In the mid-1990s, when I spent a rather inglorious season as the only non-African playing in the Malawian Super League, one of the few constants across games, teams, and locales was to be found on players’ feet: Puma Jomo Sono Kings. They were simple, decent boots—cheapish black leather with a one piece foot plate of white plastic studs. And as far as I could tell, they were worn by every single player on every single top-level team in Malawi. I didn’t think much about the exotic sounding name at the time: the shoes seemed to be a mass-market version of the kangaroo leather Puma Kings I wore in college and I had other things to worry about.
So, at the time, I had no idea that the “Jomo Sono” brand had a genealogy tracing to what prominent South African soccer journalist Mark Gleeson has called “one of the more obscure connections in world football”—the circuitous but significant ties between the old North American Soccer League (NASL) and the country soon to host the first ever World Cup in Africa.
Elsewhere, in a 2000 Soccer America article, Gleeson has claimed: “An English colonial heritage still pervades strongly through South African life, but it is the Americans whose stamp rests markedly on South Africa soccer.” Gleeson is referring most specifically to the experiences the old NASL provided for South Africans such as Kaizer Motaung, Jomo Sono, and ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe (who passed away too young in 2006, but is in the US Soccer Hall of Fame based on his play with the Minnesota Kicks), all men who returned to their country to become among the most prominent forces in South Africa’s national soccerscape. In the 60’s and 70’s, at a time where complicated politics (including the injustices of apartheid) and subtle prejudices made it rare for African players to feature in European leagues, the entrepreneurial spirit of the NASL offered that most American of ideals: opportunity.
In turn, the South Africans parlayed that opportunity, along with what would seem to be a healthy dose of the NASL’s entrepreneurial spirit, into South African teams that in many ways helped set the stage for hosting the 2010 World Cup. Though there are many examples, and many stories to be told, for now I’ll focus on two of the most prominent: Kaizer Motaung’s journey from being the 1968 NASL Rookie of the Year with the Atlanta Chiefs to fashioning Johannesburg’s Kaizer Chiefs into South Africa’s most popular club, and Jomo Sono’s journey from understudy to Pele with the New York Cosmos to a long spell cultivating the most talented players in South Africa through his club Jomo Cosmos and intermittent role as coach of Bafana Bafana. Both men are South African icons and their success is mostly a story of South African talent, spirit, and creativity—but America also seems to have offered each a small spark.
Kaizer Motaung and the Chiefs
In his early days Kaizer Motaung was a rising star for Soweto super-club Orlando Pirates—a team founded in South Africa’s most famous township during the 1930’s with another odd American connection. According to Gleeson, Orlando Pirates have “Hollywood roots”: “The founding members of the Soweto club were so enamored by Errol Flynn’s acting in the swashbuckling buccaneer movies of the day they chose the name and skull and crossbones emblem.” At the time, in the 1960’s, playing for Pirates was the ultimate accomplishment for a black South African footballer.
But in the late 1960’s Motaung managed to catch the eye of then Atlanta Chiefs manager (and future NASL commissioner) Phil Woosnan during a trial in Zambia, becoming the first South African to join what was then a pre-Pele fledgling NASL. The Atlanta Chiefs were one of the NASL’s many peculiar experiments: a multi-national, multi-ethnic soccer team in the heart of the American South. In an excellent 2008 piece at The Global Game, Atlanta resident John Turnbull contextualizes Kaizer Motaung and the Chiefs:
“With a missionary vision to spread soccer in a nearly soccer-void landscape, the 1968 Chiefs—almost 40 years before English sides such as Arsenal would trigger domestic horror by fielding exclusively foreign-born squads—created a similarly multi-hued mix with not one American. Ten players arrived from the UK, with eight other nations represented. In addition to Motaung, three players came from Africa: Freddie Mwila and Emment Kapengwe from Zambia and Willie Evans from Ghana. From their outreach and the impetus of player-coach Phil Woosnam, they helped develop suburban soccer, transforming a game of ethnic enclaves.”
That 1968 Atlanta Chiefs team won the NASL championship with Motaung as their leading scorer, and while the league itself was struggling (after the season 12 of the 17 teams folded) Motaung came back to the States for two further seasons with the Chiefs and two seasons with the Denver Dynamos. But throughout he was also continuing to play in South Africa, alternating seasons somewhat like a contemporary David Beckham, and in 1970 things at home got interesting. As Peter Alegi explains in his important history of South African soccer:
“[Conflicts within the Orlando Pirates team] resulted in the formation of Kaizer Chiefs – presently the most popular club in South Africa. Legendary Pirates striker Kaizer Motaung and flamboyant team manager Ewert ‘The Lip’ Nene headed a breakaway faction that formed an invitation side in January 1970 initially called Kaizer XI. The immediate cause of the split was the expulsion of Nene and three players [from Orlando Pirates] – Edward “Msomi’ Khoza, Thomas ‘Zero’ Johnson, and Ratha Mokgoatleng. Motaung renamed the team Kaizer Chiefs in 1971, after his American team – the Atlanta Chiefs of the fledgling North American Soccer League (NASL). The corporate model of American sport deeply impressed the enterprising Motaung: ‘I had seen how professional clubs are run abroad and suggested that we should adopt the same concept at Pirates. Nobody cared to listen. But, I got wind of the fact that if we wanted to go on with our “thing” then I could take the expelled guys.’ Amakhosi (Chiefs in Zulu) and their many new supporters adopted the V peace symbol, Afro hairstyles, colourful broad-collared shirts, and bell-bottom trousers. Known as ‘hippies’ because of this counter-cultural identity, Chiefs joined Pirates and Swallows in the pantheon of South African soccer.”
Kaizer Chiefs also adopted, and have maintained to this day, the Atlanta Chiefs logo consisting of an imagined Native American chief’s silhouette—creating the somewhat ironic circumstance of politically incorrect American symbolism being amongst the most visible images of African entrepreneurism. But the moniker “Chiefs” also has an important hybrid meaning—as is evident in the fact that the approximate Zulu word for Chiefs has become the de facto team name (the team has been engaged in an ongoing drama trying to build a gleaming new stadium outside of Johannesburg that is to be called ‘Amakhosi Stadium’). Appropriately, then, being a ‘Chief’ has American, African, and universal meanings all at the same time. (Not to mention its further bizarre hybridization as a Leeds based alternative rock band—named Kaiser Chiefs as a nod to one time Leeds United captain Lucas Radebe, who was groomed at the South African club before his career in England)
Motaung has also proven clever as a businessman, taking advantage of the fact that initiating his soccer club as a business venture allowed him the type of control unavailable to any one individual at more established clubs. As Merryman Kunene explains in an analysis of South African soccer, because Kaizer Chiefs “was under his control from the beginning, it was run on a considerably more professional basis than its rivals, and was able to avoid the infighting which so characterized their management” Kunene also notes that “In 1979, Kaizer Chiefs took the politically momentous step of signing the first white player to join a historically black club, a veteran midfielder ‘Lucky’ Stylianou who, according to North, ‘instantly…became one of the best-known whites in black South Africa, with a name recognition on a par with the prime minister and other leading political figures.’”
Overall, whether explicit or implicit, stories of Kaizer Chiefs seem rife with the spirit of the NASL in its multi-ethnic creativity. And that creativity has also facilitated much on-field success for Kaizer Chiefs over their 40 years of existence. Their rivalry with Orlando Pirates (known as the ‘Soweto Derby’ even though it is often played elsewhere) is still the biggest game in South African club soccer. In recent years, however, new-money team Supersport United (sponsored lavishly by the South African cable sports TV giant) has dominated South Africa’s Premier Soccer League and it is perhaps inevitable that some commentators think the game is passing Kaizer Motaung by—particularly since his children now play prominent roles for the team both on the field and in its business management.
But no one would question whether Motaung has been among the pre-eminent personalities in South African soccer and society (in a controversial 2004 poll to determine ‘the 100 Greatest South Africans’ of all time from all segments of society, Motaung came in 73rd—he is also reputed to be a multi-millionaire, having branched into businesses beyond soccer). And it seems to me an argument could be made that he can claim one of the most influential international legacies of the NASL—even though few of us American children of the NASL know it.
Jomo Sono and the Cosmos (and the Toronto Blizzard)
In the same 2004 poll of the 100 Greatest South Africans, Jomo Sono was one of the few soccer people to rank ahead of Motaung (Sono came in at number 49)—though in many other ways Sono followed after him. Sono arrived in the NASL nearly 10 years later than Motaung, signing to play for the New York Cosmos in 1977 during the heyday of the league. With Pelé on the verge of retiring retiring from the Cosmos, Sono was hailed in at least one New York Times account from the day (by Alex Yannis in an article from June 6th 1977) as “the man destined to replace Pelé.” But from there Sono’s NASL story gets somewhat complicated.
Until doing the research for this article, for example, I had always just assumed Sono played most of his NASL career for the New York Cosmos. Just a few weeks ago I reviewed Ian Hawkey’s 2009 book on African football in which he quotes Sono as saying about his NASL days “I could have gone to Canada after New York Cosmos and they offered me heaven and earth to relocate. But I looked at our [South African] sports heroes who went on to represent the USA or other countries and I thought: It’s not fair to leave. I owed it to the children of South Africa to stay. They needed role models, they needed people who made it in spite of the apartheid regime, so I can do it too. Was it a sacrifice? Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. That’s sacrifice. Me, I played football.” (p. 191)
But here’s the problem with that story: according to every historical record of the NASL I’ve found Sono did leave the Cosmos for Canada—after a brief stint with the Colorado Caribou (whose claim to fame is the probably the most bizarre uniform design in soccer history) and their reincarnation as a second coming of the Atlanta Chiefs, Sono spent three of his six seasons in the NASL with the Toronto Blizzard. In fact, during his one year with the New York Cosmos Sono hardly played: a June 6th, 1977 New York Times game report documents that Sono “has played only 31 minutes in 11 games” and other records suggest that by the end of the season his total appearances included only 12 regular season and 4 playoff games.
So why the inconsistency, and why is Sono’s story usually focused on his experience with the New York Cosmos when he actually played most of his North American games elsewhere? I’m not sure, but my guess is that the answer has more to do with Sono’s savvy as a businessman than anything else: Sono recognized that the Cosmos was (and is) a much more valuable brand than the Blizzard, and in fine American tradition he crafted a personal myth that goes beyond mere details.
In fairness, even while playing in the NASL Sono went back and forth to South Africa regularly according to the seasons. The New York Times even noted that after his one New York Cosmos season (during which they won the NASL championship), Sono chose not to accompany the team on a presumably lucrative post-season tour of Asia because he “flew home to South Africa to his daughter and the grandparents who took care of him after his parents were killed in an automobile accident when he was a child. Sono wants to help his grandfather, who is blind, run his gasoline station in Johannesburg.” (Yannis, August 31st, 1977). As far as I can tell Sono never did return to the New York Cosmos—his next season in 1978 was with Colorado, but I can’t find anything about the motivation for the transfer.
It is also unclear whether at that point in his life Sono was doing much helping around his grandfather’s gasoline station (though it is true that his parents died in a tragic car crash; his father Eric ‘Scara’ Sono was an important player for Orlando Pirates who was only 27 when he died)—but he was certainly a busy man over the next few years, even opening what was claimed to be the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in South Africa in 1982. But while Sono’s business interests have ranged widely, in the soccer world his most significant move was purchasing what had been one of the country’s most famous ‘white’ soccer clubs (Highlands Park) and converting it into Jomo Cosmos.
As a professional club Jomo Cosmos has probably had more success as a business and as a personal vehicle for Sono than as an on-field power—unlike Kaizer Chiefs, Jomo Cosmos is more known for having developed and sold some of South Africa’s most significant recent talent rather than for its fan base or its on field success. In fact, with Sono as both coach and owner, Jomo Cosmos has come in bottom of the table and been relegated from South Africa’s Premier Soccer League twice in the last three years. But Sono has long been a powerful and visible presence within the South African Football Association (SAFA) and has had several stints as the coach of Bafana Bafana—including during their modestly successful appearance at the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea (though Bafana Bafana did not advance to the second round due to losing a tie-breaker with Paraguay on goals scored, they tallied a win, a tie, and a respectable 3-2 loss to Spain during group play). At a national level Sono is also credited for developing many of the players at the heart of South Africa’s greatest soccer triumph—their surprise victory in the 1996 African Nations Cup just four years after the end of their long FIFA exile.
Nevertheless, while Sono is 10 years younger than Kaizer Motaung, there is some sentiment in South Africa that he too may need to consider turning things over to the next generation. The aforementioned Mark Gleeson, for example, recently opined: “Previously Sono had a great eye for talent and a veracious appetite for traveling the country looking at bright prospects. Many of the top names in the national side over the last 20 years had their formative years under Sono’s tutelage. The Cosmos team of 2010 were a far cry from the combative sides the club used to field. But not only did they lack talent, but the tactical approach and preparation looked 20 years behind the needs of the modern game.”
But whatever the state of his current on-field product, from any perspective there is little question that Jomo Sono’s career and influence is among the many reasons South Africa is on the world’s soccer map. He has also become a wealthy man, with business interests that range from soccer to hotels and oil. With a potent mix of talent, ingenuity, hardiness, spirit, and myth-making Sono, like Motaung, parlayed opportunity into an eclectic type of success. The old NASL would be proud.
Both Kaizer Motaung and Jomo Sono are still prominent figures in South Africa but, as with their days in North America, the peak of their influence may be in the past. Writing for South Africa’s Business Day (April 5, 2008) Sy Lerman put it in more dramatic terms: “Their names are littered across the annals of South African soccer like confetti at a wedding. Kaizer Motaung and Jomo Sono, legendary players in their own right, have done more than imprint their influence on an assortment of areas of the game in this country. They have, in the process, created dynasties that might fit neatly into place with modern-day soapies. The Motaungs and The Sonos, you might call them. And, true to the tradition of all good soapies, the affluent and the wealthy, the bold and the beautiful and such-like that make up the days of our lives, they have fallen on bad times and are ailing at the same time.”
Unfortunately for fans like me, modern connections between American and South African soccer also seem to be ailing. At the founding of MLS in 1996 the league did recruit two prominent South African players—‘Doctor’ Khumalo and Shaun Bartlett—as if to acknowledge the NASL success with South Africans from a previous generation. But Khumalo and Bartlett never quite fit in MLS. Both had much success at other places in their long careers, and both are well known in South Africa, but neither lasted quite two seasons in the US. Further, while there are three South African nationals currently playing in MLS (Danleigh Borman with New York, Thabiso Khumalo with DC, and Ty Shipalane with DC), all three actually first came to the US to go to school, played college soccer, and only circuitously ended up as American pros.
But in this year of the first African World Cup, I hope a few fans of the game might take some time to appreciate the historic connections between soccer in America and soccer in South Africa. I know if I can find a way to make it to the World Cup myself, I hope pay quiet tribute: maybe a visit Orlando Stadium to acknowledge Soweto’s version of the Chiefs, maybe see if I can track down a pair of Puma Jomo Sono Kings to pay my proper due to a symbolic importance I long failed to understand. And I hope that at least a few other American and South African fans will join me in their own ways of appreciating how our mutual soccer history, no matter how obscure, matters.
(Note: I feel compelled to admit that during my time in Africa—spent mostly in Malawi and Angola—I’ve been through South Africa several times, but have never been fortunate enough to attend a top flight game there or really delve deeply into the local soccer culture. As such, much of what I present here is based on bits and pieces picked up over the course of time along with reading and internet research. Additionally, having been born in 1972, I was not yet alive when Kaizer Mopaung was in his NASL prime, and was too busy cheering my NASL Seattle Sounders with the blinders of a seven year old to be attending carefully to opponents such as Jomo Sono. In other words, some of the details here have been tough to come by and if any readers out there know more than I do I’d welcome constructive comments and emails. But I’ve tried hard to cross-check the facts and I’m confident of the general outline: well before the 2010 World Cup, the American version of the game has played an odd but meaningful role in Africa.)