x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A Pirates player who took up a construction job

Not even Andy Karacinski's work colleagues at the Naboodah head offices in Deira know of his illustrious past in football.

Andy Karacinski lifts 1981 Champion of Champions Trophy.
Andy Karacinski lifts 1981 Champion of Champions Trophy.

It sounds like the start of a particularly tenuous football trivia question. What links Eusebio, Gary Bailey, Jomo Sono and the Al Naboodah Construction Group in Dubai? If you are racking your brain, and even the old fail-safes are not fitting the bill, then give up. Not even Andy Karacinski's work colleagues at the Naboodah head offices in Deira know of his illustrious past in football.

"That's Mr Andy?" one work-mate asks, disbelieving, as he sifts through some of the old photographs from the company's chief commercial officer's former playing days. The Wales-born Karacinski moved from his home in the UK and relocated to South Africa in 1976 after answering a newspaper advertisement for a construction job. Unbeknown to him, he was about to embark on a journey which, over the next 13 years, would see him become one of the most recognisable faces in South African football.

Not that the name by which he goes about his daily business in Dubai, where he has lived since 1998, is precisely synonymous with the game there. At the time, South African footballers were known ubiquitously by nicknames, dreamed up to reflect their personality or their looks. For example, during his time with the Orlando Pirates, Karacinski shared a dressing-room with Meshak "Soweto Socialite" Mjanqueka, so called because he went to work in a suit, which his teammates thought must make him an executive.

Their new white colleague earned his own alias on account of his long dark hair and beard. When the club's witch-doctor inquired who the new player was, he was informed by a fellow player: "Can't you tell by how he looks? That is Jesus, and he has come to save us." In February 2008, when his former club marked their 70th anniversary, Karacinski was named among the top 10 players ever to wear the Pirates jersey by the Johannesburg Sunday Times.

"Jesus Karajinsky [sic] was hardworking and could play in a variety of positions in defence and midfield," was the newspaper's suitably prosaic analysis of the self-professed midfield workhorse. Upon settling in Johannesburg, Karacinski joined Wits, a team in the all-white, semi-professional league, where Bailey was making his way as an emerging goalkeeper. At the end of the season, Bailey was offered the chance to play for Manchester United, where he was soon to make his name in English football.

Doors opened for Karacinski, too. Rather than a move to one of Europe's top leagues, he joined a side in the newly-formed Federation League, which for the first time integrated players of all colours. Cue a brief alliance with Eusebio, the Mozambique-born forward who had earlier seen glory with Portugal. Then on to the Pirates, South Africa's equivalent of Manchester United, led by Sono, their brilliant playmaker.

Karacinski went on to become the first white player to captain the club, which are based in Soweto, the black township, and with it came some serious hero worship. "There was nobody to touch the Pirates in terms of attendances," he recalls. "When we played away, there would be more people supporting us than the hometown team." The slow take-up of tickets for the forthcoming World Cup speaks less of a lack of passion for the game in South Africa than overpricing. There was no need to have to market the game to drive sales in Karacinski's day.

To guard against overcrowding, one derby game against the Kaizer Chiefs, their main rivals, was organised for a workday, but 50,000 still attended. "Everybody was supposed to be at work, but to them, football was everything," he remembers. "There was never any violence. For a game like the Chiefs v Pirates, there was an imaginary line at halfway. "One set of supporters sat one side, and the other set on the other. And at the end of the game, they just walked out together.

"A lot of people tried to sit on the halfway line, so they could sit with their friends - albeit the other side of line. "That must seem strange to people from the UK or Europe, where fights happen because you are wearing the wrong colour scarf." Karacinski's playing days with the Pirates ended when he suffered a smashed pelvis in a road traffic accident. It took him two years to rebuild enough strength to play.

While he never returned to action for the Pirates, the injuries he suffered in the car crash have hardly held him back. Having just turned 60, he still plays regularly, for his son Kris's five-a-side team, Real Bad, in the popular league at Al Nasr club. Mainly because of work commitments, he has been without an 11-a-side Dubai Amateur League club since last season, but he is unlikely to ever officially retire. "The boots haven't worn out yet," he says. pradley@thenational.ae

Andy Karacinski ■ Age 60 ■ Position Midfield/defence ■ Former teams Bedworth Town (England), Bluebells, Orlando Pirates (South Africa) ■ Current team Real Bad (Dubai five-a-side league) Finest opponent ■ John Charles (Wales/Juventus). When Karacinski was playing for Bedworth Town, the English semi-professional side, he came up against "King John" Charles, the ageing great who was player/manager of Merthyr Tydfil by then. Charles was commonly regarded as Wales's greatest ever player Top teammate ■ Jomo Sono (Pirates). Known as "The Black Prince of Soweto", Sono was recruited from the Pirates to play alongside Pele at the New York Cosmos. He scored four goals for the Springboks as a 20-year-old against an Argentine touring XI. Sono later managed the South African national team Biggest match ■ Karacinski captained the Pirates in a vital tie against Kaizer Chiefs, their Soweto rivals. The fixture is the biggest in South African football anyway. The fact so much was riding on it meant the game was too big for the Orlando Stadium. It was switched to Ellis Park, where an estimated 110,000 fans came to watch Memorable moment ■ While still in the English semi-professional leagues, Karacinski was detailed to mark Geoff Astle, the former West Brom and England striker. One jibe too many about Astle's famous miss at the 1970 World Cup saw Karacinski dumped over the perimeter fence. "A lot tougher in Mexico," was all Astle said