South African Football Legends: Three of the Best in History

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South Africa is a proud footballing nation. Having already hosted and won the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in 1996, South Africa became the first country on the African continent to host the FIFA World Cup in 2010. From the hardworking defenders to the creative midfielders and clinical goalscorers, many South African players have featured, and still do, in top leagues around the globe.

Many present and future stars make headlines on local sports websites and grace the markets of the best sports betting apps in South Africa. There’s an opportunity on these apps to back your favourites and find the best player and team odds, although there aren’t many these days that can compare to the three stars we’re looking at here.

So, let’s look at three South African football legends who displayed their skills before online apps even existed, or while they were in their infancy. These players found fame on the world stage, inspiring their nation and leaving enduring legacies in the beautiful game.

Lucas Radebe

Central defender and long-time South African national captain Lucas Radebe opens our list. In an international career that spanned 70 caps, “Rhoo” led the side to two FIFA World Cups, and was part of the victorious 1996 AFCON team coached by Clive Barker.

After playing 113 times for premier NSL side Kaizer Chiefs, Radebe left African shores for Leeds United in the English Premier League. In all, he played 256 times for The Whites and assumed captaincy of the club in 1998/99. Nicknamed “The Chief” by Leeds fans, Radebe was part of the Leeds team that reached the UEFA Champions League semi-finals in 1999/2000.

Before injuries forced Lucas Radebe into retirement, he turned down contracts from Man Utd, AC Milan and Roma to stay at Leeds United. Radebe won the FIFA Fair Play Award in 2000 and was an ambassador for South Africa’s winning 2010 FIFA World Cup bid.

Jomo Sono

Known as “The Black Prince” by his multitude of fans, Jomo Sono found nationwide footballing fame while at South African giants Orlando Pirates. From 1977, Sono made an impression in the United States, playing for New York Cosmos alongside the legendary Pelé.

When Sono returned to South Africa in 1982, he bought the eight-time champion club Highlands Park and renamed it as Jomo Cosmos, after his first US team. Sono led the team to South Africa’s NSL championship in 1987.

Jomo Sono coached South Africa in the AFCON finals in Burkino Faso in 1998, losing to Egypt at the final hurdle. He also took the team to the FIFA World Cup in Japan and South Korea four years later. In 2004, Sono was voted the 49th greatest South African in the Top 100 list.

Benedict McCarthy

Benni McCarthy is South Africa’s all-time leading goalscorer in international competitions, with 31 goals in his 79 appearances. He is also one of the country’s most successful European football exports. Known as “The Goal Machine,” McCarthy was a prolific striker who showcased his scoring prowess at various European clubs.

McCarthy appeared for Ajax Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Celta Vigo in Spain, Porto in Portugal and Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League. At Porto, he won the Golden Boot with 20 goals in 29 appearances in 2003/04. His exceptional goal-scoring abilities saw him find the net 153 times in 422 European club appearances.

Injury curtailed McCarthy’s progress at West Ham United, his second EPL club. He moved back to South Africa after one season, appearing for the Orlando Pirates until retiring in 2013, aged 35. After several local coaching roles, Benedict McCarthy was appointed as a first-team coach at Man Utd in 2022, a position he still holds.

Other Notable Mentions

There are numerous other South African players who could have claimed a place on our list.

Steven Pienaar played at club level for Ajax Amsterdam, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland and, most notably, Everton. He also played for and captained South Africa, earning 61 caps.

Quinton Fortune spent seven years at Man Utd, while previously also playing in Spain for Atlético Madrid and Mallorca. He represented South Africa 46 times and was a squad member at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

Mark Fish earned 62 South African caps and he was part of the team that won the 1996 AFCON final. He was named in the AFCON Team of the Tournament in both the 1996 and 1998 editions. He also played over 100 times for both Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic in the English Premier League.

Delron Buckley, Sean Bartlett, Sibusiso Zuma and the late Phil Masinga have all excelled in leagues abroad. Then there’s Neil Tovey, Doctor Khumalo, and Siyabonga Nomvete, who have all been iconic South African international and domestic footballers through the years. And there are so many more still staking their claims. Look out for them!

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