Before we reach the match-fixing trials which ruined his reputation, or remember the 13 major trophies he won as Liverpool’s goalkeeper in 14 staggering years, we start with war in Africa. Bruce Grobbelaar was a teenager when he was conscripted into the Rhodesian army in 1975 and plunged into Zimbabwe’s war of independence. His booming laughter fades and, as haunting memories cloud Grobbelaar’s face, it becomes easier to understand the eccentricities and mistakes which defined him.
He winces as he remembers how one of his fellow white soldiers mutilated the bodies of black freedom fighters. “This guy would cut an ear off every man he killed. He kept the ears in a jar. And he had quite a few jars. His family had been brutalised so he wanted revenge.”
The 60-year-old pauses before describing the moment he first killed a man. “My first time was at dusk. As the sun sinks you’re seeing shadows in the bush. You cannot recognise much until you see the whites of their eyes. It’s you or them. You shoot, you drop and there’s overwhelming gunfire. You hear voices on your side: ‘Hey, corporal, I’m hit.’ You whistle to shut them up otherwise we’re all getting killed. When the firefight is finished you see bodies everywhere. The first time everything in your stomach comes up through your mouth.”
It sounds like he killed many men? “Yes. This is why I’ve always lived my life for today. I can only say sorry for the past. I can’t change it.”
The psychological trauma was acute and Grobbelaar describes how two soldiers he knew took their own lives when, after completing their conscription, they were all told to do another six-month tour. “They killed themselves simultaneously in adjoining toilets in the barracks. They couldn’t face it.”
Grobbelaar believes that football “saved” him. “It kept me away from the dark thoughts of war.”
The Rhodesian army were fighting to preserve minority rule but Grobbelaar was different to most white soldiers. Football had made him a cult hero in the black townships. “The fans called me Jungleman. They said this young guy’s not white. He’s black in a white man’s skin.”
After he played for clubs in Durban and then Vancouver he fulfilled his dream of finding his way into English football. He was transferred to Crewe and yet, hearing that Bob Paisley was coming to watch him before possibly signing him for Liverpool, he did not temper his warm-up routine. Grobbelaar ran out with an umbrella, walked on his hands and jumped on the crossbar.
Why didn’t he compromise and at least leave the umbrella? “It was raining. I asked the tea lady, Mavis, if I could borrow her umbrella.”
Liverpool’s “Scottish mafia”, Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen, were mercilessly witty and unforgiving. Hansen would not talk to Grobbelaar for a week after he made an error while the “ruthless” Paisley delayed telling him that his dad had died five days previously.
“I still scratch my head as to why he kept it from me until after the game [the Intercontinental Cup final against Brazil’s Flamengo in Toyko]. Bob said: ‘You can go to your father’s funeral, but be back by Friday.’ The funeral was on the Thursday. I flew business class from Tokyo to Paris to Johannesburg and back to Heathrow. When I got my next pay cheque there was nothing left. I paid for my own trip to the funeral. That’s how ruthless they were. Not much compassion.”
Grobbelaar, however, captures Liverpool’s great camaraderie. He describes sharing a room with Steve Nicol who would spend the night before every game drinking beer and eating crisps in bed. “Nicol was a phenomenal player. We all played hard, lived hard. Terry McDermott would have umpteen pints of lager. But next day at training he’d be at the front.”
When Liverpool were at their most majestic they were drinking quantities which would shock any Premier League team today. If they won away, as they usually did, Grobbelaar would restrict himself to three beers. Yet if they lost he would sink a dozen beers on the long journey home “to quench the anguish, to kill the sorrow”.
Before the European Cup final against Roma in 1984 they went on a break to Tel Aviv and a drunken brawl among the Liverpool players was seen as evidence of a broken team by the Italian press. Yet in the tunnel, waiting to play the Italians in their own intimidating stadium in Rome, Souness roused his teammates into singing Chris Rea’s I Don’t Know What It Is, But I Love It. The Roma players were stunned when the singing became even more raucous as they emerged.
In the penalty shootout Grobbelaar produced his famous spaghetti-legs dance on the goal‑line. Francesco Graziani missed his penalty and Grobbelaar raced across the pitch in celebration. Liverpool only had to score their final penalty to win the European Cup. Amid the delirium Joe Fagan instructed Alan Kennedy to take the kick assigned to Grobbelaar. “I thank my lucky stars I wasn’t the fifth penalty-taker as planned. If I had missed it, I would have been the fall guy.”
His happiness and success at Liverpool was blighted by the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters. Heysel, when 39 Juventus fans died before the 1985 European Cup final, affected him even more than war. “It was worse. In the bush you knew what could happen. At Heysel it was innocent people. To hear the crumbling wall and the falling bodies was terrible.”
Grobbelaar was scarred deeply by Hillsborough in 1989. His book offers a distressing account of everything he saw – as the player closest to the 96 Liverpool fans crushed and suffocated to death. “I was near gate number 13 and there was this soft sound – like air coming out. I saw the faces squashed against the fence. I went to get the ball and shouted to the policewoman: ‘Open the effing gate.’ She said: ‘I haven’t got the key.’ When the ball came back a second time, I shouted again. I saw they had a key and people spilled on to the ground. I kicked the ball out and ran to the referee. That’s when the barrier went over and the bodies came down. I could hear the air coming out of them. One of the faces squashed against the fence belonged to a girl called Jackie. I had given her that ticket but luckily she survived. I saw her last night at the book signing.”
Perhaps he saw so much carnage and death that Grobbelaar lost his bearings. His book offers a detailed rebuttal of the Sun’s match-fixing allegationsagainst him in 1994. After two protracted trials which failed to deliver a verdict, Grobbelaar, John Fashanu and Hans Segers were cleared in 1997. Grobbelaar then sued the Sun successfully for libel – only for his winning settlement to be reduced from £85,000 to £1 on appeal. He also had to pay the newspaper’s £500,000 legal costs which left him bankrupt.
I am not convinced entirely by Grobbelaar’s account. A conman called Chris Vincent had already cost him millions in a skewed business deal. Yet, because they shared a past in the Rhodesian Army, he met Vincent again. Once Vincent started proposing match-fixing, as a ruse to entrap Grobbelaar, why did he not walk away? “He came to me with a proposal to get my money back. After a while he starts talking about two guys in Hong Kong who will give [me] money to throw a game. I thought: ‘Let’s see where he’s going with this.’ I tried to be Inspector Clouseau. You know how Clouseau gets it wrong? So did I.”
Was he tempted by Vincent’s match-fixing talk? “Absolutely. I was tempted to hear what he was saying, tempted to get him to tell me who the people were. Once I had the names I was going to the authorities. But he got there first.”
We’re on safer ground considering Liverpool’s hopeful prospects this season. “Apart from when I’m away, I see every home game,” Grobbelaar says. “If the players are the same as we were then the aim, first and foremost, is the league. Everything else is a bonus.”
Grobbelaar was Liverpool’s goalkeeper when they last won the league in 1990. The African Jungleman celebrated by walking the lap of honour on his hands. Could he have believed then that, 28 years later, Liverpool would be waiting for their next title? “No. I blame the witch-doctor who came to Anfield because he’s the one who put stuff on my goal and said: ‘If you don’t have Jungleman, you’re not going to win again.’ They haven’t.”
He laughs when I ask how the witch-doctor’s spell can be broken. “The only way is to urinate on all four posts. I’ve done two but I got caught going down Anfield Road and removed. That’s when Liverpool came second [in 2014]. If we don’t win the title this season I’m going down Anfield Road and doing those two other posts.”
Grobbelaar only stops chuckling when he reveals that the president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, called him recently. “He said: ‘Hello, Jungleman, how are you?’ I’m going back in November. As I told him, I would love to be the ambassador to sport, recreation and reconciliation. I still have a lot of hope for Zimbabwe and I would like to make a difference.”
Life in a Jungle, by Bruce Grobbelaar, is available from www.guardianbookshop.com.