The Story of Stan’s Men

In 1975, a group of young black South African footballers, and their manager, landed in Brazil. Their manager was a man who bucked the trends, he was a teetotaller, a non-smoker and a vegetarian during a time when a pint, a fag and a steak was the perfect pre-match meal. He had started coaching football in Africa almost twenty years earlier, and had travelled to apartheid South Africa to give the youth of Soweto a chance to travel and play football.

In doing so, their manager Sir Stanley Matthews, flew into the face of the oppressive regime and gave a group of young men a chance to meet Zico and play in Brazil. The team became known affectionately as Stan’s Men.

Starting in the 1948 ‘apartheid election’, South Africa had become a police state divided on racial lines. Under Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of this regime, Black South Africans had been confined to homelands, required to carry a passbook to travel internally. Stanley Matthews, on the other hand, had spent 1948 as part of the Blackpool team which made it to the FA Cup final. From 1953 onwards Stanley Matthews spent his summers coaching football throughout the African continent. In 1956, Matthews tasted victory in theinaugural Ballon D’or competition, and then missed England’s summer tour to coach in South Africa, a country which would soon be hit by the first wholescale attempted repression of speech and anti-government action, in the Treason Trials.

“He gave black people faith that there were some good white people’”

– Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Such was his reverence throughout Africa that he had a throne built for him. The youth in Soweto had their own heroes, but they took to Matthews like he was one of their own and it was important for them to see that they were cared for by the outside world.

In 1975, he took some boys from Soweto to Brazil, using his contacts to secure funding. One of his players described him as “the black man with a white face”. This would be akin to a footballer today taking a team of Palestinians to play football in England, allowing them to meet Wayne Rooney.

In doing this, Stanley Matthews did something few other players have been able to do. He transcended the limits of football, in which he was already a legend, to become a shining light of humanity during South Africa’s darkest times. He was widely loved as a footballer, and as a man, in a way which was not confined by team or geography.

Most amazingly, and most importantly, however, is that Sir Stanley did not seem to coach in Africa due to a sense of duty. Nor did he do it as a publicity stunt.

He seemed to love Africa and Africans, and loved coaching them, and it is this that sets him apart from other philanthropic footballers. Helping humanity was his career, football his hobby. He was a legend at both.

Featured image | Stanley Matthews 1962: wikimedia commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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