It was at the 1998 African Cup of Nations that Benni McCarthy grabbed the attention of the football world with his stunning pace, precision finishing and the face-splitting grin which greeted each of his seven goals.
The South African's career trajectory appeared to be shaping him for mega-stardom, particularly after winning the Dutch championship and two Dutch Cups with AFC Ajax during his 1997-99 spell in Amsterdam. But now, with the 2004 Cup of Nations looming in January, McCarthy's focus is on establishing himself in José Mourinho's FC Porto side and ensuring that he plays his part in what he expects to be a 'dark horse' run to the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League by the UEFA Cup holders.
"I think that if people look at the teams in the Champions League then almost everyone will say it is impossible for us to play in the final," McCarthy told uefa.com. "But the same people said that never in 100 years could Bayer  Leverkusen make it to the final and they almost won."
McCarthy's Porto are well placed in Group F after consecutive victories over Olympique de Marseille - but their stated aim is to pip Real Madrid CF to top spot. "It is crucial that we beat [FK] Partizan in our next game, then we can go to Madrid with only our own pressure on us," he said.
"Winning the group is very important to avoid the big clubs like Juventus [FC] and Manchester United [FC] in the first knockout round," added McCarthy. "
If a club like Porto gets to the quarter-finals of the Champions League then you never know how far we could go."
The crunch for McCarthy could come in early 2004. Should Porto still be in European contention, he will face a conflict of interests as preparations begin for South Africa's campaign in the Cup of Nations. He is ready for the call - depending on a degree of compromise from his national association over how early he is called away to the training camp.
"I have always said it is an honour to win caps and score goals for your country and
I want to set records which I am proud to look back on," he explained. "If it comes to the push, however, I have to be loyal to my club. Porto always showed faith in me and this is why I have to repay them. This is where I earn my bread and butter. My club career is more important if the situation becomes difficult."
Part of McCarthy's club loyalty stems from his relationship with coach Mourinho, who brought him to Porto from RC Celta de Vigo. "He is a good man - a brilliant guy," confirmed the 26-year-old. "He prefers a father-son relationship with his players, you can take your problems to him, and that means the players give him everything. Eventually he will do well at a big English club like Arsenal [FC] or Liverpool [FC] but for the moment we are lucky to have him at Porto."
While McCarthy will be resting next summer regardless of Porto and South Africa's results, he is looking forward to the finals of UEFA EURO 2004™ in Portugal. "They will make it a success here - they could even host a [FIFA] World Cup," he said. "The new stadia look wonderful, the people are friendly and it will be a great tournament."
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