For Neil Tovey, the year 1994 and the advent of freedom and democracy made South Africa an “ecstatic and happy place” filled with all sorts of possibilities.
As the country celebrates Freedom Day, one of Amakhosi’s most celebrated captains still beams with pride at having played such a prominent role for Bafana Bafana and for Kaizer Chiefs during such a landmark time in the country’s history.
“It was a very exciting time, just prior to the Springboks winning the Rugby World Cup and us winning the African Cup of Nations. We were back in international sport and South African football clubs were starting to play in African continental football competition. We had so much to look forward to as a unified, democratic country,” Tovey told the Kaizer Chiefs website this week, the excitement of the time still crackling in his voice.
Football had always been central to the psyche of the South African people and the newly-elected democratic President of the country, Nelson Mandela, showed just how much when he left his inauguration celebrations on 10 May 1994 to attend Bafana Bafana’s celebratory international match against Zambia at Ellis Park Stadium.
The game was halted at half time as a helicopter hovered over the pitch and landed at the stadium to deliver South Africa’s brand new President in front of a jubilant, full house of football fans.
“Madiba had over 250 dignitaries and visiting heads of state attending his inauguration, but he decided ‘no, no…I am going to watch a football match”. It was an unbelievable day and memory, he became the first South African President to turn up at an international football match. We were all caught by surprise and were only told at half time that Madiba would be at the match. We had no idea he was coming. But he was that kind of spontaneous man, he did things from the bottom of his heart. He was really special,” recalls Tovey.
And as Madiba knew only too well, football was the joy and salvation of the masses, even during the country’s darkest times.
“Football always harmonized people and harmonized society. It gave the masses something to look forward to and to celebrate, even when times were really difficult. It has always been a tremendous catalyst to the country’s joy and happiness,” says Tovey.
And with international football a pipedream during the apartheid era, when Tovey had started establishing a huge reputation in the game at Durban City and at AmaZulu, for ‘Mokoko’ representing Kaizer Chiefs was always his biggest dream. And it was one he realized in a golden decade with the black and gold.
“I had a beautiful decade of being part of such a big club and playing with unbelievable players. To have that opportunity and blessing was so pleasurable for me. I could not throw the opportunity away and made the very best of my time with the Amakhosi. The support from the fans was always unbelievable. If you showed intensity for the club and were inspired to strive for success week in and week out, the fans could see that and they love and enjoy you and you love and enjoy them in return,” Tovey recalls with rich emotion of his time at Kaizer Chiefs at such a special time in its young democracy.
South Africa opening up to international football also came with difficult times at Chiefs, as it invariably resulting in the club losing stars such as Lucas Radebe, Shoes Moshoeu, Steve Komphela, Doctor Khumalo, Bradley Carnell and Fani Madida to international clubs.
“It was my duty as a senior player to bring through the professionalism and club culture to young, raw Chiefs players at the time such as Thabang Lebese, Thabo Mooki, Jacob Tshisevhe and Jabu Pule. Chiefs fans demand trophies, that’s what they come to expect and while the mid 1990s were difficult times, we continued to deliver silverware,” says Tovey.
He is delighted the Amakhosi has reached the quarterfinals of the CAF Champions League, saying “it’s the club’s and Mr Kaizer Motaung’s dream” to add the golden star to its kit for the first time in its history.
“It’s going to be a tall order, but when it gets to the knockout stages you start doing things in your mind that translates to the pitch. Beating Mamelodi Sundowns this weekend was a big morale-boosting win for the club ahead of the CAF Champions League draw this week. It shows the club can still do it and perform on the big stage. So, my message to the club and to the players, is go out and enjoy the occasion and the experience. Their concentration levels need to be top, top, top, but they need to go out there and do what they know they’re good at and anything is possible,” says Tovey.
NEIL TOVEY STATISTICS AT KAIZER CHIEFS
-Years at Kaizer Chiefs: 1990-99
-364 Games Started for Chiefs in all competitions
-11 Official Honours at Chiefs
-League Titles: 3
1991, 1992, 1996
-MTN 8: 3
1991, 1992, 1994
-League Cup: 2
-Nedbank Cup: 1
-Champion of Champions: 2