Legends Corner: Joel Mnini opens up, in Sowetan coup
"FORGET about interviewing uMseshi," was the curt warning from one of Moroka Swallows' directors, Sipho Xulu, when we asked permission to talk to the great Joel "Ace" Mnini for this feature.
"The interview will never happen, you might as well look for someone elsewhere for your feature. He just doesn't want to be interviewed. He has never been interviewed so forget it," added Xulu as he took us to Mnini's modest home in Dobsonville, Soweto.
Indeed, convincing the revered Mnini to talk to us was as difficult as trying to get to sleep with a new baby around.
Wearing a black cap with a brown golf shirt and matching pair of trousers, Mnini, arguably one of the finest wingers the country has ever produced, made no bones about his aversion to interviews.
"I don't talk to the media, so look for someone who will talk to you," he said in a hostile tone. "I will not talk to you, so go ."
But after much persuasion, the 53-year-old father of three reluctantly agreed to accompany us to the Swallows offices "just for a chat", but insisted that we should not be long as he was tired and wanted to rest.
Mnini turned out to be good company.
He also has a sense of humour.
MCELWA NCHABELENG (MN): What is it with you and interviews?
JOEL MNINI (JM): I hate interviews! I just don't see the reason why I should talk to the media about my career. It really doesn't make sense to me. Those who saw me play know about Joel "Ace" Mnini. It is unfortunate for those who were not born while I was playing.
Look, people will accuse me of blowing my own horn when I start talking about me as a player. But now that you have cornered me, I can proudly tell you that I was the best.
MN: So why did you agree to talk to Sowetan?
JM: Niya fostela angithi (you are forceful). And I know that if I don't appear in the Sowetan, your paper will not sell (smiling for the first time in the interview).
MN: What are you doing for a living?
JM: I coach the Moroka Swallows reserve team (the Under-19 side) and I enjoy each and every minute of it. This is despite the fact that I don't train the team physically. I give out instructions because as you can see for yourself, I can't walk properly. I have a problem with my foot (he struggles to walk though it doesn't appear to be that serious).
MN: What happened?
JM: I don't know, maybe it has to do with age, but at 53 I'm still young. Leon Prins (the Swallows boss) has been insisting that I go for an operation but I'm reluctant because what if the doctors make a mistake during the operation and I die? But I will consider an operation if I don't get any better.
MN: Can you tell us about the players you have produced from the reserve league?
JM: There are many and I have to count. You must remember that I have been working for this team for more than a decade. The players include Sifiso Myeni, Ramahlwe Mphahlele, Spumelele "Ace" Bengu, Sibusiso Khumalo, Ayanda Dlamini, Vincent Kobola, Thulani Ncepe and Keegan Ritchie.
I also had Siphiwe Tshabalala at one stage. I'm working hard to produce more players for the senior team. We are not only promoting players for the sake of it but those who will add value to the team.
MN: How did you join Swallows?
JM: It was in 1977. I was called to train with the team for a day and the following day I was in the starting line-up against Orlando Pirates. I was substituted at the interval. It was a bit hard for me because I was playing on grass for the first time and the pitch was very heavy. I joined them from Zola Black Gorillas.
MN: How was the experience in your first match with Swallows and your reaction to the crowd?
JM: I was a bit nervous and it was natural as it was my first match with such a big club. To make matters worse we were up against another big club. But I settled in well as the match progressed and put one or two shibobos and the crowd loved what they saw.
MN: You scored quite a number of stunning goals in your career, which one do you think still stands out?
JM: The one against Witbank Black Aces. It was in the final of the 1983 Mainstay Cup at Ellis Park Stadium. The match ended with no goals in regulation time and it went into extra time. It was at this stage that I beat Ephraim Maimane with a powerful shot and we won that match 1-0. That goal earned me the Golden Boot award, which I still have at home. I'm proud of that goal and I showed the award to whoever cared to look at it. That award is priceless.
MN: Who was your most difficult opponent?
JS: All of them because every player and coach planned their games around Ace Mnini. But I had a way to deal with them. I was tricky, remember, and always had the last laugh.
MN: Your trickery earned you a horde of soubriquets like Ace, Mkhuthuzi, Mseshi ... the list is endless. Which one were you comfortable with?
JM: I liked all the nicknames, though some of them were misleading. For instance, Mkhuthuzi means someone who pick-pockets in IsiZulu, of which I'm not. But in football I did what my nicknames meant and the fans befittingly gave me those nicknames. I loved my fans.
MN: Are you still being recognised and how do you react to your fans?
JM: Not many people recognise me and I'm happy about this. I'm not a celebrity and it is good for me that I don't draw attention wherever I go. I don't really like to be noticed. But the old-timers at some shebeens still recognise me and they sometimes make it difficult for me to enjoy the cold ones as they will keep asking me question about my playing days.
MN: So you don't think Swallows can win the league title?
JM: Not that I don't have faith in this team. It is just because of the tight title race. For now all the top five clubs can win it and it is difficult to predict which one will clinch it.
MN: Tell us about your family, are you a family man?
JM: I've been married to my lovely wife Dorris for 27 years now and I love her to bits. We have three children - two boys and a girl. The two boys played football at amateur level and though they were promising, they did not take football seriously. But even if they tried to play football at the professional level, they wouldn't have matched me. I was special.
MN: How do you relax?
JM: I watch a lot of soccer on TV but I also have time to chill with my buddies in Zola drinking my favourite Castle Lite (he was quick to insist that he drinks moderately).
MN:Who was the best dresser at Swallows?
JM: Simon Mahlangu.
MN: Who was the most talkative player?
JM: Jeffrey "Tornado" Ntsibande and Panyaza (Andries Maseko), while I was very quiet.
XULU ON MNINI
MNINI is irreplaceable. He made the ball speak his own language and we don't have such players today. His darting moves and dribbling skills would force fans from other clubs to support Swallows. He was effective on the left and right wings. He was a rare breed.
It is unfortunate that players like Ace did not have an opportunity to showcase their talent abroad owing to the political situation at that time. Swallows are respected today because of players like Mnini and we are happy that he was still attached to the club. I thank Sowetan for reminding people about players like Ace.