Ryan HuettelComment

THE UNLIKELY WARRIOR

Ryan HuettelComment
THE UNLIKELY WARRIOR

In 1974, Joao Havelange was elected FIFA president.

The first (and only) Non-European to serve in that role, the Brazilian set about guiding the organisation into modernity as a globalised entity. Under his predecessor, the Englishman Sir Stanley Rous, FIFA was hopelessly antiquated as a remnant of the game’s Eurocentric roots. The organisation only offered one combined spot to African, Asian, and Oceanic teams. They had also endorsed Apartheid South Africa, damaging their support on the continent. As a campaign strategy, Havelange turned his focus to these excluded peripheral nations, promising developmental funds and more African World Cup spots in exchange for their support. And the people threw it behind him. After all, the world was in the midst of decolonisation, shouldn’t its favourite sport as well?

It was a question with special relevance in the south of Africa. Zimbabwe had recently declared its own independence from Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front. With the charismatic Robert Mugabe at the helm, the country was one of the international leaders behind the Pan-African movement. On the football field, they were blossoming into one of Africa’s top teams as well, ready to capitalise on the newly accessible route to football’s greatest showcase.

The problem? Their star player was white

SALISBURY, (1980). Rufaro Stadium was in a state of euphoria. Shirts and caps bearing the face of Robert Mugabe filled the stands. At the stroke of midnight, the green, red, gold, and black flag of Zimbabwe was raised high above the stadium as the Union Jack came down for the last time in Africa. As the visiting Bob Marley prophesied, “Africans had a-liberated Zimbabwe.”

Twelve years later, the country was almost unrecognisable from its appearance  that famous night.

Salisbury was now known as Harare, while the face of Zimbabwe’s once popular president no longer decorated clothes. Heir to one of Africa’s most productive agricultural sectors, within a decade, Mugabe had committed mass genocide against his own people, violated electoral procedure, and turned Zimbabwe from the breadbasket of Africa into one of its biggest importers.

But one thing was still the same. Rufaro Stadium was home to a sold out crowd. And on August, 16th, 1992, witness to that same optimism that marked the end of British Africa.

“Would they let him through?” In the days prior to the match, the question echoed across Harare. In response, the government issued the statement, “it will be up to the home office. His arrival is touch and go.” Of course, Mugabe controlled the home office. If he truly wanted his man, there was no doubt that he’d get him. The hype was answered as the form of a tall, mustached figure emerged from the tunnel. His name was Bruce Grobbelaar, the first African from an independent nation to win the European Championship. Known in England for his colorful antics and acrobatic saves, Grobbelaar became an international star following his penalty heroics to cement Liverpool’s legacy as continental champions.

As Grobbelaar led his team out onto the field, he felt the love from his countrymen. A security guard pointed at him in disbelief, while in the stands a ‘ Zimbabwe loves Grobbelaar’ sign was proudly held aloft. After a 10-year ban, Grobbelaar was finally home. Fittingly, to play South Africa, the nation he was born in. For the Liverpool man, his life must have felt like it had come somewhat full circle.

It was a circle that had been a long time coming on the southern tip of the continent. From the first Portuguese sailors that named the land Natal in 1498, the next few centuries brought hundreds of thousands of Dutch, German, French Huguenot and eventually British settlers. Out of this migration and later race for Africa, Rhodesia was born. The brainchild and namesake of mineral baron, Cecil Rhodes, the territory opened up a passage from British-controlled South Africa into the resource-rich interior. The region also possessed millions of acres of fertile land acquired in conquest, attracting waves of farmers from all across the Empire.

It was these agrarian roots that marked the character of Rhodesia through the beginning of the 20th century. With the death of Cecil Rhodes, the country decided that leadership under a private commercial company was unsuitable for an increasingly permanent agricultural state. As a result, they voted to become a self-governing colony under British supervision. Rhodesia was rare for a British colony. Most of its settlers were there for the long haul, forming a distinct national identity rooted in their agrarian brand of muscular colonialism. As Prime Minister Ian Smith would later boast, “we’re more British than the British.” Behind this pastoral pretence, it was a society deeply in trouble. In 1960, white Rhodesians made up about 7% of the population, but owned over half of the arable land. It was a country at odds with the wave of black-nationalism enveloping former colonial powers across the continent. Embodied by the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, it seemed inevitable that these movements sweeping across Africa would soon train their power on Rhodesia.

In response to this fear, the country elected Ian Smith as Prime Minister. As minister, Smith banned both major Rhodesian nationalist movements – ZAPU (Zimbabwe African Peoples Union) and ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). He also imprisoned their leaders, including one Robert Mugabe. Rather than suppress these groups as he had hoped, Smith instead drew worldwide criticism for his totalitarian stance towards political opposition. In response, the Prime Minister and his cabinet declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain- the first country to do so since the United States- effectively leaving Rhodesia a rebel state subject to international sanctions by the United Nations.

Amidst this chaos, Bruce Grobbelaar was born in Durban, South Africa. After just two months in the country, his family moved to Rhodesia where his father worked on the railroads. As a young man, Grobbelaar was a star football and baseball player. He was even offered a scholarship to play baseball in the United States, turning it down to focus on football, traditionally a game for black athletes. These sporting pursuits quickly came to an end with the outbreak of the Rhodesian Bush War. Drafted into Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Army, Grobbelaar spent two years fighting against the black guerrillas sent in by Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe. In an interview with the Guardian’s Jamie Jackson, Grobbelaar discussed his experience in the army

Of course, the enemies were human beings; I remember returning to my mother’s house on leave and the houseboy’s son told me he had joined the freedom fighters. I said to him: ‘if we meet in the bush I’m going to have to shoot you. Make sure you go well.’ And he said: ‘I will have to shoot you too.’ He was killed and I survived…we all believed we were fighting for our country and against forces who were terrorising their own people. We all felt the pressure. One colleague wanted to drive off the top of a mountain – we had to block him with a jeep. Two men in my unit went into the toilet and blew their brains out. You never forget something like that. For the people who fought in that conflict, it is a bit like the Vietnam veterans in America. It was a stupid war.

While most teenagers were making their names in youth academies, ironically, it was Grobbelaar’s wartime service that led to the beginning of his club career. Rumor of his athletic prowess spread, and at the age of 18, the soldier was called up to play for Rhodesia. After a performance that caught the attention of Roy Bailey, the former Ipswich goalie, Grobbelaar’s name began to circulate among the minnows of world football as a star in the making. Of course, he had to survive first.

And he did. After his service ended, Grobbelaar tried out for and made the Vancouver Whitecaps NASL team. After his brief spell in Canada, he joined Crewe in England on loan, his work permit granted by virtue of an ancestor born in Cape Town Castle, a British possession during the Boer War. After a top performance in front of Liverpool scouts, Grobbelaar made the move to the Merseyside giants by way of Canada. At the club, he led Liverpool to their forth European Cup with his famous ‘jelly legs’ routine, becoming one of the most decorated goalkeepers in their history.

While the Liverpool player was developing his own reputation, his homeland had undergone a tumultuous transformation. Ian Smith’s Rhodesia was long gone, replaced by Robert Mugabe and the same ZANU-PF party that Grobbelaar had fought to keep out. African Nationalist at its core, the party was rooted in anti-imperialism by form of opposition to Western domination.

Naturally, the former Rhodesian soldier did not fit Mugabe’s vision of his new Zimbabwe.

For ten years, Grobbelaar was not allowed back into the country. After his election, the Zimbabwean Prime Minister passed a law banning citizens from holding dual passports. The directive was meant to root out white landholders with British ancestry, a significant roadblock to a Pan-African state at the tip of the continent. The same ancestry that had facilitated Grobbelaar’s move to England kept Zimbabwe’s most famous player from once again serving his country, this time on the field.

By 1992, optimism was low in the country. The fields that once fed the entire region had dried up in one of the worst droughts Africa has ever seen. Mugabe had spent the past decade waging a North Korean trained civilian genocide in Matabeleland while his economy stagnated at a 2.7% growth rate.

The country needed a lift. And it found one on the field.

All across Africa, top generations of players had emerged with the help of Joao Havelange’s development funds. For once, Zimbabwe was among the cream of the crop. Peter Ndlovou was one of the continent’s shining stars, dazzling crowds with his quick feet and eye for goal. His brother Adam played the willing sidekick, his hard-running and affable personality cementing the duo’s hero status on and off the field. Captain Ephraim Chawanda anchored a solid backline set up by the German coach Reinhard Fabish. With FIFA’s expansion of the World Cup to African teams, for the first time in Zimbabwe’s history, a major tournament was finally in reach. The squad was aptly termed “the Dream Team,” and Grobbelaar was seen as the missing piece.

Under pressure from Fabish, the fans, and political leader Canaan Banana, Robert Mugabe had to make a decision. Africa was decolonizing, with FIFA following its lead. Was the dual citizen Grobbelaar’s inclusion really worth the step backward politically for his ZANU-NP?

The country collectively held its breath. And football won.

Grobbelaar was included back into the squad for the game against South Africa. With the famous goalkeeper at the back, the dream felt closer than ever. Assistant coach Pernell McKop described what the team meant to Zimbabwe

Morale was low at the time. The people clung to the idea of the Dream Team, the road to the USA, and to what we felt might be our first time at an Africa Cup of Nations. When we played those qualifiers, started to put together an unbeaten run, those days brought back some of the joy of independence, the feeling of all having a single objective.

With Grobbelaar’s experience directing an already fantastic side, Zimbabwe thrashed their rivals 4-1 on that famous night in Harare. The Liverpool goalkeeper described his feelings to the New York Times, “to play for the country where I was raised against the country where I was born was historic for me. I had fought for it for six years, and to go back and be mobbed and carried aloft by the fans was one of the best experiences I’ve had as a footballer.”

Unfortunately, Zimbabwe’s dream didn’t come to fruition. Despite the best efforts of their stars, the squad came within one win of their first World Cup, losing a contentious match to Cameroon. Their wait for an introductory Cup of Nations appearance went the same way. Needing a win against the hastily assembled Zambians, Chipolopolo captain Kalusha Bwalya powered a header past Grobbelaar in the 79th minute to secure a tie for Zimbabwe’s northern neighbours.

It was a false summit in a country seemingly full of them. Grobbelaar would go on to play for Zimbabwe for four more years, even managing the Warriors later on. However, the passport issue never seemed to go away. Following a disagreement over payment, the same invisible hand that brought Grobbelaar back home took away his rights as a citizen again.

Two decades later, the situation has not improved in both the football and political spheres. Zimbabwe is currently ranked 105th in the world. The federation is plagued with corruption and economic mismanagement, two problems infesting the wider country as a whole. On the leadership front, Mugabe continues to be embroiled in a ceaseless struggle with his own colonial ghosts, frequently at the expense of his people.

It is no surprise that nostalgia for the Dream Team lives on. Author Lot Chitakasha described their campaign as, “A quasi-religious experience. The National Sports Stadium was the cathedral of hope and we all became disciples…all 60,000 of them, blacks, whites and Asians. It was indeed a multi-racial spectacle…I have never seen such unity for a cause in post independence Zimbabwe.”

And perhaps no better embodied by Bruce Grobbelaar, in his hand, a flag with the colours of the same ZANU-PF he fought against. It was a picture of hope, a descendant of colonialism amidst the newly independent Zimbabweans, all dreaming of infinite possibilities for the country on and off the field.

Over 20 years later, the nation still longs for that dream.

By Ryan Huettel. Illustration by Herr Ralf

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