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Page last updated at 10:24 GMT, Sunday, 6 June 2010 11:24 UK

The greatest player you never saw

By Julian Shea

Ace Ntsoelengoe - picture by Alan Merrick
Ntsoelengoe was a fans' favourite on both sides of the Atlantic

The sporting boycott of South Africa in the 1970s and 80s deprived a generation of sportsmen and women a chance to show off their skills on the world stage.

But while the lost talent of cricketers such as Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards is often discussed, the finest South African footballers of that period are barely mentioned.

And few players from that lost generation were better than Patrick 'Ace' Ntsoelengoe.

"If Ace was here now, he'd be spoken of in the same breath as Fernando Torres, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi," former South Africa coach Clive Barker told BBC Sport.

"When you write the book of South African football history, right up there at the very top would have to be the king himself, Ace. "

Midfielder Ntsoelengoe spent his playing career hopping between Kaizer Chiefs in South Africa and the North American Soccer League (NASL), where he spent 11 years playing for a variety of teams, most significantly Minnesota Kicks and Toronto Blizzard.

Barker coached the Chiefs' rivals Amazulu when Ntsoelengoe was at his peak, and still remembers his talent with awe.

"He was the type of player you could plan everything around - there was one cup final we played against the Chiefs where he managed to control the ball and produce such a stunning shot from an angle that bent inside the far post that I actually stood up and applauded him."

Kaizer Chiefs were set up in 1970 by South African player Kaizer Motaung when he returned from playing in America.

Ntsoelengoe soon emerged as their star player, and it was not long before he too crossed the Atlantic to join the likes of Pele, Johann Cruyff and George Best in the newly established NASL, a short-lived but fondly remembered mix of old world football and American showbiz.

"At that stage, the USA looked like it was going to be the country that was going to evolve the most in football, with people like Franz Beckenbauer," said Barker.

"So a lot of South African players thought this was the way to go."

The way the league schedules worked allowed Ntsoelengoe to play in the NASL in the summer before returning to the Chiefs in the American close season.

Marks Maponyane was a Chiefs fan who went on to play for the club, and he says the return of the homecoming hero would always lift the team and the fans.

"I was a youngster admiring him when I was at school, so I couldn't believe I was playing alongside him," he told BBC Sport.

"He used to come back to Soweto when the American season was over and he would always take the team and the fans out of any doldrums.

"Ace was gifted but he was a grafter - when you wanted him to come to the party he wouldn't disappoint. He used to produce stunning passes - when I see what Xavi does for Barcelona now and the passes he plays, it reminds me of Ace."

At the Chiefs, he is remembered as a player whose brilliance made you think 'how on earth he did he do that?'

Marks Maponyane

A look at the Kaizer Chiefs' roll of honour for the years Ntsoelengoe played there shows how good they were when he was at his peak - from 1974 to 1984, there was only one season they ended the season without a trophy.

"He was the reason we won so many competitions," said Maponyane.

"We had many other quality players, but we would sweep the board with him."

One of Ntsoelengoe's closest friends in America was former West Brom defender Alan Merrick, who played with him in Minnesota and Toronto, and is now football coach of the University of Minnesota.

"In the first couple of years in Minnesota he was very shy, so coach Freddie Goodwin put the two of us together, as I was a bit more outgoing," he said.

"Freddie knew exactly the special element Ace had, and he didn't want anyone to take advantage of him, so he put me there as his protector on and off the field.

"If anyone touched him, the nearest player to me was going to get kicked - the message soon got round, touch Ace and you'd have me to deal with.

"He was as good as many of the big names who were over there in the States - and I mean the George Bests, the Beckenbauers and the Cruyffs. He did things with the ball that others just didn't do.

"He was a breath of fresh air as you just stood there wondering what he'd do next, and he didn't know either, he made it up as he went along - and every time I saw him, he had a huge grin on his face."

Alan Merrick and Pele with Ace Ntsoelengoe in the background
Merrick (left) played against greats like Pele (centre) in the NASL

Despite so many players in the NASL having close ties with Europe, there was never any suggestion that Ntsoelengoe should try and test himself across the North Atlantic.

"His horizons weren't wider than what he was involved in - the States in the summer, Africa in the winter," said Merrick.

"He was content with the involvement he had in the game, I don't think he was that ambitious.

"He had a lot of pride in his country, and he did speak several times about not being able to play for South Africa because of the boycott. That did hit him pretty hard.

"He was so passionate about his country and shared insights into his family, his village and how he was brought up, Having him as a room-mate was interesting."

Former Liverpool star David Fairclough played with and against many of the world's best players in his Anfield career.

But even he was impressed by what he saw when he spent a season playing alongside Ntsoelengoe in Toronto.

"Our coach and club president had ties with South Africa and we had the four best South African players there - David Byrne and Neil Roberts, who were white, and Ace and Jomo Sono, who were black," he said.

"When I got to the club, Jimmy Nicol who was already there said 'you won't believe what these guys can do'.

"Ace was probably the first player I saw juggle a ball - these days all the academy players can do it, but back then he was the most gifted player I'd ever seen.

"Sometimes the coach would pull him out at training, get him to do a trick and say to the rest of us 'try and do this'.

"Not a soul could do it but Ace would stand there, cool as you like, with a big smile on his face, looking like he could do it in his sleep."

After retiring in the mid-80s, Ntsoelengoe returned to his beloved Chiefs and became involved in their Youth Development programme, as well as being involved in South Africa's under-23 side.

He died of a heart attack in 2006, aged just 50, and was a posthumous recipient of the Order of Ikhamanga, South Africa's highest honour for citizens who have excelled in the arts, culture, literature and sport.

He is the only South African in the American National Soccer Hall of Fame, and is remembered as one of the greatest talents Africa ever produced by fans and players on both sides of the Atlantic.

"I don't think there is anyone today who is quite like him, because now they play too fast, and before you know it you have to play the ball - Ace used to like to take his time," said former team-mate Maponyane.

"His nickname was 'Mabheka Phansi' - the man who always looks down.

"Coaches always tell you to look up but he used to play with his head down, which baffled opponents as they thought he couldn't possibly know where his team-mates were.

"But he'd already seen where they all were and would find them with his passes.

"In South Africa he's remembered as a gentleman of the game. And at the Chiefs, he is remembered as a player whose brilliance made you think 'how on earth he did he do that?'."



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