Cheetah and Sambo — a South African soccer story

2009-11-26 00:00

“BAFANA Bafana does not know how to play soccer. I switch on the TV to watch them play a match and I can see  all   the   mistakes   [that]   they make so I switch it off at half-time. I don’t bother to watch the rest of the match.”

This is not the opinion of some biltong-eating couch commentator, but of a man who knows his soccer.

Elijah Ali Nagel (77), a retired motor­ mechanic who now lives in Eastwood, was a member of the South African­ and Natal Coloured Soccer teams in the fifties. After the recent death of the long-time captain Edmond­ Sambo Dutlow (81), Nagel is now the last remaining member of the Natal team that won the South African­ Coloured Soccer tournament in 1954. Dutlow was a well-known city resident.

Nicknamed Cheetah for his speed, Nagel was the youngest member of the team.

“It’s a long time ago so I’ve forgotten a lot. We played against teams from all the provinces and from Southern Rhodesia. It was an annual event and we won several times. Our provincial team was very good and we hardly ever­ lost.

“During the apartheid years we were not allowed to play against whites so we played in an inter-race league of Africans, Indians and coloureds­. There was a Natal coloured team that was selected mostly from Pietermaritzburg and Durban and a South African coloured team that was selected from all the provinces­.

“Soccer was an important part of the coloured community and we took it very seriously. We had no help from any authorities and we had to pay for everything­ ourselves.

“We played for the Railway Soccer Club that was founded by the Dutlow family and other community members.

“We practised twice a week on a ground where the garages at the [Royal] showgrounds are now and played matches in the arena on Saturdays­. Our families were also involved and they used to watch our matches. We trained hard, running and exercising­, none of the fancy things that they have now. On Sundays our coach used to take us down to Durban to run on the beach. That really built up our strength and fitness.

“[There is] one game I will never forget­. We were playing at Currie’s Fountain, a favourite ground, and we were losing two-nil. At half-time Sambo talked to us sternly and said that we were going to win. In the next half he scored, taking it to two-one. Then he scored again, making it two-all.

“Inspired by Sambo’s leadership, I scored the winning goal in the last minutes of the game, almost on full-time, making it three-two to us. My sister­ Martha fainted from excitement and they had to call St John’s Ambulance to take her to hospital. Sambo put me on his shoulders and carried me around the ground. I still remember that day, it’s one I’ll never forget.”

Nagel stopped playing after he was injured in a robbery but turned to coaching junior teams in Eastwood.

What is it that Nagel believes the national­ squad can’t seem to get right?

“It’s their finishing. They just don’t seem able to finish an attacking move and get the ball in the goal. They get near the 25-yard line and then pass it backwards. That’s madness. Sambo always shot at goal from the 25-yard line.

“He refused to score from close up, saying that it wasn’t good enough to shoot from near the goalie. He was so good he seldom missed.”



Sambo Dutlow, a master builder, was a dedicated sportsman who played cricket and soccer. According to his brother-in-law Hennie Petersen, “He took his soccer very seriously. From Friday night he would not talk to anyone because he was focusing on tactics for the match the next day and preparing for it. He seldom lost a game in his whole soccer career.” He recalled watching a game at Curries Fountain against the SA Indian Team: “Sambo scored a goal that hit the ball and the goalkeeper into the net.”

Petersen said Dutlow started playing soccer at 18 and went on until he retired at 40. “He was first chosen to play for South Africa in 1950 and still had his plane ticket to Cape Town and the tournament brochure, 55 years later. We have been sorting through his belongings and he still had his soccer boots and jersey too, after all these years.”

Dutlow understood the importance of psychology in sport long before the concept was recognised. He gave his team a “pep talk” before each match. “He captained every team he played for and he always told us we were going to win and made us focus on that. His words to his team were ‘Let’s not only beat the opposition but let’s leave a lasting impression so that they never want to see us again’,” said Nagel.

“A big part of our success was Sambo. He well known because he was such a quick-thinking player. He was so strong and he had a kick like an ostrich. He could kick with both feet too. One time he kicked the ball so hard it knocked the upright of the nets out of the ground so the crossbar almost fell on the goalkeeper and the ball popped. His kick was like a rocket so when the goalie stopped it, his hands stung and the crowd shouted to him to pour water on them. Sambo popped many soccer balls, playing at centre forward or at right half.”

Dutlow’s skills were recognised by talent scouts. He was one of the first black South Africans invited to sign professional contracts in Europe with Cardiff City and Sporting Lisbon in Portugal. He declined, preferring to stay in the city with his family. Two other players went, Stephen Kalamazoo Mokone and David Julius. “I often wonder what he could have achieved in soccer if apartheid hadn’t prevented him from fulfilling his potential,” Petersen said. Dutlow coached in Woodlands and was a referee. Always fit, he continued going to gym until he was 67.

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