Clive Barker, manager of the victorious Bafana-Bafana side that won the Nations Cup trophy in 1996, recalls the memories of that “once in a lifetime” experience, and what followed, with our African Football editor, Osasu Obayiuwana.
Winning the Africa Cup of Nations, in their very first tournament appearance, following their return to the African football family, was one of the greatest sporting moments in South African history.
Beating Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions and Ghana’s Blacks Stars on the path to the trophy and vanquishing Tunisia’s formidable Carthage Eagles in that memorable final, at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, is a tale that Clive Barker, the manager of arguably the most gifted set of players the country has had, tells with an amazing sense of recall.
“When I saw Nelson Mandela, Goodwill Zwelethini (The Zulu King) and FW De Klerk walk on to the field, with hands held together [after winning the Nations Cup trophy], I said to myself, “I think for the first time, South Africa is genuinely united. It was, for me, the best moment,” Barker recalls.
Now 68, the Durban-born Barker, nicknamed “Mr Motivator” – for his knack of inspiring his players into going beyond their capabilities – displays a sense of old-school courtesy and charm, a value rarely seen in members of the game’s present-day fraternity.
Rather than keep me waiting for an interview, as the game’s present-day prima donnas are wont to do with reporters, Barker paid a very early morning visit to my hotel, for what has been one of the most interesting conversations, about how football transcends the frontiers of sport.
Traversing the subject of race – on a very personal level – and how football plays a key role in healing deep racial divisions in a country, still in the process of forging a character and identity that includes all its peoples, Barker is blunt about the parlous state of the national team and expresses his hopes for the future…
Osasu Obayiuwana: You are the most successful national coach in South Africa. Are you pleased you retain this record?
Clive Barker: You know, I’ll be happy when the record gets broken. People say to me, “Don’t be so blasé”. But records are made to be broken. Because of what we did in 1996, people would still identify with my team. They have never lost the aura they had about them. We had great players like Philemon Masinga and Lucas Radebe. It was a wonderful time…
Osasu Obayiuwana: What are your most memorable moments at that tournament, looking back on what you achieved?
Clive Barker: The opening match against Cameroon was so important, as we really needed to get a result. We managed to do that and we kept going on… The game against Ghana was a particularly tough one… but we managed to thump them 3-0… From that moment, we turned a corner as a football nation and went on to beat Tunisia, quite comfortably, in the final.
A very important moment for me was when I saw Nelson Mandela, Goodwill Zwelethini (The Zulu King) and FW de Klerk walk on to the field, holding hands. I said to myself, “I think for the first time, I think South Africa is genuinely united.” I then gave my Nations Cup winners’ medal to Nelson Mandela.
Osasu Obayiuwana: So, what memento do you have from the tournament?
Clive Barker: Nothing. I have never been a collector of medals. Giving them away saves me the trouble of trying to keep the brass and silver nice and tidy (laughs)… I thought that giving Mandela the medal was the best thing to do for someone that had spent over 20 years in jail and paid a price, like nobody else had ever done, to unite a nation.
Osasu Obayiuwana: How important has football been, as a tool of healing and reconciliation, in post-apartheid South Africa?
Clive Barker: That’s a marvellous question, because South African footballers broke down more [racial] barriers than any politician did. In the 1970’s, when it was considered taboo for people from different races to be seen as ‘mixing’, South African football was prepared to go the extra mile and do what was right. We refused to have rebel tours, like the cricket and rugby teams did. We were prepared to wait for things to happen in the right way…
Osasu Obayiuwana: How has winning the African Cup of Nations changed your life?
Clive Barker: It changed it forever. Even now, I can’t go anywhere without people stopping me for a picture. I thought it would stop long ago but, of course, it never does. When we scored a goal in those days, I would do a run (his well-known ‘aeroplane spin’) and even today, the old grannies start doing it when they see me!
Osasu Obayiuwana: Would you have ever thought that 17 years after winning your first Nations Cup, South Africa would still be waiting to win its second?
Clive Barker: I am quite surprised at that. I think that we had enough quality footballers to have a consistent run and dominate the continent, like Egypt has done. But I think we have fallen from grace, mainly because of our egos… Gordon [Igesund, the present South Africa coach] has a great opportunity now, because there is no dominant team in African football now and things have levelled out.
Osasu Obayiuwana: What is your opinion about the quality of those running South African football over the last 17 years?
Clive Barker: Generally poor… I think the fingers must be pointed at the administrators of SAFA.
Osasu Obayiuwana: What are your memories of the players that were in the team that you managed, like Lucas Radebe, Mark Fish, Mark Williams and ‘Doctor’ Khumalo?
Clive Barker: ‘Doctor’ Khumalo was still, for me, the best player… He and ‘Shoes’ (John Moshoeu) were the best that I had worked with, technically. But what ‘Doctor’ brought to the table was that if he had the ball 10 times, outside the 18-yard box, he would create more chances for those 10 times than any other player in South Africa.
Neil Tovey, Shaun Bartlett and the others were players that could perform at the highest level. As you know, there are players that play very well at club level but never do the same with their national teams. We had players that could perform at both.
Osasu Obayiuwana: You are the only person in South Africa who knows what Gordon Igesund must do, as he prepares for the Nations Cup. Many people think the opening game against Cape Verde will be a ‘walk in the park’…
Clive Barker: There are no ‘walk in the park’ games in African football anymore… Gordon has been a very successful club coach and he will try to take the pressure off the players. Once South Africa gets past the first hurdle, it would take a lot of pressure off…
If Gordon delivers, we may be able to get the stability that is clearly needed in our game… Should he be put under pressure? Of course he should be. When you take a job like this, you know that if you don’t deliver, you are going to be out…
Osasu Obayiuwana: What would you describe as ‘delivering’?
Clive Barker: Winning…
Osasu Obayiuwana: But he has just taken up the job! Surely, you, of all people, understand how much time he needs to settle into the job…
Clive Barker: That’s the only excuse he can have. He has a lot of resources behind him. Gordon knows the magnitude of the job. South Africans only want success. He has to deliver and even when you deliver, like we did, you’re not safe even then…
Osasu Obayiuwana: What future do you see for South African football?
Clive Barker: If we win the Africa Cup of Nations, Gordon will have a chance to work on a long-term plan for the team, because they’ll give him time for winning the trophy. There are a lot of football people within South Africa that can work with him. But he has to deliver on the greatest stage in African football.
For the full-length version of this interview, please go to www.footballisafrica.com