It’s no surprise that it was Jomo Sono who found him, some time in the late 1980s. As a player, Sono was a supreme artist, but as a supreme talent spotter, he dealt mainly in warriors. And the great Phil “Chippa” Masinga, who died from cancer on 13 January at the age of 49, was a warrior of the penalty box.
To be precise, Masinga was a warhorse. All power and honour and noble fury, he carried his team deep into enemy territory. He was a snorting, galloping thoroughbred of a centre-forward.
Masinga rose from Klerksdorp to fame in an era in which lanky, aerially powerful strikers were more prized than they are nowadays. Players of his physique were a tactical cornerstone of the English game.
Italy via Elland Road
But Masinga was more than just a mobile siege tower. He could dribble a bit when the moon was full and the stars were aligned, and every so often he would score a total screamer from long range. Famously, he lashed home one of those efforts against Congo-Brazzaville, a strike that propelled Bafana Bafana to the World Cup finals in France in 1998. It was a murderously dipping drive from well outside the box and it seemed to come from heaven. At the time, we didn’t think he was capable of such technical brilliance. But he was. Lucky goals don’t look like that.
That extra dollop of skill in his feet took him to Italy, after his opportunities at Elland Road were curbed by the pairing of the brilliant Ghanaian striker Tony Yeboah and the seasoned Brian Deane, who had bagged the target man role under Howard Wilkinson at Leeds United. He did the best he could with the game time he got: the Leeds fans hailed him as “Waltzing Masinga” and he scored a beautiful FA Cup hat-trick in nine minutes against Walsall.
After two seasons at Leeds, Masinga moved to Swiss club St Gallen and then southward to Serie B outfit Salernitana.
That exposure in Italy got him a contract at Serie A side Bari, down in the heel of Italy’s boot, where Masinga found his niche at the peak of his career. He thrived for four sun-baked seasons, though he never recovered the fearsome scoring rate of his Mamelodi Sundowns days back home, when he netted 98 times in 108 appearances. But this was Italy, after all. In the technically mean streets of Serie A, he proved his excellence at the elite level.
Battle with the Boo-Boys
Masinga was a polished finisher, but he could also butcher a good chance along with the best of them. As a result, he was one of the first Bafana strikers to come up against the tiresome Boo-Boy syndrome. For a subset of hysterical and Zamalek-soaked Bafana fans, any missed chance was evidence of fundamental and unforgivable mediocrity. One miscued shot would trigger a small epidemic of yelled insults and substitution signals. Masinga silenced the Boo-Boys again and again, but even he couldn’t exorcise the boorish and ignorant tendency that lurked in the stands. It still does.
Nowadays, when Bafana fans would kill for a striker of Masinga’s quality, the nonsense he endured from the Boo-Boys in the 1990s seems even sillier. But he could always see the bigger picture. When the hapless Thamsanqa Gabuza lost his temper last year in response to abuse from frustrated Bucs fans, I phoned Masinga for his take on the situation, which was typically balanced and empathetic.
“I am not going to condone the supporters for booing Gabuza,” he said. “It’s totally disturbing, it takes a player out of a game. You start to fear moving into the right positions, or taking the right risks. You think: ‘If I miss here, what will the fans do?’”
But he also suggested that any big-league striker has to possess a big pair of balls, at least in psychological terms. “A striker should be strong mentally. You should accept criticism. You’re going to miss chances, but you can’t think about a miss after it’s happened. You think about the next chance.”
With hindsight, Masinga’s strength of character and purpose is clearer than ever. He stood tall amid a dizzying historical moment, in which football amounted to much more than football. He and his comrades were asked to dramatise freedom on the pitch, and they did.
Masinga had a heart and a mind to match those mighty legs and arms. And that makes his death so much harder to bear.