'Unknown hero' Steve Mokone remembered in South Africa

GERALD IMRAY (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- The fans called him ''The Black Meteor'' in the Netherlands. In Italy, he was ''the Maserati'' of soccer players. He was signed by Spanish giants Barcelona. Yet at home in apartheid-era South Africa, Steve Mokone's achievements were never celebrated and he was almost unknown.

Mokone, who died last month in Washington, D.C., at the age of 82, was the first black South African to play in Europe's top leagues and a trailblazer in the 1950s. He was honored as such on Saturday at South Africa's largest sports stadium by some of the country's top political leaders, a sharp contrast to his playing days when his success was ignored by the racist regime.

''This was a hidden hero, an unknown hero in his home country,'' South African Football Association president Danny Jordaan said at a memorial service for Mokone at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg.

Mokone, a nimble, skilful forward, dazzled in Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, France, Italy, Australia and Canada, all at a time when he wasn't allowed to play for his own country's all-white team. After soccer, he moved to the United States and gained a doctorate in psychology at Rutgers University. Not bad for ''a young black kid from the dusty streets of apartheid South Africa,'' as Mokone once said of himself.

But there was a tragic aspect to Mokone's life as well, chronicled in Dutch journalist Tom Egbers' second book about him, ''12 Stolen Years,'' that was published in 2002.

In New Jersey in 1978, Mokone was sentenced to eight to 12 years in prison after his first wife and her attorney were assaulted and had acid thrown in their faces in the middle of a divorce and child custody battle. Mokone was found guilty of personally attacking his wife and was later convicted of orchestrating the attack on the attorney.

Egbers researched the criminal proceedings and argued that Mokone, who had become an outspoken anti-apartheid activist, was framed through collusion between the South African government and American authorities. Mokone had appeared at a news conference calling for South Africa to be banned from the Olympics.

He was released from jail in 1990, the same year Nelson Mandela walked out of prison in South Africa to start the nation's final journey to democracy.

Mokone's story is now known in South Africa, where he has another nickname: ''Kalamazoo.'' South African officials today say his triumphs and struggles nearly went unnoticed.

On Friday, Mokone's second wife and widow Louise brought his ashes back to South Africa in accordance with his wishes that they be spread on a soccer field in his homeland. The South African government offered the FNB Stadium in Soweto - formerly known as Soccer City - the country's most famous sports ground and venue for the 2010 World Cup final.

''That's where the likes of Dr. Kalamazoo Mokone belong,'' sports minister Fikile Mbalula said. ''FNB is our national asset. He was a national asset. FNB is fitting.''

Mokone's memorial service was attended by South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of the late Nelson Mandela, and other political and sports leaders. Condolence messages from across the world were read out, including one from FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who called Mokone ''a footballing pioneer.''

People wearing yellow T-shirts with Mokone's image mourned, but also sang and danced and chanted his name in a large white tent in the middle of the huge stadium's field. The lush grass was covered over with white mats and a red carpet to welcome Louise Mokone, carrying her husband's remains in a small box.

Arriving in South Africa, she had expressed surprise at the number of television crews and reporters that had gathered at the airport for Mokone's final journey home.

''My husband loved South Africa. My husband loved soccer,'' she said. ''That was more important to him than eating. So, for you to come out and honor him in this way, I can assure you he is smiling from where he is.''

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Gerald Imray can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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