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Nothing but… Grobbelaar

A line-up of football stories wouldn’t be complete without Simon Kuper. In a change of formation from his Nothing But… column, we pass back to Kaapstad for a beer-fuelled encounter with Mr Spaghetti Legs, Bruce Grobbelaar . 


The Seven Stars are just a small Cape Town football club doomed to extinction, but their training ground is special. They train a couple of hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean, and on a clear afternoon you can see across to Robben Island. But this isn’t a clear afternoon. The mist hangs over the Atlantic and behind the field you can barely make out Table Mountain.

The players are already warming up when a car comes tearing up. Out of it jumps a bald man with a Zorro moustache and the enormous upper body of a former goalkeeper. This is Bruce Grobbelaar (to remove all doubt, he has had his name printed on his sponsored car), former goalkeeper of the great Liverpool team of the 1980s, now manager of the Seven Stars. “Bloody mist,” says Grobbelaar. “You can’t see a golf ball on the fairways.” Like many white Africans he speaks in staccato, emphasising every word.

I stay to watch, and it turns out that a Grobbelaar training session goes something like this: Grobbelaar tells a player who is lying injured on the ground: “Get out of the fucking way or I’ll stamp on you.”

Grobbelaar kicks off two five-a-side games simultaneously, by punting two balls out of his hands at the same time.

Grobbelaar watches the five-a-sides, saying “Goal” when appropriate.

Grobbelaar will later tell me that he learned his methods from Bob Paisley, the manager who won three European Cups with Liverpool.

After practice, he selects five players to run short sprints and do press-ups as punishments for unspecified sins. “Whole team should run!” Some players protest, but Grobbelaar, who used to be a corporal in the Rhodesian army, ignores them. When he is done I ask him one or two questions, and although he has never previously met me, he says: “Jump in. Let’s go for a beer.” Two of his players get in too – they have no cars – for a lift to the supermarket.

Grobbelaar overtakes left and right while amiably cursing all other drivers, hoots instinctively at red lights, and tells me that Cape Town is one of the six best cities in the world. The others are Vancouver, Perth, London and Paris. I count. “The sixth one I have not been to yet,” says Grobbelaar, lifting that trademark moustache for the trademark toothy grin.

There’s a lot to see in Cape Town. We pass a group of very small black children leaving a shop, followed a second or so later by a white shopowner brandishing a big stick. “Bring a big stick,” comments Grobbelaar. One of the children starts pissing against the shop’s wall. We pass a poster for a local newspaper: “SA REF SHOOTS PLAYER DEAD.” Grobbelaar grins.


He drops the players at the Spar, complimenting them on their choice of supermarket, and then takes me to Brian’s Tavern. We sit in the window with a view of the girls of the Guys and Dolls Adult Entertainment Club across the road. Grobbelaar orders beer, we sit side by side on stools, and luckily he starts talking about his bribery scandal, because I hadn’t dared ask. Like most foreign coaches in South Africa, Grobbelaar would rather still be in Europe, living with his wife and two daughters in Lymington on the English south coast. But the scandal sent him into exile. It erupted at Heathrow one day in November 1994, when Grobbelaar was confronted by two Sun journalists, who informed him they had videotapes of him telling his former business partner Chris Vincent that he had thrown matches for money.

Grobbelaar tells me: “On the video you see Vincent saying: ‘This is your money.’ I say, ‘No, it’s ours’. He says: ‘Hold it for now because I don’t have my jacket on.’ And then I put it in my coat pocket.” But the video wasn’t clear, adds Grobbelaar, so nobody knew exactly what was going on.

He had of course staged the whole thing to catch Vincent, he explains; still, it looked bad. No club would have him after the scandal, even though he was twice acquitted in court of having taken bribes. Two juries couldn’t agree, and so the judge let him go. “The trial ended, but the stigma didn’t,” he says.

While he talks his right leg pumps up and down, because Grobbelaar can’t sit still. He sings along with Paul Simon on the jukebox: “Don’t want to end up a cartoon/In a cartoon graveyard.”

Now Grobbelaar wants to be a coach: first in South Africa, and when he has made it here, move back to Europe.

We get two more bottles of Windhoek. Grobbelaar exclaims, “Lovely body, yes please!” and he points to the balcony of a hotel perhaps two hundred yards away. Peering through the dark, I eventually make out something that might be a human form.


I’m staying in Cape Town with Mark Gleeson, 2, 1 metres tall, the most famous football commentator in Africa. Years ago Mark drove me around southern Africa in his little car, his knees up against the wheel. At Botswana-Niger in Gaborone, almost the whole Niger team came up to greet him in the tunnel. Now Mark has a wife and child, and he is a bit more fearful.

“One day somebody’s going to find out that we have two BMWs,” he grumbles as we whiz through town. “Then they watch you for a couple of days and one morning you drive out of your gate and they jump you.”

BMWs are known locally as “Break My Windows”.

“So why drive a BMW?” I ask.

“Look, I’m not going to drive a shitty little car just because otherwise some guy with a weapon will jump me.” His logic makes us both laugh.

Mark was brought to Cape Town by the entrepreneur Rob Moore, to run Moore’s magazine Kick Off. It’s now the biggest football mag in Africa (most things that are biggest in South Africa are the biggest in Africa). Moore also owns the Seven Stars. Recently he persuaded Ajax Amsterdam to buy the Stars and their local rivals Cape Town Spurs, and to merge the two into Ajax Cape Town, a franchise of the Dutch club.

Mark explains: “Rob Moore is the sort of guy who can get the Queen to come to his birthday. He’ll say to you, ‘I want the Queen to come to my birthday,’ and you’ll say, ‘Ach, fuck man, you’re crazy’, and he says, ‘No really’, and a couple of weeks later you’re at his birthday and you say, ‘Isn’t that the Queen over there?’”

One morning Mark drives me in one of his BMWs to a dilapidated shopping district in central Cape Town. This time nobody jumps us.

You go up a stairway scattered with cigarette butts into the headquarters of Santos, another of Cape Town’s professional football clubs. In the boardroom sits a forceful young guy in a tight white lycra shirt and tight jeans. This is Jerome McCarthy, older brother of Benni McCarthy. Benni is a millionaire footballer in Europe scheduled to be South Africa’s centre-forward at the 2010 World Cup. Jerome just plays for Santos.

When Jerome and Benni were kids on the Cape Flats, they used to play “rebel games” or “gangster games” on Sundays. The “rebel teams” are raised by gangsters, who bet on the results. Jerome doesn’t say it, but on the Cape Flats it’s hard to refuse if a gang boss wants you in his rebel team. Otherwise something might happen to your Dad in the lift of your apartment building. Benni was playing rebel games until a couple of months before he flew to Holland to sign for Ajax.

There were no stands at the “gangster games”, but the touchlines would be thronged with thousands of people who had money riding on the game. A player taking a throw-in was so close to the spectators that they could touch him – and sometimes they did. When Jerome says, “You always want to play your best when you play in front of the crowd,” he means it literally.

The ref who shot a player this week did so in a rebel game. The story makes Jerome laugh, because normally it’s the refs who get into trouble. “A couple of friends of mine are leaders of gangs now. One of my close friends was shot. A gang fight broke out on the other side of the field and a stray bullet hit him. We didn’t even know what happened. We just see a bullet hit him and he dropped.” Sometimes an old friend comes to Jerome offering to sell him a car radio, but Jerome always says: “No man, it just brings bad luck.”

Jerome knows about bad luck. He nearly became a millionaire in Europe too. In his teens, he tells me, he played in the Manchester City youth team, but he couldn’t get a work permit to stay in Britain. He played against David Beckham and Paul Scholes and Gary Neville in Manchester United’s youth team, and after games they’d go to the same nightclubs. Beckham still phones him, says Jerome, he hasn’t changed a bit.

But Jerome will get to Europe in the end. Benni will make sure of that. “We always said to each other: whoever makes it to Europe has to take care of the other one.” Benni has already persuaded FC Utrecht in Holland to give Jerome a try, but Santos wouldn’t let him go.

Bad luck? “Ja. Tsshhh.”

“How old are you now?” I ask.

“I’m 22,” says Jerome. (Later I looked it up, and it turned out he was nearly 26. Lying is wrong. He should just tell the truth and forget his career.) Is Jerome ever jealous of Benni? He laughs: “Yeah. A lot.” And he stands up, pulls his car keys out of his back pocket, and swaggers down the stairs to the street.


This evening Grobbelaar’s team are playing Cape Town Spurs on some amateur ground. The 15 or so spectators sit in the grass beside the Seven Stars reserves. “Fans, we really haven’t got any fans,” confides Grobbelaar. Tonight’s match is being played only so that a visiting Ajax  Amsterdam official can gauge the talent of the two teams his club is inheriting. I ask Grobbelaar whether any of the Seven Stars players will ever play for Ajax Amsterdam. “No,” he says.

Straight after the final whistle Grobbelaar chucks me into his car and drives to another ground, where Jerome’s Santos are playing Amazulu. Grobbelaar reverses very quickly through the stadium’s gate over the protests of stewards, and just before his wingmirror smashes into the gate, he swings his wheel six inches left and then back again without slowing down.

Begging kids surround us. “You must not beg,” Grobbelaar lectures them in Afrikaans. He picks up one little boy, puts him on a bar counter and lifts him into the air a few times. We take our seats in the stands. Within minutes marijuana fills the air. “Boom!” nods Grobbelaar in satisfaction.

This time there are about 500 spectators. Jerome is playing right-half, and he can play football. His speciality is the cross: hit first time, curving, hard and accurate, rather like Beckham’s. Grobbelaar and I leave at half-time, and he tells me that the next morning he will offer R250,000 for Jerome.

(Jerome did eventually join Ajax Cape Town. But he never made it to Europe, and in 2003 Fifa gave him a worldwide ban for a year for taking the stimulant fencamfamine.)

It’s night, and we race along the highway into town. “You know,” says Grobbelaar, while overtaking right and left, “two weeks ago I was also on this road. Around the same time. And I reached this corner, got into exactly this outside lane, and just when I turned the corner” – and he turns the corner at 130 km an hour – “… there was a car right there in front of me. Had gone into the crash barrier. I could only just avoid him. Otherwise it would have been all over.”

We make it to the Dias Tavern, a Portuguese restaurant guarded by a black man with a knobkerrie. On the television inside Tottenham are playing Leeds. Grobbelaar orders a beer and reminisces about  fighting in the Rhodesian civil war against the black guerillas. He was called up at 17. Because of his exceptional eyes, the army trained him as a tracker: someone who gauged from footprints in the sand or the remains of food where and when the guerillas had passed. Normally this work was done by black hunters with decades of experience. Grobbelaar was also used at observation posts. He could spot groups of “terrorists” from miles off.

“If my eyesight had failed I don’t think I’d have been half the man I was. But I knew we couldn’t win the war. Look, you just had to look coolly at the statistics. How many whites in this country? At the time there was just under one million whites. There were ten million blacks. It’s ten to one. You take out all the wives and children. You take out all the wives and children on the other side. So every time you go into the bush you have a one in three chance you’re going to get shot.”

I don’t completely follow his reasoning.

“Because there are three times as many blacks as whites,” he explains triumphantly.

After Cape Town I’m going on to Zimbabwe. Grobbelaar urges me to be careful. According to him, the three main causes of death in Zimbabwe are:

  1. Being struck by lightning.
  2. Hippopotamuses.
  3. Accidents in vehicles.

“Not AIDS?” I ask.

“No. Accidents in vehicles.”

We get fish and white wine to go with our beer. “Can I eat this prawn?” asks Grobbelaar, and he’s already taken it.

“In 1976 I sat in the middle of the bush with three other people – one of them was Phil Crewe, who was later killed – and I said: ‘I will play for Liverpool,’ and they laughed. We were going out to an observation post. I had nightmares from the army for quite a long time. Heysel, Hillsborough, yes. even today. You are lying down by yourself and you are thinking about your football career and the three things you think about are Heysel, Hillsborough and the war.”

More beers. In 1985 Grobbelaar’s mother had come over specially from South Africa to see Liverpool-Juventus at the Heysel stadium in Brussels. It was her first soccer game ever. Thirty-nine Italian fans died that night, and Grobbelaar decided to retire from football. But on holiday in the Cayman Islands his wife asked: “If you’re going to pack it in, what are you going to do?” and Grobbelaar didn’t know. So he played on. At Hillsborough in 1989, while the Liverpool fans behind his goal were being squeezed to death against the fence, they shouted out, “Brucie! Brucie! Help us!” Grobbelaar begged policemen to open the gate to let the people out, but the police wouldn’t and 95 fans died. Grobbelaar cursed a lot that day.

In his most recent nightmare, he was waiting 24 hours in the cells for the judge’s verdict in his bribery trial – just as he had in real life – but in the dream he was found guilty. Oh well, he says, he doesn’t worry too much. He had never imagined that he’d live to be 41.

The fish is long gone but Grobbelaar keeps pouring wine. He is telling me about meeting his wife. It went like this: Grobbelaar happened to be in Hong Kong with the name and phone number of a British Airways stewardess, given him as a present by his Liverpool teammate Graeme Souness. Grobbelaar tried to call the stewardess in her hotel, but he was wrongly connected and ended up talking to a different stewardess, called Debbie. “We’re all going to the Dickens Bar,” Debbie said. Grobbelaar went to the bar and got chatting to her. But the place was full, time passed, and suddenly he found himself in conversation with a pilot called Captain Van Niekerk. Grobbelaar made his excuses, popped out, called the hotel, and said, “My name is Captain Van Niekerk. I want to know every girl’s name on my staff.” The receptionist began reading out the names, and when she got to Debbie’s, Grobbelaar said, ‘That’ll do.’” Romance blossomed. One morning in Zimbabwe Grobbelaar and Debbie married on a whim in their tracksuits. They are still together.

Two of the restaurant’s chefs, both Liverpool fans, have deserted the kitchen to join us. We all watch Tottenham-Leeds, though by this point in the evening a football match seems an immensely complicated affair. When David Ginola scores from 32 m, all four of us applaud. Finally Grobbelaar decides that we can leave. “Drive carefully,” say the chefs. I hope I’m going to be allowed to go to bed – doesn’t Grobbelaar have a team to train tomorrow? – but he takes me for one more beer in Brian’s Tavern. When we leave Brian’s, the barman shouts: “Drive carefully.”

Grobbelaar never drives carefully but always safely. A friend of mine who once got a lift from Johan Cruijff reports the same thing: all the laws of the road are broken, but you know that with this driver nothing can go wrong.

It’s 1.30 am. We sit by the pool of Grobbelaar’s borrowed flat and listen to the crickets, while I do my best to drink a final glass of Johnnie Walker.

It’s the time of night for philosophising. Grobbelaar reminisces about his girlfriend in Rhodesia in the late 1970s who unexpectedly became pregnant. He was about to marry her when he heard that the father was his best friend.

If he’d married her, where would he be now?

“I would never have gone to Liverpool. I’d be somewhere in Africa. Running my own business with five children. Probably in Bulawayo.”

And would that have been good? “Yes. Because I would never have met that crazy arsehole Vincent who nailed me.” And he raises his moustache and smiles, because he doesn’t mean it.


I collapse in Grobbelaar’s spare room. At about 8 am the door thwacks open. A legendary Liverpool goalkeeper is towering over my bedside, summoning me for breakfast. We eat cereal wordlessly, standing in front of a flat-screen TV that is showing the highlights of Tottenham-Leeds. Then Grobbelaar drops me at the Kick Off office in town, where I am going to eat a second breakfast with one of the magazine’s advertising salesmen, George Dearnaley.

Dearnaley is a big ruddy white man whom you’d expect to be a rugby player, but in fact he was once the South African football team’s promising new centre-forward. The last time I met him it was 1993 and the national team were staying at the Helderfontein country estate just outside Johannesburg, preparing to play Nigeria in a World Cup qualifying match.

The Helderfontein receptionist was Miss South Africa 1982, and young men in tracksuits were swarming around her desk. “Any messages for me?” they would ask every two minutes. Dearnaley discovered that Sizwe Motaung, a promising young black midfielder, was getting 50 phone calls from women a day.

“Tell Sizwe’s mother and sister not to ring so often,” Dearnaley whooped, “because I know for sure that he hasn’t got a girlfriend.” Motaung didn’t blink. The word was that white and black players hardly mixed, but four weeks in training camp seemed to be helping.

That Saturday South Africa had to beat Nigeria to retain a chance of qualifying for the World Cup of 1994. Early in the second half, in front of 120,000 people, with the score still 0-0, Dearnaley tapped a low cross into the net and the nation stood on its head. The big white striker raced off the pitch to celebrate with the black fans behind the goal. “To be a striker and score in your second match for the country, I thought that was the start of the most fantastic thing ever,” reminisces Dearnaley at our café table in Cape Town all these years later.

He had been celebrating for half a minute when he realized that the fans had stopped cheering. “I could see that there was something wrong. And I’m saying out loud: ‘No, there is no way!’ My moments of glory. Bloody Doctor was offside.” Dearnaley means the great Doctor Khumalo.

The match finished 0-0, South Africa didn’t make the World Cup, and Dearnaley played just one more international, in which he didn’t score either.

Now it’s 1999. Motaung is HIV-positive (he will soon become the first prominent South African footballer officially to die from AIDS instead of some euphemism) and Dearnaley hobbles along with the Seven Stars. His knee has gone. Two days before our breakfast he turned 30.

But he doesn’t mind much. He has a great job. Kick Off sells about 75,000 copies every fortnight, 99 per cent of them to black men. “We have guys who earn R1000 a month and the mag costs R6, 25, and they are buying it twice a month. One reader sent a picture of himself lying in a field with every issue of Kick Off lying around him in the grass.

“I’ve been into townships after the match, and you go into a shebeen for a beer with some players, and the owner will have a whole stack of Kick Offs, some of them two years old, and he will give them to people to read. Sometimes he will charge them 50c to read it. And they will sit there and read about a player from two years ago.” The marketing people claim that the average copy of Kick Off is read by 16 people.

Dearnaley, who speaks a bit of Zulu and studied literature and journalism at college in Toledo, Ohio, is also writing a book about South African football. There are so many great stories, he says, and nobody records them. Like the one about Dearnaley’s second ever league match, when a new referee appeared after half-time. “He gave two penalties against us and allowed a goal that was miles offside. We lost 3-1.”

The next afternoon a blond young Dutchman called Willem Vriend drives me to the township of Khayelitsha, just outside Cape Town. We drive through mist and rain past a crammed minibus (a “black taxi” in local parlance), past a car that is literally held together with sticky tape, past two people ambling across the highway, until we drive through a gate, where a small boy is dancing alone, into Khayelitsha.

Willem works for a sports charity called Score. Today Score and Adidas are to hand out 98 footballs in Khayelitsha. “Strange number,” Willem agrees.

A couple of hundred kids are playing football barefoot on a field, their shoes and socks stacked in heaps by the side. Summoned to see the presentation of the balls, they hold hands and sing the miners’ anthem Sosholoza, the best song in the world. A nervous white man from Adidas explains that it has been decided in Germany to give them the balls. The kids applaud, some by slapping themselves on the cheek. Then they throw themselves 20 at a time on the baskets of balls, chase around the meadow after them, go completely nuts.

A couple of kids come up to talk to me, and within a minute I am surrounded by 25 children, none taller than my chest.

Which clubs do they support? “Chiefs!” comes the cry as if from a single voice. “Manchester!” add a couple. “And then a skinny little boy in a Daniel Hechter baseball cap and a sort of Pringle sweater says: “Ajax Cape Town.”

This is a strange choice for a Cape kid. The Cape’s soccer fans are mostly outraged by the new club, which will wipe out two local teams (admittedly fairly unloved ones) and play its home matches in the white suburb of Newlands. I ask if any of the boys is going to play for the club.

“I do!” says the kid in the baseball cap. “I play for Ajax Cape Town under-11s.” He says he is called Peter Sengatha (remember that name). He is so small, presumably because of malnourishment, that I would have guessed his age as six.

Everyone presses into me. “Mathlala!” shouts a fat boy. “That means boxing. I am a boxer,” and he punches me in the stomach.

“Maybe they will select everyone under eleven!” says Sengatha. “Then we will go to train in Amsterdam. And then I will go on the aeroplane.”

Which position does he play? “Eight,” he replies, in impeccable Ajax jargon, meaning right midfield. Did he speak to the Ajax players on their recent visit to Cape Town?

“I spoke to the guy who scored the first goal.”

What did he look like?

Sengatha shrugs. “He is white, he looks like you.”

The older boys, who might be 14, discover that I don’t speak Xhosa and begin speaking to me in Xhosa. It turns out that I can’t even say the word “Xhosa” because the “Xh” is made with a particular click of the tongue. Everyone laughs at me and Mathlala – it turns out to be his nickname – punches me in the stomach again. I suggest going to watch the finals of the ball-juggling competition.

A boy with a flat face and an extremely serious expression wins an Adidas ball after he manages to juggle it 50 times. It’s noticeable that he only uses his left foot. These boys have never had football training.

Then a shy little boy sidles up to me. “If I want to play for Ajax Cape Town,” he whispers, “what do I have to do?”

I have no idea. I think the trials are already over. Anyway, how would he get to Newlands for training every day? The same problem prevented Ronaldo – a slum dweller in Rio – from training with Flamengo as a kid.

Contrary to popular myth, the poorest of the poor are often excluded from professional football, either by lack of transport or lack of food. Clive, a Score volunteer, promises to get the information for the boy.

Sengatha pops up again, this time wanting my autograph. Clive asks Sengatha how on earth he became the only boy in Khayelitsha to get into Ajax Cape Town. It turns out that Sengatha doesn’t go to school in Khayelitsha, but in a neighbouring and slightly richer Coloured township called Mitchells Plain. Sengatha’s teacher knew about Ajax Cape Town and sent him to a trial, where he was selected. Sengatha tells us that Ajax will collect him by bus in Khayelitsha for every practice.

My photographer gets Sengatha to pose with a ball in his hands. Dozens of other kids want to be in the picture too. They hang onto his neck, pull his cap off his head, but he keeps grinning into the lens, proud as a peacock.

I suspect Ajax won’t have to give Sengatha their legendary “media training”, because as I am getting into Willem’s car to leave, he comes racing up to see if I have any more questions. I think of the best advice I can give to a kid about to start his football career with Ajax.

“Sengatha,” I say, “just do whatever they tell you.”


Simon Kuper is the author of Football Against the Enemy, Ajax, The Dutch, The War, and most recently the co-author of Soccernomics. An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Dutch journal Hard Gras and in Chimurenga Vol.10: Futbol, Politricks & Ostentatious Cripples (available here).


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