Grobbelaar goes home to a hero's welcome

Such is the adulation Bruce Grobbelaar commands in football-crazy Zimbabwe that had Fifa, the sport's governing body, decided to ban Southampton's goalkeeper from playing for his country in tomorrow's international match against Zaire, a distinct danger existed of riots on the streets of the capital, Harare.

As it was, the news late yesterday afternoon that Fifa had decided to suspend judgment on Grobbelaar's alleged involvement in match-fixing was greeted by Zimbabweans with relief and celebration. Fifa will instead await the results of an inquiry by the Football Association in England.

An official of the Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa) had warned earlier that a Fifa ban would not be taken lightly by his countrymen. ``If they banned him, with 60,000 fans there in the stadium, who knows what might happen? He is a hero in this country.''

Grobbelaar flew in from London early yesterday morning determined to milk the affection of Zimbabwean fans for all it was worth. Adamant that he was innocent, resolved to press libel charges against ``two British newspapers'', beating the patriotic drum, he was insistent that the scandal generated in Britain by the bribery allegations against him would not undermine his performance. The game against Zaire is regarded as one Zimbabwe must win to stand a chance of qualifying for the finals of the African Nations Cup.

``I just want to put the allegations behind me until at least the game is over,'' he said during a training session yesterday morning at Harare's National Sports Stadium. ``I'm more determined than ever to play well. My mind is focused. I'll give 110 per cent for my country.''

As if home had provided him with a refuge from the raging controversy, 6,000 miles north, he looked happy and relaxed. He was his old clowning self among his team-mates, who took him instantly to their collective bosom when he arrived at the stadium.

For the benefit of the photographers, he and his colleague from the English Premiership, Coventry City's Peter Ndlovu, proceeded to fool with the mask Grobbelaar had recently donned to protect a facial injury. And then Grobbelaar, fresh from the 10-hour London flight, all but took charge of the training session, shouting instructions to his team-mates, among whom - at 37 and with the vast experience accumulated at Liverpool - he was clearly something of a father figure.

His actual arrival just after dawn at Harare airport had provided few clues as to the jollity that would follow. At first, everything indicated that relations with the posse of British media waiting for him would remain as tense as they had been on Tuesday evening at Gatwick, when the eager attentions of Sun reporters forced him to delay his homecoming by 48 hours.

In scenes evocative of the colonial Rhodesian past, the police and security personnel at Harare airport proved no match for the British television crews. The moment Grobbelaar stepped out of the aircraft door, five crews rushed on to the tarmac, prompting him to accelerate down the plane's steps towards a waiting Air Zimbabwe van. The driver, terrorised by the spectacle of the charging pale faces, slammed his gear stick into reverse and broke the world's backwards land-speed record in his effort to safeguard Zimbabwe's most prized asset.

As for the reaction among ordinary Zimbabweans, a salesman at an electronics shop in Harare seemed to sum it up yesterday afternoon. ``We think he's the victim of a smear campaign. But even if he took the money, well, it was a lot of money and everybody loves money. What matters is that he is one of us, we are proud of him and we will stick by him.''

Kelly's appeal, page 48

(Photograph omitted)

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