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The Winner Who Defied Death Fights For The Holy Grail

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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.

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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 [2019] Nations Cup and [2018] World Cup as well.

“There is a lot to be positive about and that makes you enjoy the work a bit more I think.”

We’ll Follow Wanyama To Hull And Back

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.

South Africa’s captain Neil Tovey lifts the African Cup of Nations trophy after his side beat Tunisia in the final in 1996. (Photo by Mark Thompson/via Getty Images)

“Bafana now have definitely got the talent, no doubt about it. But what was special in our [1996] 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.”

Is This Africa’s Next Star?

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

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The Cab Driver, Coach And The Cup

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It has been 22 years since he led South Africa to glory in the African Cup of Nations. In a new book, Clive Barker recounts his career as a salesman by day and taxi driver by night, and to FORBES AFRICA, that he is not done with the future of African football.

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Chasing The Grand Slam With Kevin Anderson

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Kevin Anderson had the biggest match of his career in the recent Wimbledon final, becoming the first male player to feature in the decider under the South African flag since 1921.
With over $13 million in career prize-money, he speaks to FORBES AFRICA about new goals.

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The New No. 6 Role Model In Rugby

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Siya Kolisi’s elevation to the captaincy of the South African national rugby side drew global interest for what it symbolized but he admits it has been a tough road to earn his place as arguably the most iconic player in the country.

Kolisi comes from a poor Eastern Cape background and having faced a number of tests of his own strength and perseverance, has risen to be among the most inspirational sportsmen in South Africa.

The importance of having a first black captain of the Springboks, which during apartheid was seen as the preserve of the white minority and the political power they yielded, cannot be understated and as such Kolisi has been fielding interviews from around the globe, including American network HBO, with the United States certainly not a traditional market for rugby content.

It is perhaps hard for younger generations to understand why Kolisi being handed the role – and wearing the same number six jersey that Francois Pienaar and former South African president Nelson Mandela at the 1995 World Cup final – is such an important moment for South African rugby, but it is all about making the game more inclusive to all races.

Anecdotal evidence of South Africans who had never watched a rugby match before rushing home to be in front of their television sets for Kolisi’s first test leading the side against England at Ellis Park on June 9 were plentiful.

Suddenly, there is a role model, an individual that many black South Africans can identify with, leading the team against another major rugby power.

Siya Kolisi of the Springboks during the Castle Lager Incoming Series 1st Test between South Africa and France at Loftus Versfeld Pretoria, South Africa. Photo via Getty Images

But Kolisi admits that it needed a stern few words from Stormers coach Robbie Fleck in 2016 to push him in the right direction after making little impact in the early part of his career as he battled with the demands placed on a professional rugby player.

“I had a conversation with the coach and he told me I had to grow up, basically,” Kolisi tells FORBES AFRICA. “Since that day, I haven’t looked back. It’s not been easy, it’s been tough. I won’t lie, I had to mature a lot.

“Obviously now, I’m a leader at home as well, I have got kids that I must be a role model for. I had to change a lot of my ways.”

Kolisi was raised by his grandmother in the Zwide township near the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, but his sporting prowess earned him a scholarship to the prestigious Grey High School and changed his fortunes.

“I’m grateful to her, because she did everything she could to give me a life. She would go without food so that I could eat,” he said recently at a press conference.

“I couldn’t speak a word of English when I first attended Grey High, but my mates taught me and helped me with homework.

“Obviously, coming from the township and not having a lot, and coming to Grey, your dreams start becoming much bigger because you have so much. You have everything you need to be whatever you want to be.

“I started dreaming big. When I was in the township, to think that I would be here, you don’t dream like that. That’s my dream one day, to change that mentality [for others].”

Kolisi was snapped up by the Western Province Rugby Union in 2010, lured to Cape Town by their then coach Rassie Erasmus, who is now in charge of the Springboks.

READ MORE: Springbok Women Step It Up For Big Game

He was handed the captaincy of the Stormers at the start of 2017, but there were still some murmurs of discontent from skeptical sections of the public when he was given the reins of the Springboks in June, with critics saying it was a political appointment to appease the South African government and deliver transformation targets for South African rugby.

“I can’t control what other people think of me, I can only control what I can do on the field,” Kolisi says.

“I think it is a genuine appointment by coach Rassie because he is not that kind of a person. I have known him since I was 18 years old. We sat down and he was straightforward with me and that is how it is. You always know where you stand with him.

“Coach Rassie is not a politician and neither am I. I am a rugby player and all I want to do is to play well and inspire South Africans of all races.

“I know how much of a big deal this thing is for the country and it is a great thing for me to be a role-model. As a Springbok, it is not only about rugby, it’s the things you do off the field.”

Kolisi’s first series in charge ended in a 2-1 home success over England and with a World Cup in Japan looming next year, he could be selected to lead the side at that global showpiece tournament.

But with other players who were previously named as captain ahead of him returning from injury, such as loose-forward Warren Whiteley and lock Eben Etzebeth, the ball will be in Erasmus’ court to see if he will stick with his historic appointment.

– By Nick Said

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