By Ilan Herrmann
If there was ever a ‘Jewish Football club’ in the annals of South African football it is surely Highlands Park FC.
Situated in the heart of Jewish Johannesburg at the old Balfour Park stadium in Highlands North, the ‘Lions of the North’ as they were known, had a massive Jewish following. The club had a string of Jewish players and administrators in its heyday. “Highlands set the bar for professionalism in the game and the others followed,” says Martin Cohen, a former Highlands great of the 1970s. “The club bore a deep culture of excellence and pride.”
It was a prolific Jewish businessman, Luc Matus, who founded Highlands Park FC in 1960 — the Club forming as an outgrowth from the Balfour Park Sports Club. Within a few seasons Highlands became the dominant force in SA football reaching climactic proportions in the mid-1960s. “You will never find another side like that in this country ever again,” says Cohen who was a teen when Highlands peaked.
They were so good that in a cheeky but poignant article on Highlands’ apparent greatness, soccer doyen, Sy Lerman, led an article with the headline, “Would Pele get into the Highlands side?” Suffice it to say through early 1960s into the mid 1970s ‘The Lions of the North’ created an astonishing football legacy and were venerated by players, pundits, commentators and spectators alike. But the wheels of commerce changed the situation. The club’s Balfour Park home ground was sold for a business development and with other financial challenges at play, chairman Rex Evans decided to sell the NPSL franchise to Jomo Sono in 1983. Sono changed the club name to Jomo Cosmos and Highlands FC was gone.
CEO of Highlands Park Brad Kaftel, together with partner Larry Brookstone, both Jewish businessmen, were behind the Highlands resurrection — a progression that began back in 2003. Both had strong attachments to the club for decades watching their children play through the youth ranks at Gemmel Park, Linksfield.
Kaftel explains,“Highlands is an iconic club. Had you asked me 20 years ago when we were bringing our kids to play that one day the team would go professional and that we would be in the PSL First Division, I would never have believed it. But here we are and what a ride it’s been.”
Kaftel, a motor magnate with the Hatfield Group starting investing in the team which culminated in promotion into the PSL 1st Division for the 2016/17 season, only to be relegated to 2nd division one season later. Remarkably, they quickly bounced back to take the championship and gain promotion back into the top tier. “The skeletons of the past are hopefully gone for good. We weren’t ready for the leap into the PSL in that first foray. We’re a different outfit now and after a satisfactory season last year, we’re acclimatised and know what’s expected of us.”
“Satisfactory”, is perhaps being modest. Highlands finished a respectable 7th in their first year back and it appears the team is brimming with confidence as is evident in their opening match of the season.
Hosting Kaizer Chiefs at Makhulong Stadium in Tembisa before a sellout crowd, Highlands ‘wowed’ in the 1st half and should have capitalised. Chiefs, determined to restore their reputation after a relatively poor season last year had to fight tooth and nail for a 3-2 win. If Highlands can repeat that first half performance through the season we could be in for a surprise. They’ve certainly shown they can do it. The question is, can they do it consistently?
Highlands may not yet be the combination of Mcintosh, Gough, Hume, Kalk, Da Silva and Santoro of past, but bearing the name and wearing the shirts with the badge once worn by the star-studded side who were revered, and by their opposition, feared, must be an impetus for the players to reach for greatness, something that only seems fitting for Highlands Park FC.
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