Comitis: The boss who has seen and done it all in the diski game
Football writer RODNEY REINERS sat down with Cape Town City owner John Comitis to chat on a wide range of issues. elsewhere in the Cape.
So, in naming the new team Cape Town City, Comitis wants to shed that baggage and draw together footballers and supporters of every creed and culture behind the new club.
Top-level player, visionary football administrator, inspirational club boss and industrious businessman, Comitis has seen and done it all. We know you weren’t born in South Africa. Tell us a bit about your background and how you ended up in the Mother City. In 1920, my grandfather emigrated from Greece to Leopoldville, now known as Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. My father’s parents then lived in Mozambique and both my parents went to school in Johannesburg as boarders.
They got married in 1960 and moved back to Kinshasa, where I was born. At the age of 12, I was sent to boarding school in Johannesburg – to St Johns College (he matriculated in 1980). I then attended Wits University and graduated with a BSc in mechanical engineering. I played football for Wits during my varsity years – I received full blue colours at varsity). On my return from two years playing in Europe, I moved to Cape Town to open the first Steers franchise (in Sea Point) with Ari Efstathiou in 1988. I’ve been a proud Capetonian since then. Most people know you as a football administrator, but you played the game at a high level as well. Give us some insight into your playing career. I turned out for the Wits professional team in the NPSL, and played in the BP Top 8 final in 1984. I then had a one season stint with Jomo Cosmos – I remember training three mornings a week individually with the great Jomo Sono in Meadowlands, Soweto, in the height of apartheid era. I went on to play for Korinthos in the Second Division in Greece, playing a cup final against Olympiakos and losing 6-1.
I returned to SA in 1987 and moved to Cape Town to start the Steers franchise in 1988, but kept on playing for Hellenic. I then joined Cape Town Spurs and had a brief spell with Vasco da Gama in my last year as a player. I then purchased Cape Town Spurs with my brother George and the Efstathious, from David Rodwell after he had just won the double in 1995. A successful business career followed. How did you go about achieving that? We had the rights to the Steers/ Debonairs/Blockbuster Video/ Wimpy franchises for the Western Cape and built up the brand to approximately 120 stores before we sold it back to Famous Brands. During that time, we entered into property ownership and we also purchased CT Spurs, which was later to become Ajax Cape Town when Rob Moore invited me to merge Spurs with his Seven Stars. Cape Town Spurs was the first club you purchased in the late 1990s. Why did you decide to venture into football ownership? With our growing Steers empire, and having played at the highest level in SA football, I realised that Spurs and any professional team in SA was always going to be newsworthy and popular. This meant that we could leverage our brands and business profiles through the sport. Spurs did exactly that for the Comitis/Efstathiou families. When we bought the club, it was the beginning of the time when TV rights were being sold to the SABC, which meant we would have the funding to operate the club, unlike in previous years. I called Jomo Sono one evening and asked him what he thought of the possible purchase and his answer was: “You Greeks know how to smell money.” We closed the deal with David Rodwell that same week. You, with Rob Moore, were instrumental in the establishment of Ajax Cape Town. Tell us how this came about. When we bought CT Spurs, Moore’s club, Seven Stars, were still in the Second Division. I then requested Rob to loan me Benni McCarthy, He came onto the scene at Spurs and set the football fraternity alight.
In a short spell of six months, he become the most sought- after player in the league, sinking Kaizer Chiefs in their backyard 2-1, scoring both goals. Rob took Benni to Ajax Amsterdam and transferred him from Seven Stars for a fee that I can tell you will still be high in today’s terms.
Spurs didn’t get any part of that but what I did get was an invite by Rob a few months later to merge our two clubs into one, and get Ajax Amsterdam to buy into the franchise.
At that point, I informed Rob that I could not do this without my brother and the Efstathious, and that they would be sharing my stake in the venture. Ajax Cape Town was born, with Rob and I as joint CEOs. Two years later, Rob sold his shares to us. You would may not want to reveal too much about the feud with the Efstathious (current Ajax owners) that led to you selling your shares. But, in a nutshell, what’s the basis of the dispute? It’s best to let sleeping dogs lie… You are back in the PSL, having bought the franchise of Black Aces and establishing Cape Town City. How tough, and exciting, is it to start a top-flight club from scratch? It has been an incredible challenge, but really rewarding at every turn to see how much support and encouraging messages I have received every step of the way. This has, undoubtedly, been the hardest I have ever worked at a business, primarily because I feel I am carrying the aspirations and hopes of so many players as well as the Cape Town football-loving public. There is no room for error. This is Cape Town City FC – the city’s team. What are the immediate plans for City this season, and what can we expect on the field? We need to sign 10 players to add to the 14 that made the journey from Mpumalanga.
We still need a Cape Town flavour and an international flavour to balance the squad into a football force. We are looking at getting the fans back to football first and foremost, and that will fuel the performance of the team. Having been on the PSL executive committee for a number of years, and closely involved with the inner workings of local football, just how much has the game and its administration improved? We have one of the top leagues in the world. It’s well- funded, organised and with the best TV footage in Africa. We will keep growing… when I started as an exco member in 1998, the league revenue per year was a total of R4 million. You now need to add about eight zeros to that… As an ex-player, you are also a keen student of the game. So what would you say are the main shortcomings of football in SA? Crowd attendances have been an enigma, coupled with the only disappointment I have is that we didn’t capitalise on the 2010 legacy to ensure every PSL club ended up with its own stadium/facilities. We are still gypsies in our own backyard in many respects. How, therefore, can we improve the quality of the game in the country? Academies of excellence in every geographic region with like playing against like. For example, when Hellenic Under13 beat their counterparts 12-0, there is no development or improvement. What do you think has to be done in SA football to get more of our local talent at overseas clubs? It is not for the lack of talent or skill. The problem is that talent alone is not enough – mental strength and physique play major roles in making the complete player today. The development of the two aspects starts at a young age and becomes an integral part of the player’s make-up. Add our diski skills to that, and we could become world-beaters – if we get it right. Who is your all-time favourite footballer in the world? Lionel Messi. If you could change one thing in football, what would it be? Make the referees professionals. Pay them big bucks, give them one-year contracts with an option to renew, decided on by a panel of top football a dministrators. Then watch the results when the Davids take on the Goliaths… Are you glad Sepp Blatter is gone? I’m a bit indifferent. But he delivered for Africa, and we must thank him for that. What is the best goal you’ve scored? When I chipped the goalkeeper from about 40 yards at Hartleyvale for Cape Town Spurs against African Wanderers. What is the best goal you’ve seen scored? Eder of Brazil – when he chipped the ball in full flight to himself, and then hit it on the volley into the top corner. How does the PSL compare with the leagues around the world? We pay our players – every month, every team. You can’t often say the same for Spain/ Greece/Italy and all the Balkan countries, to mention a few. We know Cape Town City are keen to use Cape Town Stadium as a home base. How would you like to see the city get involved to show their support for football? CT City is positioned to capture the hearts of all Capetonian football and sport lovers. The city has a duty to facilitate this and to energise their involvement by reigniting the 2010 fancare attitude and ethos. We have a great shot at filling this stadium and circulating revenue to all sectors of the economy, restaurants, bars, MyCiti bus, taxis, trains and hotels… and, most of all, the city can contribute to true Cape Town pride! Who were your favourite Hellenic and Cape Town Spurs players? George van der Burg (Spurs) and Taswald Human (Hellenic). Tell us a favourite story you’ve heard about Frank Lord (the former Cape Town City coach). He coached Spurs also for a short spell and we travelled to Africa for a Caf Cup match. The players were so dedicated to him that, when he gave instructions, all players always put in their best.
We were having a flush session at the pool of the hotel ... Frank Lord said: “Right, all jump in”… so in they all went, including Patti Lokose, who couldn’t swim. Manny Rodrigues had to pull him out from the bottom of the pool, such was the power of Frank Lord – players would give their lives for him. And a favourite story about Budgie Byrne (former Hellenic coach)? Budgie never had patience for trialists. He protected his squad once he had selected it. Once, there were three foreign trialists waiting to train with the team. They were just kicking the ball around on the Hellenic training field while the squad was in the changingroom. During the time, Budgie walked from his car to the change- room, he called the three lads and said: “Right, guys… I’ve seen enough, thank you, you can go.” It was difficult to get in with Budgie but, once you were in, he believed and protected his players . Who do you think were the three best players at Euro 2016? Pepe, Antoine Griezmann and Gareth Bale. Tell us something about yourself that few people know about. My favourite TV documentaries are about wildlife… In your opinion, who is best young South African player around at the moment? Duncan Adonis. Watch for him in Cape Town City colours this season. Tell us the last dish you would like to eat before you move on to the next life. Moambe – a Congolese dish made from African palm tree oil. Rihanna or Beyonce, and why? Beyonce… size. Can the Stormers win Super Rugby? Let’s hope so…
JOHN COMITIS: Would offer referees ‘big bucks’ and one-year deals, then watch the results when the Davids take on the Goliaths.