Over 150 goals for club and country, five major trophies and a Number One in the UK Singles Chart: no one’s quite had a career like John Barnes. FOX Sports Asia’s Cameron Tucker sat down with the Liverpool and England legend to discuss his travels in the region and furthering football on the continent.
In the corner of one of Hong Kong’s famed British-style pubs, I found myself sitting next to John Barnes.
On a projector screen, to our right, played a reel of the former left winger’s career highlights. I asked Barnes which goal was his favourite: “Mate, I can’t even remember half of them.”
From the man who chipped Hans Segers from the tightest of angles, scissor-kicked against Blackburn, and dribbled past half the Brazilian squad in what is regularly voted England’s greatest goal, this was quite a statement.
While he may not have remembered such wizardry, I could certainly remember the first time we met.
Almost nine years ago to the day, I was babysitting my sister and her friends while they played on the green at the Kowloon Cricket Club (KCC). I heard my old football coach chatting behind me, turned around, and there he was giving Barnes a tour of the pitch.
After a brief introduction from the coach, in which he said I had recently moved to rivals Hong Kong Football Club, Barnes made a quip about jumping ship. We laughed and a few days later I saw him competing for KCC at the Soccer Sevens, an annual invitational tournament at the Footy Club.
“Hong Kong is a great place to come. I was here playing seven-a-side with friends, going into the stands after matches and being treated just like a normal person,” Barnes recalls.
Fast forward to 2016, Digger (as he was affectionately known at Liverpool) was back in Hong Kong with the club where he made his name. Along with four academy coaches, Barnes conducted a series of training sessions teaching children how to play “The Liverpool Way”: “It’s all about the philosophy. Telling the kids about discipline and dedication, desire, teamwork, all attributes Bill Shankly stood for and what Jürgen Klopp buys into.”
While he has steadied the ship since taking the helm, Barnes feels Liverpool will have to find a new way under Klopp: “Forget the club of old. What has to happen now is the Jürgen Klopp way. If he says, ‘this is our style’, then this is our style. We can be successful, but fans need to stop comparing it with the past.”
During his 10-year spell at Liverpool, Barnes went down in Kop folklore. Over 100 goals in 403 appearances for the club along with an unshakeable smile made the Kingston-born Barnes admired across the land.
Since retiring in 1999, he’s been running a busy schedule of charity work, punditry commitments and coaching clinics. In the time he was last in Hong Kong, he has been all over the world. Nothing surprises him anymore about people’s love for the beautiful game: “Anywhere you go you see it. They have the same passion in England, in South America, in Africa. An eight year old in Afghanistan is just as good as an eight year old in England.”
“An eight year old in Afghanistan is just as good as an eight year old in England.”
So why then aren’t we seeing Afghanistan up there with Germany and Argentina? For Barnes, it’s the environment available for 14 to 18 year olds in Europe: “The infrastructure is in place to allow these players to flourish, improve and progress. You don’t have that dynamic everywhere in the world. Elsewhere, kids can’t concentrate on football. They have to get a job and feed their families.”
Barnes sees a similar mindset in Asia: “What happens is at 14, they [children] have to study harder and end up putting football on the back-burner. That impacts development in this part of the world.”
Of the AFC nations, South Korea and Japan have been the stand-out representatives. Since hosting the 2002 World Cup, both countries have made their mark on the international stage, notably South Korea’s fourth place finish when they hosted. Both countries are also Asia’s largest exporters of players to the English, Spanish, German and Italian leagues.
Yet, there have only been 29 Asian footballers to have played in England’s top flight.
For Barnes, it’s an issue he’s confident will be resolved in the coming decades: “Look at the African players. 20 years ago you would’ve said, ‘Where are the African players?’ Now, look how many there are. In 20 years’ time after a huge influx of Japanese, South Korean and other Asian players, we won’t be asking the same question.”
Staying power seems to be the obstacle in getting to that stage. Much like present-day confidence in managers, patience is a luxury. For this influx to materialise, a development strategy needs to be put in place over the next five to 10 years. AFC nations can’t just “throw in the towel” if it doesn’t work in two or three, believes Barnes.
The MLS is a case in point. In the 70s, the Americans tried to raise the profile of “soccer”. Beckenbauer and Pelé were drafted in, but to no avail. The football fad petered out quicker than it had kicked off. Today, it’s slowly establishing itself as a viable destination for those wanting to prolong their careers.
With the backing of President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Super League is now poised to tilt the game on its axis. US$850bn is being slated for investment in the league by 2026. Jackson Martinez, Ramires and Alex Teixeira are among those to have joined the footballist utopia.
Barnes, however, doubts its sustainability: “When young players are going for 20, 25 million, you have to question their integrity. Teixeira is an example. For him to be going to Liverpool and then all of a sudden head to China, that shows a lot about his character. I think we dodged a bullet there.”
“When young players are going [to China] for 20, 25 million, you have to question their integrity.”
Time seems to be the major currency in advancing football in the region. Change is afoot and will move quickly in China; that is guaranteed. Whether that change is for the long run, we’ll have to wait and see.
In the nine years since I first met John Barnes, the sport’s landscape has transformed. How will it alter in the next nine?