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Bruce Grobbelaar: The extraordinary life of a Zimbabwean football great



A CAPTIVATING tale is the chronicle of Bruce Grobbelaar, a Zimbabwean legend who, at the peak of his incredible football career, became synonymous with success some 13 000 kilometres away in the north of England.

But the path the custodian charted, which began in South Africa, ran through Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), pushed him to the frontlines, whisked him away to the United States of America, and finally took him to the heights of European football is what gave his triumphs meaning. Grobbelaar’s life is unique in itself.

Born to Afrikaner parents, descendants from the Dutch who had settled in South Africa, Grobbelaar and his family crossed the border into neighbouring Rhodesia while he was still in infancy. In great antithesis to the sport of football, a young Bruce Grobbelaar was more proficient with his hands than he was with his feet; the days he spent honing his skills in the game of cricket and an opportunity he passed to migrate and play baseball in the United States of America across the pond only advance the notion.

But, Bruce Grobbelaar had an affinity with football and, assisted by the instruments of his immeasurable talent, he chose to occupy the only position on the pitch which permitted the use of his fists: a goalkeeper.

Grobbelaar began his career in football with Bulawayo’s Highlanders FC, a powerhouse of Zimbabwean football forever linked with developing several of the nation’s best, and ascended to the top of the South African football pyramid rapidly. Consistently superb performances for his domestic sides paved the way for an international debut with Rhodesia in 1977 which, ironically, came in a friendly encounter against the country of his birth, South Africa.

The Durban-born Rhodesian moved to North America eventually, signing for North American Soccer League outfit Vancouver Whitecaps in 1982. However, first, Grobbelaar had to crawl through the trenches and navigate the horrors of a literal battlefield to even have a chance at continuing his football career on the other side of the Atlantic.

With the Rhodesian war nearing its end in the late 1970s, Bruce Grobbelaar was conscripted into the Rhodesian Regiment and spent 11 months on the frontlines. It was a necessary step for the formation of the nation now known as Zimbabwe, but the war left an undiminishable mark on Grobbelaar’s psyche. It snatched friends from him and left him in emotional turmoil; football helped him see the light on the other side of the pitch-black tunnel.

“The memories [of war] have subsided somewhat, but there are times when you are with your mates back in Africa and they particularly like to speak about it. I don’t,” Grobbelaar told the BBC, recounting his experiences on the front. “After that, for about a two or three-week period, I do get cold sweats and wake up with those feelings again.”

“Over the years, I am very lucky that I didn’t submerge into a form of depression because football saved my life really. Once I came out of the military, I had football to fall upon which took my mind off those incidents,” Grobbelaar added.

Grobbelaar resumed his career as a Zimbabwean, on the other side of the Rhodesian war, in Vancouver, where he would remain under the tutelage of former English goalkeeper Tom Waiters and come up against some of the greatest names in the sport, such as Johan Cruyff. Half of his contract with the NASL outfit, however, the Zimbabwe number one saw out on loan in England with Crewe Alexandra, where he first caught the attention of Liverpool’s lead scout, Tom Saunders.

Liverpool took a punt on Grobbelaar in 1981, facilitating a transfer for the Zimbabwean to shift to Merseyside with the assistance of Waiters and paying Vancouver a quarter of a million dollars for his services. Bruce Grobbelaar was to serve as back-up to Ray Clemence, but after Clemence himself moved to Tottenham Hotspur midway through the year, the club pushed Grobbelaar to the fore instead of returning to the market for a new custodian.

Grobbelaar started slowly, alienating fans who had traditionally witnessed goalkeepers being conservative with his swashbuckling approach. However, manager Bob Paisley stuck by him, and the tides began to turn soon. By the new year, Liverpool and Grobbelaar were flying and would finish the season as champions in both the league and the League Cup – the latter with a win over Clemence-led Tottenham.

A sensational debut campaign aside, Grobbelaar spent 12 more years with Liverpool, becoming a significant part of the team that ruled English football at its heights. With the Zimbabwean in goal, the Reds would win six league titles, three FA Cups, three League Cups, and a European Cup between 1981 and 1994.

By the time Grobbelaar left Liverpool in 1994, he was approaching the twilight of his career. A pioneering goalkeeper, who wowed fans as much with his theatricality — his antics in the Reds’ triumphant European Cup-winning penalty shootout in 1983/84 against AS Roma evidence for the same — as his confidence, he would collect the final few of his 32 international caps in the years that followed, which he spent bouncing around in the lower tiers of English football. –

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