Clive Barker: Why I made Neil Tovey my captain

In 1996, Clive Barker took Bafana Bafana to their first and only Africa Cup of Nations. It was a remarkable achievement for a nation that was only readmitted to the international scene a few years before. In his new autobiography, Barker recalls his first job as coach: naming a captain. 

When I took over as Bafana Bafana coach, my first action was to find out why Neil Tovey had been sacked as captain of the national team. The story I had heard was that Neil and some of the players had gone to Ellis Park to watch a game and the team doctor, also there, reported that the players had been drinking. As many good footballers will testify, one beer always turns into two, and two into three and so on, and Neil had been called into a meeting and relieved of his captaincy. When I discussed this with Neil, he was adamant that he had drunk no more than one beer and although Steve Komphela, an eloquent, charming man, was the captain at the time and had done nothing wrong, I decided to return the captaincy to Neil.

When I had first encountered Neil and his massive feet at a Juventus training session, I had shaken his outstretched hand and been impressed with the presence he had about him. His brother Mark was a super player who had been denied the opportunity of playing international football because of South Africa’s sporting isolation. Mark was the best central defender I had worked with: quick, well balanced, with a good football brain, while Neil was different. Neil played in the middle, passed the ball better than most and was a great team man. It was a privilege to work with someone with such a fantastic work ethic. Overall, both brothers were a credit to the game.

When I reinstated Neil as captain, I watched as he would walk into the breakfast room, approach the players and give each one a hug, enquiring how they and their families were and making each player feel important. I think that alone showed that the right decision about his position in the team had been made.

Two years before the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations, Yvonne accompanied me to Tunis, the beautiful capital of Tunisia where the 1994 tournament was taking place. Because South Africa was no longer the pariah state and had finally been reunited with the world, particularly in the sporting arena, I was afforded plenty of attention.

It was after this trip that Yvonne suggested I make no foolish statements, and I assured her I wouldn’t.

I was being interviewed by Emmanuel Maradas, the editor of African Soccer magazine, a hugely popular publication well received across the continent. With South Africa’s previous sporting isolation, I gathered that there might be a feeling of animosity towards us and although I said all the right things during the interview, I was finally asked how I thought Bafana would fare if they were playing in this tournament (remember, we were referred to as the Four-by-Fours at this point).

In response, I suggested that Bafana would win the next AFCON tournament (in 1996) and then qualify for the World Cup to be held in France in 1998. This caused quite a stir and I realised that I had put my foot right in it. Who was I to make such lofty utterances to the rest of Africa?

Sometimes, as a leader, you say these things to motivate yourself, the team and the supporters. Me and my big mouth. But fate was good to me and Bafana achieved with both class and panache.


View from the captain

I was appointed in 1994, with two years to plan for the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations. At that stage, the team was referred to as the Four-by-Fours (or 4x4s), having taken a couple of smacks down the line, losing 4–1 to Zimbabwe, 4–0 to Nigeria and 4–0 to Mexico. When he became national team coach, I sat down with him and we had a discussion around where I felt things were going wrong with Bafana at that stage. One of the aspects I touched on was that Bafana Bafana felt alienated, it was us as the team, and then there was the SAFA hierarchy and we needed to bring that closer together. And that’s what Clive did.

Then within the team there were Chiefs players and Pirates players and because we were still new at this, the problems of past rivalries remained. There were these different elements that we had to investigate and fix. One thing I also spoke to Clive about was the kit we were issued with when we went to camp. We’d collect our tracksuits and training kit and then return it all after the camp. We’d ask the question, were we really playing for our national team? Then in the course of playing for your club, you’d see people walking around in SAFA gear and think, they’ve got all this kit and yet we who play for our country get nothing to show for it.

It was these little things that irked us and I told Clive that, but added that this was a good team and just little changes needed to be made. I didn’t have to tell him that it was about making the players feel more valued because I knew he would fix that and ensure that those small components needing change would be changed.

He did this immediately and it showed in our success. He was open to listening to our concerns, not once asserting himself as a coach who was the boss and wouldn’t listen to input from the players, or act on it. He encouraged these conversations and more. We had fun together, we joked and when it was time to raise issues, not only the captain spoke, the whole team contributed. – Neil Tovey

Extract from Coach – The life and soccer times of Clive Barker published by Jacana Media. RRP: R240. Available at all good bookstores.

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