South Africa’s unique relationship with the FIFA Puskás Award

South Africa’s unique relationship with the FIFA Puskás Award

FOOTBALL IS NO OBJECTIVE SCIENCE. There is no right or wrong way to play it. Often the culture of a country determines its playing style; Germany are fearless and structured, Brazil are rhythmic and ruthless. When it comes to South African football, it’s all about freedom. “Freedom and reggae music,” according to former South African international midfielder Thabo Mngomeni, a lanky, athletic and dreadlocked midfielder best known for his Rastafarian beliefs.

The first time he had heard of a drugs test was when he played for one of his first professional clubs, Mthatha Bush Bucks. He was as baffled as the club management when he was called in to explain the traces of marijuana found in his system; he saw no evil, explaining that the plant helped him to play football with freedom. He also refused to wear a suit on matchdays, because he felt that the buttons and tie restricted his freedom.

Club bosses would perhaps have been less willing to make exceptions for Mngomeni if he hadn’t been so brutally brilliant on the field. He would go on to score a stunning bicycle kick in an international against Congo in 2001 that won him the CAF Goal of the Year.

When asked how he had the bravery to even attempt such an effort, Mngomeni explained that it was in the South African culture to be “a little bit cheeky and a little bit naughty”. Mngomeni wasn’t the only one who stunned the world with his cheekiness that year. He had a running wager with fellow South African midfielder Sibusiso Zuma on who would be the first to score a bicycle kick.

During international breaks, they used to get a fellow player to swing in crosses and they would practice the acrobatic feat over and over. Zuma won the bet when he scored a goal in the final minute of a game for his Danish club FC Copenhagen. The sublime strike earned the accolade of Danish Superliga Goal of the Decade, and a monument of him performing the overhead kick has since been built in Copenhagen.

It is odd that two South Africans could acquire such accolades. If you read any South African football journalism you will find that the most common analysis revolves around the country’s blunt strike-force and their regular ability to miss simple chances. South African football is generally a low-scoring affair, illustrated by the fact that in the 2012/13 season, Bernard Parker won the Premier Soccer League golden boot award with just 10 goals in 30 games.

How does it make sense, then, that in the nine years that the FIFA Puskás Award has been in circulation, the African state has had four nominees, including one runner-up? A South African may not score often, but when he does he scores spectacularly.

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In the 2009 Confederations Cup, Katlego Mphela placed the ball down for a free-kick some 30 yards away from goal. South Africa were 2-1 down in the final minute against Spain. Mphela took a few steps backwards and the commentator hushed into his microphone: “This, you have to feel, is South Africa’s last chance to take the game into extra time. And it requires something very, very special. Like that!”

Mphela slammed the free-kick into the top right corner, out of the reach of the best goalkeeper in the world, Iker Casillas. What a cheeky way for a South African to make it onto the first nominees’ list for the Puskás Award.

The next year, in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup, few can forget the image of one Siphiwe Tshabalala with his fists clenched, face distorted and legs airborne as he slammed a left-footed beauty past Mexico for the opening goal of the tournament – Puskás nominee number two.

It is for no small reason that Cameroon are nicknamed the Indomitable Lions. As much as they are indomitable, their home crowd is ruthlessly intimidating. In an AFCON qualifier in Cameroon, South Africa found themselves in front of a packed stadium and 2-1 down to the former team of the great Roger Milla.

They were on the defensive in their own half when midfielder Hlompho Kekana took one touch to rid the oncoming Cameroonian of the ball, looked up and then touched the ball for a second time. ‘Touch’ is perhaps an understatement; he rocketed the ball from well within his own half and pressed up against the sideline. The ball flew like a meteor across the field and slammed into the back of the Cameroonian net – Puskás Award nominee number three.

Following Kekana’s goal from inside his half, many pawned it off as a fluke and an example of tactically ill-disciplined football. He may have been bold enough to do it once, but would he be cheeky enough to try it again? He answered that question very recently in a high-profile South African league match between Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns where he scored yet another goal from inside his own half.

We will have to wait until next year to see if he can earn himself a second Puskás nomination. After scoring his second goal from behind the halfway line Kekana stated: “To score a goal like that, you need to be a little crazy and try something special.”

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If ever there was an actualization of cheekiness, naughtiness and pure fantasy in football, it came in a South African league match between Baroka and Orlando Pirates. Baroka are a team from a small village in Limpopo named Lebowakgomo, a dusty place that is as difficult to find as it is to pronounce. The ethos of the club is firmly rooted in the notion of trying the impossible.

They were only recently promoted to the top flight and therefore find themselves as the underdogs in almost every situation. They proudly brandish the title of giant killers, with a style based off a beautifully arrogant display of footballing art that would be labelled as barbaric in the meeting rooms of Munich or Manchester, but in South Africa is music to the ears of the people. Once in a while, when the stars align, it also catches global attention.

Baroka vs Orlando Pirates; the clock read 95 minutes. Baroka were trailing 1-0 and were awarded a corner. In a sign of desperation and bravery, the towering goalkeeper Oscarine Masuluke pushed up to add numbers in the box. The corner kick swung to the back post and was fisted away by the Pirates’ goalkeeper to the edge of the box. Oscarene chased the ball with his back to the goal and, after a single bounce, he propelled his body horizontally and slammed a bicycle kick into the top right corner.

A goalkeeper, from a small village in South Africa, scoring a bicycle kick in the 95th minute to draw the match – Puskás Award nominee number five.

Masuluke finished as runner-up to Olivier Giroud’s scorpion kick in this year’s ceremony, a result that many around the world believed was a robbery for the 24-year-old from Lebowakgomo.

Despite Masuluke’s loss, he carried the South African flag with distinction despite his unbelievably cheeky acrobatics that earned him the nomination. His naughtiest feat was putting on the suit that carried him to the awards ceremony in London. There Masuluke stood, probably the tallest man in the city that night, in a bright green, shiny suit. He did not shuffle his feet around the global superstars; he walked amongst Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as equals. He did not ask to be seated at the table; he demanded his place there.

Masuluke’s appearance at the awards ceremony proved to be the personification of what the dreadlocked rasta Thabo Mngomeni had suggested all those years ago – a South African who plays with a little bit of cheekiness, a little bit of naughtiness and a lot of freedom can achieve the impossible and stun the world.

By Nikolaos Kirkinis

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