Ferguson's retirement felt in Africa

Posted by Firdose Moonda

John Peters/Man Utd/Getty ImagesSouth African officials with Rio Ferdinand and Sir Alex Ferguson at a 2012 press conference to promote Manchester United's visit to Africa, one of several in the Ferguson era.

Alex Ferguson's 26 years in charge of Manchester United is longer than the average African has been alive. The continent's median age is a youthful 18, which means for a significant number of people here Ferguson is the only Manchester United coach they have known.

That may explain why, in addition to the obvious attention around his legend, his retirement is being felt personally on the continent even though Ferguson did not leave too much of a mark in Africa. In fact, one of the criticisms he continually received is he did not secure the services of enough players from Africa during his time in charge.

-FERGUSON STEPPING DOWN
-Marcotti -- Brewin -- Timeline -- Who follows?


Several newspapers, including Nigeria’s Sunday News, have run stories about the lack of African players at Manchester United. They tend to reappear whenever Ferguson mentioned a footballer from the continent.

One example was when he expressed regret at not being able to sign Ghana’s Michael Essien, who had trials at United as a 17-year-old but ran into problems securing a work permit, and later went on to star for Chelsea. Another was one who also crossed over from red to blue. John-Obi Mikel who moved to Stamford Bridge for what Ferguson speculated was more money than Manchester United had offered him. He said Mikel could have become a “more refined player with my club.”

His interest in African footballers was seldom reflected in his squad but Ferguson strongly brushed off talk that he was not interested in African talent. “I have nothing against African players. We need footballers and I don’t care where they come from. If they have the quality, we will take them," he said at the Aspire4Sport Conference in Doha in 2010.

He cited Cameroon's Eric Djemba-Djemba and South Africa’s Quinton Fortune as two players Manchester United had on their books. His relationship with the latter extended to helping him keep fit to obtain coaching qualifications by allowing Fortune to train with United reserves while on the program.

Of all the countries on the continent, Ferguson has probably had the most to do with South Africa. His best friend, former Scotland international John Grant, lives in the coastal city of East London and Ferguson owns 10 percent of South African iced tea company BOS.

Manchester United made several preseason tours there and played regularly in the Vodacom Challenge against the likes of Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. On their most recent visit, in 2012, Ferguson sang Happy Birthday to former president Nelson Mandela.

But, his most eventful tour to the country happened 10 years before when he traveled to visit some football academies. One evening, he went to a jazz club in Cape Town for after-dinner drinks. The mornings that followed, his reputation was threatened in the worst possible way.

A 21-year old woman, from whom Ferguson accepted an offer of a lift back to his hotel, accused him of repeatedly touching her inappropriately while she drive and propositioning her when they reached the hotel. She wanted authorities to get involved.

The immediate reaction was of shock and disgust that a distinguished visitor allegedly had taken advantage of a local citizen. Once the hype passed, though, it began to look more and more like a setup.

The woman and her boyfriend had reportedly received 75,000 pounds to sell their story to the Daily Mail. It was a tale riddled with inconsistencies. South African law enforcement officials came to the conclusion that there was no basis to press charges against Ferguson and, after three days, he was cleared to return home.

Ferguson could probably have taken action against the couple but chose not to. Instead, what he offered was a simple statement, recounting his version of events and stating, not pleading, his innocence.

“Individuals in high-profile positions always run the risk of being targeted in this way,” it read. “I believe the British people will make their own judgment.” And that was that.

ESPN Conversations