Hosts South Africa drop striker McCarthy

By Mark Gleeson

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's all-time leading scorer Benni McCarthy was one of five players cut from the World Cup hosts' squad on Tuesday as coach Carlos Alberto Parreira settled on his 23 players for the June 11-July tournament.

The decision to ditch McCarthy was a major surprise but follows criticism concerning the forward's fitness. Parreira also dropped defender Bryce Moon and goalkeeper Rowen Fernandez in two other surprise cuts.

Parreira sympathized with the players cut from the squad and thanked them for their commitment.

"My heart bleeds for them," he told a news conference in Johannesburg.

McCarthy's omission effectively brings down the curtain on a turbulent international career in which he won 79 caps and netted a record 31 goals.

McCarthy played at the 1998 and 2002 World Cup finals but had a stormy relationship with the national side, twice retiring from international football when it conflicted with his club career in Europe, making him a deeply divisive figure in South Africa.

A recent knee injury saw McCarthy play little for English club side West Ham this year and he was criticized when he joined up with the preliminary World Cup squad for being overweight and out of condition.

(Editing Peter Rutherford)