Biggs on soccer

2010-01-05 00:00

BIGGS Chetty is not a man to cling to memorabilia that he’s accumulated over 15 years of playing professional football. “Some of it is in boxes,” says the former skipper of local team Taj Real. “I’ve given hundreds of trophies away … would you like one?” he asks.

Newspaper articles that his wife carefully cut out over the years were lost after someone undertook to collate them all and never made good on the promise.

All the 50-year-old Chetty really wants to do now, as in the past, is to play football or coach South Africa’s promising young talent, not gloat over artifacts from his glory days.

“We played for the love of the game,” said Chetty, who now sells sporting goods from a stall in Debi Market and does a bit of low-level coaching on the side. “The money was so little — R20 for a draw and R40 for a win — but we didn’t mind. We made friends with players from around the country.”

Local football expert Thabo Dladla describes Chetty as “one of the finest and most creative footballers” in South Africa. “Biggs was born at the wrong time. If he had been born in this age, he would have achieved great things. Because of apartheid, South Africa was out of international football and professional footballers didn’t enjoy the money and exposure which they do today,” Dladla said.

Dladla told The Witness he witnessed Chetty’s skill on several occasions when he played for Taj Real in the eighties and, more recently, after he had retired from professional football and played for Pietermaritzburg­ against the English masters during a visit to Durban. “He was easily the best,” said Dladla. “People were asking why he wasn’t part of the South African masters.”

Chetty’s dream used to be to play for English team Manchester United. Today, his dream is to coach a Bafana Bafana side, even if it is U17s. “I’d really love to coach youngsters full time and be a top coach.”

Dladla agrees that more could be made of the talents and experience of people such as Chetty. “As a country we are not doing enough to use people like Chetty to do formal coaching of the youth,” he said. “We spend a fortune fighting Aids and crime, but do nothing to save the children from Aids and crime. That’s what football can do.”

Chetty’s own life story bears this out. After his mother died when he was 10, football became the centre of Chetty’s life. Fewer than two decades later, on Sunday November 30, 1986, he led his team Taj Real (managed by Pops Chetty and coached by Glenn Mhlongo) to victory against Santos of Cape Town in the Knockout Cup replay.

Chetty also did stints over the years at Young Manchester where, as captain, he led the team to three successful cup finals; he left a job at The Witness to spend two seasons with African Wanderers, where he experienced the volatile mix of politics and sport. Then he had a couple of seasons in the National Professional Soccer League’s (NPSL) second division. By the time the Federation Professional League (FPL) merged with the PSL in the early nineties, time had caught up with Chetty and he was no longer at the top of his game. He then turned amateur “which was also great”, he said.

While at Taj Real, he was offered places in other South African teams, but no matter­ how good you were, you had no entry into white teams and overseas opportunities.

“It seemed to me at the time that finance­ was a bigger gatekeeper than race. But if you wanted to play in the top leagues and be recognised, that’s when apartheid came into the picture.”

Today, Biggs has been playing soccer for 40 years. “Not one year have I been out of soccer,” he says, recalling his rigorous, self-imposed exercise routine which he pursued to make up for his slight frame. “I felt that I had to train harder than all the other professional players because of my size.”

Chetty did road running and trained often on his own — before and after work.

He admits that the only thing he has ever taken seriously is soccer. “Ask my wife Francie and two sons Warrick and Wesley,” he says with a smile.

“Soccer is physically demanding and Indians are not generally regarded as suited to the game, but I would still love to coach an Indian player for the Bafana squad.”

Chetty’s love of the game was triggered by watching the greats on both sides of the National Football League (NFL) and the Federation Football League (FPL), the likes of Bobby Chalmers and Bomber Charmaine, Mike James, Mike Dewee of Ajax, Len Wilkerson and Barry Ward. “But my idols were Rama Moodley and Nithia Padayachee, and I was inspired by Slugo Naicker, Reg Nohar, Wings Pather, Joe Joe and Jacob Nene,” he said.

“Most soccer players were very good then, and then some were brilliant. So I was fortunate to play with or against the likes of Ravi Pillay, Eddie Pillay, Poplin Reddy and Tim Gengan. My coloured friends were very good ... such as Lloyd de Lange, Michael Williams, Lewellyn Donnelly and Shaun Donnelly. My black brothers were just as good — Zeph Mthembu, Lionel Mabasa, Owen Nzimande­ and Russia Mtshali.

“I thank God for the wonderful innings I had,” he said.

Chetty said all that he’d like to do is to share his experiences of football during apartheid and have them captured for posterity in a book or some written record. “Every game was a highlight for me. The trophies are merely material objects. It’s the memories that are important,” he said.

• If there are any historians or biographers who are interested in Biggs Chetty’s era, contact him at 073 256 2903.

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