When Sir Stanley Matthews first started travelling to Africa in the 1950’s, his motivation was a simple one, he would be appearing in exhibition matches in order to top up the meagre salaries that even a man of Matthews’ stature could expect as a footballer.

What he could never have foreseen, however, was that it was his relationship with the continent that would come to shape and define the remainder of his life after football.



Matthews was a true superstar of the game, a man who played at the highest level in England till the age of 50, in the process becoming the only player to ever be knighted while playing. In 1956, he became the very first recipient of the Ballon D’or and upon retirement was honoured with a testimonial that drew the likes of Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Lev Yashin to Stoke-on-Trent.



While on his summer excursions to Africa, playing games in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa, Matthews began to notice the natural talents of local youths. In the down time between playing exhibition matches in front of sold out crowds he began taking training sessions.



It would be the township of Soweto, South Africa, a place Matthews first visited in 1955, that he would end up gravitating to the most. Less than a decade before his initial visit to the country, the National Party came to power in South Africa and began to strictly enforce racist policies of segregation upon its black citizens, many of whom lived in townships such as Soweto. It’s fair to say Matthews thought little of segregation or those who enforced it, later writing in his book, “I simply ignored it and for the most part, I am relieved to say, those misguided people who inflicted it upon that beautiful country chose to ignore the fact that I flouted it’s rules”





Stan’s Men 

Matthews would return to Africa, and to Soweto, virtually every year for the ensuing four decades, overtly defying both the racist government and later the international community as The UN had implemented a ban on foreign athletes travelling to South Africa. His daughter later stated that he would sneak into the country via Zimbabwe at great personal risk in order to circumvent the rules. 

It would be in 1975 that Matthews would begin to assemble his most famous side, one that would in time pick up the moniker of Stan’s Men.

He was in charge of all aspects of the team, from scouting, too coaching, to organising fixtures. One of his players, Hamilton Majola, later talked of his shock at seeing a white man among the crowd at his high school football game. “We were separated, so to have a white man among us was something we had never experienced”. 

Matthews would train with the side, despite now being 60 years old and cared deeply for all of his players. “He was just polite, would hold us like (we were) his children”. (Majola)

Matthews later wrote that It was during one of these training sessions that “the boys told me that their dream was to go to Brazil and play football there, though they knew this would never happen”. 

Black South Africans were not legally allowed to leave the country, but despite this, Matthews decided to endeavour to make the boys’ dream a reality. He used his reputation and connections to raise funds for the trip, finding most of the funding from donations by a wealthy Coca-Cola executive as well as the Sunday Times. Once a Brazilian airline offered 16 free tickets to travel to Rio de Janeiro, it seemed the boys dreams could just be coming to fruition. 

Despite all the backing the tour was receiving, there was absolutely no guarantee that the side would even be allowed to leave South Africa. It was threatened that Matthews and the boys could be arrested if they attempted to board a plane. Matthews, though, was not going to back down. 

“I figured that if we turned up at the airport for our flight, the authorities would not prevent us from leaving the country because it would cause a major incident” 

The gamble paid off and the side were allowed to travel. Albeit, they would later find out, with a South African intelligence official not far behind. 


Arrival in Rio 

The team landed on March 15th 1975. They would be staying in a hotel close to the iconic Copacabana beach and would be holding their training sessions at the ground of legendary Brazilian club side Flamengo. It was here that the boys would meet a 22 year old Zico, at that time just on the cusp of breaking into the Brazilian national side. 



The first game for the side, comprised mostly of players of roughly 17 years old age, would be against a local university side. Things would not go to plan. Stan’s men were outmatched and outplayed as they struggled to get used to a ball that was significantly heavier than the ones they had used back home. By half time, the team’s spirit was broken. Matthews subbed himself in the second half but it did little to stem the flow of goals as the game ended 8-0.

The team were dejected but Matthews, ever the optimist focused on the positives. After an extra week of training with the heavier Brazilian balls and with a better defensive strategy in place the side went into their next fixture with renewed optimism. The game would end in a two all draw, undoubtably a fantastic achievement, and the side were in the mood for some celebrations. Matthews however kept a watchful eye over the youngsters. As Hamilton Majola later attested -

“He didn’t want us to drink a single beer but we were going to the beaches, but because of Stanley Matthews he said no, you must not do silly things guys and he took us to the slums where poor people lived and he said to us, I want you to know what’s going on in these other countries”

There are also unverified reports that while in Rio, Matthews took the side to meet the great Pele, and while this may seem a little far fetched it is true that Pele held Matthews in high regard to the extent that he once stated that the Englishman has “taught us the way football should be played”

In all, the trip of a lifetime lasted a month, by the end some of the boys were getting homesick while others were pleading with Matthews to allow them to stay on in Rio. In the end all 15 boys returned to Soweto where they tell stories of their adventure to this day. 

The team would play more friendly matches in neighbouring Swaziland and Botswana before ultimately disbanding. Some of the players whom Matthews had taken under his wing stayed in football, setting up their own football camps to nurture the South African stars of the future. 

On a visit to Stoke, the place with which Matthews is most strongly associated as a player, and indeed where his ashes lie beneath the centre circle of the Britannia stadium, South African archbishop Desmond Tutu stressed the importance of Matthew’s actions to apartheid South Africa 

"Going into the townships at a time when racial discrimination was at its most intense [was] something that had all kinds of ramifications,". "It made a dent in the apartheid armoury."  He signed off by stating that gave black people in the townships faith that there were good people. 

Matthews himself would set up a foundation in Soweto and would continue to visit for the rest of his life, his final visit came just months before he passed away in February of 2000. 

His family continues his legacy by supporting the foundation to this day.



Sir Stanley Matthews 1915-2000





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1 comment

Went to watch the Game against a SA invitation side at the Rand Stadium with my Parents and brothers. Please let me have the date that it was played. Would like to work out how old I was at the time.

Koop Swaak

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