By Peter Mallett
Before the ceremony, she vowed to remain strong, but gradually tears began to well in Thato Ntsoelengoe's eyes. Accepting South Africa's highest award for sport and culture on behalf of her late husband who was known simply as "Ace" was overwhelming.
North American Soccer League and African football hero Patrick 'Ace' Ntsoelengoe, who died of a heart attack in 2006, was being honored with the "Order of Ikhamanga" during a ceremony in Johannesburg.
His wife Thato Ntsoelengoe, who is working to establish a charity in her late husband's name to benefit disadvantaged children, said the tears really began to flow during the October 28 presentation when she was called to accept the award from South African president Kgalema Motlanthe.
"I went to the stage waving to the crowd and bubbly, but after the president gave me the award, I cried tears of joy when the audience started chanting 'Ace'," said Thato Ntsoelengoe. "What came to my mind then was his smile and the wave he did after he received an award or trophy."
Thato attended the ceremony with her daughters Ofentse, 14, and Boipelo, 7.
"The ceremony was wonderful and very touching, and it was incredible to see the newly elected president as well as more than half of the cabinet members and deputy ministers [of Parliament] in attendance," she said. " I felt honored accepting the award on his behalf and being in the company of individual of this caliber. My kids were over the moon with excitement."
Ace Ntsoelengoe was a two time NASL All-Star and was busy coaching the youth team of his former South African club the Kaizer Chiefs when he was found dead in his car shortly after training on May 8, 2006, He was 54.
Thato is working to establish the Patrick Ace Ntsoelengoe Foundation (PANF) to help disadvantaged children in her homeland and is urging anyone interested to help as her nation gears up for the 2010 World Cup.
"I think the award will give more exposure to the PANF and I would like to encourage everyone to join us as the objectives and the mission of the foundation can be achieved," Thato Ntsoelengoe said.
Ace Ntsoelengoe, a gifted midfielder with blazing speed and ball skills, played 11 seasons in the NASL with the Toronto Blizzard, Minnesota Kicks and Miami Toros.
He approached legendary status and had it not been for the apartheid government that ruled his homeland during most of his career, many believe he would have become a major player in one of Europe's top leagues.
"If he [Ace] had been born 20 years later he would have enjoyed the same status as Ronaldinho," said Eddie Lewis, a former coach at Kaizer Chiefs.
He was the No. 1 hero of the Toronto Blizzard faithful.
"When they introduced the starting lineups for the Blizzard at Old Exhibition Stadium or Varsity Stadium in Toronto, it wasn't our famous high priced Italian striker Roberto Bettega who got the biggest cheers from the crowd; it was always Ace," recalled former Blizzard and New York Cosmos president Clive Toye.
Others like Alan Merrick, now a coach at the University of Minnesota, was Ntsoelengoe's roommate during their time in Minnesota and Toronto, and placed him on the same level as NASL legends George Best and Pele.
"He had just unbelievable vision and finesse on the ball," said Merrick, who grew up in England and began his career with West Bromwich Albion before moving to the NASL. "He was also a gentle person in his demeanor but just had this amazing gentle touch on the ball, and was able to manipulate opponents with head fakes and shoulder fakes which would send entire defenses the wrong way. He just had such rhythm and grace in his motion. He was truly unforgettable."
This was the fifth award Ntsoelengoe has been honored with since his death. He has been inducted into the South African Sports Hall of Fame, received a government sports award, Life Time Achievement Award and was named in a list of the African Football Confederation top players of the 1970s and 1980s.
In 2003 Ntsoelengoe was inducted into the United States National Soccer Hall of Fame.
For more information about the PANF contact Thato Ntsoelengoe at email@example.com