Superstar

Photo by Pete Muller.

Isaac “Shakes” Kungwoane lumbers down 11th avenue, pausing momentarily to light a menthol Cravin A. His thick fingers form a cup around the flame, shielding it from the winds of this bitter South African winter. Horns blare from taxi vans that careen through Alexandra’s frighteningly narrow streets. “Watch these cars,” Shakes warns. “In Alexandra they don’t stop, they just drive through you.” His body, short and squat, begins to shake in a fit of raspy, sardonic laughter. In his wake, throngs of children dribble soccer balls between passing cars, shouting and teasing one another in Zulu language. “This is what we did as kids in Alex [andra],” says the 40-year-old. “Everyone played soccer. In the street, in the stadium, everywhere.”

Unlike many in this impoverished, crime-infested township, Shakes rode his talent to higher levels. “I was fortunate that I was talented enough to play professional football,” he says inside a small shop where he worked as a boy. He leans against metal bars that form a cage around the clerks, a common feature of businesses in greater Johannesburg. “When I was growing up you either worked, committed crimes or played sports,” he says. With his mind set on the latter, a mix of talent and determination earned him a sixteen-year professional career. During his years on top, he suited up for an array of prominent South African teams including the famous Kaizer Chiefs of Johannesburg. The large number of people who greet him on the street illustrates the scope of his notoriety. “Playing in front of crowds of 70 or 80 thousand was an amazing experience,” he says with a nostalgic smile. “I used to love it when the crowd would yell, ‘SSSSHHHHAAAAAKKKKEEES!’”

While professional soccer delivered Shakes from the hazards of Alexandra, its related lifestyle had an intoxicating effect. “What we did then was look flashy, buy nice cars, get all the women you want, and drink… We thought we were better than everyone else,” he explains. While he recalls those days with evident nostalgia, his tone is tempered by regretful hindsight. “After football there is nothing you can do because you relied on it…no one taught us life skills like saving money,” he says. While his own sensibility allowed him to remain financially afloat in retirement, many of his former teammates were not so lucky. “Guys that I know that were super stars, better than me, are struggling to make ends meet,” he says. “It’s so sad. 70 or 80 thousand people watch you every week and when you retire, you die as a pauper.”

While Shakes hung up his jersey in 2002, he remains involved with professional football as a radio and broadcast analyst. “I just talk a lot and criticize,” he says with a mischievous smile that suits him. “I’m the crazy one on the show and I’m really enjoying myself.”

– Written by Pete Muller

This piece appeared initially in The New York Times.

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