Stanley Matthews and politics


Copyright Getty Images

by Susan Gardiner

Stanley Matthews was regarded in his time as one of the best players in the world. Pelé famously said that he was “the man who taught us the way football should be played” and there is no doubt that he remains one of the most important figures in the history of the game, although his stock – in Britain, at least – seems to have dwindled somewhat since his death in 2000 at the age of 85.

Matthews became a footballer at the age of only 15, as an apprentice with his local side, Stoke City, signing professional terms two years later and he carried on playing until 1965 – in fact, he was still playing in charity matches in 1981. He wrote five autobiographies, which are really all updated versions of the same book. His first memoir, Feet First, ends just after the Second World War, and his last, The Way It Was was published in the year of his death.

There’s little in the way of overt party politics in any of the books, although it is noticeable that the only British politicians that feature in the illustrations are Clement Attlee and, later, the Labour Minister of Sport, Denis Howell. Stanley Matthews was a private man who seemed to be slightly uncomfortable in the public eye, although he enjoyed his success on the football pitch and many of the honours that it brought him throughout his life. It is difficult to imagine quite how famous Matthews was in his heyday when newspaper headlines such as MATTHEWS IS ANNOYED were published. He was a man who stood up for himself and his beliefs, however, having periods of conflict with the directors of his clubs about the way that he felt they were treating him, and – as many of us discover – politics has a habit of following us around, however much we might like to avoid it.

Matthews was an intelligent and thoughtful man and it’s quite clear, even from that first autobiography that he had little time for the right wing politics of the 1930s. Even as a young man, he appears to have been well-informed and quite clear in his mind about the nature of fascism and was aware of the way that fascist leaders like Mussolini were attempting to exploit football as propaganda. He did not have to wait for long. His second international for England was played against Italy at Highbury on 14 Nov 1934. He wrote: “Fascism was flourishing in those days when England seemed oblivious of the danger and misery that was to smite the world only five years later.”

Matthews was aware of the political importance of that match and so the impact of what happened before the England game against Germany in Berlin on 14 May 1938 must also have been obvious to him. A great deal has been written about the incident in which the England team gave the Nazi salute before the game, including a piece by David Mellor in the Daily Mail in 2008, in which with no sense of irony at all, he criticised the appeasers of tyrannical political regimes. That’s the Daily Mail of HURRAH FOR THE BLACKSHIRTS fame.



The decision to insist that the England players made the Nazi salute was that of the Football Association in England. Matthews found the whole thing very upsetting and wrote about it several times, expressing feelings of shame and regret, even many years later.

He was aware that the Germans were relishing the propaganda value of the match: “The game against Germany took on a significance far beyond football. The Nazi propaganda machine saw it as an opportunity to display Third Reich superiority and played up that disconcerting theme big style in the German newspapers. The German team had spent ten days preparing for the game at a special training centre in the Black Forest.”

It was a shock to the England players when an FA official came into their dressing room as they were changing, shortly before the match and “informed us that when our national anthem was played, the German team would salute as a mark of respect. The FA wanted us to reciprocate by giving the raised arm Nazi salute during the playing of the German national anthem. The dressing room erupted. There was bedlam. All the England players were livid and totally opposed to this, myself included. … Eddie Hapgood, normally a respectful and devoted captain, wagged his finger at the official and told him what he could do with the Nazi salute, which involved putting it where the sun doesn’t shine. In fact, Eddie went so far as to offer a compromise, saying we would stand to attention military style but the offer fell on deaf ears.”

There is no reason to doubt Matthews’ account. The players were told the salute was to be made following the “direct order” of the British ambassador to Germany, Nevile Henderson, now regarded as an arch-appeaser. Stanley Rous, the FA secretary, someone in football history whose politics might bear further examination (watch this space) endorsed the ambassador’s position. The players were told that the political situation was so sensitive that it needed “only a spark to set Europe alight.” The players gave in and made the salute in front of 110,000 spectators, flags and banners with swastikas and other Nazi symbols all around.

In every account that Matthews gave of it, he spoke of his personal feelings of regret: “… even to this day I still feel shame whenever I sit by the fire and glance through my scrap book and gaze upon that infamous picture of an England football team lining up like a bunch of Nazi robots, giving the dreaded salute.”

England had some satisfaction, however, as they beat the German side 6-3.

Matthews had little else in the way of political controversy during the rest of his playing career apart from causing a minor protest by the Russian side, Dynamo Moscow, which made a brief tour of England just after the war ended. Matthews offered his services to Arsenal as a guest player, having read a newspaper report that George Allison was short of players, many of his own such as Leslie and Denis Compton and Eddie Hapgood were still in the services. The Russians were unhappy about Arsenal playing stars from other sides, claiming that there was some kind of political motive to demonstrate the superiority of British football, although it’s most likely the real reason was that the desire on the part of the football authorities in England to have as competitive game as possible.

The most interesting aspect of Matthews’ involvement with politics occurred after his retirement from football, although his motivation was likely to have been humanitarian, in that he spent 25 years coaching in Africa. He coached in several African countries, and later in Soweto, South Africa, where he had his own team called Stan’s Men.

In The Way It Was, he wrote: “To me, football is the greatest jewel in life and as a footballer, you are privileged to have a God-given opportunity of providing the right setting for it to shine.” Matthews could hardly bear to give up playing, even at the age of 50 and coaching was the next best thing, but he proved to be unsuccessful at Port Vale in the 1968/69 season – his only attempt at managing in English football – and, because of the addition of complications in his personal life at this time, when he met and fell in love with a Czech interpreter, Mila Winters, and the scandal of the ensuing divorce from his first wife, Betty, he was to spend a great deal of time abroad.

During this period, Matthews coached in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, but it was his involvement with apartheid-era South Africa that is most interesting.

“I started those summer coaching stints back in 1953 and enjoyed my time on that continent immensely. I didn’t go coaching there for money,” he wrote. “I embarked upon such trips to put something back into football. I felt a deep debt to the game and by coaching youngsters in the poor townships of the Third World I felt I was paying back in kind a game that had been so very good to me. If I had wanted to make money from coaching, I could have done. I had numerous offers from around the world including many from the USA, Australia, West Germany and Brazil but the rewards I obtained from coaching in townships in Africa were such that no amount of monetary reward could ever equal.”

Although he received some criticism for having anything to do with the system in South Africa at that time, it seems to have been misplaced, because – if anything – Matthews was flouting the system of racial segregation by coaching in Soweto, which was regarded as a dangerous place for a white man to be. He formed Stan’s Men while living in South Africa in 1975 and wrote: “… apartheid was, of course, still very much a force in that country. I never had any truck with it and for years had happily stayed in Soweto on my visits there to coach. 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 its rules.”

Stan’s Men, mostly schoolboys, were to travel to Brazil in 1975. Matthews had asked the boys who their football hero was, and the answer had been Pelé so he decided to take them to meet him. He raised money to fund the trip from Coca-Cola and the Johannesburg Sunday Times, even though it seemed doubtful at the time that the team would even be allowed out of the country: “The problem was twofold. Not only would the South African authorities kick up about me taking a group of black youngsters out of the country, but the fact that we were technically under the jurisdiction of a Football Association that was barred from international football meant FIFA could step in and put the kybosh on the tour on the basis that we were breaking their anti-apartheid stance against the South African FA!”

Catch-22 indeed.

Although based in Rio, FIFA president Joao Havelange did not intervene and said absolutely nothing about the tour. Realising that it only remained for the South African government to prevent it, with the risk of embarrassing headlines around the world, Matthews gambled on simply taking the boys to the airport. It paid off and Stan’s Men was the first black football team to tour outside South Africa. They trained with the Brazilian national side, which included players like Zico, and watched matches at the Maracanã stadium, but lost every game they played heavily, including 8-1 and 10-1 defeats.

Of Matthews’ contribution to coaching in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the British film-maker Geoff Francis, that Matthews’ coaching in Soweto and other townships “had all kind of ramifications in the fact that it also helped to strengthen our hope for the future”. He was greatly loved by his players, one of whom described him as “a black man with a white face” and another, Paradise Moeketsi, said: “There’s no way to describe that man. That man, he was like the Jesus of this world.”

A little exaggerated, perhaps, but there’s no doubt that Stanley Matthews achieved his ambition of putting back into football a great deal of what he had received from it.





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