Books

Legs of thunder sinews of steel

2019-04-26 08:31

Vuvuzela Dawn – 25 Sports Stories that Shaped a New Nation by Luke Alfred and Ian Hawkey

Pan Macmillan

352 pages

R295

A riveting new book traces SA’s greatest sports moments since returning to the international fold in 1994. In this edited extract from a chapter on Orlando Pirates’ triumph at the 1995 African Champions Cup in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire,Ian Hawkey considers the role played by the legendary Jerry Sikhosana in the victory

It is assumed in South African football that an ambitious, talented young player will aspire to play for one of the traditional, heavyweight clubs. In the early 1990s, as the National Soccer League (NSL) title shifted back and forth between Kaizer Chiefs, Mamelodi Sundowns and, after a pause, to Orlando Pirates, everybody recognised the hierarchy. To move upwards was to join the ‘Glamour Boys’, the ‘Brazilians’ or the ‘Buccaneers’.

Jerry Sikhosana took a contrary view. At 25, he was approaching the peak of his powers as a muscular centre-forward, nimble on the turn and with a ferocious ?nish. He had come to appreciate his leader’s role in a tight community, the devotion of supporters. As old South Africa turned into New South Africa, Sikhosana felt very much at home at Witbank Aces, mid-table but ambitious, in a team where he, as he puts it, ‘was part of the clan’.

Word reached him that Pirates, on their way to the 1994 league title, had it in mind that he might be a useful addition to their forward line. Sikhosana shrugged the notion off as idle gossip, a whim based on his having scored – in his words – a ‘cracker of a goal against them’ in his home territory, Tembisa. He was genuinely taken aback when, early the following year, it seemed not only had the so-called People’s Club targeted Sikhosana, but also that their people would and could make it happen whether he liked it or not.

Sikhosana tells the story of his transfer from Aces to Pirates as a velvet-gloved abduction. ‘It was the January of ’95, I think,’ he recalls, ‘and I got caught by surprise at my mother’s house in Tembisa. I was heading off to training with Aces, waiting for the kombi to come pick us up, and my mother asked: “Where are you going? You know there is a car with a Pirates slogan on it looking for you outside.”’

The swanky car, with its skull-and-crossbones logo, drew attention. ‘In my township, a few people had seen this nice Pirates car with all the branding. So they were coming out towards my yard. Everybody was surprised. At ?rst, I thought: “What are these people here for?”’ He quickly had his answer. ‘Jerry, I’m here to pick you up,’ the driver explained. ‘The chairman, Irvin Khoza, is waiting for us at the of?ce.’

And that was that, a done deal, which was the way things still worked at the tail end of an era in professional football when the professional footballer could still be one of the last to know he had been headhunted. Barely had Sikhosana started to say, ‘No, I’m going to training with Aces,’ than the messenger from chairman Khoza was telling him, ‘Don’t worry, that’s been sorted. You’re now a Pirates player.’ It was a fait accompli, con?rmed by a call to the Aces of?ce in Witbank.

Sikhosana did feel persuaded that he was extending his horizons after Khoza sat down with him and outlined his plans to restore Pirates – a fabled, enduring institution in the country’s favourite sport – to the summit of the local game. The pay was okay, by the lower standards of the era, and Pirates had just won their ?rst league title for a long while. The attacking thrust of a side whose strengths were in defence, the chairman said, would be all the better with Jerry ‘Legs of Thunder’ Sikhosana on board.

What Khoza could not promise was how far Pirates might go in the brave new world into which South African football was tentatively stepping following the country’s readmission into Fifa. The 1994 league triumph meant Pirates entering the African Champions Cup, a prestigious competition full of long, arduous journeys, hostile away grounds and, for the South African newcomers, all sorts of mysteries.

Truth is, Sikhosana turned his thoughts to the here and now, to establishing his place in a strong Pirates ?rst XI, and winning over a vast and sometimes unforgiving constituency of fans, AKA ‘The Ghost’. Adventures across Africa would have to wait, because he had joined Pirates too late to register on their roster with Caf, the Confederation of African Football, for the early rounds of the Champions Cup. About those, he would simply have to hear the stories, told in captivating detail, from his new team-mates.‘We used to live by these nicknames,’ smiles Sikhosana. ‘I got mine because of the power, the aggression, the way I used to run. It was how people used to classify me, galloping like a horse, turning like I had a tail, so they used to say, and the thunder when I hit the ball. “Legs of Thunder”: it was a whole mixture. Then you had Eddie “Magents” Motale, and Helman was “Midnight Express” because of the way he bolted. Brandon was “Sgcebhezane” because of his stature and the way he ran: sgcebhezane were little skirts people wore.’

e The legendaryJerry ‘Legs of Thunder’ Sikhosana, pictured here in 1997, helped Orlando Pirates conquer the rest of the continent a year after democracy dawned PHOTO: D DU TOIT / Gallo Images

The Sgcebhezane strike that turned that quarter?nal was as spectacular as any in the campaign, a missile launched from outside the opposition penalty area. Sikhosana was on a roll too. Quietly, Pirates began to believe in the possibility of making the ?nal.The rest is history. Sikhosana, so surly and sulky a week earlier, now found himself some 25 yards from goal, with one man between him and the clean strike that would win the African Champions Cup. Diarra charged towards him, but Sikhosana did not blink. He accelerated, prodded the ball to his left, taking the goalkeeper out of the duel. All that was required now was a cool ?nish, from a tightened angle, and still from some distance. And with his weaker left foot. In those Legs of Thunder, it turned out, were sinews of steel. Sikhosana rolled his low shot ?rmly enough that it was rippling the netting of Diarra’s goal by the time the nearest Ivorian defender had reached the six-yard box.

The stadium went mute. ‘You could have heard a pin drop,’ remembers [defender Gavin] Lane, before rousing Pirates to hold their lead for the 20-odd minutes of remaining siege. Asec pounded them again, Sié striking the crossbar. But these Buccaneers would not buckle, hanging onto the prize forever commemorated with the small golden star on their jersey, the mark of a title that no other South African club would emulate until a full 21 years later.

Come the ?nal whistle, the ?rst South African champions of their continent, the surprise 1–0 winners in Abidjan, were urged to celebrate discreetly. ‘The people from Caf told us, “Look, don’t run around the pitch because these guys are angry,”’ recalls Lane. ‘The Asec okes were visibly upset, tossing things at us. We just had time to get a picture of Eddie Motale holding the Cup, a quick up and down, and then to get back on the bus.’

Given the unrest at Soccer City in the ?rst leg, the Pirates entourage could scarcely complain about the antagonism of the home supporters. For Lane, the really vexing memory was the spoilsport act that greeted the team back at the hotel. ‘They wouldn’t even serve us a beer!’ Lane being Lane, he found some eventually, courtesy of a South African embassy of?cial. ‘When he opened up his fridge stocked with Castles, I just thought, “Aaah, this is beautiful.” That night, we all had a really good jol.’

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June 23 2019