It has been 22 years since he led South Africa to glory in the African Cup of Nations. In a new book, Clive Barker recounts his career as a salesman by day and taxi driver by night, and to FORBES AFRICA, that he is not done with the future of African football.
We are in Melville, a charming suburb in Johannesburg, and finding house number 55 is not as easy as Google Maps makes it out to be.
Finally, we arrive, there are two dogs by the gate, we ring the bell, and Clive Barker’s son answers the door.
The small room has a larger-than-life presence – Barker is on a couch watching a World Cup match repeat. It’s the right time and place to watch world soccer, in the company of a legend.
Standing up, shaking hands, the genial septuagenarian directs us to the patio not too far from the television and facing a landscaped yard.
The first South African coach to qualify for the World Cup in 1998, before that, Barker had led South Africa to victory in the African Cup of Nations in 1996.
For a country going through reconciliation and healing since the end of apartheid only two years earlier, it was historic. That moment changed a country’s destiny in sport, as also Barker’s life.
“People often say to me, ‘what was the biggest moment in your football career?’ And I say ‘it was when Nelson Mandela became the president of this country, he promised to come and watch us play football’. In those days, nobody came to watch us play besides the supporters and on his big day, South Africa’s greatest day, he decided to come watch us play against Zambia and of course we won. He gave us a speech which went on for 25 minutes and the Zambians blamed that for the reason they lost,” says Barker, a tear rolling down his cheek as he speaks about his interactions with Mandela.
Barker made his professional debut at the age of 17, and has had a long history in the game, from being close to starting an international career with Leicester in England to now unearthing soccer talent in South Africa’s townships.
“I played football professionally and of course, everybody has a dream to play overseas. I was on track to do that. Unfortunately, over an Easter weekend, we played in Johannesburg against a team called Rangers. I injured my knee very badly and in those days, you could do the cartilage operation but you couldn’t do the ligament operation and so I had my first setback and three years later, when the other knee went, that’s when I decided to go into coaching,” says Barker.
Without throwing in the towel after the injury, Barker decided to go into business to make ends meet. The failure of his venture did not keep him down. To avoid bankruptcy, and to avoid losing his family home, more sacrifices had to be made.
“I had to make that decision. I was going to lose my house and of course my family stayed there. I thought the only thing I could do was work during the night and I found that driving taxis was good. And I became a taxi driver. A salesperson by day and a taxi driver by night. We were able to do our shopping on Saturdays with the money we earned during the week. I paid off the creditors because I did not want to cross the street and someone tells me I owe them money.”
Football is similar to business, he says. “You start out as an individual, you have an idea and you develop it.”
Starting his coaching career after working as a driver for almost a year in 1973, Barker has groomed and trained a number of soccer stars such as Andre Arendse, Shaun Bartlett and Steve Komphela who continue in their coaching careers.
This undiscovered talent in townships brought to light by Barker over the years shaped legends in South African football.
“Thank goodness I went to the townships because I would have never known what was going on in South Africa,” he says.
Coaching patterns have changed drastically from the classic tracksuit-wearing coach paying close attention on the 90-minute game while shouting at the referee from the sidelines.
“In the olden days, you were more refined and were looked up to as a father figure, making all these runs, turns and somersaults and obscenities to the referee, there was a pattern emerging. My pattern emerged when we [AmaZulu] played Kaizer Chiefs in KwaMashu [a township in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province]. We won by 3-2, and the team hoisted me up at the end of the game and they pickpocketed me, from there on, I learned tracksuits are nothing more than tracksuits.”
Barker is looking forward to set his feet on the green pitch – he has been on a break.
“At the moment, I’m recovering from an illness that I had. I am starting to feel better. It’s the reason why I hadn’t been coaching for the last year-and-half but I’m certainly feeling well and when I am recovered, I am hoping to go back to coaching.”
In South Africa, soccer has always been more than a match, it’s a heady mixture of emotions and the shrill vuvuzelas (plastic horn). In Barker’s time, players had signature moves or tricks to keep the spectators entertained. This is one element that remains unique to South African football.
“If we copy the likes of Brazil, we could never beat them; if we copied the Italian style of football we could never beat them. If we developed the style of football that we had, then there was a pattern to it. Imagine me going to Doctor Khumalo or ‘Shoes’ Moshoeu saying ‘you can’t dribble, you can’t back-heel the ball’. If I took the nice part of football away from them, we would end up with robots.
“I think we lost out on a great opportunity to make a huge imprint in football not only in Africa in particular but throughout the whole world”.
With the non-stop action and unpredictability of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, African representation has declined drastically nearing the final stages.
The 74-year-old patriot, with great disappointment, tells FORBES AFRICA he feels sad in many ways as he had always been one to root for an African country to be world champions. However, according to Barker, not all hope is lost for Africa.
“Once we go back to the drawing board, and have a look at why we are not dominating… I know the better players get pulled over to Europe, and they could control the destiny. If you look at the World Cup and the countries that qualified, I can tell you now that France is going to win. I think because they add a bit of the African flair.”
Coach, a book on the life and times of Barker, was launched in July.
“The game has been so good to me, the people of South Africa have been good to me. Always encouraging, even the reaction to the book is fantastic. I wasn’t sure if I was going to recover from my illness and I decided that the best time to write this book is now,” says Barker, set to return soon to coaching more soccer stars, and shaping a future that will one day bring the World Cup to Africa.