31 May 2024

“Growing up in the Cape Flats made me who I am” – Benni McCarthy

Life in the Cape Flats may have been extremely tough for a young Benni McCarthy, but the first team Manchester United coach wouldn’t change his upbringing for anything in the world.

“Quinton’s (Fortune) time in the Cape Flats was probably shorter than mine because he left when he was much younger than me,” said McCarthy, in an interview with the Premier League this week. “He was thirteen when he left. He had gone through a lot in that space of time, but then he also got out at the right time and came to England.”

Manchester United Coach Benni McCarthy live on Showmax Premier League
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 12: Manchester United Coach Benni McCarthy in action during a Manchester United first team training session at Carrington Training Ground on February 12, 2024 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

“I got left behind for three extra years and then I had to endure the gangsterism, but you know what, I wouldn’t change it for the world, because I think when you talk about toughness, you talk about having crocodile skin, you talk about that kind of upbringing,” said McCarthy.

“Now nothing fazes me, nothing. There is not a single thing in Europe that scares me at all compared to what I had to endure growing up in the Cape Flats.”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 12: Manchester United Coach Benni McCarthy in action during a Manchester United first team training session at Carrington Training Ground on February 12, 2024 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

The interview, available exclusively in South Africa on Showmax Premier League, Benni & Quinny: Life in the Cape Flats, delves in to McCarthy and Fortunes’ experience of life in the Cape Flats among other things.

For McCarthy, a Champions League winner, the tough environment moulded him into the success he is today, despite having his life put at risk on a daily basis.

“Life wasn’t easy. Just like others living in the Cape Flats, you feared not making it to your next birthday,” said McCarthy.

“Kids would be mistaken for opposition gangs and be shot at when they were coming from school. They would be shot at with their school bags on their backs. That’s what scared me. You see these rivalry gangs every day of your life. They are all around. They live on your doorstep. If you live in a certain area of the district, you immediately are associated with the gang in that area. 

“So whichever area you are from, you are associated with that gang. You can be an innocent bystander or a normal citizen, but because you live in that area, you are classed as being part of that gang.
“And where I lived was Americans territory, and so you were classed as an being part of the Americans gang. On our daily school walks, we would get stopped, and these gang members would look through our school bags, take our schoolbooks or whatever they can get from you, and that was daily life.  You had to constantly look over your shoulder every single day to make it out of there.”

Assistant manager Quinton Fortune of Manchester United U23s live on Showmax Premier League
DAGENHAM, ENGLAND – JANUARY 06: Assistant manager Quinton Fortune of Manchester United U23s watches from the touchline during the Premier League 2 match between West Ham United U23s and Manchester United U23s at Chigwell Construction Stadium on January 06, 2020 in Dagenham, England. (Photo by Manchester United/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Former Manchester United Under-23 assistant coach and former Red Devils player Quinton Fortune faced the same reality having grown up in the Cape Flats. “It was bad,” said Fortune.

“Yes, its great when you look back and you realise you made it out, and we were very fortunate to make it out, but it’s not a way to live for any kid. Aside from the gangsterism we had to deal with, we had to also deal with the huge problem of alcohol addiction in the community. It’s so crazy but there were always so many liquor stores in the ghetto. So, we were dealing with guns crime, gangsterism, and on top of it an alcohol addiction problem.”

As a young boy, Fortune also had to deal with apartheid. “I was just a young boy in the 80s and during that time apartheid was around. So, we were also fighting the police. I was too young to understand it all. All I remember was running back from school and seeing tear gas and rubber bullets being shot at people. I was just eight years old, and so I had no understanding of what was going on. But I didn’t know anything else other than trying to survive. As a kid I was always on the football field, but we all knew well that at any time you could be shot at or stabbed, or a fight could break out. Mentally, as a kid it took me a while to get over what I had to witness ever so often. You see things, but you don’t know any different until someone removes you from that area. Only when you are taken out of that area, you realise really messed up things are.

“I look back at my time in the Flats with gratitude, because I benefitted from it. But it wasn’t an easy life.” Fortune said football proved to be his saviour and a way out.

“I stayed very close to a football stadium in my area and so I would spend a lot of the time standing on the wall and watching games. After school I would go to the football stadium and play. It was my heaven and my distraction from all the craziness around me.”

“Because we didn’t have a proper football pitch, we would make our own. So we would use chalk and draw goal posts on the sides of either walls on the flats and then use chalk to draw a perimeter and make it an actual field.

“It was our Wembley Stadium and we would play there every day. No matter rain or sun ,we were out there playing our football. We were all in our element on the pitch and I was the happiest playing football.”

“We would have gang members sit on the stairs and watch us play regularly. They would be there watching football and discussing whatever they needed to.”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – MARCH 05: Benni McCarthy, striker and forwards coach of Manchester United during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester United at Anfield on March 5, 2023 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

After witnessing one of his close friends, Reginald, who he played football with regularly, being killed after a game, McCarthy said he started taking his life, and his sport, more seriously.

“After that moment, I started valuing my life a little bit more, took my football more serious, and distanced myself from some people. That could have been me there in Reginald’s place.”

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