- Gary Player is one of the greatest golfers in history
- He hails Pele, Lionel Messi, Ansu Fati and Kylian Mbappe
- Player lauds the golfing ability of Gareth Bale and Alan Shearer
The second quarter of 1958 was a breakout ball for two men who went on to become sporting royalty. A 17-year-old Brazilian introduced himself to a global audience at the sixth FIFA World Cup™, and you all know what he went on to accomplish, while a young South African – a self-proclaimed “student in America to learn golf from your fine pros” – claimed his first PGA Tour title.
Gary Player would drive on to become the only non-American and one of only five men – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods being the others – to complete golf’s career Grand Slam. ‘The Black Knight’ is, of course, much more than the golfer The Guardian and Golf Asia ranked as the second-best of all time. Philanthropist, real-estate mogul, golf-course designer, prolific author and 'Mr Fitness', he has raised tens of millions for impoverished children across the globe and, at 77, became the oldest person to pose nude for ESPN The Magazine’s body issue.
Naturally, spare time for a man who has covered more air miles than any sportsperson in history is scarce, but the 84-year-old – a keen football fan – graciously spared some to chat to FIFA.com about his second sport on the tenth anniversary of South Africa 2010 kicking off.
FIFA.com: Mr Player, can you tell us about how you got into football? Which players were your heroes growing up?
Gary Player: I first became interested as a youngster at school and played well enough to make our first team. Later, through golf, I became friendly with the super Arsenal manager, George Graham and started attending games whenever possible. I still support Arsenal today and think Arsene Wenger to be one of the all-time finest managers. Of course, I have always admired the great Brazilian Pele, but also players like George Best, Kenny Dalglish, Paolo Rossi, Gigi Buffon, Paolo Maldini, Roberto Baggio, Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Ruud Gullit, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and my all-time favorite Lionel Messi.
What type of player were you?
At King Edward VII school in Johannesburg, South Africa, I played in middle school for our first team as a centre-back and, while small, I was fairly quick and loved the game.
Bafana Bafana were readmitted to FIFA in 1992. Just four years later, at their first CAF Africa Cup of Nations, they won the title. What do you remember about that?
Ahhh, I love the Bafana Bafana team from 1996 and distinctly remember the Zambian Kalusha Bwalya scoring five super goals in South Africa, as well as Nelson Mandela holding up his arms in celebration. My friend Lucas Radebe also played his part and it was pure joy for the country.
South Africa performed admirably at France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002, and only missed out on the knockout phase at the latter by the narrowest of margins. Lucas Radebe, Mark Fish, Eric Tinkler, ‘Shoes’ Moshoeu, Doctor Khumalo, Shaun Bartlett, Phil Masinga, Benni McCarthy… just how good was that generation?
In my opinion this team was far better than the results they achieved. It was an amazing generation of individual players that we all expected perhaps too much from.
The FIFA World Cup went to South Africa in 2010. What did you think of the tournament and how amazing was it for South Africans?
Absolutely incredible. What an experience. My family and I attended many of the games as well as the Final. I have never seen South Africa and all its people come together as a country like that and sadly not again since. The atmosphere was simply amazing and I thought we did a superb job as hosts.
Aside from Bafana Bafana, what are your favourite World Cup memories from over the years?
Another favorite memory would be the 2006 World Cup Final, when Italy defeated France in a penalty shootout.
You’ve seen a lot of great players, but who do you consider the greatest player in history?
A debatable choice between Pele and Messi.
Who do you think is the best player in the world right now?
Ansu Fati at Barcelona looks incredible at 17, but Kylian Mbappe would be my pick.
Which other players have you most enjoyed watching over the years?
Cristiano Ronaldo is a beast and I love watching him.
Which clubs do you support?
Arsenal in the Premier League. Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga. Barcelona in Spain. Juventus in Italy.
Which soccer players are the best golfers you’ve come across?
Gareth Bale is perhaps the very best, Kenny Dalglish the most fun to play with, and Alan Shearer the best all-round player.
Gary Player the golfer… which soccer player over the years are you most comparable to?
Nobody really, and I’m glad I chose golf, but I identify most with Andres Iniesta.