King of Hanover Park: How Benni McCarthy saved a gangster’s life

Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United and Benni McCarthy, boasts a pitch-perfect carpet of green glory. The South African soccer legend has played a pivotal role in the Red Devils’ match successes since his appointment as first-team coach on 30 July this year.

Benni McCarthy: The King of Hanover Park

In stark contrast, however, to the hallowed turf of Old Trafford, stands the 44-year-old McCarthy’s childhood: One marked by turf wars.

ALSO READ: Benni McCarthy shares experience as Manchester United strikers’ coach

Benni McCarthy
Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag has added to his backroom team with the appointment of Benni McCarthy as a first-team coach. Photo: Twitter @ManUtd

Benedict Saul “Benni” McCarthy hails from gang-ridden Hanover Park on the notorious Cape Flats. The Broke Backpacker provides a sliver of what the forsaken Cape Flats have to offer:

“The Cape Flats are the most dangerous area [in Cape Town] and should be fully avoided by tourists and visitors. It’s an area that even locals don’t walk in since 95% of crimes in Cape Town occur in this area.”

ALSO READ: ‘Net worth’? Benni scores all the way to the bank with Man U salary

Youngsters mull around in between the “Courts” or blocks of flats in an area which is controlled by the Mongrels gang, on 14 July 2016, in Hanover Park. Image: Gallo Images

ALSO READ: Bloody weekend on the Cape Flats leaves eight dead, sparks manhunt

The Cape Flats is no place to live. But people do. They dodge stray bullets in this crooked Gangsta’s Paradise (RIP Coolio) every single day. Ask Benni. When he was 11, his best friend, Reginald, was killed by a stray bullet while playing soccer.

“We were playing football on a little pitch between the houses. 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,” Benni spoke of that fateful day in an interview with Coloured SA.

“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.  Reginald would have been a footballer and a half. He had everything. He was quick, very skillful and mentally he was very strong. He would have been the complete player, but he never even got to see 15.”

– Benni McCarthy

ALSO READ: RIP: ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ hitmaker Coolio dead at 59

Just another bloody Sunday, gangster leagues, guts and glory

It could easily have been a bullet for Benni. Collateral damage from yet another gang war. But Benni was destined to score big in life.

The story of South Africa’s all-time leading goalscorer’s rise to soccer stardom features a “talent spotter” with the much-feared tattoo of an American flag; gangster leagues and plenty of guts before glory.

Back in 1992, diski (or street soccer) was the name of the game for the 15-year-old Benni. The youngster and three of his friends were kicking up some dust while a bitter turf war was raging between the Americans and the Backstreet Kids. Bullets were flying and knives were flashing with deadly precision. Just another bloody Sunday in Hanover Park…

‘The boy had so much talent’

The police finally arrived to disperse the warring gangsters with teargas. Taking a breather from the mayhem, was Eddie “Bok American” Adams. What the leader of the Americans and drug kingpin witnessed next, would change his life, as well as that of Benni.

“While sitting there, I saw these four boys playing football. Benni was one of those boys. The three were marking him, and he would dribble each of them. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The boy had so much talent,” Adams recalled in an interview with FARPost.  

Adams also ran Hanover Park’s rough and ready Crusaders soccer team. Before his crime empire became an all-consuming beast, he himself played left-back for the team.

One thing Adams knew for certain that day: He needed McCarthy to spice up his Crusaders.

ALSO READ: ‘Hanover Park to Old Trafford’: Benni nets high praise from AKA

‘Benni McCarthy saved my life’

“Benni McCarthy saved my life,” the former gangster blurted out in the interview.

“That saved my life because if I had continued with the gangster life, I’d have died. Football distracted me. I’d been involved with the Americans for many years. So, that’s why I tell people — that Benni saved my life,” Adams continued.

“I played football when I was younger and stopped chasing the gangster life after seeing Benni. I was captain of Crusaders at some point. I stopped playing soccer in 1982 and got busy with gangster life. Then I saw Benni 10 years later in 1992.   

— Eddie “Bok American” Adams

Drug money for a good cause?

“I was a gangster selling Mandrax, and people often bought my drugs because they knew I had to sustain the team,” the 55-year-old explained. 

“I promised Benni I would pay him R1000 for every tournament we win. It was a lot of money back then in 1992. Remember, I didn’t know the boy; I just said to him: ‘Don’t you want to play for me?’.” 

McCarthy told FARPost that the money he received from Adams was more than his mother Dora’s monthly income.

“If it weren’t for that man, I wouldn’t be here,” the soccer star admitted.

“The gangsters would look for the best talents on the Cape Flats to dominate the league. I was given permission to play for Bok by my dad [Dudley]. The money he offered me was almost the salary of my mom. That’s where people saw me playing football.”  

Taste of the ‘Bundesliga’

The Cape Flats’ gangster leagues was the young McCarthy’s first taste of the “Bundesliga” as these gangster tournaments were referred to.

According to FARPost, McCarthy’s big break came in 1996 when a Seven Stars official “accidentally” witnessed his four-goal blitz against Hellenic.

“I paid for his clearance when he joined Seven Stars. I think I paid R120. I was happy to see him take his game professional. That’s where everything else all started,” Adams told FARPost. 

A young Benni McCarthy on the field for Ajax Amsterdam. Image via Instagram @BenniMac17

It was not long before the young McCarthy joined the ranks of Ajax Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

“In joining Ajax, I came from having no rules to being told exactly what to do,” McCarthy previously told Four-Four-Two.

McCarthy’s illustrious career also saw him take to the field for the likes of FC Porto, Celta Vigo, Blackburn Rovers and West Ham.

The former forward and all-time leading Bafana Bafana goalscorer with 31 goals, is the only South African to have won the UEFA Champions League with Porto in 2003 and 2004.

“When I watched him win the UEFA Champions League [in 2004], I couldn’t hold myself; I cried. It meant everything to me. It was as though I was the one on that pitch,” an emotional Adams said, adding that the Cape Flats prepared Benni for any curve balls in his career.

From the Cape Flats’ gangster leagues to Old Trafford, the King of Hanover Park has emerged victoriously from his very own astro turf wars. Respect.

Manchester United return to Premier League action on Sunday 2 October at 15:00, in their derby with Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.