When John Barnes first visited South Africa, back in 1994, the nation was a fledgling democracy, a nation finding its feet with two groups of people, black and white, still unsure of how and whether to trust the other.
Barnes, then a part of a touring Liverpool side got to experience that first hand from the back seat of a car. He had a side job, shooting a documentary on South Africa for an English channel, and he took a chance in setting up an interview with Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of the country.
“All the players were meeting him and my producer – you know how pushy producers can be – told me to ask him for an interview,” said Barnes at the SuperSport studios this week. “I said, ‘Mr Mandela, in my spare time I’m doing a documentary about the changes in South Africa.’ And he said: ‘Come to the house.’ He gave us the address and we were driving around looking for the house. We had these two Afrikaans cameramen, the producer, who was white, and me, sitting in the back.
“We were looking for the house and we couldn’t find it and there was this black guy walking along the street. So we slowed down and the two Afrikaans cameramen asked him if he knew where Nelson Mandela lived. He goes ‘no, no, no’, but because we were going really slowly, he sees me in the back and he knocks on the window and when I wound down the window asks, ‘Are you John Barnes?’ I said, ‘yeah’, and he goes, ‘oh, Nelson Mandela lives second left, first right and his house is just there.”
Barnes laughed hard remembering the story. In 1994 if a couple of white men had asked where Mandela lived, then people tended to get nervous. He poured Barnes and his three white colleagues coffee and chatted to them for an hour before leaving Barnes with a line that has stayed with the former Liverpool and England forward: “There are so many men who I consider greater than me who aren’t alive to see this day. It’s not about me, it’s about those people who sacrificed so I could be here. That’s the greatness of the man, so humble.”
Sixteen years on and Mandela is still around to see his countrymen host the World Cup, the World’s biggest sporting event. Barnes, who has been in South Africa some 10 times since 1994, is back to work for SuperSport during the length of the tournament, providing analysis from their Randburg studios. He expects this World Cup to be like the others he has watched and played at, but with a slightly more poignant twist to the mass of emotion that make up this tournament.
“My expectations for every World Cup are the same. There’s the colour. I was on the plane coming in with people from Mexico and the Germans wearing their lederhosen,” said Barnes. “It’s going to be a bit noisier here, though. No matter where the tournament is held it is the most successful tournament. Maybe things will be a little different here in terms of infrastructure and there’s an emotion to this tournament that Africans feel, and perhaps the English people and visitors might not get. It’s the first tournament in Africa and the hope is that it leaves a legacy behind. Football is the number one sport in Africa, it is the be-all and end-all, and that’s different from other continents.”
Barnes played in two World Cups, 1986 and 1990. During the former he got to see perhaps the greatest World Cup goal of all time while sitting on the bench for England. He only got to play one game in ’86 and it was in the quarterfinal that will forever be remembered for Maradona’s handball goal. That is to forget his stunning second, in which he left a slew of England defenders in his wake.
“My memory of ’86 was Diego Maradona. He was the greatest player ever. I was sitting on the bench when he scored,” said Barnes. “I nearly jumped up when he scored. Me and Chris Waddle nearly jumped up and celebrated because we loved Maradona so much and it was such a stunning goal.”
Barnes came on and set up Gary Lineker for a goal that gave England some hope. He nearly set up Lineker for a second, but it was not to be. Four years later, Bobby Robson, the England manager, who had only given Barnes a run in that quarterfinal, showed more faith in the Liverpool wing and he was repaid as England went on a run that took them to the semifinal. They lost to Germany on penalties.
“That was England’s chance. The quality of the team was probably about the same at 1986, but the spirit carried us through to the semifinal against Germany, where we lost. We battled through against Belgium (where Barnes hit home a sweet volley, but had the goal disallowed, wrongly, for offside), then came back against Cameroon. We played our best performance against Germany in the semifinals.”
Barnes believes harmony in the squad is more important at World Cups than individual skill, which sounds strange coming from someone so blessed with talent.
“1990 I remember for the harmony of the England team, which I think is more important than the quality of the team,” said Barnes. “That’s why I think Brazil will win this World Cup. They’re together as a unit. They trust one another. Spain are the same and England have got that harmony as a squad as well. I think England will do well, but Brazil just have that edge with the experience of having won World Cups.”