by Stuart Moriarty-Patten
23 March 1932: The birth of Steve Mokone, Africa’s first black professional player in Europe
Steve Mokone was born on 23 March 1932 in Doorfontein a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. Nicknamed “Kalamazoo” and the “Black Meteor”, he became the first black African to play football professionally in Europe when he signed for Coventry City in 1955.
Having learnt his skills by juggling with a tennis ball, he drew the attention of South Africa’s football fans from an early age with the team Durban Bush Bucks and was selected to play internationally for a Black South African XI at the age of 16, for who he scored twice on his debut. Before joining Coventry he had been on the verge of joining Newcastle United, and had also attracted interest from Wolverhampton Wanderers, but his father convinced him to stay at home and finish his studies.
He finally left South Africa after having spent three years fighting the apartheid bureaucracy to get a passport, a fact made harder as he had joined the Youth League of the ANC when he was 16. His trip to Coventry was funded by Charles Buchan, the former captain of Arsenal, and editor of the renowned publication Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, who had discovered that Coventry had left Mokone to find his own fare and struggled to come up with it. Before he left the country family friend Dr. Willie Nkomo of the ANC told him “remember every goal you score will bring us closer to our freedom and independence, and don’t drink and get drunk in the street because it will reflect negatively on all of us here.”
As soon as they met him at his first training session, his new team-mates at Coventry new he was something special after they watched him repeatedly sending Coventry’s Under-23 international goalkeeper Roger Matthews the wrong way from the penalty spot. In fact he created such a major impression, that ahead of his debut against Millwall a local journalist was prompted to write that he had not “seen such clamour in Coventry since the end of World War Two.” The Daily Mirror reported that his appearance added an extra 5,000 onto the attendance and that he had been the star of Coventry’s side, with his every touch of the ball being cheered to the rafters.
His time however at Coventry was not to be particularly successful. He found the strangeness of being in England difficult to cope with, especially having come from the racially segregated apartheid South Africa. He was billeted with a white family in Coventry and he has described how he felt uncomfortable using the same cups and the same toilet as a white family, and he has further related what an overwhelming experience it was to get into the changing room and be the only black person taking a shower with white players. He says, that he “…didn’t know whether to address them by their first names or to call them “Baas”, as was customary in South Africa.”
The kick and run style of English football was also difficult for him to adapt to. In a newspaper article he explained, “It was the long-ball game and I was used to short passing,” The emphasis on strength and fitness rather than speed also left him at a loss. “We had to climb ropes like we were in the marines. We could only train with balls one day a week. I found it completely baffling.” The attitude of the Coventry manager, Harry Warren, did not help matters either. Expecting him to adapt to the English game he was told to “get a job in a circus” by Warren after displaying some dazzling dribbling skills during his debut. When he complained, he was told by Warren, in a manner that was perhaps indicative of the predominant attitudes of the time, “We brought you over here and you are not satisfied. That’s the trouble with you people.”
Disillusioned he was happy to leave Coventry on a free transfer and contemplated returning back to South Africa, but, after a trial with Real Madrid, he joined the third-tier Dutch side Heracles Almelo in 1958. He felt comfortable here as he could speak Afrikaans, which was similar enough to Dutch for him to be able to communicate comfortably, and he was allowed to play football how he wanted to. He scored two goals on his debut and became an instant hero to the team’s fans and one of Europe’s most talked about players after a series of scintillating performances that would see Heracles drawing crowds in excess of 20,000, despite being based in a town of just 35,000 people, which drove a local paper the Twentsche Corant to write that “This black football wonder has made thousands of football fans wildly enthusiastic in Twente.” He scored 15 goals in his first season, and provided numerous assists for Joop Schuman, the centre-forward, as Heracles won the division. He was a hero not just in Holland but also back in South Africa where he had his own fan club. Thousands of fans came to greet him at the airport when he made a visit home in 1958.
An ankle injury hampered his second season, but he still put in some sterling performances to help Heracles finish seventh. However, Mokone now understandably wanted to play at a higher level, and when the club asked him to give up his part-time job as a singer in a local theatre, which he had taken to supplement his semi-professional contract, he decided to leave. When he departed it was as a local legend who would live long in the memory of the whole of Dutch football, and today there is a street named after him and one of the stands in Heracles’ Polman Stadion is also named after him.
He returned to the English league with Cardiff City, making his debut on the opening day of the 1959/60 season and scored in a 3-2 victory over Liverpool. However, for a second time it was not to work out for him in Britain. Still suffering with an ankle injury he made just two more league appearances and disgruntled with Cardiff after they had made him play with an injury and then dropped him when he complained, he left. He was becoming a football nomad and from Cardiff he signed for Barcelona. At the time they had a full quota of foreign players and he was sent on loan to Marseille. He did not play competitively at all that season, instead he spent the year setting up and running a business selling football boots, before leaving and making one appearance for Barnsley. He spent the summer months of 1960 back in Africa with the then Rhodesian team Salisbury.
He returned to Europe and signed for Torino, where his salary of £10,000 per year made him one of Europe’s top paid stars. Again he found himself an instant hit scoring all five goals on his debut in a 5-2 win over Verona, leading an Italian sports journalist, Beppo Branco, to write “If Pele of Brazil is the Rolls-Royce of soccer players, Stanley Matthews of England the Mercedes-Benz and Alfredo di Stefano of Argentina and Spain the Cadillac of soccer players, then Kala [Mokone] of South Africa, lithe and lean, is surely the Maserati.” Months later, on tour in the USSR, he became the first foreigner to score a hat-trick in a game against the biggest team in the land, Kiev, who were in effect the Soviet national team. One of his goals prompted a Russian journalist to write: “In all my 40 years of reporting soccer from different parts of the world I have never seen a player score a more beautiful goal than the one Kala scored with a deflection off his chest, save for Pele’s goal against Sweden in the World Cup final in 1958.”
His spell at Torino lasted only that one season and he continued with his club-hopping. He had a spell with Valencia, then moved to Australia and coached and played for Sunshine George Cross. He then moved to Canada before moving to the USA. He was to remain there rather than return to a still racially divided South Africa where the Government had threatened to take his passport off him.
In the USA, he retired from football and returned to his studies. He enrolled at Rutgers University in the US, and seven years later, after completing his doctorate in psychology, he was appointed assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. He also became involved in anti-apartheid, civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. A success on the football field and now a success in academia, his life was going well, but a series of events in 1977 were to totally turn his world upside down. First three mystery assailants attacked him in a car park, then he was arrested, and allegedly brutalised, by police on a charge of credit card fraud, which was dropped the next day. A day after his release, police arrested him again and charged him with two serious assaults. One was on his wife who had been attacked with sodium hydroxide thrown in her face. He had recently divorced his wife and gained custody of their daughter, and the second assault charge he faced was with being involved in an attack that saw acid thrown in the face of the lawyer who had represented his wife.
He pleaded guilty to both attacks and received sentences that saw him spend 12 years in prison. Despite having pleaded guilty at his trail, he maintained that he was innocent throughout his sentence, and he had more than a few supporters who believed in him. One was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had been a student with Mokone in South Africa in the early fifties, and who made appeals for clemency on his behalf, bewildered that such a “gentle man” could have committed such acts; another was Dutch sports journalist Tom Egbers who wrote a novel based on Mokone’s life entitled The Black Meteor, which was made into a film in Holland in 2000. He wrote a further book entitled12 Stolen Years in which he examined Mokone’s conviction. One prosecution witness, Egbers alleged, had been coerced to testify, while prejudicial material from the trial dealing with the first attack had been made available to the jury in the second. Most significant, though, were a series of letters Egbers uncovered between the South African Department of Internal Affairs and the CIA. Mokone had frequently condemned apartheid and made trouble for the South African government, and Egbers showed that the South African Government had asked the CIA to bring Mokone into line. Whether they were responsible it is impossible to say, but Egbers cast serious doubts about the veracity of Mokone’s conviction.
While in prison he ran the library and the football team and after his release in 1990 he returned to his career in psychology. He was helped in rebuilding his life by the downfall of apartheid and the change of political climate in South Africa. He became South Africa Tourism’s Goodwill Ambassador in New York. He also founded the Kalamazoo South Africa Foundation for Education Through Sport, to help talented young South African sportspeople to find places in further education in the USA. He stills lives today in the USA and takes a keen interest in football. He is in contact with supporters’ groups at Coventry and Heracles who he sent a well received letter of support last season to congratulate them on reaching the Dutch Cup Final for the first time.
Although his football career never reached the heights it hinted at, Mokone is still rated by many today as South Africa’s finest ever player. In 2003 South African president Thabo Mbeki awarded him a newly instituted gold class Order of Ikhamanga, South Africa’s highest honour for exceptional achievement in the creative and performing arts and sport. He is one of only eight South Africans to have achieved this award. He was inducted into the South African Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.
In an article in a South African newspaper last year when celebrating his 80th birthday, he told the paper with deserved pride, “As I look back at my life, I note that I have been inducted into three Halls of Fame; had a street named in my honour, Steve Mokonelaan; a football stadium named in my honour and a movie has been made of my life story titled De Zwarte Meteoor. I’ve had an auditorium of a large publishing company in Rotterdam, named in my honour – Steve Mokone Auditorium. I was awarded the South African Football Presidential Award, was awarded a CAF award, was awarded the Steve Tshwete Lifetime Award, and was awarded an Exceptional Achievement Award in the field of soccer and outstanding contribution to the development of non-racial sport. As I sit back, I say to myself, yes, it has been a great ride.”
The Deputy President of South Africa Kgalema Motlanthe added to the birthday celebrations by stating that Mokone was “simply the best player of the century not only here in South Africa, but at the level of our continent, Africa”. Really there’s nothing else you can add to a tribute such as that, except to say happy birthday Steve Mokone.