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British Footballers in Apartheid South Africa

Conor Heffernan looks back at the promotion of ‘whites-only’ football in Apartheid South Africa.

In 1976 South Africa was formally expelled from FIFA due to a government policy of racial segregation known as Apartheid. FIFA had been relatively late to expel South Africa, a point of contention for many African States. The CAF had expelled South Africa as early as 1960, but despite FIFA’s sluggishness, it was hoped that  the ban would damage South African football and help heap pressure on the Apartheid Regime in general.  In spite of the ban, sport and soccer not only continued under Apartheid, it many cases it flourished.

In 1959, the National Football League was established as South Africa’s only professional league promoting whites only football, with blacks and ‘coloureds’ given their own leagues to ensure that segregation extended to the playing field. The 1960s and 1970s saw the NFL become a gold mine for British soccer stars nearing the ends of their career. Many stars would come to South Africa in the close season as a guest ‘foreign player’, pick up a generous pay check and then return to their clubs in Europe.

Soon fans of South Africa soccer began to complain that foreign stars of varying abilities were taking over the League. It was deemed such a large problem that in 1966, the end of season Player of the Year Award was converted into two trophies, one for South African players and one for Foreigners. Despite the best intentions of FIFA, the CAF and others, isolation for South African soccer was in name only.

It’s important to note that the foreign players weren’t breaking any rules whatsoever. The FIFA boycott prevented clubs and not individual players from playing in South Africa. Whilst the players were perhaps implicitly supporting the Apartheid Regime by being part of it, they couldn’t be punished.

For the South African clubs, such players were crucial to continuing success. The announcement that a foreign star would be playing for a local NFL side would see hundreds if not thousands more fans travel through the turnstiles. For players and clubs alike, it was a lucrative arrangement.

It wasn’t kept secret either. In 1969, British newspaper, the Daily Mail, reported that there were nearly 150 British footballers registered across sixteen First Division football clubs in South Africa. That’s an average of about nine footballers per club. In particular Cape Town City and Durban City proved themselves highly active in recruiting British players, managers, coaches and seemingly anyone  with a British passport to represent the club. It wasn’t always appreciated by local fans who wished to see South African players developed, but in terms of bums on seats, it proved to be highly successful.

The players who played in South Africa during this time make up an impressive list of British footballing superstars. Sir Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore, Kevin Keegan and many more played at one time or another for South African clubs. Sir Stanley Matthews was particularly fond of the South Africa football scene and spent many years of his career travelling between England and South Africa.

In fact when Sir Stanley finally decided to hang up his boots in 1965, he retired to South Africa to form a youth team in Soweto called ‘Stan’s Men’. Matthews went on to spend many years coaching young South Africans of both races for the next decade.

Sir Stanley wasn’t the only player to fall in love with South African soccer. Work by South African sociologist Chris Bolsmann has detailed the profound enjoyment English footballers found under the Apartheid Regime. One player described the experience as a ‘paradise’.

But it wasn’t just players who played in Apartheid South Africa, as many British football teams toured South Africa during this time as well. In 1973, Malcolm Allison, the former Manchester City Manager, toured South Africa with a Guest XI. When criticised for his actions, Big Mal pointed out his side had played one game against a black team in Soweto and rather than encourage Apartheid, he was encouraging racial harmony. In 1979, a guest XI made up of Bobby and Jack Charlton, Terry Paine and Bobby Moore also travelled to South Africa to play the local sides.

Similar to the Allison tour, they also played one black side in the form of Kaizer Chiefs. Such sides were ignoring the FIFA boycott, but to their credit they played teams of both creeds. This was despite the pressure they faced from South African football authorities to play whites only sides.

The most controversial tour by a Guest XI came in 1982 when a team organised by former player and PFA Chairman Jimmy Hill travelled to South Africa under the pretext of encouraging better race relations through sport. Hill had accepted an invitation by a South African company to bring a multinational squad to play a six-match series but he hardly could have anticipated the criticism he was to receive.

FIFA, the English FA and Black South African clubs such as Kaiser Chiefs and Orlando Pirates condemned the tour. Such was the outrage caused in Great Britain that players were withheld from selection and after only three matches the tour was abandoned.

This interesting part of South Africa’s football history has largely been forgotten in England. A number of years ago, the English media had a field day grilling newly appointed national boss Roy Hodgson about the time he spent playing in Apartheid South Africa.

Hodgson was in many ways hung out to dry by the media on this particular issue, but as the following XI shows, he wasn’t the only British footballer who played in Apartheid South Africa.

British XI who Played in Apartheid South Africa


Gordan Banks


Frank McLintock                   Bobby Moore                        Jack Charlton


Stanley Matthews    Bobby Charlton   Alan Ball   George Best


Kevin Keegan           Geoff Hurst               Peter Lorimer


  • Gary Sprake
  • Mick Channon
  • Francis Lee
  • Ian St. John
  • Johnny Haynes

Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena

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