Neil Tovey is the only South African captain to lift an African Cup of Nations trophy. The former defender, who is lucky to be alive, wants to revive the national team.
The image of Neil Tovey standing alongside an elated President Nelson Mandela, and holding aloft the African Cup of Nations trophy in 1996, did not perhaps reverberate around the world like the one captured with Rugby World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar months earlier, but it remains an iconic moment in South African football and, sadly, a unique one.
South Africa had just won the 1996 Nations Cup on home soil and Mandela was tasked with handing the trophy to the winning captain, Tovey.
The joy on Mandela’s face was unbridled, for he too understood the significance of the moment that brought continental glory to a national side with all the colors of the Rainbow Nation.
Twenty one years later, and it remains the only time a Bafana Bafana skipper has had that honor. It is with some sense of irony that the man tasked with changing this is Tovey himself.
Now the technical director of the South African Football Association (SAFA), Tovey is responsible for developing the infrastructure and environment to bring through the next generation of national stars to win glory as he did.
Tovey and Springbok captain Pienaar had a lot of similarities from their magical moment caught in time.
Both were very good players, though perhaps not the best the country had to offer in their positions at the time. But what they brought was skilled leadership and an insatiable hunger for the fight.
Tovey needed that fighting spirit after suffering two separate cardiac arrest incidents. The second, in October 2016, left him clinically dead for over two minutes before he was revived.
He was taking part in a charity cycle race and had already completed 42 kilometers when he collapsed.
“I was fighting for my life on the side of the road until cops found me and called an ambulance. It took the ambulance 20 minutes to get through the cycling route to where I am,” he says. “I’m fine now. But when you wake up in the morning and can say hello to someone, it makes you thankful.”
Tovey spent a week in hospital before being discharged, some 18 months after his first heart attack on a squash court in February 2015.
Most 55-year-olds who have suffered two such near-death experiences would have considered the quiet life, but Tovey feels he has more to give back to South African football. Being part of these “exciting times” gives him the motivation to keep working.
“We really are going through a great period for South African football at the moment,” Tovey tells FORBES AFRICA. “If you look at the national teams alone, the men’s under-17s qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 2015, the under-20s went to the World Cup in South Korea this year, and the men’s under-23 and women’s senior team went to the Olympics last year.”
“I think outside of hosts Brazil, we were one of the very few sides to have both our men’s and women’s teams at the Olympics.”
“So these successes must tell you something about the quality that we have and that the programs we have put in place to develop players are working. The senior national team has been going pretty well in the qualifiers for the  Nations Cup and  World Cup as well.
“There is a lot to be positive about and that makes you enjoy the work a bit more I think.”
Tovey is also involved in the planning of what has been described as a game-changer for South African football – their proposed center of excellence at Fun Valley in Johannesburg.
“All of our licensing properties [coaching courses] that we host at national level will be at Fun Valley, as well as our congress and seminars. Instead of having to go and book out hotels, we will now have another solution which will save us loads of money,” Tovey says.
“It is such a big plus from a playing and coaching point of view to have everything on your doorstep. It’s massive. You are never far away from anything you need, be it training pitches, the gym, facilities to brief players, accommodation and medical help.”
“From a coaching point of view, it means you can be flexible and don’t have the disruptions of getting on a bus and having to fight through traffic just to get to where you need to be for a training session.”
“The facility will be used by all national teams, from under-17 up to the senior teams, men and women, and also then standardizes the way we prepare for matches and tournaments.”
“We will also have indoor and outdoor facilities that allows for more flexibility depending on weather and so on.”
Tovey knows as well as anybody about the hardships of qualifying for major finals on the African continent, something that has been elusive for South Africa in recent years.
“Bafana now have definitely got the talent, no doubt about it. But what was special in our  team was the character. We had guys in our team who could change the game at the drop of a hat and to win major competitions, you need those special players, the likes of Doctor Khumalo, ‘Shoes’ Moshoeu and Mark Williams.”
“It was a special group of players – but this Bafana Bafana team that we have now is as talented. I just think mentally we were really on top of the game. We could get out of moments in the match, when we were up against it, much quicker than I think teams have of late.”
Tovey, along with the 1996 Nations Cup winning team, has been inducted into the South African Sports Hall of Fame. He says it is a honor to be nominated, but is equally determined to make sure another group of Bafana Bafana players join his side there in the not-too-distant future.
“It is a privilege, because only a few South African sports people get accepted into the Hall of Fame and it will be something for my children’s children to look at with some pride.”
“It’s nice that it is happening now as well and not in 60 years when none of us will be around anymore. But we can’t let this be the last South African soccer team to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. I am determined to play my part in making sure that is not the case.” – Written by Nick Said