When Manchester United and Crystal Palace take the field in the English F.A. Cup final in London later today, the presence of black players on either team won’t be a big deal. But back in 1965 it was. That’s when Albert Johanneson became the first black footballer to play in an F.A. Cup Final, for Leeds. (Leeds lost to Liverpool.) Like many early black sports pioneers Johanneson has been largely forgotten in both his home country of South Africa and in the U.K., where he played and lived most of his life.
After almost a decade playing for Leeds, Johanneson (born in Germiston outside Johannesburg) played a season for fourth division side York City, returned to South Africa to play for Glenville FC (in the Indian and coloured Federation Professional League) for a season before returning to the UK. He never played professionally again and died at fifty-five in Leeds, in poverty, having struggled with alcoholism for much of his life.
This his time last year, saw the publication of “Albert Johanneson, the first Black Superstar.” One of the things that stood out for me in the research material on Johanneson was how fans and teammates described him shrugging off insults, always being friendly and humble and seeming unaffected by the (often intense) racial abuse he was confronted with. I’m sure decades of this must have affected him, though, and the later alcoholism and personal problems no doubt, reflect that. Imagine the exposed position he was in as, usually, the only black man in the stadium, never mind on the field.
I first came across Johanneson’s life story in 2009 while doing illustrations for an exhibition called ‘Offside’ at the District Six Museum and funded by the British Council. Johanneson was one of forty odd players illustrated at life size for the exhibition timed to coincide with the 2010 World Cup taking place in South Africa. ‘Offside’ intended to celebrate the contribution of African footballers who had played in the European and American leagues and examine their varied experiences depending on race, gender and time-period.
The UK-based FURD (Football Unites Racism Divides) was one of the partners for the Offside project and Howard Holmes, FURD’s founder, contacted me later about a project related to the Offside show. He wanted to do football comics about these early sports pioneers to celebrate their achievements but also show the damage racism had done to their lives and careers.
We started with the Ghanaian Arthur Wharton, a major sporting figure in the 1880s in Britain credited as “the world’s first black professional footballer.” Wharton’s story was so early and unusual, and there are so few photographs of the sports of the period that he was almost totally forgotten. Howard helped to organize a proper headstone for his grave and did some work with his granddaughter. We completed ‘Arthur Wharton, Victorian Sporting Superstar’ now two years ago.
For the second of these ‘FURD Pioneers’ comics Howard suggested Albert Johanneson, to coincide with last year’s F.A. Cup final, which happened to mark fifty years since Johanneson’s appearance in 1965. The Albert Johanneson comic was launched in the UK last year and we launched it in South Africa at the District Six Museum’s Homecoming Centre on Human Rights Day (March 21st) and then on Freedom Day, April 27th, at Sophiatown’s Trevor Huddlestone Memorial Centre in Johannesburg.
Many of us in South Africa grew up on the old British football comics like Roy of the Rovers, and to show some more relevant history and character stories in a comic book format is very satisfying. We feel that the stories of sporting pioneers like Johanneson and Wharton (and many, many others) can, told, in this format, reach a wide audience and entertain readers while reinforcing an anti-racism message.
We are trying to distribute the stories as widely as possible, to this end the first comic is available in digital format on the FURD website and we have sold and given away thousands of copies of both comics now. Contact FURD or the District Six Museum for copies and more information.