The happy ever after-life of Matthew Booth, the former Bafana Bafana tall guy

“Booooooooth! Booooooooth!” The chant from the stands, misinterpreted by the uninitiated as a long, drawn-out boo, made Matthew Booth famous during his appearances as the lanky defender for Bafana Bafana, the South African national football squad.

While he never got to play during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, he was a firm crowd favourite, with an international career that included 37 caps and a stint at the 2000 Olympics.

But football, as the old saying goes, is a game of two halves, and now that his professional playing days are over, what’s been happening in the second half of Matthew’s career?

As he tells Ruda in this candid and revealing interview, he’s been busying himself with training, youth development, running a charitable trust, studying for a degree in political science, and writing a book about what he calls the “after-life” of footballers, 75% of whom “will either be divorced, bankrupt, drug or alcohol-dependent or a mixture of all of those” after retiring from the game.

At 41, Matthew is proof that professional athletes can have happy, rewarding, and fulfilling after-lives, not just by capitalising on their heard-earned expertise, but by expanding their horizons and enjoying quality times with their families.

On and off the field, it’s all about keeping your eye on the ball, and learning to adapt to the fast-changing game. 

Hello and a very warm welcome to another session of the Change Exchange. My guest today, Matthew Booth, most of you will know from his football playing days, but uh, that’s a bit in the past now. So, we’ll have to talk about what’s happening. Welcome, very glad to have you.

Thank you for having me.

Tell me about the beginning because for the white middle-class kid, to start playing football, which is in South Africa, very much a black sport, at the age of five, how did that happen?

I think, a lot of people think that, but I have a different view. My experience tells me that especially at junior level, football is multiracial.

And becoming more so?

Yes. Well, I certainly hope so, but what I have found is that it’s very much a class issue where your middle-class to upper-class kids, no matter what colour they are, tend to fall by the wayside when they get to 16, 17 years old. And we’re losing a lot of kids that way, of all different hues. And the ones that are left are the ones that are more hungrier and have less options available to them. So, your middle-class, upper-class people will get distracted a lot easier by other things. And that’s a global thing.

Interesting.

A lot of scouts who look for talent, won’t bother going to the suburbs. They’ll go to your ghettos or here in South Africa, your locations to find talent.

But you, yourself, tell me about your background? Your father was an administrator of the official football club, which must have been quite extraordinary in the seventies.

Yeah, he was chairman for a long time there. He worked for the City of Cape Town for over 40 years. He’s been married to my mother for that time as well. So yeah, definitely from a generation which is not the norm nowadays. But he gave a lot to the local area, Fish Hoek Valley and you know, during the late eighties, the club started accepting kids from all different backgrounds and that got him into trouble a bit. But football historically, even in the … I can remember in 1969, they attempted a friendly between Highlands Park and Orlando Pirates in Mbabane, Swaziland.

Because it was against the law in South Africa.

So football, I’ve always been quite proud of that in fact. I think in 1972 they attempted the first multiracial professional league. So, the football industry has always been quite progressive.

And you were never tempted into the traditional cricket and rugby that your schoolmates would have been playing.

Yeah, I was. We were kind of forced to play rugby and cricket, but I’m not myself in particular because I love both those sports. I played as a lock in the beginning. And then I think they realised that I could actually kick the ball and they changed me to flyhalf, and I still miss my cricket the most obviously. Well, I played first team cricket at school and a bit of club cricket and it’s something that I would have to start again on a social level and I love watching it as well.

So, what drew you towards football as a focus?

I was probably better at it than rugby and cricket, so …

That always makes a difference.

It does. I went to a government school and I just, kind of got the feeling as well that I needed to be perhaps at a private school to progress in cricket or rugby. Hopefully, that has changed of late, but I think it’s the economics of the situation that draws the talent to the best schools, which was quite normal. But yeah, definitely football was my first love and quite early on, just before matric, I got scouted. So, that gave me the sort of impetus and momentum, and realisation that I could make a career out of this.

Can you remember that … what’s the word? Understanding that this could be more than just a pastime. That this can actually be my profession?

There probably wasn’t a moment. It developed over a number of years, and I’m not that emotional. I’m not that deep of a thinker. And I think probably some of the best sportsmen are not that imaginative, you know.

So, one thing leads to another.

So we don’t, we don’t think too much about processes or choices really. And for me I must say that l was fortunate that I did have this opportunity, because for the life of me, after school, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had an interest in anthropology and history but other than that, I was pretty clueless.

How did your parents respond when you said you were going to play professionally?

It was a dialogue between them. I have always confided in them, I still do, in my choices. I believe that the more sort of sage advice you get from your elders, the better your choice will be. So certainly, I confided in them both of them being sportsmen. My mom still plays tennis. My dad only retired from playing social football a couple of years ago. They were, first of all, very happy for me, a little bit worried at first about my matric year because I had to travel a lot on the train with my books, studying, to get to the northern suburbs of Cape Town, to train with the Cape Town Spurs. So, they were a little bit concerned in that regard. But they were all for it.

How did you experience the completely different social environment that it took you into? Because it must have been. I mean this was what, late-eighties? Early-nineties?

Yeah. Ninety-four. Ninety-five.

And South African society was even more segregated than it is now. And you were really crossing a divide.

I didn’t really feel that speed bump.

So, it was about the sport and that united you and that took you through?

It was about the sport and I think from a very young age it assimilated me into going to Gugulethu as a 12-year-old to play football, going into Langa, spending the weekend with my mate in Manenberg and experiencing what it was like. And that’s just like travel and experiencing new cultures and, being open minded and not fearful leads to your mind broadening and you becoming more intelligent about South African society. A lot of people have, you know, they create this bubble for themselves whether it’s a by their own design or not. And I feel that’s always kind of an unhealthy situation when it comes to viewing your opinions.

So, people who surround themselves with people who are like themselves and you’ve been privileged I think, to not ever lived like that.

A privilege, I would definitely say so. I’m eternally grateful for the sport for doing that for me. So yeah, it’s a choice that you make. I wish more people would take to it, for example, you could take it on a broader perspective in the United States or Russia which are two very big countries. Not many people back in the day used to travel a lot, and certainly when I spent time in Russia, I experienced that same kind of ignorance because of the lack of travel. It is changing now, but certainly there is a generation which has not experienced the rest of the world.

Horizons are very close. You started playing professionally, I think when you were 19 and the next year it was the Olympics. Was that a big thing?

Absolutely. That was one of my Change Moments. I think it was a really long journey for us. It was one of the few projects that SAFA, our mother body actually signed off on and stuck to, with the help of corporate as well. They, they kept us together, the core of the team together, and they actually had a vision over a period of six years. They kept the same coach. The core of the team stayed the same and we had a small glimmer of success, and they haven’t yet replicated that again, which is quite sad. So, from a sports development point of view, from a youth development point of view, that needs to be replicated again, because we had a great team. A lot of good players came out of that team and the journey was, was an incredible even more so than the actual tournament itself, and for footballers to be able to have Olympian on your CV, it’s quite something. Because for the men, you probably only get one opportunity because it’s an under-23 tournament. So, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, just to make it was unbelievable.

And the 2010 World Cup, how did you experience that?

Yeah, that was again unbelievable too. I think the tournament, before, the Confederations Cup in 2009, was when we had a lot of foreign journalists come descend on us. And I think that was probably one of my best tournaments in my career. And I got to generate a lot of interest out of that. A lot of the journalists realised that the fans were, were not booing me, they were saying my name.

They were saying your name.

Which is a tradition amongst football fans. So that took a lot of explaining and that created a bit of interest, and the fact that I was the only white player in the team was a little bit embarrassing, a little bit uncomfortable for me. Because it just so happened that in that time, I happened to be the only white player in the team. But if you look at the history of our Bafana Bafana team, it’s always been quite representative of our demographics. And in 2010, to be part of that squad or to be part of a World Cup, is unbelievable. To be part of the World Cup that’s been hosted by your nation. It’s just quite something.

We all experienced that kind of amazing high and we were completely out on the fringes. Must have been amazing to be at the heart of it.

Yeah. A lot of people are still suffering from withdrawal symptoms. The image that’s always stayed back with me was going on an open top bus around Sandton. I think it was estimated to be about 200, 250 000 people out on the streets, wishing us well. We took a bit of criticism for that because people thought that we were celebrating, you know, before the tournament even started. But I think it was important for the players themselves to realise how important it was to the nation. Uh, and that was, that was a real eye opener. And then for the six months prior to that, we’d been isolated as a team. We had gone to travel to Brazil for a month. We had gone to Germany for a month. We had camped inside South Africa, away from the public eye. So, for five or six months we missed our families and we didn’t actually realise what was going on, back here in South Africa. So, I felt at that moment going on that bus was extremely important for the players to realise what it meant.

The support that they had. Then just four years later, you decided to retire. You could have renewed your contract, but you decided not to. Why?

Yeah. Shortly after, I think it was a year or two later, I suffered a really, really serious injury. And I had a bit of disappointment in my club at the time. Sundowns didn’t renew my contract or offer to rehabilitate my injury. And that made me a little bit, quite furious actually at the way that they treated me at the time. After I had given them good service and it drove me to get better and stronger and I followed my rehab to the T, spent more money on it and made sure that I got back fitter and stronger. I then spent two years in Cape Town, at Ajax Cape Town, and one year at Wits University, which was my last season. And it was almost a process of wanting to prove something to them, that I still had what it took. I’ve always been a competitor and I’ve always hated losing. Even from when I was a small kid, I used to play chess or playing my sisters and I used to take my ball home with me, if things didn’t go my way and I think that’s an important aspect of any professional athlete, to have that fine balance between competitiveness and arrogance. And I then after the one season at Wits, you know, after waking up in the morning and continually with aches and pains, having with my family go through the journeys and the whole process of being a partner to an athlete, I decided to call it quits – while I still had a pretty decent reputation because you can lose it very quickly and people have very short memories. So, it was a mixture of those elements.

Going out while at the top. But how does one do that? The transition from being a top athlete and in the nation’s hearts and then suddenly you just an ordinary, the next guy on the street. Emotionally, it must be incredibly difficult.

It is. It’s done with great difficulty. A lot of my ex colleagues suffer because of it. We are not prepared for it physically, psychologically, emotionally, financially. Nobody prepares you for it. And it’s about time that we as athletes start to realise that and learn from our more experienced players and elders and not make the same mistakes. There’s a certain status to being a professional footballer. And a lot of people think that we earn the same as our English counterparts or European counterparts. We kind of try and keep up with the Joneses in that regard and we just can’t afford to.

So, you spend it as you earn it, instead of building up something for, at the end of a career which is tied to your physical condition.

Yeah, I mean, we will do something stupid with our first salary. But for a pro-footballer, you need to, to realise a lot sooner. There’s a point, which we all miss with regards to saving and sticking to a standard of living, that will bind you over into retirement. But it’s a double-edged sword because in South Africa, players earn good money, I mean, at the top, job status can be earning R250 000 to R300 000 a month.

Tjo.

But there’s a wide range. It’s the middle and the lower range, that you’ve got to be careful of because you can get a youngster coming into the pro-ranks who earns R5 000 and the clubs are generally run by businessmen, who are only interested in you as a commodity and as an asset as a player. Once you don’t have any value for them anymore, they really don’t care about you, which is all good and well.

There’s no pension scheme?

No, you have to do that yourself. The players’ union is trying their best but they need complete buy-in from the league, which I don’t think they’ve got really. But I still feel positive about our industry. I think the players are starting to wise up. Players are starting to read more. They’re becoming educated. And once the talk in the changing room, changes from the latest car or what girlfriend do you have, rather to what I’m studying or the meeting that I had with my financial advisor. Once all of that becomes involved, that mentality will definitely change it.

So, may I ask how you handled it. Did you start saving soon enough?

I did. I think the best thing that I did was 10 to 15 years ago, wait… let me think. I think it was 12 years ago. I sat down with my wife and our financial advisor. And a lot of players don’t even realise, that when you bank with an institution, they often give you free financial advice. And I think there’s a trust issue with sitting down with a stranger who’s in a suit and handing over your money. But that was the best thing that I did just so that we could get a clear, ideal view of what we could and couldn’t do.

What the future might look like, if you did this now, rather than that.

Yeah. And the psychological pressure, the relief. The pressure was just lifted off our shoulders. It was just like, you now know yourself more. These things are more clear. So that’s something that I would recommend for any professional athlete, anyone in the entertainment industry, because it’s a very fickle industry.

But most people retire and they only have to find something to keep them busy for the last bit, of their working lives. But a sportsman like yourself, you retired young and there’s a whole other life, ahead of you. So, what do you, what are you planning? What are you doing?

I think as soon as soon as you sign your first professional contract, you must be planning for what I call, the after-life. There’s an old cliché, of a coach coming off the field and saying it was a game of two halves. One half was positive, one half was negative. It didn’t go our way in the second half. And you can, you can compare that to a footballer’s as a journey as well. You have all the glory and the physique, fitness, the money, the girls, the cars and all of a sudden, that’s cut off. Now you have to deal with journalists, not phoning you. You’re bum is getting soft because you don’t have that fitness regime, you know, or that team element to get you training. Your partner’s looking at you differently, you know. The stats actually quite frightening in Europe and in Europe and in South Africa. Seventy-five percent of ex-footballers, five years from when they retire will be either be divorced, bankrupt, drug or alcohol dependent or a mixture of all of those. So I don’t think people should underestimate that point, when they do have to retire. In football, if you retire in your early thirties to mid-thirties, you have done well for yourself.

So, what are you keeping yourself busy with? What are you focusing on?

I didn’t have an opportunity to study after school. It’s something that I really missed out on. I would have loved to have gone to a UCT or Stellenbosch and experienced that kind of a ‘Res atmosphere’. But because of the traveling at that time, we were traveling around the world with the under-20s and under-23s. Especially on the continent. So, imagine a hotel room in Togo, with the teammates, you know, there was just no way I could study and be disciplined enough to do it. I’m also a procrastinator. So, after I retired, I finally decided to study. I am doing a political science degree through UNISA and I’m also on a couple of panels, the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport, as an ex-athlete. I’m on the panel also, the Premier Soccer League’s disciplinary committee. We need to get more footballers on those kinds of panels, especially on the dispute resolution chamber. I’m the only ex-player to represent on that particular rotational panel. I’m also in the artificial grass industry. I’m writing a book and I’ve got two young boys to look after as well.

So, what’s the book about?

It’s about the topic that we’ve just discussed with regards to players falling on hard times. I’ve interviewed 17 personalities from around the world and locally, and half of their chapter, is about the funny anecdotes and then, their other half, is about life lessons and hard lessons they have learnt.

Serious stuff. And you’re also involved in clinics for schools?

Yeah. My wife and I started the Booth Education and Sports Trust in 2009. It was kind of viewed as our give back. The industry has given me the life that I live now. So, as cliché as it might sound, you have to give back, you know, it’s obligatory to say thank you. So, half of the Trust is about football clinics. So, what we do is get ex-professionals to come and help out with kids, whether they’d be at private schools, government schools, or local communities. And then the other half is book clubs. Both my wife and I are avid readers and we’ve made sure both our boys are also. And I think it’s a pastime, which is really lacking in our society today. I think it’s 5 000 books, is a bestseller?

Yeah. 5 000. And only 1% of the population buy books for personal consumption.

My wife jokes about the safest place to keep money these days is inside of books.

Tell me about her. Sonia. How did you meet? How did you decide she was the one?

Yeah, bless her. She’s been through quite a lot. We met in 2000, after the Olympics.

So, you were barely 20?

Yeah. Fresh right up from Cape Town to the big city. And one of my teammates, who’s from Cameroon, had a young daughter from Paris, who was visiting him, and we were actually making a trip out on the continent and he needed a babysitter. So, he asked a friend of his and my wife to look after the child, and when we returned from a trip and that’s when we went out.

Okay, so we know she’s beautiful but what caught your heart, after that?

Well, at the time she was a model and she didn’t strike me as a typical model, all full of herself. So, that impressed me. And she wasn’t a football fan, which was, and this might sound a bit odd, but it was a positive.

Why?

Well, I didn’t really want her knowing, who I was or what I did. Might sound a bit strange, but I think, you know, as a professional sportsman, with retirement in mind, it’s quite important to try and meet your partner before you’ve made it.

That makes sense. So that she doesn’t buy into the personality or persona.

Exactly. But rather for who you are. A lot of the times that I mentioned the divorce rate and that, that’s used often because of financial issues, once they’ve retired. But yeah, so that was what struck me about her, besides the fact that she was a very attractive, somewhat athletic looking, which was always a good thing for me. So yeah, there were a number of other reasons.

What makes it work? It’s what? Almost 20 years later?

A work in progress – constant. I think a dialogue; communication is always a good thing. Never going to bed angry with one another , it’s something that we haven’t always gotten right all the time, but that’s something that we always talk about, that we have to do. I think having two young boys, who keep us distracted at times as well also helps, so that we don’t crowd one another with the small stuff too much.

Because you don’t have time.

Yeah. But certainly, in the early days we got on very well or right from the word go. So, it was just, you know, there’s a certain energy when you meet somebody and that it happened.

It was a long-distance relationship often. And among other things, you lived in Russia for quite a while. How did you keep it going and also what was the Russian experience like for you?

Yeah, at different stages of my career, I’d attempted to go to more established leagues, for example, England or Spain and for various reasons it hadn’t worked out. So, when I got the Russian opportunity, I took it because I knew that time was running out. In 2002, I went to Rostov and at that stage, my wife was just finishing her degree, which was another reason why I wanted to get my degree. I was tired of losing arguments. So, she was finishing her degree and pregnant, so you can imagine with me going to Russia for the first three months by myself. At that period, with my wife being pregnant and finishing off her degree – she wrote her last exam with her stomach like that. That was probably our most testing time in our relationship. Long distance is very tough, and then as soon as she finished, she came over to stay with me. So, you can imagine a woman from Soweto staying in Russia, in the South of Russia, and she used to stick out like sore thumb. In fact, even myself, I would walk around, and I would have this beard and wear a certain design of clothes and people would instantly recognise me as being foreign. It’s at that stage Russia was still quite, what’s the word? Insular. It has changed quite dramatically of late, but at that stage, there was a very clear generation of really disgruntled, a depressed people and then there was your MTV generation of younger, more hip kids. And we stayed in two provincial towns, so that kind of element almost heightened or exaggerated. In fact, Samara, where we stayed for four years was, even during communist times, the closest city because that’s where they’re manufactured all their rockets and military hardware. So, for years and Samara was certainly an eye opener for the two of us.

And how did she do it? She must have been incredibly lonely.

She made friends quite easily. She attempted to learn the language, which always endears yourself to the populace, you know, especially when as a footballer, you are earning money from indirectly from the fans, from the people. It’s very important to make an effort to learn their cultures, to learn the superstitions.

You speak Russian now?

Yeah. I was fluent when I left in 2008. I’m hardly a linguist, but I was pretty fluent.

Four years of total immersion must have done that.

My first two years I had a translator, which was a mistake. And then the next four years, I made a concerted effort to learn the language. I’ve lost a lot of it now because we don’t have such a big Russian community here in South Africa.

And tell me about your boys. Can you remember the first time you held Nathan, your eldest? A moment for a parent, for any parent?

You know, it’s funny because television,  you see these kids on the adverts, all chubby and thick set and well-built. When I first saw my kid, I thought he was sick because he was so thin and fragile. And I missed the birth because I was in Russia and he came early. He came two weeks early. So, when he arrived at the airport, I looked inside the car chair and I just couldn’t believe how small he was. But my wife assured me, that he was fine and of course they grow very quickly. He’s now 13 years old. He’s, you know, he’s almost as tall as me, so I can’t beat him anymore. I’m going to have to look up to him soon.

And how have they changed you, do you think?

Dramatically. Getting married is a Change Moment, for sure, but having your first child changes your interests and your selfishness has to be put aside. It’s all about your kids. And that is, I’ve heard people say that a lot and it certainly is true. The dynamic changes without a doubt. Myself and my wife used to go out and have a party or go to dinner when we wanted, you know, we were pretty carefree. That all comes to an end. Financially as well, in addition to being a professional athlete, where your time is quite short, that also has an impact on what you can and cannot spend. What holidays you can go on. but the whole process has been magical, watching my two boys generate and keep characteristics, which my dad taught me, is great to see.

What do you want to teach them? What’s the most important thing you want them to take into life?

I think there can be no vague areas of what is right and what is wrong, when it comes to treating people well. I think, when they were quite young, I used to have to smack them, which is what my dad and mom did to me. But the first thing that you do when they do something well is, is put your arm around them and give them a kiss and hug. My mum and my dad always insisted that when you wake up in the morning and when they go to bed at night, we always have a hug and a kiss, you know, and that’s something that I have done with them. And I’ve found that even at this age, they know exactly what is right and what is wrong. And if they do try and go over the boundaries, it just takes a look and there’s that kind of fearful respect that crosses their eyes and they know. So yeah, so far I think we are getting it right, but you know, you can only just cross your fingers and hope, especially in this modern age that we’re living in.

And you lived in other places in Russia, in Spain, in England. Did you ever consider moving permanently?

Uh, no, no. We used those ventures as a source to generate income and generate an education and generate memories, as anybody would do going on holiday. But South Africa has always been our place of residence or our plan has always been to just stay here. Until I die, we’ve got no reason to move. My wife is from Soweto. I’m from Cape Town in the south. We love this country. We’ve still got a little of traveling to do within the country, you know, there’s so many provinces, which are underestimated, and that people don’t visit enough of. And that’s what we plan on doing in the next upcoming years.

In which area have you chosen to live in?

Well, we were quite happy, up in Johannesburg for the time being. My wife wants to do what she wants to do, and it happens to be up in Johannesburg. We do have plans to perhaps move down to Cape Town once our boys are out of school. But you know, things change all the time. We’re very happy. We’re in a happy place. And yeah, hopefully it stays that way.

Thank you so much and long may that last.

Let’s hope so.

Thank you for being with us.

It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Ruda.

And until the next time, goodbye.

  • This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.