Benni McCarthy, South Africa’s all-time leading goalscorer, is a man who polarises opinion in his country of birth but few dispute that his presence in the country’s national team is a crucial piece of the jigsaw that Carlos Alberto Parreira is trying to assemble before 11 June 2010.
However, even his shrewdest detractors acknowledge that it was his larger than life presence and precise finishing that has been the missing link in a South African team searching for purpose and identity as it approaches its biggest moment in the nation's footballing history when they become the first African team to play in the FIFA World Cup™ on home soil.
“I love playing for my country and it doesn’t matter what other people say. Every player would do anything possible to play for his country in a World Cup, I’m no different. I’m still hungry to achieve more for my country,” said McCarthy.
The hosts have been left searching for answers and even hastily recalled former manager, Parreira to replace compatriot, Joel Santana following a spate of inauspicious results in a bid to salvage the situation.
McCarthy returned to the national squad in Parreira's second debut as manager of Bafana Bafana against Japan in a friendly international a fortnight ago. While his presence could not inspire South Africa to break their winless streak, it was his arrival back to the national team that was hailed as the comeback of a prodigal genius whose eye for goal has been solely missed.
The former FC Porto striker spoke profoundly about his heartache at being left out of the FIFA Confederations Cup by Santana although he maintains that he holds no ill-feelings. “I was hurting as it was the first time a senior FIFA tournament was played not just in South Africa but in Africa, but I had to carry on and hoped to get another chance. I would have loved to have played for my country in a competition of that magnitude, it broke my heart when I was left out,” he continued.
On the aftermath of his axing from the FIFA Confederations Cup squad, McCarthy was rumoured to have fallen out with Santana, but the Cape Town-born striker said the Brazilian had maintained constant contact with him and he was therefore mystified when reports surfaced suggesting a breakdown in their relationship.
“The strange thing is that Santana would phone and chat to me on a regular basis. Maybe that was because I speak Portuguese, but he never explained why he dropped me,” he added.
During the FIFA Confederations Cup where South Africa showed flashes of brilliance, they were often let down by poor finishing, but the Blackburn Rovers striker maintains that he only needs 'half a chance' to take advantage. “I only need one touch to score," he smiled. "I’m the type of striker who can hang around the box for 89 minutes and use one chance I get to score. I will show the country I am still the best at what I do."
Parreira has also insisted that he believes McCarthy still has the potential to spearhead the country's attack at the finals. However, the Brazilian also raised concerns over the striker’s weight insisting that McCarthy must get regular game-time in order to regain his sharpness.
"He is one of the best strikers in the world and therefore we cannot afford not having him play for South Africa," he said. "I spoke to him, I told him that he needs to play regularly for his team. He is not in the best shape at the moment, but we still have time. But he needs to play."