Still Barking

2008-03-08 00:00

I PROPOSE to evergreen AmaZulu coach Clive Barker that, with his track record with the national team and in club soccer that now spans 36 years, some might consider him the Bobby Robson of South African football.

“I’d love that compliment,” Barker replies. “When you win things in football, unfortunately it doesn’t give you the security you think maybe the game should.

“You’re only as good as your last game. And the more you win, of course, like Gordon Igesund, the more people demand that you should do it more. Where, as anybody knows, it gets harder and harder.”

It is Wednesday night, and AmaZulu have just put in a sterling performance to beat Thanda Royal Zulu 2-1 at King’s Park that was reminiscent of when Barker coached the team to victory in the Coca-Cola Cup in 1992, with players such as Owen Nzimande, Tshepo Ntsoane and Joe Mlaba, who died this week.

Barker, the supreme motivator, is beaming from ear to ear as he comes into the tunnel, all characteristic energy and enthusiasm as the 73-year-old coach shakes hands and pronounces, “What a game! What a game!”.

The day before, Barker had been stuck in traffic and was late to meet me, but in typical down-to-earth style the interview was conducted while the coach changed into his tracksuit in the UKZN-Edgewood sports field changerooms.

When Barker was replaced as head coach by Ted Dumitru at struggling AmaZulu last season, many might have thought that was the end for the coach who turned Bafana Bafana from no-hopers into African Nations Cup champions in 1996. But Barker is back at the helm at his favourite club, and AmaZulu have had a season that the coach says has been “partly successful”.

“I always try to balance the books. Anybody can go and spend thousands of rands and not take responsibility. We try and pay what the player is worth, but rather also go the other route with trying to find a young player,” Barker says.

“I think AmaZulu should always go that route — to look for local guys who want to play for a local team, which is the biggest in the province.”

Barker first coached AmaZulu in 1974, the year this reporter was born, and has seen South African football metamorphose into the multi-billion rand industry it is today.

“Obviously all clubs are fitter today,” he says of the current standard of the Premier Soccer League. “There’s money in the game that was never there in the old days.

“So there are dietitians, psychologists, fitness trainers. The planning is more advanced — people watch videos because they are more accessible now. In the old days you would train Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then turn up to play.

“That’s how the game has changed. The personalities, because of that, have fallen away a bit. And the skill factor. I’d like to see the skill and flair coming out in the game more than see it become a relay race.”

The coach agrees that, as opposed to the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa’s 30-odd top players are now based overseas, which has had an effect on the PSL.

“We weren’t exporting [in the past], and in fact we had guys coming to the country. The likes of Johnny Haynes and Budgie Byrne, even though they were near retiring, their personalities and having those who had played at the highest level was good for us.

“What has happened to your white footballer in the old NFL is what is happening to the PSL now. You have five foreign players to a team to the detriment of our local players and that’s why you have seen such a big slide in the last 10 years. In the old days we would import one player, so you would get the best, but when you import five you see a levelling off.”

Barker says, though, that with the money being poured into the game — such as the R1,6 billion SuperSport TV rights and R500 million Absa sponsorship deals — the PSL has shown signs of emerging from a slump.

“This is the first time that players, since I’ve been involved, can be guaranteed they are going to get paid. I see a more relaxed football set-up just because of that and I think it augurs well for the future.”

For the coach, while 1996 and his four years with Bafana are special, all his experiences across four decades have had their highlights.

“When I first started, I went into the townships in the ’70s, and went through a very awkward time. After the shooting of Hector Peterson, we had to play the following day and I think I was the only white man in Soweto, and I certainly wasn’t very popular.

“In ’74, AmaZulu were a terrific team, challenging for the championship and playing in cup finals. Then came the merger between the white league, FPL and black league.

“Into the ’80s, I was very dominant — a bit like the Gordon Igesund era now — and won three league titles in four years with Durban City and Durban Bush Bucks.

“In 1987, AmaZulu were programmed to win the league. They played in two cup finals and were near the top before. Unfortunately, chairman David Dlamini lost the club to the supporters. And if the supporters didn’t like a player he just didn’t get paid.”

After that experience, Barker took a break from football and helped the Natal cricket team for four years. But in 1992, he was back at AmaZulu, winning the Coca-Cola Cup, and the following year became national team coach.

“And that was a very happy time. I think the biggest game ever in my life was the day of the inauguration of the state president [Nelson Mandela], who came straight from the ceremony to the game against Zambia at Ellis Park. For 20 years we hadn’t seen any dignitary at soccer and here the icon of South Africa arrived, and I’ve never known an atmosphere in a stadium like that.”

The coach does not mince his words when asked about Bafana’s performance in going out in the first round of the Nations Cup in Ghana last month. “Crap,” he replies. “I wish people had the patience with us in that era when we were a good team when we got down to 16th in the world.

“I think [Carlos Alberto] Parreira is a wonderful coach, and he is so lucky to have the time given to him where we don’t have to win. That is a turn for the better, but I think his biggest problem is that he has limited players to work with.”

Barker has given his life to South African football, but will he ever call it a day? His response is typically optimistic. “I’d love to call it a day, but I think I’ve got something to offer the game still. I would like to be involved in 2010. Not necessarily in coaching, but in some support way. It’s going to be the best World Cup of all time.”

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