Phil “Chippa” Masinga: The man with the golden boot, who signified the rise & decay of SA

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By Chris Bishop, CNBC Africa’s head of programming

How many of South Africa’s rising entrepreneurs remember where they were on that warm August day, in 1997, when their countrymen made history with style and swagger? The streets were deserted on that day – they always were when South Africa played in those heady days – with 80,000 people crammed into the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg and millions more crowded around television sets.  

South Africa had to beat Congo-Brazzaville to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, in France, for the first time.

For millions, 10 seconds in the 14th minute of that historic game will live in the memory for ever. 

Time almost stood still as South Africa won back possession in midfield and played a through ball to the muscular Phil Masinga, charging down the right. He treated the last defender with disdain before unleashing a rocket into the top right hand corner. Masinga sprinted behind the goal in celebration, turned his shirt back-to-front and pointed to his name with his thumb, to the heaving crowd, in unbridled joy. He said afterwards the greatest feeling he took from that historic goal was seeing his fellow South Africans united.

When the cameras went into the victorious dressing room after the game, there were no cell phones, nor cynicism, just smiles and optimism.

“For years I have heard about this World Cup, now I am going to go there!” were the first apt, everyman, words spoken by midfielder John “Shoes” Moshoeu – another of the talented class from ’98 who died cruelly young.   

These were indeed better, more hopeful, times in the early days of democracy in South Africa, when our football team had talent to burn. The team was African champions and looking forward to qualifying for the World Cup every four years, instead of fretting over playing the Seychelles.

Masinga, big confident and robust, was a larger-than-life part of this feeling that South Africa was of the people and destined for better times. Hours after that stunning goal Masinga drove back to his home town of Klerksdorp, in North West province, to have a beer with his mates who couldn’t afford to travel to the game.                  

The  passing of Phil “Chippa” Masinga  – who died from cancer aged just 49 on January 13 – also brings into sharp focus the steady decline of the once shimmering  game in South Africa as well as the life of one of its shining stars.

By 2011, South Africa was losing to minnows like Niger and Masinga was back in Klerksdrop and broke, living in the back room of his mother’s house. Newspaper reports told of how he was forced to sell his football memorabilia, in a garage sale, to keep body and soul together. Sadly, the man with the golden boot became a cautionary tale for sportsmen contemplating life after their playing days. 

In his prime, Masinga, who won more than 50 caps for his country, was one of the first African footballers to break into the European  game. He played for Leeds United and also in Italy and Switzerland.

The ruling African National Congress lauded Masinga as a true patriot who represented his nation with pride.

Many football fans will never forget that moment of magic from Masinga’s right boot that sent his country to the World Cup for the first time.

It is a pity his countrymen could not do more for him when he fell on hard times.