Q&A with ex-South African footballer: Matthew Booth

by Aiden Daries

Matthew Booth began his professional footballing career at Ajax Cape Town (then known as Cape Town Spurs FC) before moving to Mamelodi Sundowns. He had the chance to ply his trade in both England for Wimbledon and in Russia for FC Rostov and Krylia Sovetov respectively. Booth earned his first call up to the South African national first team (Bafana Bafana) in 1999 and managed to earn 37 international caps. He has opened some coaching clinics and does occasional television work as an analyst.

Who was your biggest influence in football? Was there anybody specific that inspired you to start playing the game?

I would say my father and his three brothers, who all played amateur football. One of my uncles actually played a couple of games for Hellenic FC. My dad used to spend a lot of time with me as a youngster doing some extra training, so they were my inspiration and the reason why I followed football. 

Was there a moment that made you realize you wanted to become a professional footballer?

Since the age of 5 years old until 17 I was playing amateur football for Fish Hoek AFC in Cape Town. [At] No stage can I actually remember wanting to be a professional footballer. I simply played because I enjoyed it.

I was very competitive as a youngster and I enjoyed the game thoroughly, I loved it. Only when I got scouted by Cape Town Spurs did I suddenly realise that this could be an opportunity to earn a living out of the game.  

Do you think you gained anything, or were there any lessons you learnt whilst you were plying your trade overseas?

I would encourage any young professional footballer to go overseas and get out of [their] comfort zone. I don’t believe enough of our younger players are taking that opportunity. You learn a new language, a new culture, it definitely builds character.

You come home after training to an empty, cold apartment with temperatures being minus ten degrees outside and that sort of character building is necessary and you become a better product.

I believe that players who do take their chance to get out of their comfort zone and play with better players and get coached by better coaches will only be better for Bafana Bafana. 

When you got called up to the South African national first team, what emotions overcame you at the time?

I was very excited! I packed my bags very quickly when I got the letter, or the fax as they did it back in the day (laughs). It stated that [I’d] been called up for a COSAFA game against Botswana in 1998.

Even if it was considered to be a kind of B-grade call-up, I was still ecstatic that I could get my chance.  Every time I’ve played for the national team that feeling hasn’t left me. It filled me up with emotion and pride every time I pulled on that jersey. 

What were your feelings towards the nickname “The White Knight” that the British media dubbed you as, when you were the only white player in the national team at the time?

I felt a little bit uncomfortable about that, it was kind of cheesy. At that stage of our history, I just happened to be the only white player in the team, but in actual fact if they had taken note of current day and previous squads, our football team has [had] good demographic representation. 

Colour has never been an issue in the [South African] football industry to be honest. It was a bit uncomfortable, but I understood why this was the case. Foreign journalists coming to South Africa for the first time in 2009/10 were quite naturally fascinated by our history and colour, unfortunately.

What thoughts were going through your mind when you came to know that you would miss out on the 2002 World Cup due to a knee injury?

At the time I took it in my stride. I’m not a very emotional person. I tend to hold things together in that regard. The fact that I was still quite young at the time helped as well, I was perhaps thinking about future opportunities like 2006 and 2010.

In hindsight, now that I’ve finished my career, it was probably one of my lowest points in my career, because it would’ve been a great opportunity to have played in a World Cup which I haven’t done. [I took] part in 2010 and travelled with the team in 2002, so it was very disappointing. 

In my small man cave that I’ve got at home, I got a piece of the cartilage that was taken out of my knee, which was the reason why I couldn’t travel with the team to Japan and Korea. So in hindsight it was bitterly disappointing. 

Was there any one moment in your career that stood out for you?

There were a number of moments, but probably it would be the game against Brazil in the 2000 Olympics. It was probably one of my best games I’ve ever played in. Another one was in 2009 when we came up against Spain and Brazil in the Confederations Cup who were, at that stage, number one and two in the world.

It’s always great when you gauge on where you stand on the world stage to test yourself against those types of teams. So the opportunity to do that was fantastic. 

[ABOVE: Matthew Booth up against Spain’s, Fernando Torres, as South Africa take on Spain]

Do you have any regrets over the course of your career?

The regrets obviously involved not being able to play in a World Cup, and I haven’t played in the African Nations Cup either, so those were disappointments. Also, going on trial at West Ham and having a very good week, impressing Harry Redknapp in 2001.

Unfortunately my club at the time, Mamelodi Sundowns, asked for too much money. I felt that was my best chance of playing in the English Premier League, and it will always be something I will regret.

Who was the toughest opponent you came up against, and on the same note, who was the stand out player you had the opportunity to play with?

There were many tough opponents I came up against. I generally had to be on my toes against shorter, faster strikers who had a low centre of gravity and could use both left and right feet. Those were the types of players I had to be very careful of and I never really liked coming up against.

There were two players that stood out for me who I played with: one was Roger Feutmba, who was a left footer and played in the middle for Sundowns during my first stint there. The second was also a left footer, Souza, who was a Brazilian that I played with at Krylia Sovetov in Russia. 

Do you have any aspirations of becoming a manager in the near or far future?

I am in the process of getting my coaching licenses, but more so that I could contribute to the charity that we run, the Booth Education and Sports Trust. 

We conduct coaching clinics and we are very keen to contribute at junior level. Generally, South African teams are not very patient with coaches, but there are four or five teams that I would consider coaching. However, I do need to get educated in that regard because being an ex-professional footballer doesn’t mean you’ll be a good coach. 

[ABOVE: Matthew Booth challenges Vladimir Bystrov of FC Spartak Moscow during his time in Russia with Krylia Sovetov]

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