There’s a nice interview with South African soccer legend Jomo Sono today by David Crary at the AP, with Sono recalling his experience as a black player during the Apartheid era:
Once a teammate of Pele’s with the New York Cosmos, Sono — and several brilliant contemporaries — never got the chance to play for their country because of the international sports boycott.
“I’m not being cocky,” he said in an interview Thursday. “We would have definitely won the World Cup.”
Well, perhaps. The world champion Argentines were pretty good in 1978. So were the Italians in 1982.
Nonetheless, Sono was part of a generation of South African stars who played abroad, primarily in the North American Soccer league, during the 1970s and ’80s. They included both white and black players — among them Steve Wegerle, Neill Roberts, Webster Lichaba and the heralded midfielder Ace Ntsoelengoe — who might have qualified for the 1982 World Cup.
“We could have made a big difference in the world,” Sono mused. “But we cannot be sad.”
Andrew Guest wrote a superb essay here a few months ago on this connection between the NASL and South African soccer, further explaining how these South African stars ended up in the NASL and why it offered an important opportunity for these players denied them elsewhere:
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.
I highly recommend reading both pieces.