Mark Dennis Gonzalez, Chilean soccer player Image Credit: AP

Nelspruit, South Africa:  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 until the age of ten when his family left for Chile.

Mark, who now plies his trade with CSKA Moscow, is back to star in the land where his father Raul played in the 1980s.

Raul Gonzalez left Chile for South Africa with his club owing him three months' salary with the Latin American country mired in tough economic times and arrived in a nation which was in the throes of racial conflict as the apartheid era entered its dying days.

Raul played for Moroka Swallows, from the black Johannesburg township of Soweto and then for Bush Bucks of Durban, where Mark was born on July 10, 1984.

He was named after two of his father's best friends — Raul tossing 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 Gonzalez 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 and 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 Gonzalez's 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.

Racial policies

Although Gonzalez enjoyed his time there he was living in a South Africa which lived 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.

One day, while watching television, they saw "a football match, where security were stabbing a fat black guy. It was shocking, blood was spurting everywhere," Mark's mother Lorena Hoffmann recounted in a recent interview with Chilean media.

But things finally 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.

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 also did athletics and some swimming but I never played rugby," the traditional ‘white' sport, he recounts.

"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."