When President Thabo Mbeki handed out the newly conceived Order of Ikhamanga – South Africa’s highest honour for achievement in the creative and performing arts and sport – for the first time in 2003, only two sportsmen received the award in the gold class. It came as no surprise that one of them was Steve “Kalamazoo” Mokone.
Mokone, who represented his country at the age of 16 before becoming the first black South African to play professional football in Europe, was South Africa’s first soccer superstar.
After signing up for English club Coventry City in 1955, Mokone went on to achieve superstar status playing for the Dutch side Heracles and later for Torino in Italy, becoming one of a few players in Europe to earn £10 000 a year. By 1959 he was rated as one of the best soccer players in Europe, and was being compared to the all-time greats of the game.
‘He is surely the Maserati’
Italian soccer writer Beppe Branco famously wrote: “If Pele of Brazil is the Rolls-Royce of soccer players, Stanley Matthews of England the Mercedes-Benz and Alfredo di Stefano of Argentina and Spain the Cadillac of soccer players, then Kala of South Africa, lithe and lean, is surely the Maserati.”
The man who’s had a street in Amsterdam named after him – and a book written and film made about him – was born in Doornfontein, Johannesburg in 1932. His family moved to Sophiatown when he was six before settling in Kilnerton, north of Pretoria.
According to Horatio Motjuwadi, writing for the Sunday Times, Kalamazoo’s father sent him to Ohlange High School in Durban “to make him forget soccer and concentrate on becoming a lawyer. But long before he passed matric he had become a national superstar with Bucks. Scouts from Newcastle, England, urged him to move over, but his father refused.
“A year later Mokone’s father relented when Coventry pleaded for the services of his son”, Motjuwadi relates. “It took months for him to get his passport because of the apartheid system.
“Team-mates at Coventry knew he was something special at his first training session when he sent their national goalkeeper, Roger Matthews, the wrong way from the penalty spot. ‘Do it again’, they urged. Once more Matthews dived the wrong way.
“Mokone became an overnight sensation, prompting a journalist to report that ‘I haven’t seen such clamour in Coventry since the end of World War Two’.”
Disheartened by the style of football at the club, Mokone moved to Dutch side Heracles in 1958, where he was an instant hit, scoring two goals on debut, helping Heracles take the Dutch league trophy and being voted the club’s player of the season. By 1959 he was rated one of Europe’s best players.
He signed for Spanish giants Barcelona in 1959, but because they had their quota of foreigners, was loaned to French side Marseilles before moving to Torino in Italy.
“Like everywhere Mokone played,” writes Motjuwadi, “the people of this northern Italian city swore by his soccer boots. That was where, in 1961, he was dubbed the Maserati of soccer players. He made another spellbinding first appearance for Torino, scoring all five goals in a 5-2 victory against Verona.
“Months later, on tour in Russia, he became the first foreigner to score a hat-trick in a game against the biggest team in the land, Kiev.”
A beautiful goal
One of those goals prompted a Russian commentator to write: “In all my 40 years of reporting soccer from different parts of the world I have never seen a player score a more beautiful goal than the one Kala scored with a deflection off his chest, save for Pele’s goal against Sweden in the World Cup final in 1958.”
Kalamazoo ended his playing career with a stint in Australia and then in Canada in 1964. In the same year he enrolled at Rutgers University in the US. Seven years later, after completing his doctorate in psychology, he was appointed assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.
A street and a book
Mokone’s life – and especially his time in Holland – led to an Amsterdam street being named after him, and provided the inspiration for the book and subsequent film De Zwarte Meteoor (The Black Meteor).
The author of De Zwarte Meteoor, Tom Egbers, has since published a further book, Twaalf gestolen jaren (12 Stolen Years), based on his investigation of Mokone’s arrest and imprisonment in New York in 1977.
Mokone was arrested – and reportedly brutalised – by police in 1977 on a charge of credit card fraud which Mokone says was fabricated. A day after his release, police arrested him at his Rutgers office and charged him with assaulting his wife. Mokone was found guilty and served nine years in jail. He has maintained his innocence all along.
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