Jomo Sono: the man who beat death, poverty and institutional racism to become a true footballing icon

Jomo Sono: the man who beat death, poverty and institutional racism to become a true footballing icon

Imagine losing one of your parents as a child. Imagine being abandoned by the other shortly after, leaving you orphaned in one of the poorest places on earth. Imagine having to be cared for by your 87-year-old grandfather, who also happens to be blind. And Imagine rising, despite all of this pain and suffering, to become one of the best footballers your country has ever seen. Imagine that, and you’re imagining the life of Jomo Sono.

The first man to manage South Africa at a World Cup was born in Soweto in 1955. Ephraim Matsilela ‘Jomo’ Sono lived a charmed life in Orlando East. His father Eric was the captain and lynchpin of the township’s most famous football club, Orlando Pirates. ‘Scara’ had been a silky playmaker and crowd favourite but when his car overturned on the Kroonstadt-Vredefort Road in 1964, his young son’s life was blown apart irrevocably.

With his mother abandoning the family shortly after the accident, Ephraim was left in the care of his ailing grandparents. School had to be paid for, so he began selling peanuts and apples at the Natalspruits Ground and at the local bus station. He quickly gained a reputation as a nuisance, short-changing customers and being shooed away by exasperated staff and patrons.

Every year, the Pirates would take part in an exhibition match at the local stadium. A 14-year-old Sono, sensing a business opportunity, took his crates into the grounds. The team’s coach, who had known Sono’s father during his playing days, saw the young man hawking his wares and called him over. His team were short by one player – would he mind deputising? Sono obliged, on the condition that the coach buy a whole tray of apples. He immediately scored two goals and was the best player on the pitch.

Word got out about the spindly teen blessed with magical talent. After starring in another friendly, Sono returned to his grandparents’ house to find representatives from South Africa’s biggest clubs at his doorstep. Fielding a number of offers, he signed with the same club where his father had made his name.

Sono was a gregarious talent, who inculcated himself with the Sea Robbers’ cavalier attacking ethos under the watchful eye of coach Isaac Mothei. Days after his 16th birthday, he nabbed two goals in a friendly win over Kagiso Hot Beans. Ephraim, it seemed, had inherited all the footballing brilliance of his father.

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A silky dribbler with a competitive streak, he garnered a nickname that would eventually become famous throughout the continent. ‘Jomo’ was a Kikuyu phrase that translated into ‘Burning Spear’. Africa already had one Jomo, after the exuberant Kenyan president Mzee Kenyatta. Similarly to the East African, Sono combined a taste for the hubristic with a fiery competitor’s temperament. It was clear that his talent was fit for the world stage.

With the introduction of Apartheid laws in 1948, however, South African football had been riven in two. The national team was populated by white men only, chosen from a white league that was governed exclusively by a white association. Black footballers and black fans simply had to find their own way.

So they did. The Pirates became one of Soweto’s biggest draws, regularly attracting tens of thousands of spectators for games in the National Professional Soccer League, an answer to the all-white National Football League.

Sono’s fame grew as Pirates fans flocked to worship their serpentine number 10. He won Sportsman of the Year in 1973, a nod to his prodigious ability from free-kicks and a suite of insolent tricks. The following season, he starred alongside Chippa Moloi and Sparks Banda as the Pirates swept all before them. The league, the Top 8 Cup, the Life Cup and the Champions of Champions Trophy were all added to the cabinet before season’s end. Barely 18, Sono was the shining light in a team of brazen superstars.

Even in a country determined to stifle its black athletes, his talent was irrepressible, and his internatonal profile skyrocketed in 1976. Attempting to circumvent a FIFA ban, the authorities had convened an exhibition match between an interracial 11 and Latin heavyweights Argentina. Sono bagged four of his side’s goals in the ensuing 5-0 rout. He was just 21 when the most glamorous club in the world snared him

The New York Cosmos were an intoxicating miasma of money and celebrity. In 1975, they had secured the signing of Pelé, with Giorgio Chinaglia brought in from Italy the following year. In 1977, Sono joined a roll call that also boasted Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer.

His first challenge upon alighting in Manhattan was the weather. Snow had never made it to Soweto, and New York’s frozen winds were something entirely different to the searing heat of Orlando East.

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The second challenge was the language – but it shouldn’t have been. Overwhelmed by his new surroundings, Sono pretended he couldn’t speak English. Opponents and other figures made their feelings about his skin colour very clear, safe in the apparent knowledge that the young African couldn’t understand the slurs. Even as a black man, he was warned against going to Harlem.

Sono, however, wasn’t about to let ignorance stand in the way of his footballing mission. Alongside fellow missionary Ace Ntsoelongoe, he was committed to changing perceptions. “We carried the torch for South African people by playing overseas,” he later told to the San Diego Union-Tribune. “The perception of the white Afrikaaners was that the black man can’t do anything. We went out to the other side of the world and showed that black people can play football.”

Alas, Sono would spend just 12 months in New York. More productive spells at the Colorado Caribous, Atlanta Chiefs and the Toronto Blizzard followed, before he returned home in 1982.

Sono’s country, it seemed, had remained steadfastly against him throughout his career. Despite repeated admonitions, the South African football authorities had ignored the reprimands and suspensions from FIFA over its divisive structures, much to the detriment of the nation’s sporting talents.

By 1979, however, even the Apartheid government realised it needed to make concessions. The all-white teams were largely inferior to their black counterparts, while administrators hoped that convening exhibition matches could help sooth the discontent threatening to swallow the country whole.

Ten years prior, the Kingdom of Swaziland had invited Highlands Park, the best team in the white league, to face Orlando Pirates to an exhibition game to commemorate the opening of the national stadium. The Afrikaner government, however, had stepped in to prevent the match taking place. A decade later, South Africa was finally ready for what would eventually become an iconic tie.

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Sono was plying his trade in Colorado by then, but any hopes that he would don his famous number 10 were dashed when he informed the club that he was marrying his fiancé on 10 February 1979 – the very same day that the match was due to be played. The news was met with alarm in Soweto. Even Desmond Tutu was asked to intercede on the Pirates’ behalf, in a desperate attempt to have the wedding date changed. Sono, however, was unmoved.

As the ceremony finished, he listened aghast as the car radio informed him of the score. The Pirates had gone 2-0 down, with the commentator begging Sono, if he was listening, to come and rescue the result.

An urgent meeting was called with his father-in-law. Sono was given permission to depart the ceremony, making the five-minute journey to the stadium while still in his wedding tuxedo. Arriving at half-time, he changed quickly into the all-black strip, before stepping out to face thousands of euphoric fans as they leapt from their seats and swung jubilantly from the rafters. Inevitably, he changed the game, laying on three and scoring one in a rocking 4-2 turnaround.

Until that point, Sono had celebrated all of his goals in a  similar fashion, jumping into the air with one hand raised in joy. That day, however, there were two hands: one for him and one for the wife that was waiting for him at church.

After such a glorious career, Sono could have retired to a life of relative comfort. Instead, he became the first black owner of an all-white team, purchasing Highlands Park on his return to the country in 1982. Eleven years before the end of Apartheid, it was an impressive act of defiance.

He set about rebranding the club in his image. ‘Jomo Cosmos’ was finally born in 1984, winning the National League barely three years later as well as the Bobsave Super Bowl in 1990. The Cosmos garnered serious renown for their scouting and promotion of young talents. Philemon Masinga and Mark Fish were just some of the names given a chance by Sono, who combined his role as owner with a permanent, scowling place on the bench.

Over the years, he became much more than a football man. A savvy business acumen and a talent for self-promotion saw him become the owner of Soweto’s first KFC franchise, whilst his business empire extended into several industries outside the game.

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In 1996, Sono accepted a job as technical director of Bafana Bafana. South Africa went on to win the Africa Cup of Nations the same year, but Sono was criticised for failing to attend a swathe of technical meetings. He departed the association shortly after the tournament but was a constant critic on the sideline even as Clive Barker qualified his nation for its first appearance at a World Cup in 1998. ‘The Dog’ was swiftly booted out after a lamentable showing at the Confederations Cup.

Sono was appointed as caretaker, leading his country to the AFCON final against Egypt before becoming the first South African to coach at a World Cup. After winning a solitary point in a dead-rubber 2-2 draw against Saudi Arabia, he departed once more.

Carlos Queiroz should have heeded the warning signs. Appointed as Bafana Bafana manager in 2000, the wily Portuguese lasted just two years before resigning in protest at Sono’s apparent undermining of his position. The newly-reinstated technical director repeated his trick from four years prior, becoming caretaker manager once his country had qualified for its second World Cup in succession.

Third place might have been disappointing for a squad boasting the likes of Benni McCarthy and Quinton Fortune, but Sono made history nevertheless. Siyabonga Nomvethe’s fourth-minute strike against Slovenia made Sono the first South African coach to win a game for his country at the World Cup.

His career has been something of a mixed bag since. Despite winning the Coca-Cola Cup with Cosmos in 2003, the club suffered a fourth relegation from the Premier League in 2016. The 63-year-old has words, however, for anyone who thinks that his powers might have faded: “There is no idiot that will tell me when to stop because the same idiot never told me to start,” he railed in an interview with Kick Off. 

The comments sum him up. This, after all, is a man who has already beaten death, poverty and institutional racism to become a footballing icon. He has never had the luxury of thin skin, forced by fate and circumstance to drive on in the face of incorrigible odds. His life is a testament to perseverance, and his success is living, breathing, shuddering proof that no struggle is insurmountable.

“I wanted to be better than him,” Sono said about his father in an interview with Thomas Mlambo. Little Ephraim did much more than that, bringing pride not just to the family name but to the entire rainbow nation.

By Christopher Weir  @chrisw45

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