A slimmer, smiling and more determined-seeming Benni McCarthy has been in the news in a big way since returning to his native South Africa to join up with reigning Premiership champions and former CAF Champions League winners Orlando Pirates. In fact, the prodigal son has dominated headlines ahead of this weekend’s opening of the league.

South Africa’s all-time goalscorer and most successful export, McCarthy has made it clear that his spell with Pirates is not about a footballer keen to see out his playing days, but it’s a move to ignite his career. And in many ways, his arrival has also been seen as a crucial piece of the jigsaw puzzle for his new club as they take aim at reclaiming their glory days. McCarthy, the only South African to win a UEFA Champions League medal, with FC Porto, is convinced that he can still deliver. “I feel good, I’m training harder. I have lost a lot of weight, and I’m in good shape. I can’t wait to be on the field again and play football,” he said.

Pirates remain the most successful Southern African outfit side, and McCarthy is the biggest signing at Pirates to date. The Buccaneers, as they are affectionately known, are the only team from the Southern part of the African continent to have won the CAF Champions League. But now memories of that 1995 triumph achieved in the most trying conditions in a scorching Abidjan are gathering dust in the memories of many. The homecoming by Benni then is seen not only as a facelift for his career, which has sagged, but also as part of Pirates’ greater ambitions to return to the continent’s elite, which has seen them assemble a number of internationals in their line-up.

Both sides betting on each other
Orlando Pirates chairman, Irvin Khoza, is known to harbour a strong desire for the Champions League, and so the perception is that he has taken a chance in signing the 33-year-old veteran of the 1998 and 2002 FIFA World Cups™. But if McCarthy succeeds in putting a spark back to his career, it’s not hard to imagine him inspiring the Pirates, who had not won the domestic league since 2003 and went out in the preliminary round of this season's Champions League to Gaborone United from Botswana.

“McCarthy has been a missing puzzle in our team,” said South African international and Pirates winger Daine Klate. "There is no doubt that he will make a big difference here. I'm convinced that we will once more be one of the best teams in the league and in Africa. We are training with him, he is in great shape. We need to understand him so he gets the supply that will help him score goals."

What makes Pirates special is that they want to win the African Champions League, and I believe I can play a big role in that. I want to prove that I’m still hungry to achieve more.

Benni McCarthy on his hopes for the next version of the Champions League

For his part, McCarthy thinks the timing couldn’t be better given his desire to win trophies again on home soil – something that has eluded him in his otherwise decorated career. “One of my biggest ambitions has always been to feel what it feels like to be a champion playing in the [South African] Premier Soccer League. What makes Pirates special is that they want to win the African Champions League, and I believe I can play a big role in that. I want to prove that I’m still hungry to achieve more," explained McCarthy.

A hero returns home eventually
Despite being offloaded by West Ham following fitness issues, McCarthy is still idolised in South African football. For over a decade he has remained a darling in his native land – a relationship that started when the then-blonde youngster shouldered Bafana Bafana’s goal-scoring responsibilities at the 1998 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Burkina Faso. The youngster with lightning reactions and a knack for scoring from anywhere finished as joint-top scorer with seven goals.

His move to Dutch side Ajax Amsterdam launched his career, and he quickly became a vital cog for the legendary club. A move to Celta Vigo just ahead of the last millennium brought up-and-down fortunes, but it was his union with Jose Mourinho at Porto where his career hit the big time. He soon established himself as part of the spine of Mourinho’s ‘chosen ones’ – a group of players who hadn’t been celebrated until compiled by the Portuguese coach. The ‘special one’ brought the best out of McCarthy as the team went all the way to the title of European Champions in 2004.

More mixed times followed in England, and the player was forced on a soul-searching mission as he struggled with his weight after being dropped by Carlos Alberto Parreira on the eve of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on home soil. While his axing from Bafana did not come as a surprise, it was a painful moment for the Cape Town native – a man ordained many years before to lead South Africa’s attack at the Rainbow Nation’s most glorious sporting event. But now he says he can put that behind him and make another chance for himself. “I still want to play for Bafana. Actually, I think my career with the national team has just begun. Coming back home shows just how serious I am about being part of the national team again,” he said.