Benni's shop window of opportunity

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The Independent Online

While most teams involved in the final 16 of the Champions' League would rather have avoided Manchester United, Porto are "delighted", according to their joint top-scorer Benni McCarthy. "If we beat Manchester [United] we will get more recognition than beating a smaller team," the 25-year-old South African declares. "People will notice our players and brilliant coach, José Mourinho. Of course we are all happy and nobody wants to leave Porto, but we can't pretend there are not bigger clubs."

Unlike when Porto last met United in 1997, last season's Treble winners (domestic champions, Portuguese and Uefa Cups) are not favourites. The bookmakers got it wrong that time as United ran out comfortable winners, so what makes McCarthy think they are mistaken again? "Everybody knows it's impossible to win at Old Trafford," he says, acknowledging United's near-three-year European unbeaten home run, "but over two legs we can do what Real Madrid did last season - beat Manchester at home and be strong at Old Trafford. They have great players like Fortune, Scholes, Giggs, Van Nistelrooy and Keane, but we have a real winning mentality here."

As highly as Sir Alex Ferguson rates him, most don't list Quinton Fortune as one of United's current stars. But then most didn't grow up in a neighbouring Cape Town township, as McCarthy did. "Quinton is from Kewtown, I'm from Hanover Park," he says. "Life was good there but it could be tough, and there weren't too many opportunities. Friends who were talented footballers are now gangsters. One of my best friends from school, a small guy who used to get bullied, he's now a main gangster. Me? I'm from a strict, hard-working family and was brought up to have self-discipline. I kept out of trouble and loved sport. I was a better cricketer than footballer and I was a wicked fly-half too. I wasn't made for rugby though... too skinny and a bit of a sissy."

Football's gain meant that by 16 McCarthy was playing for Seven Stars in South Africa's then second division. He scored 39 goals in 49 games, enough to attract Ajax, the Dutch giants who continue to mine South Africa's finest footballing quarry. "I grew up as a footballer and a person when I moved to Holland," he recalls. "The culture was completely different. I went to the red-light district and saw naked women in the windows. I couldn't believe it!"

Surrounded by idols such as Patrick Kluivert and Jari Litmanen, he appreciates that Ajax's famed coaching methods helped to hone his raw talent: "South African players tend to have skill but little discipline. Sometimes they don't know how to combine as a team."

McCarthy quickly progressed to Ajax's first XI, playing 36 times and scoring 20 goals between 1997 and 1999. While recognising that Ajax "manage the talents and egos of young players well", he still moved to Celta Vigo in Spain and "one of the best leagues in the world". It didn't work out. "It was like going from heaven to hell," he says of his time in Galicia, where he clashed with his manager over his frequent sorties to play for South Africa. "The whole pattern was killing my career, that's why I quit international football. African football needs the same calendar as Europe otherwise its best players are going to suffer," he adds.

McCarthy was loaned to Porto in 2002, scoring 12 goals in 10 games. Middlesbrough, Manchester City and Aston Villa all showed interest, but it was Porto who eventually paid £2.5m for his services after selling Helder Postiga to Tottenham last summer. This season started well for him and his tricky Brazilian strike partner Derlei, but Derlei is injured and Porto are currently more reliant on McCarthy's goals. "We miss Derlei, but we have great players here," he says.

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