Ted Dumitru, the Romanian-born coach who had a successful career in South Africa, collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack on Thursday at Eastgate Shopping Centre in Johannesburg.
“Throughout our conversations over the years,” recalls Zola Doda in a touching tribute published on Kick Off magazine’s website, “Ted didn’t talk a lot about his country of birth, Romania, which came across as strange to me in the beginning. All he spoke about was South Africa and the African continent as a whole—but over a period time I learned to understand how much he really loved this country and this continent.”
Having coached briefly in the U.S., where he acquired citizenship, Dumitru took the helm of Zambia’s national team in 1981 and later that of Swaziland. He arrived in apartheid South Africa to coach Kaizer Chiefs in 1986, a time of mass protests and army troops deployed in the black townships. Dumitru went on to win four league titles, with Sundowns (1997-98 and 1998-99) and Chiefs (2003-04 and 2004-05), and also had a brief stint as national team coach.
Beyond his clubs’ successes, Dumitru had a major impact on South African coaching education and on youth development. I saw this personally and tracked it over two decades in South Africa and from overseas.
I first met Ted Dumitru in 1995. A friend I had met on the soccer pitch at Wits University took me to the South African Football Association’s first coaching certification course held at the School of Excellence. I was introduced to Dumitru, then the Director of Coaching at SAFA, who was dressed in his typical sweatsuit-and-baseball cap attire. As soon as he learned of my work on the history of football in South Africa, he asked me to return the following morning and give a formal presentation to the coaches. Dumitru believed a country needed to know its football history in order to develop its national identity.
The next day I faced an engaged audience that included Patrick Pule “Ace” Ntsoelengoe, Cedric “Sugar Ray” Xulu, Neil Tovey and many other legendary figures in the South African game. If that context wasn’t intimidating enough, I was also scheduled to follow the charismatic Clive Barker, then-national team coach who, a few months later, would lead Bafana Bafana to their first (and still only) African Nations Cup title.
Dumitru introduced me in a graciously professional and courteous way, which made me feel less intimidated by the moment and helped set the tone for what turned out to be a constructive session and dialogue among the participants.
During that visit, I learned of Dumitru’s background in Romania in the late 1960s and 1970s. I listened to him discuss the emergence of “scientific football” as popularized by Valeriy Lobanowski, the legendary coach of Dynamo Kiev and the USSR. At the time, it was a pioneering approach. It brought together empirical data, computer technology, Soviet collectivist ideology, and Dutch total football. It transformed the way Dumitru conceived, organized, and managed football teams. As Jonathan Wilson succinctly puts it, “football was less about individuals than about coalitions and the connections between them.”
To his credit, Dumitru’s experiences in southern Africa altered his football philosophy and practice to reflect local conditions. Dumitru passionately believed in the technical proficiency, dynamism, and creativity of local players. He spent much of the latter part of his career teaching both young boys and adult coaches how to draw on these strengths while combining them with aspects of scientific football. In the words of Mark Gleeson, Dumitru became “an outspoken proponent of the establishment of a so-called ‘ South African style of play’ with heavy emphasis on individual flair.”
This emphasis was clearly demonstrated before my eyes again in 2010—a magical year for South Africa as it successfully hosted the first World Cup played on African soil. Dumitru came to Pietermaritzburg to help train local coaches and in the process supervised a training session at the Izichwe Youth Football program, where I was involved. His principles were put into action, as he encouraged each and every player to think about space, quick decision-making, smart passing, confidence in dribbling, relationship with teammates, and to be unafraid of expressing joy on the pitch. When one boy scored a mesmerizing goal but did not celebrate, Dumitru encouraged him to do so: “Soccer is supposed to be fun!” he exclaimed.
Dumitru, of course, had his shortcomings. According to Gleeson, he was perceived by many as “dogmatic” and few can forget his public statement that South Africa’s first-round exit from the 2006 African Nations Cup was partly due to the fact that “my players don’t know how to play in the rain.”
Even so, Dumitru should be remembered as an innovative coach who left an important legacy in South Africa. He introduced new ideas from eastern Europe at a time when the country was isolated from international football and when South African coaching was dominated by English-speaking whites. Dumitru stands out as a rare white coach who genuinely believed in decolonizing South African football. To the end, he practiced what he preached. At the time of his passing, Dumitru was in town to give a speech at the South African Football Coaches’ Association Youth Coaching Seminar at Johannesburg Stadium.
Africa is a Country‘s film division is working on an intriguing fútbol project that I just supported on Kickstarter.
What’s it about? Africa’s Premier League is a film that follows four fans—in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and DR Congo—as they live through the highs and lows of a football season as a way to explore popular enthusiasm for “English football” in Africa. The project will also include a web series and a TV series.
“We want to show, in depth and detail, exactly how English football fits into the ordinary lives of African supporters,” say the producers. “Our film will tell the story of Africa’s passion for the English Premier League, through the eyes of the fans themselves.”
Act quickly to help with post-production! Click here to make your Kickstarter donation.
We don’t just watch sports – we speak and hear sports. To find out how language shapes our lives as fans, we asked some of our writers to tell us about the ways that people talk sports in English and their native languages. Kay Schiller hails from Munich, fellow historian Peter Alegi grew up in Rome, media scholar Markus Stauff lives in the Netherlands, and sociologist Pablo Alabarces teaches at the University of Buenos Aires. Together, they offer a Rosetta Stone of sports talk.
You’ve all lived for a time in English-speaking countries. Did anything in particular strike you – say, the first times you went to a stadium or watched a match on television – about the ways that native speakers of English talk about their sports?
Kay Schiller: I have lived in the UK since 1997. One of the things that struck me as a non-native speaker when going to see Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool, ManU, or, more recently, Blackburn Rovers was that I had a tremendously hard time understanding the terrace chants, despite being quite fluent in English. I suppose that this is similar to what English fans experience when they attend a Bundesliga match.
Thankfully, there are now websites that explain what you hear in the stadium. You can learn that Blackburn Rovers fans at Ewood Park have several profane chants for Burnley, such as “Burnley are s**t s**t s**t , they always gonna be s**t.” One major difference with Germany is that while this kind of folklore can be found in the supporters’ curves of stadia, you wouldn’t hear otherwise respectable-looking people participating in chants like these – or middle-aged ladies calling the referee a c***.
I’m not sure what this suggests about the different football cultures of England and Germany, or culture more generally, but I find it worthy of note. Perhaps it’s reassuring that even with all-seater stadia and the continuous jacking-up of gate prices in English football, some things do not change.
Peter Alegi: At venerable Fenway Park in Boston, sitting in the bleachers with my dad (obstinately wearing a Yankees cap), the usual chant we heard was: “Yankees suck!” At New Haven Coliseum, where my older brother and I followed minor league ice hockey, it was: “Shoot the puck!” At basketball and American football games, giant electronic scoreboards demanded chants of “Deeeeee-fe-nse!”
This was a world away from the Italian football stadiums and basketball arenas I grew up with.
What first struck me in the U.S. was a lack of spontaneity in the language of fans at the grounds. The PA announcer, the scoreboard, and recorded music directed the orality of the crowd. Maybe this was because of the corporate nature of American sports, with its top-down manufactured stadium experience that transforms fans into consumers. It’s also hard to chant and sing when spending so much time, money, and energy eating and drinking during games. In any case, the second thing that hit me about the U.S. context was the lack of creativity in the language. Much of the spoken word among fans, chants and commentary alike, seemed very direct and not terribly imaginative, a bit like the English language!
In Italy, our oral culture at the stadium was far more creative. I remember sitting in the stands listening to self-appointed bards who would rise to recite absorbing monologues in the vernacular (dialects are hugely important and richly diverse in Italy). These men (rarely were they women) explained the causes of our striker’s inexplicable impotence or the reasons for the referee’s situational ethics. The language was often metaphorical, indirect. The best insults were the ones delivered with a perfect balance of grit, humor, and linguistic dexterity. Even my intellectual Roman mother, with a PhD in Italian literature, relished such vulgar poetic performances (“vulgus” in Latin means ordinary people, after all). This creative genius came through in the songs we sang. Fans developed an art of crafting lyrics and combining them with a dizzying range of musical sources: classical (Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” was a favorite); operatic (Verdi, of course); patriotic compositions (“La Marseillaise”); marches (John Philip Sousa!); folk/traditional (“La Società dei Magnaccioni,” “O Sole Mio,” and “Auld Lang Syne”); partisan resistance (“Bella Ciao”), and loads of pop (from “Yellow Submarine” to Antonello Venditti’s “Roma, Roma, Roma”).
Eventually, I came to appreciate the comfort and safety of U.S. stadiums and arenas. But to this day, their canned and often lifeless aural culture makes me nostalgic of home.
Johan Cruyff, the Dutch football genius, has died of cancer at the age of 68.
When I was 7 or 8 years old, growing up in Rome, my older brother Danny dragged me to a run-down movie theater to watch “Il Profeta del Gol”—a mesmerizing documentary film about Cruyff narrated by the legendary Sandro Ciotti, whose raspy voice (along with that of Enrico Ameri), provided the soundtrack of our every Sunday afternoon.
Watching Cruyff ignited my lifelong love and passion for football. After moving to the United States in the mid-1980s, I wore his number 14 on my high school, club, and college teams.
He seemed both extraordinary and ordinary. His creative use of space, technical excellence, and speed were inseparable from his scrawny physique, tempestuous nature, non-comformist cigarette smoking, and consistent dislike for fitness training. I will go to my grave with Cruyff’s “Impossible Goal” against Atletico Madrid.
Cruyff’s interpretation of football as a competitive art taught me to see alternative ways to play, move, think, and be. Ajax’s “Total Football,” which Cruyff exported to Barcelona, first as a player then as a coach, was so radically different from the way Serie A teams played in the 1970s and early 1980s. “Everyone attacked and everyone defended,” Eduardo Galeano wrote, “deploying and retreating in a vertiginous fan.”
His stunning decision to boycott the Generals’ World Cup in Argentina in 1978, the first I followed religiously on television, endeared the Dutchman to me even more. An anti-fascist superstar who practiced what he preached!
Frits Barend, the Dutch tv commentator whom I met in South Africa in 1998, referred to Cruyff as an “obstinate maestro.”
David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange, arguably the best book written in English about Dutch football and society, described him as “essentially Dutch.” A poem by Toon Hermans, Winner writes, “captures the feeling that there was something sublime about Cruyff”:
En Vincent zag het koren En EInstein het getal En Zeppelin de Zeppelin En Johan zag de bal
(And Vincent saw the corn
And Einstein the number
And Zeppelin the Zeppelin
And Johan saw the ball)
Born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1981, Evra moved to France before he could kick a ball properly. He went on to captain both France and Manchester United. In 2014, Juventus paid a meager transfer fee of £1.5 for the 33-year-old left back. In his first season, Evra contributed to a memorable campaign that saw the bianconeri win the League and Cup double and lose a close Champions League final to Barcelona.
Last Sunday, in an interview after Juve’s 2-0 win away to Atalanta, the Frenchman made some insightful comments about the difference between England’s Premier League and Italy’s Serie A. Evra’s thoughts seemed particularly timely since they came on the heels of widely quoted remarks made by Claudio Ranieri, the Italian manager of Premier League leaders Leicester City.
Ranieri reportedly told the Corriere della Sera that his Leicester players were “afraid of the Italian tactics” and so he quickly decided to “talk very little about tactics” and instead emphasized fitness, hard work, and building trust between members of the squad. Ranieri’s open-minded approach has worked spectacularly well for Leicester, as they are five points clear of Spurs with nine matches left to play.
In the video clip posted here, Evra (speaking in functional Italian) thinks back to his arrival in Turin and what another international star who played with both Manchester United and Juve shared with him. “I remember that [Carlos] Tevez told me: ‘to score a goal here, you need at least 100 chances because they defend so well’.” That is why, Evra says, “even at 34 years of age, I’m learning great things.”
“In England, it’s more of a show. It’s more like two boxers who go at it and then the first guy who gets tired, falls down. But in Italy, it’s more of a game of cesto [unclear what Evra meant here, possibly “chess”]. If you are not tactically good, then you can’t play. Here [in Serie A] you need more intelligence, let’s say, than talent.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether we prefer England’s glamorous Premiership or Italy’s crafty Serie A. That’s a question of personal preference, loyalty, emotion, and memory (or is it nostalgia?). What is more interesting about Evra and Ranieri’s recent interventions is their nuanced understanding of how local forces shape the global game. Without such valuable cultural knowledge, professional frustration and sporting failure can never be too far away.
Bob Vassen’s passing fills me with immense sadness.
A great friend to those of us who had the privilege of knowing him. A courageous South African who fought for the freedom of his country, at home and in exile as a member of Umkhonto weSizwe (The Spear of the Nation). A committed teacher who mentored thousands of students, young and not so young, internationally. An intellectual who was as incisive as he was humble. Consider his masterful editorial work in Ahmed Kathrada’s Letters from Robben Island, published by Michigan State University Press.
And Bobby, as his friends called him, was also a football man. Like his father before him, he had played for one of Johannesburg’s oldest teams: Moonlighters FC, founded by Indian service workers in 1892. Growing up in Fordsburg and Doornfontein, gritty working-class neighborhoods in Johannesburg, “to have a football was to have arrived,” he recalled.
A few years ago, I had the honor of interviewing him about his football life. You can watch the full interview here.
Our heartfelt condolences go out to Ursula and the entire Vassen family. We miss you Uncle Bobby.