When meeting Benni McCarthy for the first time, it is hard not to size him up. Firstly, he is larger than life and says what is on his mind. Secondly, his size has been open to cruel national debate.
Benni McCarthy’s weight has been the staple of comedians, talk shows and Monday morning office gossip along the lines of Benni in a cafeteria rather than the 18-yard area.
“I am now finding it easy to stay in shape,” he says. “The weight issue really came up when I was living and playing in Europe and experimenting with all kinds of food that was new to me. Most of it clearly didn’t agree with my metabolic system, which resulted in me packing on the pounds, but now I know what works and that is how I’m keeping the excess weight off,” he continues.
By now it has become clear that McCarthy lives his life as an open book. I had expected the weight question to go down like a triple cheeseburger—which it didn’t, and next he was taking us on a tour of his Parkwood mansion and making jokes about his current team’s coach and ruminating about his future.
“I think that I am fitting in well at Orlando Pirates. For me, coming back home was not necessarily because I had no other options—it was mostly for the purpose of giving back to the community that made me the international star that I became,” he says of his 14-year spell in international soccer.
“I am finding the level of discipline with the players to be of a lower quality here than at the clubs in Europe, though, and most times you find that a lot of players aren’t as dedicated or as excited to be on the field representing the country’s biggest teams. But the pace of the game and all the other technical elements are up there with the best worldwide,” he says.
McCarthy is the only South African football player to ever win the UEFA Champion’s League. His former team, FC Porto, won in 2004, thanks to his 20 goals in 23 matches, plus a golden hat-trick in the final. McCarthy had a strange career at Porto. He scored in 11 matches for FC Porto in 2002 and left them only because the club could no longer afford him. They bought him back for €8 million ($10.5 million) a year later and McCarthy went on to win the UEFA Golden Boot.
Besides his uncanny ability to find the back of the net, McCarthy’s list of achievements would make even the most jaded critic realize that he is the real deal. He was the first soccer player in the world to feature on the cover of TIME magazine; he still holds the record of international goals by a South African and is Bafana Bafana’s all-time top scorer with 31 goals for his country.
McCarthy’s time spent in Europe wasn’t all roses. As he reminisces, he tells a chilling tale of rabid racism among Spanish supporters.
“For quite a while, my skin color became the bane of my existence. There were times when some fans would throw banana peels onto the stadium as I went in, and I still remember very vividly how they used to also make monkey sounds when I walked onto the pitch,” says McCarthy.
After enduring the hatred for months, McCarthy came up with a technique to block out all the hatred.
“Whenever I would encounter racism off the field, I would always take out a wad of cash and either burn it or tear it up right in front of the perpetrators. That was my way of rubbing it into their faces: you hate me, yet you still come to my games, effectively making me richer,” McCarthy quips.
McCarthy does have money to burn. His home drips with it.
“Growing up in Hanover Park in the Cape Flats of Cape Town, I never knew that it was possible that I could achieve so much, and make the kind of money that I made just by kicking a ball around. I know what it is to be poor, and the fact that I do not want to return to that has made me very wise in the way I handle my finances,” explains McCarthy.
“There are too many stories about ex-footballers going back home and becoming dead broke. I understand the reason behind why that happens: you go overseas as a teenager, get access to more money than you ever thought possible in a very short time and it gets to your head. It also becomes very hard to resist the lure of the football star’s lifestyle, which famously entails hard partying, bling and lots of beautiful women with expensive tastes. Add to that the bad friends that surround you and the fact that there isn’t much financial education that was given to you before you found yourself in that position,” he says.
McCarthy maintains that his family, which consists of his mother, three daughters, a steady girlfriend from Scotland and a baby on the way, have kept him focused on making financial decisions that will ensure that everyone gets to keep the lifestyle that he has worked for.
“I have six properties in Europe, a couple of houses in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and I am in the process of starting a business as a property developer—focusing on building luxury apartments for the growing middle class,” he says.
The Maserati and Bentley parked in the front drive shows McCarthy isn’t always parsimonious.
“You know how it is with us guys and how we love our toys… I do admit that I have a serious weakness for sports cars, and I am a keen collector of top-of-the-range watches… so basically, I collect houses, sports cars and Rolexes,” he gushes.
If the rumor that he earns around R500,000 ($64,000) a month at Orlando Pirates is true, then McCarthy doesn’t have much to worry about.
“I hope to play for one or two more seasons, then retire from football for good. I have been very fortunate in that my career hasn’t been marred by injury or anything that I can’t handle, so I look forward to one day being on the level of my all-time icon, Jomo Sono,” he says.
Benni McCarthy may have come a long way from his roots in the Cape Flats, but he has not forgotten his roots or the ball artistry of one of his illustrious predecessors. Legend has it that Jomo Sono left his wedding reception to take the field for Pirates, who were losing, to score goals for victory. Surely, McCarthy would have done the same.