/ 10 June 2023

TRIBUTE: Clive Barker’s greatness was in unlocking the greatness of others

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Clive Barker during the AmaZulu training session ahead of their friendly against Manchester United, at Moses Mabhida Stadium on July 17, 2012 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Clive Barker didn’t think too hard about tactics, but he thought hard about people. The former Bafana coach, who died aged 78 on 10 June, secured his 1996 Africa Cup of Nations triumph with an old-school formation: 4-4-2, featuring a midfield of two ball-winning warriors behind a duo of silky attacking midfielders. 

Barker’s match day philosophy was simple: the hard men must be hard, and the artists must be free to express the effervescent and theatrical spirit of the South African game. 

During his Bafana heyday, one of Barker’s routine pre-game instructions in home games was to urge Doc Khumalo to shibobo (nutmeg) an opponent within the first minute or two – the goal being to nettle the visitors and electrify the crowd. 

“I went through the team before kick-off and the last player I would talk to was Khumalo,” Barker told me in 2012.

“I would tell him: ‘Doc, just stick the ball through somebody’s legs as soon as possible.’ Against Germany, in a friendly game, it was Andy Möller who tried to close him down and it just carried on from there.”

The clash ended goalless – a shock for the Germans, but not for Barker or Khumalo.  

Barker’s jovial personality reinforced the inaccurate perception that he was a simple man doing a simple job. In fact, he was a subtle and intuitive analyst of character and culture, and he needed to be: he navigated fraught and complex sociopolitical terrain for decades, both on and beyond the pitch. 

Barker was one of the first white coaches to work for a black club, starting with Amazulu back in 1972, before the unification of the country’s racially segregated leagues in the late 1970s. He later said the great Amazulu midfielder Cedric “Sugar Ray” Xulu was a pivotal figure who conscientised him, teaching him the traumatic realities of township life – realities which would grow ever more painful during the mass uprisings to come in 1976 and 1985.  

Barker enthusiastically embraced Amazulu’s theatrical fan culture. In his second stint at Amazulu in the 1990s, he would mischievously perform the role of amateur touchline inyanga – often sprinkling supposedly enchanted water along the touchline to the delight of the Usuthu faithful. 

As a former taxi driver and salesman, Barker found and followed a resonance between his white working-class worldview and the black working-class worldview. He broke barriers, but not self-importantly: he was quietly entering a freedom and a future that didn’t yet exist beyond the pitch.

And he went on to help several white footballers to travel the same distance – not least Neil Tovey, who captained his 1996 Nations Cup-winning side in a triumph that arguably did much more to dramatise the potential of the democratic era than the Springboks’ 1995 Rugby World Cup victory. 

Clive Barker of Bidvest Wits during the Absa Premiership match between Ajax Cape Town and Bidvest Wits at Cape Town Stadium on April 20, 2013 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Luke Walker/Gallo Images)

But Barker’s sunny persona didn’t tell the whole story of his famous motivational gifts. Yes, he would relentless praise and affirm the sensitive types (Linda Buthelezi, Helman Mkhalele) but he would also routinely insult and lampoon those brashly confident players (Professor Ngubane, George Dearnaley) who could handle a ribbing and needed a bit of resistance in order to apply themselves fully.

As Ngubane told New Frame, (https://www.newframe.com/the-genius-of-clive-barker/) whenever he scored, Barker would dismiss his goal as a fluke. “I would get angry and want to score more the following week. Only later, I realised he was motivating me. If a player was big-headed, he would insult him. If a player was low on confidence, he would tell him he thought he was the best in the world.” 

Barker made a habit of visiting players in their hotel rooms to give them a pep talk or a challenge. He made everyone feel pivotal. And as a result, everyone was pivotal. 

One of the great imponderables of Barker’s career is how he would have fared in charge of Bafana at the 1998 World Cup, had he survived a poor run of form in 1997 that earned him the sack. Jomo Sono took over as caretaker, before the charmless Frenchman Phillipe Troussier stepped in to guide South Africa to an uninspired World Cup debut, which ended in the group stage.

At the time, it was felt that Barker was too old-school, too instinctive, too unsophisticated for the game’s greatest stage. But 27 years later, only one South African coach has won a major trophy with the men’s national team. And his name is Clive Barker, and he won that trophy in part by believing in the mad magic of our football past. 

When I spoke to him a few years ago, he admitted that the South African game had become faster and more tactically organised. “But I don’t think it’s as romantic,” he said. “I don’t think it’s as good as it was when players could put their foot on the ball. I can’t imagine Jomo Sono, Ace Ntsoelengoe and Lawrence Chelin charging all over the field like they would be expected to these days. There is a way for South Africans to play, and we haven’t quite got it.”

The obvious next sentence, which Barker was too nice a man to say out loud, was that he got it.