On 16 February 1998, the footballing world sat up and took notice of a young South African striker named Benni McCarthy thanks to a 14-minute, four-goal salvo at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Bafana Bafana had entered the tournament as champions following the heroics of Neil Tovey and his men two years prior, but were uncertain of qualification for the knockout stages by the time the final Group C clash against Namibia came around.
An goalless opener against Angola was followed by a 1-1 draw against Ivory Coast, for who Ahmed Quattara had netted an 88th-minute equaliser. McCarthy had missed that game due to an ankle injury, and could have been ruled out for much longer for retaliating after a challenge against Angola which should have been a straight red, only for some quick thinking by coach Jomo Sono in substituting the striker while he was lying ‘injured’ outside the pitch.
It all meant South Africa needed a comprehensive win against their neighbours at Stade Municipal in Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso - and young Ajax Amsterdam striker McCarthy delivered in some style.
His first in the 8th minute was a shot into the far corner after being played in by Helman Mkhalele, and the next two (11th and 19th) were strikes from outside the area with either foot. It made McCarthy the first Bafana player to score a hat-trick, but he wasn’t finished just yet - a close-range shot into the roof of the net on 21 minutes effectively ended the game as a contest.
McCarthy recently recalled the game against the Namibians, and how an earlier COSAFA Cup defeat against the Brave Warriors opened the door for a ‘revenge mission’.
“I made my debut coming on as a substitute against Holland, under Clive Barker, when we lost 2-0 at FNB Stadium [in June 1997], with a cameo for a few minutes, but my real debut came when Jomo made me the important figure of the team when we went to play a Cosafa Cup match in Windhoek,” he told the SA Football Journalists Association (SAFJA).
“I had a pretty special game, with an assist for ‘Chippa’ [Phil Masinga], but unfortunately we lost. And I remember the celebrations of the Namibians because they had beaten us. And the whole stadium sang this song, ‘Banana Banana’.
“That game was just the curtain-raiser for the AFCON for us. And I said to myself, ‘If I’m in that AFCON squad then I’m going to make them eat their words, those bastards’.”
McCarthy continued: “As the game went on that was the only thing in my mind - ‘Banana Banana, Banana Banana’. And every goal that went in I kept singing to myself, ‘Banana Banana, Banana Banana’.”
The win against Namibia saw Bafana through to the quarterfinals, where McCarthy netted the opener in a 2-1 victory. He then got both in the extra-time semifinal win against DR Congo, but was unable to reproduce the magic in the decider against Egypt, who lifted their fourth Nations Cup title.
Still, it was the start of a journey which saw McCarthy net 31 goals in 80 matches for his country - a record that still stands today.