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Bruce Grobbelaar as Zimbabwe's goalkeeper in the 90s


Grobbelaar: ‘How I swapped football and cricket with Houghton’



BRUCE Grobbelaar had already won the English Premier League title twice with Liverpool by the time Zimbabwe’s cricket team arrived for its World Cup debut in the United Kingdom in June 1983.


In that touring squad was someone well known to Grobbelaar. They had been childhood friends and one-time teammates back home, so the Liverpool goalkeeper couldn’t wait to touch base with his pal, Zimbabwe’s wicketkeeper Dave Houghton.

Now four decades later, 66-year-old Grobbelaar has given The NewsHawks a wide-ranging interview this week, reliving the best moments of his upbringing in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and his great desire to become the country’s football coach.

We started with how he moved from keeping behind the stumps to keeping between the goalposts, then switching roles and glove-type with one of Zimbabwe’s greatest cricketers of all time.

“My father was a wicketkeeper in cricket, he played for Raylton (Sports Club),” said Grobbelaar.

“At school I played for the Rhodesian Fawns and then the Under-15 level at Nuffield (Week, in South Africa). I was a decent cricketer, I could have made the grade at cricket. But there is a twist because David Houghton, a prominent Zimbabwean cricketer, was a goalkeeper at Salisbury Callies. I was a wicketkeeper as a youngster at Under-13, 14 and 15. At 15 years of age I was asked to step aside and let David Houghton be wicketkeeper. And then when I went to Salisbury Callies in the juniors, who was the goalkeeper that I took over from? It was David Houghton! So we swapped allegiances, we swapped codes of sports. And he became a Zimbabwean cricketer, and I became a Zimbabwean goalkeeper.”

The historic football club Salisbury Callies, named after the capital city now known as Harare, broke down barriers to become one of the first of their kind to play non-racial sport in the country.

Many of their young players – such as Grobbelaar and Houghton – were raised in all-round sporting settings until they found their niche. 

Bulawayo-based Highlanders FC, Zimbabwe’s oldest existing football club and predominantly black, was then a fitting launching pad for an illustrious career for Grobbelaar abroad, given his experience with different cultures.

“Growing up in Rhodesia at the time, I had a great experience with the Salisbury Callies, as the first white team to play in an African league,” commented Grobbelaar.

“It made the whole of that white team understand the dynamics of going to townships in different regions say in Matabeleland and also in Harare, in the Midlands and in Manicaland. So we found the diversity of all the tribes. So for myself, I found that opportunity to be fantastic, which made it better for myself when I joined Highlanders in Bulawayo. The African people gave me the nickname Jungleman.

“At the age of 13, 14, 15 I played three sports for my country. That was baseball, cricket and football. I could have played rugby, but I had signed a contract at 14 years and 10 months for Salisbury Callies. For myself it was quite easier in that way because I had that experience of playing football for Salisbury Callies in an African league and then for Highlanders, the only white man in that black team. So anybody in the white community today should try to do so because it’s a great experience. It stood me in good stead.”

Durban-born Grobbelaar grew up in neighbouring Zimbabwe from a very young age, beginning in Harare, forever owing his allegiance to the country of his upbringing.

“My schooling started off at David Livingstone Primary School in Harare. At the age of seven, I went to South Africa, I was there for 18 months because my father had an operation in South Africa. But coming back, I went back to David Livingstone. My high school started off at Mt Pleasant in Salisbury and then at 14 years my mother went to Bulawayo and then I went to Hamilton High School there. The difference of the two cities, Salisbury and Bulawayo, was quite stark. Bulawayo was a rumbling city –beautiful old colonial style. The school was fantastic, I played cricket, I played volleyball, I played water polo, I played rugby and I played football. Then Matabeleland Highlanders on the weekend. So it was fantastic.  Growing up in Rhodesia was the best thing that ever happened to me because we had diversity of cultures. There were schools that were white, there were schools that were coloured, there were schools that were African and we played against each other until we got into the big finals. I think that my growing up in Rhodesia helped me understand the tribal dynamics of the country.”

The affable Grobbelaar, remembered fondly for his agility and eccentric goal-line antics, remains an iconic figure at British giants Liverpool – where he left after 13 years with six league titles, three FA Cups, three League Cups and a European Cup between 1981 and 1994.

The former Zimbabwe shot-stopper, who went to the United Kingdom after playing in South Africa and Canada, revealed how challenging it was for him to honour national team call-ups between 1980 and 1998 even though he always was on the next flight home each time he was needed.

“As a player playing for my country, it was the biggest honour I had,” he said. “You’ll never get another chance like playing for your country. For myself it was a fantastic honour. I wanted to play for my country every single time we had an international game. With the country’s distance, our club in the UK and the Zimbabwe Football Association didn’t see eye-to-eye. But I made sure I played my games when the international games were on. Once I got called up, I went to play for my country. It was the greatest honour I’ve ever had.”

In March, Grobbelaar made a surprise visit to a Fifa training programme in Harare and took time to mingle with awestruck participants.

“Coming back to Zimbabwe is always very, very special,” Grobbelaar said. “But coming back at a time Fifa has brought the football for schools programme, and being there at the same time, is just brilliant. I had an opportunity of meeting with the normalisation committee [Zimbabwe’s temporary football body], and also with the honourable Sports minister Kirsty Coventry. We had a fine meeting and hopefully everything will go well for the future and also for this World Cup [qualification] campaign.”

Zimbabwe, on two points from two matches, will resume their World Cup qualification quest in June with matches against Lesotho and South Africa.

Grobbelaar, who has previously been in charge of Zimbabwe on caretaker basis, is vying to fill the vacant Warriors coaching post and is certain he is cut for the job.

“With regards to the future of Zimbabwe, the next coach should get all these players unified,” remarked Grobbelaar.

“He should make sure that they do want to play for Zimbabwe. If there is any opportunity for myself to talk to all these players, I will do that. But that is not my choice. We just wait to find out who the next person is. If they want my help, I will help them out. There is need to unify this Zimbabwean team as soon as possible and I believe that I’m the right person to do that.”

Former Zimbabwe captain Norman Mapeza, a former international teammate of Grobbelaar, was the Warriors’ interim coach during an ill-fated four-nation tournament in Malawi in March. Mapeza was subject to heavy criticism for his tactics at the tournament, with star player Jordan Zemura of Serie A club Udinese sensationally remarking that he would in future never play again under the ex-Warriors skipper. Other English-born players also reportedly spoke of their disgruntlement at being excluded from the line-up by Mapeza during the team’s two games in Lilongwe.

“It really isn’t my position to comment on what has happened in the tournament there in Malawi,” reacted Grobbelaar.

“However, I will say that at a tournament like this, more players should have been showcased. So they could then know who to play in the next round of the World Cup qualifiers.”

Grobbelaar had some high praise for the country’s footballers, describing Zimbabwean-qualifying players across the world as “intelligent”.

He said: “I think the Zimbabwean players are the most intelligent players in southern Africa. I’ve said it in the past, because of the education that Zimbabwe has given the youngsters. On the football field, they have got football knowledge, they are beyond the realm. And I think these youngsters, wherever they are, from Zimbabwean parents or locally-based, are good to go to the World Cup if they are coached and put in a nice place when they represent Zimbabwe.”

With Grobbelaar visiting in March, Peter Ndlovu – the legendary former Zimbabwe captain – was also in the country last week to lead the local chapter of the English Premier League trophy tour.

Together with Grobbelaar they were Zimbabwe’s two biggest superstars in their prime, and mutual respect is forever shared.

“Peter Ndlovu has had a fantastic career in the UK and South Africa, with Coventry he was a mesmerising figure, brilliant footballer,” Grobbelaar said.

“And he honoured our country with his brothers Adam and Madinda. Yes we do speak occasionally, he’s doing a fantastic job with Mamelodi Sundowns. And long may he continue to do that job.”

Grobbelaar lives abroad and often appears at Liverpool games, and still speaks of his everlasting love for a club that is so deep in his DNA.

So inseparable that during his Harare appearance in March, he wore his Liverpool golf-shirt, as he will do during his ambassadorial duties for the Reds.

“All players or ex-players of Liverpool are allowed to be game-day ambassadors,” said Grobbelaar. “We go to the ground, we go and make sure the lunches are okay, take pictures, we are allowed to go and watch games with all the top former players. We mix and match, we’ve got a great camaraderie.”

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