Grobbelaar, the story of a madman
As a legend of Liverpool and Zimbabwe, Bruce Grobbelaar has marked his time thanks to an unmatched style and a big, big mouth. Here’s the portrait of a myth.
A stand-up comedy act while climbing towards the summit: Rome, Stadio Olimpico, May 30th, 1984. The European Champion’s Cup final, a royal duel between Joe Fagan’s Liverpool, champions of England for the third time in a row and Agostino Di Bartolomei’s Roma, coached at the time by the Swede Nils Liedhom. For the first time in history, the winner of the European Cup final will be decided by a penalty shootout. With his nicely trimmed moustache, and glowing cheeks, Bruce Grobbelaar was already a man of good taste. “Playing against Roma in their own stadium was a great experience, he said a few years ago. We arrived first in the tunnel, before the game. While waiting for them, we started to sing a song – I Don't Know What It Is But I Love It by Chris Rea – as Graeme Souness and Craig Johnston came from Middlesbrough. The longer we waited, the louder we sang, and when the Roma players arrived, they were a little shocked; then Souey said: ‘We’ve got them!’” More than 120 minutes were needed for the winner to be decided after Phil Neal scored the first goal, before Roberto Pruzzo equalized. Everything was decided during a penalty shootout which made history, with Grobbelaar becoming a hero, in two moves: first, by biting the net to unsettle Bruno Conti, before unveiling his “spaghetti legs” in front of Francesco Graziani. Liverpool won the shootout and lifted its fourth European Cup. On his side, Bruce Grobbelaar definitely wrote his legend thanks to an intuition: “I told myself that we were in Rome, in a country where the national dish is spaghetti, so I did the spaghetti legs, that’s all.”
Baseball, balding head, and blunders
Grobbelaar's story is a funny one. Born in Durban sixty years ago, he was a cricket fan during his childhood, went to the United States to become a baseball player before becoming Liverpool’s most decorated goalkeeper more than twenty years later. Mentioning his name first means going back to an old chapter of English football, pages where Paul Gascoigne meets Cantona, Waddle, Tony Adams, the Hillsborough disaster, the Heysel disaster, old-time football and its undesirable smells. It also means meeting a man who lived a thousand lives, who has known the civil war in his country, Zimbabwe, and who even was once a soldier posted at the border of Rhodesia. What should Grobbelaar be remembered for? His style, obviously, a mix between a balding head, and multicolor outfits which were unable to hide an expressionless look. For him, everything started in South African under the Apartheid - at Highlands Park, Durban City - but mainly with a decisive loan at Crewe Alexandra during the 1979-80 season, which led to him being noticed by a Liverpool scout after he stopped a penalty. The staff at Liverpool had a pretty simple idea after signing him in 1981: to make him Ray Clemence’s heir, which Grobbelaar eventually became despite a few blunders. At the end of his journey at Liverpool, in 1994, he had played a little less than 450 matches for the club, and won six Championships, one European Cup, three FA Cups and three League Cups.
“I came to this country with £10 in my pocket”
But if people still remember Bruce Grobbelaar, it’s also for something else, and notably for his big mouth. The man was white but a white racist, and he once went too far with one of his teammates, Howard Gayle: “If you were in the jungle, where you belong, I would kill you. I was used to shooting people like you.” A big stain in his career, just like when his face was on the cover of the Sun, in 94, with a terrible accusation: he was allegedly involved in a match-fixing scandal, for the profit of a betting company. Grobbelaar was then accused of corruption, went many times to the courthouse, sued the tabloid and was ordered by the Law Lords to pay for the Sun’s legal costs, which he couldn’t do. Out of this story came his most famous sentence: “I came to this country with £10 in my pocket and after the Law Lords had finished with me, I had £1. That’s quite some life I’ve had on £9!” A life which carries on in South Africa, where he is currently trying to make it as a manager. Not so easy, but Bruce can confirm: life is beautiful.