John Barnes in Ethiopia – By SARON HENDRY, THE SUN March 17,2008

March 17th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

“I have been all over Africa and Ethiopia is my favourite country because the people are so friendly.We all associate it with famine but I want to show that there is so much more going on here.”


“I have been all over Africa and Ethiopia is my favourite country because the people are so friendly.We all associate it with famine but I want to show that there is so much more going on here.”

A CLOUD of dust bursts into the air as John Barnes’s fancy footwork produces a round of applause from a crowd of onlookers.

The 44-year-old Strictly Come Dancing star is no longer rehearsing Latin moves in a studio or wowing TV audiences with his ballroom best.

Instead the Liverpool legend is working on a humanitarian mission to improve football facilities in Africa and his new audience is a group of Ethiopian children.

John, a dad-of-six, says: “I was told about a campaign called Score Ethiopia.

“It aims to help promote football in the poorest countries and build better facilities, as well as getting water to the communities and giving local people training and start-up loans to get better jobs.

“I wanted a new project to get my teeth into after the dancing and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my time.”


John travelled to Lalibela, a historic town in the north of Ethiopia to launch a fundraising campaign for a new football stadium, complete with goal posts, corner flags, kits, clean water facilities and a seating arena.

Lalibela is famous for rock-hewn churches dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries but despite a steady stream of tourism, it remains desperately poor with many people surviving on just £1 a week.

Currently, the town’s children play football with balls made from rolled-up clothes and their makeshift pitches are dust fields.

Jamaican-born John says: “I would love Sun readers to get involved in this campaign because I have travelled here and understand what football means to these children.

“I have been all over Africa and Ethiopia is my favourite country because the people are so friendly.

“We all associate it with famine but I want to show that there is so much more going on here.

“If we can help to raise £25k it will mean so much. You can’t give kids a football pitch when they can’t afford to eat but this project will help enrich their daily lives too.

“I have always known how powerful a weapon football can be to get people involved.

Sadly not many modern footballers recognise that. Football gives people in countries like Ethiopia hope, enjoyment and respite from their daily lives.

“When you see kids with nothing kicking a football around, you recognize how incredible that is. It also helps to build communities because it is a team sport.

“Kids in Lalibela don’t even have a football but they still get enjoyment from rolling up a few old socks and kicking them around. With a bit of extra help, they could be world class players.”

John has a kick around with local kids
John’s own footballing skills are legendary.

On 10 June, 1984, aged just 20, he scored one of the most magical goals ever seen against Brazil at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.

He won 79 caps for England and played at both the1986 and 1990 World Cup finals.

A managerial stint at Celtic was not fruitful but he remains well loved in the footballing community and is fiercely protective of other players.

He says: “It saddens me but I understand why modern players don’t do more here.
“I found it physically difficult to find the time to help more until I retired but I am a much better person now I have done it.
“Whenever I am back home feeling I want more, I remember the experiences I have had here in Ethiopia.”

John’s own image had an overhaul last year when he took part in Strictly Come Dancing.His stilted steps did not win him a place in the final but he won huge respect for his attempt.

He says: “My kids are big fans of Strictly and were really keen for me to do it – plus I needed to get fit and stop eating KFC and McDonald’s.

“It worked. I was doing 4 hours training a day for the show and I have lost a stone and a half.

“I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Despite what some people said, the atmosphere was really friendly.

When John returns home from Ethiopia, his children will be his priority.

John has six children. Jamie, 22, Jordan, 19, Jemma, 15, and Jasmin, 11, are from his first marriage to secretary Suzy. His current partner, biologist Andrea, is mum to Isabella, 3, and Tia, one.

Recently, his daughter Jasmin suffered a rare skin and joint illness called dermal myocitis and spent months visiting Alder Hey children’s hospital.

John, who lives on the Wirral, Merseyside, says: “She was on steroids for 2 years.

“I saw other children in the hospital going through much worse things so it was a terrible but humbling experience.

“My kids are the most important thing in my life and always have been.

“I have always been a hands-on dad, up feeding them in the night and changing their nappies. I love doing it. It’s given me more enjoyment than playing in the World Cup.

“One day, I hope to bring them all to Ethiopia. I think it’s important for kids to see countries like this.”

Unlike other high profile footballers, John has never believed in thrusting his children into the limelight.

He says: “Some people need to do that to make them happy but it wouldn’t be right for me and my family.

“I went through the whole crazy premiership footballer phase.

“I once had an Aston Martin DB7 but now I drive a BMW X5 – a nice family car. I’ve changed so much in the last few years.

“When you are playing football at a high level, people worship you and tell you you’re great all the time – it’s difficult to keep your feet on the ground.

“I can look at young footballers and criticise them but I was going through the same thing.

John came from an upper-middle-class family of achievers. Dad studied the classics for A-level and was Jamaica’s military attache in London, Mum was a famous TV presenter.

In the working-class world of British football, John Barnes was different.

The former Watford and Liverpool winger also found himself subject to jeers from home supporters at Wembley, no doubt frustrated by a perceived underachievement with the national team.

And he has been subjected to racial abuse. Every football fan will remember it.

There is John in 1988, playing in his first Merseyside derby, in the colours of Liverpool, the club with whom he won the League twice and became the first black player to win both major player of the year awards.

A banana lands at his feet. John back-heels it away. The photograph belongs to another era. Or does it?

John says: “What football can do for 90 minutes is to tell racists to keep their mouths shut but it doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist.

“When black people walk into a shop, people still think they are going to steal something.

“I don’t see many black managers in football. Overt racism has gone but it’s more dangerous when you start thinking racism doesn’t exist at all.”

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