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South African soccer great looks back wistfully

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Though thrilled that the World Cup has come to his homeland, South African soccer great Jomo Sono can't help but look back to his glory days in the apartheid era and wonder what might have been.

Once a teammate of Pele's with the New York Cosmos, Sono — and several brilliant contemporaries — never got the chance to play for their country because of the international sports boycott.

"I'm not being cocky," he said in an interview Thursday. "We would have definitely won the World Cup."

Well, perhaps. The world champion Argentines were pretty good in 1978. So were the Italians in 1982.

Nonetheless, Sono was part of a generation of South African stars who played abroad, primarily in the North American Soccer league, during the 1970s and '80s. They included both white and black players — among them Steve Wegerle, Neill Roberts, Webster Lichaba and the heralded midfielder Ace Ntsoelengoe — who might have qualified for the 1982 World Cup.

"We could have made a big difference in the world," Sono mused. "But we cannot be sad."

He evoked the legacy of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, who spent more than 27 years in prison before his release in 1990 and his election as president in 1994.

"We spent those years outside, playing football, doing what we love most, while he was sitting in prison," Sono said. "By talking about him and looking at his life, it takes away all the pain and the frustration."

Though excluded from the boycott-era World Cups, Sono says he, Ntsoelengoe and other black players who went abroad contributed to South Africa's eventual transformation.

"We carried the torch for the South African people by playing overseas," he said. "The perception of the white Afrikaners was that the black man can't do anything. We went out to the other side of the world and showed that black people can play football."

"We're also proud to see the World Cup is here today," he said. "It's because of people like us, like Mandela, those who suffered."

Sono was born in the black township of Soweto in 1955, the son of a pro soccer player. His father was killed in a car crash when he was 8, his mother abandoned him, and he was raised by his grandparents.

He played for his father's former club, the Orlando Pirates, and went to the United States in 1977 to join a remarkable New York Cosmos team that included several world-famous though past-their-prime stars, notably Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto.

"It was like the Harlem Globetrotters," Sono said. "All the superstars were there."

Sono bounced around the NASL over the next five years, playing with the Colorado Caribous the Atlanta Chiefs and the Toronto Blizzard.

He returned to South Africa in 1982 and — in an emphatic sign of increasing black influence in South African soccer and commerce — purchased a white Johannesburg team, Highlands Park, and renamed it Jomo Cosmos. It competes in South Africa's top-level Premier Soccer League, with Sono as owner/coach.

Sono has emerged as one of South Africa's best scouts of new soccer talent, and he served a couple of short stints as coach of the national team — including the 2002 World Cup in which he guided Bafana Bafana to 1-1-1 record.

Over the past three weeks, he's attended numerous World Cup matches, including two involving the now-eliminated U.S. team.

"The American kids have improved tremendously. ... They played with a lot of heart and determination," Sono said. "But they're lacking somebody who can control the game. And they also need an out-and-out striker — a focused player who will spend most of his time in the box."

His assessment of South Africa's team was harsher — but he blamed officials, not the players, for Bafana's failure to reach the second round. In particular, he denounced a decision to pull the players out of training camp and send them on a celebratory bus tour around Johannesburg two days before their first match.

"Had they won any trophy? No. You only do that when you've won a trophy," Sono said. "It was all about the officials. You found them on top of the buses, jumping around like school kids — they were happy to be seen."

Looking continentwide, he assailed the moves by four of Africa's World Cup teams to bring in coaches from Europe and South America less than a year before the start of the tournament. And he said soccer officials in many African countries, including South Africa, were remiss for failing to bolster youth development programs.

"Sometimes in Africa, instead of developing the game, they develop their pockets, their bank books," he said.

For all his critiques, Sono depicted this World Cup as "unbelievable success."

"What makes it so special to me is that the country and Africa were criticized — that we cannot handle anything," he said. "The Europeans were character-assassinating this World Cup and — what is funny — they are singing our praises now."

"We Africans are very proud."