Remembering Albert Johanneson, the man South African soccer forgot
Albert Johanneson, a son of South African soil, was a trail-blazer for black players – not just from his country of birth, but from the continent. Yet little has been done to preserve his legacy in the country of his birth. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
Reports on which date exactly Albert “Hurry Hurry” Johanneson was born differs slightly. Some say 12 March, others 13 March. His official gravestone says the 12th, but many chronicles of his life puts it down as the 13th. How old he was when he died in 1995 is also disputed at times. But these are minor details.
All reports agree: Johanneson was a trail-blazer, an incredible footballer and he died under terribly tragic circumstances. At the time of his death, he was alone, penniless and had fallen victim to alcoholism. By the time his body was found, he had been dead for a week.
Succumbing to the bottle is a fate familiar to many professional sports people, but jarring when considering the impact the winger had on the game and the foundations he laid for future generations.
Johanneson joined Leeds United in 1961, after being recommend to the club by a school teacher who spotted him playing in the Germiston Coloured School and Germiston Colliers. After a three-month trial, he was snapped up.
Exceptionally talented with a bag full of tricks, his team mates all remember him fondly.
"Nobody could keep up with him on cross country runs. We'd yell it him to slow down, but he would just laugh at us," former Leeds United player Peter Lorimer said in an interview with FIFA TV some years ago.
While Johanneson was at times inconsistent, something many put down to a lack of confidence ingrained in him by the brutal apartheid regime which dehumanised people of colour, he is somewhat of a cult figure with Leeds fans.
In 1964, when the was promoted to the First Division, Johanneson was the team’s joint top scorer.
But the pressures, expiations and the abuse that came with life in England started to take its toll.
The brutality of apartheid and what Johanneson would have experienced growing up in South Africa needs to introduction, but life wasn’t always easier in England.
While his team mates welcomed him, he still encountered racist abuse from the terraces.
George Best, the legendary Manchester United – who himself fell victim to alcoholism – was enchanted by Johanneson’s bravery.
“Albert was quite a brave man to actually go on the pitch in the first place, wasn't he? And he went out and did it. He had a lot of skill. A nice man as well... which is, I suppose, the more important thing, isn't it? More important than anything," Best is quoted as saying.
Brave indeed, and historic, too. In 1965, the Germiston winger achieved a landmark. He became the first player of colour to feature in an FA Cup final. Leeds lost that match 2-1 to Liverpool and while the whole team had a bad day, much of the focus was on Johanneson.
He was never the same after that game and with alcohol starting to take over, he featured less and less for Leeds. He left the club in 1970 for a two-year stint with York City, but his life was falling apart.
By this time, the demons of alcoholism had already started to tighten their grip. He had started losing one of the attributes that made him so revered – his fitness.
By the time he died, he was a shadow of the trail-blazer who had changed the future for so many players. Johanneson’s gravestone is engraved with some words from a Maya Angelou poem: “I rise I rise, I rise.”
And he did rise, but mostly in England. In the country of his birth, his legacy remains muted.
Thabo Mbeki mentioned him in a speech when it was announced in 2006 at the unveiling of the 2010 Soccer World Cup emblem. In In 2015, Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD), a Sheffield-based charity, and the District Six Museum teamed up with illustrator Archie Birch to tell his story in a comic book titled: Albert Johanneson: the First Black Superstar.
Other than that, little exists to honour the legacy of a man who ought to be celebrated as one of the country’s most famous sons.
Some of that might be down to the fact that he had no distinct affiliation with any South African clubs. He made his name for Leeds and he never returned home, but he is a son of this soil and deserves the distinctions, even if he’s no longer around to indulge in them.
A man who set the foundation for what has since become possible for so many players of colour – not just from South Africa, but from the continent – deserves so much more than a mere gravestone in Leeds.
In 2015, his daughter Alicia said in an interview with FIFA.com that she would like to see more being done to preserve her father’s memory in South Africa.
“If you look at his stats and talk to people who saw him play, it’s obvious he was one of the good ones, one of a few South Africans who actually made it in top-tier international football at the time," she said.
"Everyone looks to the English league as being one of the best and most competitive leagues in the world, and if my father was able to maintain more than a decade’s long career in it, then that has to be saying something.
“He was a very humble, meek person by nature and when he was alive I guess he didn’t toot his own horn enough for people to really pay attention and care."
Godfrey Gxowa, a veteran South African football official, shared that view.
“I think if he had been playing for one of the big clubs, like Swallows or Orlando Pirates, he would be a household name. He would be an icon of South African football, a legend on par with the best.”
In an age where we are increasingly aware of the need for recognition and reparations, SAFA could “Hurry Hurry” and honour a man whose legacy has fallen by the wayside. DM
Photo: A screenshot of the YouTube video Remember Albert.