Goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar is an accused match-fixer and regarded by Roma fans as a cheat. He also owes The Sun a lot of money. The Guardian’s Rory Carroll traveled to South Africa to catch up with a football pariah.
Two decades after the rubber-legs act in Rome, a decade after the allegations of match-fixing and two years after his financial ruin, the so-called clown prince of English football has wound up coaching a team on the southern tip of Africa, broke, unrepentant and defiant. “The Britons bankrupted me. I came to their country with £10 in my pocket and they gave me £1 back. But in between I had one hell of a ride.”
Glory has not blossomed in South Africa. In five years he has coached six teams, including big hitters like SuperSport United, Seven Stars and Hellenic before moving on – and down – to poorer clubs. Apart from Manning Rangers he denies being fired from any of these jobs, but there was a cloud over each departure. Typically he would start well and push his new team up the league before faltering and dropping down. “He is sliding down the ranks,” says Julia Beffon, sports editor of the Johannesburg Mail and Guardian. “I don’t think he is a very good coach. Not very technically aware.”
In a blaze of statistics and anecdotes, Grobbelaar begs to differ, casting himself as a savvy saviour of underperforming teams who is nevertheless cast aside by managers too dumb or stingy to keep him. The body language is expansive and, appropriately for a goalie, includes numerous references to landing on his feet. But the sense of victimhood is unmistakable. He is the victim of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia which made him an army corporal in a doomed bush war against Robert Mugabe’s guerrillas in the 1970s: “It was a struggle to survive.” The victim of a supposed friend, Chris Vincent, who secretly videotaped their conversations about match-fixing: “I went into business with an arsehole.” The victim of a vindictive newspaper, the Sun, which splashed on the allegations and defended them in an epic, eight-year legal battle: “I wouldn’t even wipe my fucking arse with it.” The victim of a legal lottery whereby juries refused to convict him and he won a libel award only for judges to overturn everything and ruin him: “You win in the court of law and yet they decide that you have to pay the opposition.”
He reminisces about that famous night at Rome’s Olympic stadium in 1984 when Liverpool and Roma went to penalties to decide the European cup final. As Francesco Graziani prepared to take his kick, the figure between the sticks wobbled his knees in a parody of terror. Unnerved, the Italian missed, and another cup was on its way to Anfield. “The idea came when I bit the net before his kick. It felt like spaghetti so I did spaghetti legs.”
Grobbelaar splutters at suggestions it was not very sportsmanlike. “When you go out on to that field it’s going to be war. Sportsmanship is playing to the best of your abilities and then, afterwards, shaking your opponent’s hand.”