By Robson Sharuko
When Nigerian football legend Nwanko Kanu lands in Harare tomorrow, bringing with him the Emirates FA Cup on its African tour, it will also be a celebration of the three times that former Warriors goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar won this iconic trophy given to winners of the world’s oldest premier knock-out football competition. The two-time African Footballer of the Year, an ambassador of the trophy he won three times as a player — twice with Arsenal and once with Portsmouth — will tomorrow bring the trophy to a country that provided a maverick ‘keeper who won it three times with Liverpool in ’86, ’89 and ’92.
Grobbelaar, winner of 13 trophies in 13 years with the English giants, including six league championships and a European Cup (now called the Champions League), is one of the most decorated African footballers in history who provided serious return on investment for the £250 000 which Liverpool splashed for his services.
And, of course, not had for a player who says that, in his youth days in the ’70s, was given a cow, a goat and a sheep as a signing-on fee to join his hometown club Highlanders. “They offered me a cow, a goat and a sheep. Then the second question was whether we wanted them alive or to collect them at the abattoir,” Grobbelaar told SuperSport.
“We took the goat alive and the other two dead. My mum went with me to pick them up and for the first time genuinely started to talk with the blacks. She realised they were just as normal as us.” Unlike the current generation of Warriors, whose World Cup dreams were destroyed even before they had kicked a ball with that expulsion from the qualifiers as punishment for their football leaders’ failure to pay the $60 000 owed to Brazilian coach Valinhos, Grobbelaar and his Dream Team almost went all the way.
Now living in Canada, where he is coaching, it certainly didn’t escape the Jungleman that one of their fiercest rivals for a place in the United States in that campaign, the Pharaohs of Egypt, finally found a way to qualify for the World Cup this week after a 27-year absence from the global football showcase. And that one of the heroes of that Egyptian campaign is a goalkeeper, Essam El Hadary, who is set to turn 45 on January 15 next year and provide the World Cup finals in Russia with one of the oldest players to ever grace this grand occasion.
There is a reason this year is significant in the time-line of Grobbelaar’s international football career — it is the 40th anniversary of the year he made his debut for this country, then called Rhodesia, in 1977 in a game against South Africa, where he was born in Durban and left as a mere two-month old as his family journeyed north to settle here. “I class myself (as), was a Rhodesian and now a Zimbabwean because that’s the country that I grew up in and learnt my football,” Grobbelaar told Liverpool TV.
The South Africans, as fate would have it, would also provide the opposition for Grobbelaar’s reunion with the Warriors — after a lengthy absence — in that 4-1 demolition of Bafana Bafana on August 16, 1992, at the National Sports Stadium in a ’94 AFCON qualifier.
But, for Grobbelaar, the journey in the quest for the ultimate heroism that came with his Dream Team’s remarkable campaign for a place at the 1994 World Cup finals, stands out, not least for the way they kept punching above their weight but the drama in Cairo one infamous night on February 28, 1993.
And now that the Pharaohs have found a way to finally unlock the door for a place at the World Cup finals, 24 years later, riding on the back of fine performances by a star forward called Mohamed Salah and a goalkeeper who has defied age, El Hadary, it’s likely to bring back a flood of memories for the Jungleman about that night in Cairo. But, for Grobbelaar, who turned 60 exactly seven days ago, it’s the failure to help Zimbabwe qualify for the World Cup finals, especially during the campaign for a place at the 1994 World Cup in the United States when his Dream Team punched above its weight and caught the imagination of the globe, which still hurts.
Especially, the extent to which some countries can go to try and secure the priceless ticket to the World Cup finals. Grobbelaar was struck by an object thrown from the stands that night while his coach Reinhard Fabisch was also hit. “It didn’t start just with us being struck by objects,” Grobbelaar told the African football podcast, The Mesfouf and Koshary Show, last year. There’s a thing about being fair, and then there’s a thing about being not nice and fair. They were not nice, but they weren’t fair. We go to Egypt and they put us in a hotel on the edge of the desert with no air conditioning. They did not put us downtown where the hotels are good. “
“It’s a difficult situation, you get into the Olympic Stadium and you have 120 000 people in the stadium and you go one up, what do you think they’re going to do? They start breaking the stadium to throw rocks at you. The rocks are coming, there’s a track around but the rocks are still coming. I get smacked because the ball boys are too scared to go across the track right near the people to get the ball, so I’m running to get the ball.”
“I get (hit) on the head. There’s a bit of blood, I wipe the blood away so there’s blood on my glove and they it picked up on camera. Our coach comes out of the dugout, he gets struck, gets a big cut and is on the ground. We go back to the hotel and we’re getting chased by everybody else, and we couldn’t even come out of the hotel to have a drink. So we made a submission that it was unfair and FIFA (agreed).”
FIFA annulled that result, a 2-1 win for the Egyptians, on the basis that the playing environment was not conducive for a fair outcome and Grobbelaar turned on one of his best games for the national team in the replay in Lyon, France, which ended goalless as the Dream Team topped the group and eliminated the Pharaohs. However, the Egyptians never forgot the pain they suffered and, strangely, Grobbelaar decided to go there with his family on holiday.
“I go on holiday to Egypt to see the pyramids and the sphinx with my family. Coming into Egypt, I give them my passport they say no, no, no, you’re not coming in . . . get out,” Grobbelaar said.
“They didn’t want me there.”
Grobbelaar was 44 when he played his final competitive game for Hellenic, a South African side he also coached, in 2001 making him then the oldest player to feature in the South African league. Egyptian goalkeeper El Hadary has just helped the Pharaohs secure a World Cup ticket, at the age of 44 — an achievement the Jungleman denied the Egyptians back 24 years ago and a possibility the country’s football leaders denied the latest generation of Warriors before they had even kicked a ball.