Robson Sharuko on Saturday
THEY were born just three years apart, one of them died in 2004, but the other one still lives, an amputated leg just another reminder of the ravages of a life lived in football’s fast lane.
Fifty years ago, fate brought them together, on opposite teams, in the only World Cup qualifier, in history, which needed three matches to decide the winner.
Johnny Warren captained that Australian side, George Shaya was the emerging star of his national team.
The Mozambican coastal capital, Maputo, provided the neutral venue, and the Indian Ocean, provided the spectacular backdrop.
The men from Down Under won, finally defeating their plucky opponents 3-1 in the third game, after the first two matches had ended in draws.
Next month, it will be 50 years since those battles were fought.
Johnny was known as “Captain Socceroo,” featured in his country’s first World Cup in Germany in 1974 and, after his retirement, became a coach and television commentator.
He also turned into football’s greatest ambassador, Down Under, leading the crusade for the game to have a mass appeal among reluctant Aussies.
In 2004, at the age of 61, he died after losing his battle with cancer.
Just a year after his death, 83 000 fans poured into the Sydney Olympic Stadium to cheer the Socceroos, the Aussie national team, as they beat Uruguay to qualify for the 2006 World Cup finals.
Journalist Chris Johnston captured the amazing sights and sounds of that landmark day in his report for The Age newspaper.
“There were a lot of poignant banners held aloft in the crowd of 83 000 in Sydney during that historic soccer game on Wednesday night,’’ he wrote.
“There was one that read, simply: ‘I TOLD YOU SO.’
“It quoted — and paid tribute to — Australian soccer’s greatest ambassador, Johnny Warren.
“Warren championed Australian soccer like a missionary (and) famously cried on national television when the team failed to qualify (for the ’98 World Cup) when it lost to Iran in 1997.
“He demanded the game be called football, not soccer, because soccer was an ugly word and football was a beautiful game.’’
This year, the organisers of the A-League grand final between Perth Roar and Sydney FC had to erect extra makeshift seating to expand the 60 000-seater Optus Stadium in Perth because of the huge interest in that match.
And, just as Johnny had predicted, football had finally captured the imagination of the Aussies.
POOR GEORGE SHAYA CAN ONLY IMAGINE AS HE WATCHES FROM A DISTANCE
The Aussies have never forgotten their “Captain Socceroo.”
Today, his statue stands proudly outside the Sydney Olympic Stadium, itself a milestone in a country which, for years, was only obsessed with Aussie rules football, rugby and cricket.
They also named the prestigious award, given to the best footballer in Australian top-flight league every year, after him.
The diminutive Warrior whom Johnny played against in that World Cup qualifier in Maputo in ’69, George Shaya, was crowned Soccer Star of the Year at the end of that year.
That was the first time such an award had been handed out to honour this country’s best footballer.
He was only 23.
Over the next eight years, George won half of the eight Soccer Star of the Year awards, including three on the bounce in ’75, ’76 and ’77.
Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the first year George won the award.
In an ideal world, in honour of the Silver Jubilee of these awards, the first man to win it, and the only one to win it five times, would possibly have had his name given to this award.
How appropriate would it be, in the year that marks 50 years after our first appearance in a World Cup qualifier, that one of those pioneers should be honoured by having his name given to this award?
How special would it be that George would be there to see us honour him?
For him to see how much we appreciate he is one of us, how honoured we are he played for us and how happy we are such a football genius was born among us?
But, it’s unlikely to happen.
Because we are a people the Devil cursed, a people allergic to such fine stories like the one George wrote, a people obsessed with negativity, who would rather hear George died than that he lived to see his community honouring him.
A people driven by hate, who thrive in the darkness, a community that would rather fly to see the Aussies unveiling Johnny with a statute than be in Harare to see George being honoured with the Soccer Star of the Year being named after him.
No, that will give an impression he was the greatest Zimbabwean footballer of all time, which is debatable, I can hear some argue.
But Johnny wasn’t even the greatest Aussie footballer of all time, but they still honoured him.
No, we can’t do that to someone who didn’t play his football in Europe, because Freddie Mkwesha, Bruce Grobbelaar, Peter Ndlovu and Moses Chunga did, I can hear others argue.
But, even Johnny, whom the Aussies honoured, didn’t even play in Europe like the likes of Tim Cahill, the country’s all-time leading goal scorer.
However, still, his people Down Under found it befitting to honour him.
No, we can’t do that to someone whose football was not seen by anyone who were born after Independence, I can hear some of you argue, and — if he was that great — why did Braga choose Mkwesha instead of him?
But, even Johnny, whom the Aussies now idolise, was someone whose best years came in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
And, the United Trinity of George Best, Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton, whose statues stand proudly outside Old Trafford today, all owe it to what they did in the ‘60s.
The simple reality is we just have hate ourselves so much that if we were given a thorough medical examination by experts, it’s possible we would be recommended for specialist treatment to cure some of the mental disorders we now take for granted as being normal.
On Wednesday, I talked to some guys about Johnny and George, the difference in the way they have been treated, and was shocked by the dominant theme, from that conversation.
Players like George, they said, used a lot of juju rather than pure athleticism.
Okay, even if that was true, I asked them, did they know the so-called Aussie Curse of ’69?
JOHNNY CONSULTED A SANGOMA, GEORGE TOOK THE GONG, BACK IN THE SUMMER OF ’69
Well, after those two World Cup qualifying games in November ’69 had ended in draws, and a third decider was ordered by FIFA, the Socceroos were approached by a Mozambican journalist.
He told them they needed the services of a sangoma, who had the powers to curse George and his teammates, to help them win the decider.
“The reporter assured them the practice was common in Mozambique, and seeing no harm in giving it a shot, a group of players went to see the nyunga (sangoma),’’ Matt Neal, of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, wrote in an article under the headline, “Socceroos, The Mozambique Witchdoctor And The Curse.’’
It was published on the ABC website on June 1, 2018.
“That night, the nyunga went to the pitch where the game was to be played, buried some bones near the goal posts, and placed a curse on the Rhodesian team.
“In the next match, Australia won 3-1, but as the Socceroos (were about) to leave, the nyunga approached the players and told them he wanted to be paid $1,000 for his services.
“The players were either unwilling, or unable to pay, leading the nyunga to reverse the curse and put it on the Socceroos.
“The godfather of Australian football, the late Johnny Warren, once said of the incident: ‘From that moment that he put the curse on, everything went wrong for the team.’’’
Heartbreaking defeats in the final game of the qualifiers for the ’94, ’98 and 2002 World Cup were all attributed to that curse.
The defeat in ’97, when they led 2-0 at home in the second half against Iran only for that game to end in a bizarre draw, denying them a World Cup place, stands out.
John Safran, a comic television host, decided to try and have the curse removed and took his production team to Mozambique where they met two sangomas named Paulino and Miriam.
“On the very football pitch where Australia defeated Rhodesia in 1969, Paulino channeled the spirit of the long-dead nyunga, who had placed the original curse, and performed a ritual to lift the hex, which included covering Safran in chicken’s blood,’’ the ABC report says.
“When Safran returned to Australia, he and Warren went to Sydney’s Olympic stadium and performed the second part of the ritual, which involved covering themselves in a special clay the nyunga had given them.
“Warren thanked Safran for breaking the curse, though, the former Socceroo did not live long enough to see if the hex had indeed been broken.
“Almost exactly a year after Warren’s death, the Socceroos qualified for their first World Cup in 32 years, defeating Uruguay in a penalty shoot-out at the Olympic stadium in front of 82,000 people.
“At the end of the SBS broadcast of the match, commentator and former Socceroo Craig Foster thanked Safran.’’
You see, even our white colleagues believe in all this supernatural stuff, but they don’t hate themselves and, instead, they honour their heroes.
If I were to meet Canadian rocker Bryan Adams, I would ask for his permission to rewrite some of the lyrics from his hit song, “Summer of ’69,’’ and I would say:
“Johnny consulted the sangoma, George provided the drama
They should’ve known the Socceroos would never get far
“Oh, when they look back now
That summer seemed to last forever
And, if they had the choice
Yeah, they’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of their lives.’’
To God Be The Glory!
Peace to the GEPA Chief, the Big Fish, George Norton and all the Chakariboys in the struggle.
Come on United!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole Ole!
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