Just before the 150th celebration of the landing of Indians in South Africa, Ashwin Desai and I were interviewed on the After Eight Debate on SAFM. Almost at the end of the show, the interviewer asked us, “ what is the way forward for Indians in this country?!!” I wasn’t really happy about that question. It sounded as if we really needed to do more to earn our keep!
It was 2010 and the year of the World Cup. I took that as an opportunity for my answer. I said, “Well, I would like to see Indians play football again.” After his laughter died down he said, still giggling, “Can Indians play football!?”
Ashwin and I were on the phone in different parts of the country, I couldn’t see his expression, but I could tell he was shaking his head!
I then said, “Indians didn’t just play soccer, we were damn good!” I made a bold statement, I had to back it up with facts which I did. I even said, I could show you a newspaper clipping!
The story goes when I was a little boy, my dad took me to Curries Fountain to watch a match between Orlando Pirates and Avalon Athletics in a SASL (South African Soccer League) match. The SASL was the first truly non-racial soccer league in this country, until the Group Areas Board stepped in and banned the ‘Black’ teams in the SASL – Moroko Swallows, Orlando Pirates and Real Fighters – from playing on the grounds allocated for other race groups.
This led to the formation of the all Black professional Soccer League – the NPSL and the demise of the – ‘Non-Racial’ SASL.
It was revived a few years later as the FPL under very difficult circumstances but with some amazing football and the most epic cup finals I have ever seen.
Ok, let’s go back to the game between Avalon and Pirates. There seem to have been a buzz about the game the whole week before. That was so ironical , given the fact that those matches were not covered by the mainstream media. The Golden City Post, The Leader and The Graphic were about the only newspapers to carry the stories about these games. Well, It also helped that we had great journalists like I.A.Khan, Rajendra Chetty, George Mahabeer and Farook Khan with amazing narrative skills spinning their yarns and creating the buzz that got everybody talking. One of the main talking points was the dual between Dharam Mohan and the Pirates stopper, Mainline Khoza.
According to the Pirates supporters, nothing passed the ‘Mainline’. They said Dharam Mohan will stand a “dog’s chance” against Mainline Khoza. This duel seems to have been the talking point, yet there were other great players in both the teams. Pirates had Eric Scara Sono, the dad of Jomo Sono, and other great players in their team. These players were brilliant in their own right and Avalon had their array of brilliance in Sugar Raya Xulu, Blondie Campbell, Hector Fynn and Georgie Francis amongst many.
I sat on the south bank with my dad. The one thing I remember about the massive crowd was that they were all so well dressed. I can’t imagine people going to a football match today dressed in their finest tailored suits, two toned brogues and the finest Biltmore, Stetson or Bailey Jett hats. Some even wore overcoats over their suits not to keep warm but more as a fashion statement. All that was topped up with a scarf!
While sitting on the bank, I noticed the Pirates team arrive in combis. They did not use the change rooms. They changed in their combis. Rumour has it, that they felt Avalon were using strong Indian ‘muti’ and the change rooms were bewitched.
Ironically just before the game started, Pirates’ witch doctors were doing their rituals at each of the goalmouths!
The game was expected to be close, maybe a draw, Dharam was expected to meet his match. Maybe even score a long range pile driver at best.
I was just a youngster, but what happened in those first 45 minutes will be etched in my mind for ever.
Everytime Dharam received the ball there was a buzz in the ground. There was a lot of tugging between Mainline and Dharam, because of the tight marking. Dharam knew he had to do something. He broke away from his marker, went towards his own half shouting for the ball with his marker on his heels. He received the ball, made a body swerve, leaving his marker sprawled on the ground and hit the ball while on the run. The goalkeeper didn’t have a chance. The Pirates supporters went silent. One nil to Avalon. He did it again, with his marker in hot pursuit. He went on a mazy run, hitting another piledriver. Two nil. It was still the first half and Dharam went on to score an hat-trick.
His third goal was a diving header. The ball was about 18 inches from the ground. Georgie Francis the speedy Avalon winger normally crossed the ball high enough for Dharam to head. With Mainline Khoza being a very tall player, Georgie Francis hit a low cross expecting Dharam to hit it on the volley. Dharam had other ideas. He dived with a foot close to his head and put the ball into the net. Avalon were three up and Dharam got a first half had-trick and pandemonium broke out!
The irate Pirates supporters ran on to the pitch and got the game abandoned. They chased the Avalon supporters with knobkerries and sticks. People scaled the fences and ran for their lives. Many took refuge in the Sastri College building. Lucky for us we were sitting on the south bank close to the gate. My dad managed to drag me to the bus rank safely.
I was lucky to escape, but I was more lucky and privileged to have seen Dharam Mohan play.
There will come a time when nobody would even know that a great player like Dharam Mohan ever existed. I didn’t say great “Indian” player. I said Great Player !
Irvin Khoza once said on TV that Dharam Mohan was one of the greatest players he has ever seen. He would know. He was the secretary of Orlando Pirates !
Yes, we did play football and we were damn good !