His journey from Soweto to football stardom remains a source of inspiration to young and old in his home township and across South Africa, yet the presence of the FIFA World Cup™ in his home country is a reminder to Jomo Sono of what he missed.
Sono, whose playing prime came during South Africa's years of international isolation, can only look on with a touch of envy at today's Bafana Bafana squad, blessed as they are with the opportunity to parade their skills on the world stage. "To watch the World Cup in my country makes me very emotional," he told FIFA.com. "Apartheid robbed us of this opportunity, we were never exposed to the rest of the world. In a way, I wish I was still an active footballer."
FIFA.com caught up with Sono, a member of the FIFA Technical Study Group, on a chilly morning in Orlando, the suburb of Soweto where he grew up. He was there for the launch of the Castrol Skillz Holiday Programme, an initiative for youngsters in the township, and paid a visit to his former school, Leresche Primary. Just a stone's throw away is the legendary Orlando Stadium, a place often referred to as the spiritual home of football in South Africa and the place where he made his name.
Most people in Orlando knew him long before he achieved his fame as a footballer. His former teacher, Catherine Shiburi, who is now the principal of Leresche, remembers a "troublesome" Sono when she taught him at the start of the 70s. "Back then, he was just a kid and I don't think he was really interested in football in his early years. But all of a sudden, I saw him on TV and he was famous," Shiburi said.
The son of Eric Sono, a famous footballer in his own right, he joined Orlando Pirates by chance. The story goes that he went to the stadium one day to sell apples and when Pirates realised that they were short of players, they turned to Sono on account of his father's reputation. After taking the field, he showed what he could do and the rest was history.
Sono said: "I was more of a boxer than a footballer, but since that match, I suddenly turned into a household name. Football has a power to change lives, I know that from my own experience. For young people growing up in Soweto back in those days, life was very tough, we didn't have opportunities. It is in these humble grounds that my love affair with football began."
He went on to enjoy a decorated career and played with some of the greatest players of his time, including Pele and Franz Beckenbauer during a stint at New York Cosmos in the United States. "Had it not been for segregation in my country, maybe things could have been different," he said. "We had some of the best players in this country, but they were never known. I was fortunate because I got to play with some good players during my stay in America."
As a coach, he has had two stints with the South Africa national side. In his first tenure, he guided the team to a runners-up spot at the 1998 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Burkina Faso but subsequently declined an invitation to extend his contract. His second spell came in 2002 when he stepped into the breach following Carlos Queiroz's sacking as South Africa coach in early 2002. He duly led Bafana Bafana into that year's FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan where they finished with four points after holding Paraguay to a draw, beating Slovenia and losing narrowly to Spain.
Soweto is the place that came to define South Africa's fight for emancipation. Victory came too late for the 'Black Prince' to participate in the FIFA World Cup as a player but the spoils are being enjoyed by all South Africans today as football's greatest show unfolds on home soil.