Grobbelaar on tackling racism, fighting for his life and how football saved him

Bruce Grobbelaar is perfectly placed to voice an opinion on some of the burning issues currently facing the world.

At the age of 17, in the days before football saved the former Liverpool goalkeeper from becoming a dead-man walking, Grobbelaar was plunged into a bloody civil war in his native Rhodesia that claimed 20,000 lives.

It wasn’t the black versus white conflict that has often been portrayed.

Many of the soldiers who fought alongside Grobbelaar in a futile attempt to prevent rebel forces from taking over the country that was to be renamed Zimbabwe in 1980 were black.

Now aged 63, the former Liverpool keeper still carries the mental scars from two teenage years of bitter jungle combat.

Grobbelaar killed – and also saw close friends lose their lives in front of him.

He is not being dramatic when he says: “Football saved my life. When I became a professional player, and especially when I joined Liverpool in 1981, the game gave me something to live for.

“Without it, I’m not sure I would still be here today. A lot of my old friends from my army days are no longer with us.

“Mental health is something people are not afraid to talk about these days.

“But back then it was different. There was no help. You didn’t have therapy. No-one really cared, so you carried all the memories and images inside your head.

“I saw friends get shot. I’d be thinking ‘if I’d been stood a yard to my left then that would have been me.’

“Even now, I still have those thoughts. I know I suffered from some kind of post traumatic stress disorder – and I probably still do.

“But I was one of the lucky ones. I lived to tell the tale and football gave me something to focus myself on.

“That was why I always had a smile on my face when I was on the pitch.

“I was being paid to do something I love. Being Liverpool’s goalkeeper can be pretty stressful – but when you’ve been in a situation where every day is a fight for your life then it puts things into perspective.”

Grobbelaar was just 17 when he was called into the Rhodesian Army for National Service.

It was supposed to last 12 months. Then 18. When it was extended by a further six months two men in his unit walked into the latrines and committed suicide.

“I heard the gunshots and I was the first one to see what they had done,” said Grobbelaar.

When Grobbelaar left the army, he was still only 19 years old.

While other combatants were left to their nightmares, he was able to pursue a dream that took him to Anfield.

Over the next 13 years he won six title medals and famously produced the penalty shoot-out saves that secured the 1984 European Cup when his ‘spaghetti’ legs stance unnerved Roma’s players on their home ground.

The experiences of growing up in a country riven by racial tensions stood Grobbelaar in good stead – and not just those lessons learned on the battlefield.

Grobbelaar’s autobiography – Life in a Jungle – details how he came out of Africa to become an inspiration for an entire continent. It is beautifully ghost written by Ragnhild Lund Ansnes.

Grobbelaar said: “I have always believed that anyone who comes from my country – whether they are black or white – are my brothers and sisters.

“When I was growing up, I was taught to respect black culture.

“When I moved from Salisbury Callies to Matabeleland Highlanders I moved from a team of white-only players to a club where all the other players were black.

“I was still at school and it was a problem just getting to training because there was a curfew on white people going into the townships.

“Before my debut, we all had to strip naked in front of a tree in someone’s backyard while the club’s witch doctor put some muti (magic) on us.

“There were rituals like that before every game – and because I respected the culture I was accepted as part of the team.

“After one game, the chairman of the supporters’ club said ‘you’re a black man in a white man’s body’ and I was nicknamed ‘Jungleman.’

“These were difficult times for my country and I saw some evil things I will never forget.

“But what I also realised was that’s human nature. It has nothing to do with the colour of someone’s skin.”

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