Mark Dennis Gonzalez will hope to play a starring role for Chile at the World Cup finals but South African fans may already like to claim him as one of their own. That’s because he was born in Durban, near the shores of the Indian Ocean, and grew up in the apartheid era till his family returned to Chile when he was 10.
Mark, who now plies his trade with CSKA Moscow, is back to compete in the land where his father Raul Gonzalez played in the 1980s.
Raul left Chile for South Africa with his club owing him three months salary, at a time when the Latin American country was mired in tough economic times. He arrived in a nation which was in the throes of racial conflict as the apartheid era entered its dying days.
Coming home: Chile’s Mark Gonzalez (right) will look to impress old friends grew up in apartheid-era South Africa. Roberto Candia / AP
Raul played for Moroka Swallows, from the black Johannesburg township of Soweto, and then for Bush Bucks of Durban, where Mark was born on 10 July 1984. He was named after two of his father’s best friends—Raul tossed a coin to determine if his offspring would be Mark Dennis or Dennis Mark.
At Moroka Swallows, all the players were black, save for Raul and one other foreign import, and it was a tough task to integrate as he spoke neither English nor any of the local African languages.
In those days, Raul, wife Lorena and their children lived in a white neighbourhood at a time when the colour of one’s skin determined where one could go.
The only black people in the vicinity were the gardener and domestic workers. Those who worked for the Gonzalez family ate with them—something highly unusual at a time when racial segregation was the norm. Indeed, his housekeeper was the one who taught Raul English.
Although they enjoyed their time there, they were living in a South Africa that was under general international isolation owing to its racial policies, which fomented an environment of death and violence to which the Gonzalez family could not remain immune.
Things changed in 1990 with the walk to freedom of black liberation leader Nelson Mandela after 27 years in jail, which precipitated the end of apartheid.
United: Football fans hold the flags of Uruguay and South Africa in Kimberley, South Africa, having a ball. Fernando Vergara / AP
By the time Mark went to school, he was mixing with both white and black children. “I had friends from both races,” he recalls. For him, football was always top dog for sport. “I never saw much football while we were out there (living in South Africa) but I do recall that the racism really hit me and it was a complicated time. That’s why we came back to Chile,” says the midfielder, who could be celebrating a special 26th birthday on 10 July if the South Americans, who pushed Brazil for top spot in the continental qualifiers, can make it to the final the following day.
In 1994, the family returned to Chile, where Mark started his career with Union Santa Elena in the port city of Valparaiso. He had stints in Spain, with Real Sociedad and Betis, followed by a spell with Liverpool, for whom he scored twice in 25 appearances between 2005 and 2007. Injury problems did not allow him to settle and he returned to Betis before their relegation saw him switch to CSKA last year.
Now he is back on South African soil—and he’ll be out to impress old friends.
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