Ace: South Africa’s greatest footballer?


Pule “Ace” Ntsoelengoe, who made his mark both in South Africa, for glamour club Kaizer Chiefs, and the United States, was inducted into the US Soccer Hall of Fame in 2003.

This came as no surprise: former South Africa coach Clive Barker puts Ntsoelengoe on a par with Zinedine Zidane, while former Argentinean manager Oscar Martinez once described him as “almost a perfect footballer”.

The star midfielder of many great Kaizer Chiefs teams of the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, Ntsoelengoe is remembered as a gifted player, a midfield general that helped his club win not only consistently, but with style.

However, Ntsoelengoe spent most of his prime football-playing days in North America, although he did return during the off-season to play for Chiefs in South Africa.

Eleven seasons in the US

The midfield maestro played 11 seasons in North America, representing the Miami Torros, Denver Dynamos, Minnesota Kicks and Toronto Blizzard in the North American Soccer League (NASL).

By the time he was done with the NASL, he had certainly left his mark, ranking among the league’s all-time leaders in both appearances and goals scored. He was also voted onto the NASL’s first-team All Star line-up in 1979 and 1982, and earned honourable mentions in 1977, 1978 and 1980.

An interesting statistic was kept by the NASL, in which players were awarded points both for goals scored and for “assists” (setting up goals). Ace ranks seventh on the all-time list, a lasting testament to his all-round performances, showing off not only his individual ability but also his team work.

The NASL season was structured so that, after the regular league season, the top teams would qualify for the playoffs. Ntsoelengoe made the playoffs in nine consecutive seasons, although he never managed to land the NASL title. He reached the final three times, but was on the losing side on all three occasions.

‘On a par with Zidane’

Ntsoelengoe was an awesome presence in the midfield, as Clive Barker – coach of Bafana Bafana when they won the 1996 African Nations Cup – well recalls. Barker, who was coaching Amazulu in 1976, relates how Ntsoelengoe orchestrated the Usuthus’ downfall in a Cup final, leading Kaizer Chiefs to a 3-1 win in the first leg and to a 5-2 victory in the second leg.

Barker reckons that, during the second match, he actually stood up and applauded a goal by Ace after the midfield star made an adjustment in mid-stride and then bent the ball around the advancing goalkeeper.

Barker rates Ntsoelengoe as arguably the best player yet produced by South Africa, putting him on the same level as footballing great Zinedine Zidane, the man who helped France win the 1998 World Cup with a string of sensational performances.

‘Almost a perfect footballer’

In an article on the Mogale City website, Nat Serache relates a story about Ntsoelengoe when, in 1976, he played for a South African team selected on merit against an Argentinean select side.

The South Africans crushed their South American opposition five-nil. After the game, late South African sports writer Stan Motjuwadi asked Argentinean manager Oscar Martinez how he rated South Africa’s players.

He rated Ntsoelengoe as the best. “That boy is a mint”, Martinez said. “He is almost a perfect footballer. He can dribble, he can shoot, he can attack, and he can defend.

“I can tell you why Ace stands head and shoulders above all your players”, the Argentine manager continued. “He is intelligent; he has got great abilit,y and he is strong and courageous. He plays like he has got a machine inside his body. He knows when to dribble and when to shoot.

“What I like about Ace is that he is good in the air, good on the ground and good everywhere you can think of. I cannot remember seeing the ball taken away from him”, Martinez added.

After his playing career was over, Ntsoelengoe was involved with Kaizer Chiefs, making valuable contributions to the club’s youth programme. He also assisted South Africa’s national under-23 team.

Pule “Ace” Ntsoelengoe died suddenly in Johannesburg on 8 May 2006. He was 54 years old.

In October 2008, he was posthumously awarded the Order of Ikhamanga, South Africa’s highest honour for people who excel in arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sport.

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