Robert Green a thorough workout. The South African has been with his new club for less than a week but insists he is already feeling perfectly at home in the hustle and bustle of east London. "It is very exciting to be here," he says. "It is mind-blowing to be part of everything that is happening at West Ham, and how this part of London is evolving. It will all be happening in and around this club and the new owners have come in and put the club back on track to go places. I want to be on this train, I want to be here now and grow with this club. I have come in at the right time. Maybe for results so far, you would like to be somewhere different or where we deserve to be, but all that is going to change. There are just too many good things at this club. Relegation doesn't exist for me. We have got way more in our squad to be at the wrong end of the table."
While McCarthy is excited about the prospect of leading West Ham's charge up the Barclays Premier League table, the experienced forward is also looking forward to making his home in the nation's capital. "It will be a different experience. You can't compare Blackburn to London. It is a small town and the surroundings are really nice and cosy and comfortable, but London is the big city. It is one of the best cities in the world. It has got so many great things that you can do if you have family and that."
McCarthy’s marriage to Spaniard Maria in 2004 means he now has little difficulty in fulfilling the criteria for an EU work permit. Maria has also been described as a calming influence and one of the reasons why McCarthy has mellowed from his fiery younger days. Together they have a daughter. "You can do so many tours and see so many fascinating things around London and learn about all of the different cultures that live here. The football scene is fantastic because we have got rivals in Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. There will be a lot of derby games and that is the kind of games I want to play in. I look forward to playing for West Ham in big matches. Coming to London has been very appealing. There is a big South African community in London, loads of South African shops. There is nothing of that kind up north so I will be very settled." And with that a smile plays out across his lips. "This is a game," he chirps. "You're supposed to enjoy it. You can't just be serious all the time. At the start you played because you loved it, not because you were getting paid. I lost too many years when I lost enthusiasm. Now I'm trying to get that back."