He may be a bit slower these days, but the ball still sticks to his feet as if it were on a string. Forty years on, Paradise Moeketsi dribbles like the maestro who broke the law to teach him. His name was Sir Stanley Matthews – the black man with a white face who thought the game could overcome all.
On this same Soweto street, then a patch of field, Matthews changed Moeketsi’s life.
“I was highly influenced by this man. He used to play without any formation. A lot of people say Mandela is the greatest, I disagree; it was him. He was a gentleman; he was never given a yellow card or a red card! He’s phenomenal, out of this world,” says Moeketsi.
Moeketsi was one of Stan’s Men, the team Matthews fostered in Soweto. His teacher was the David Beckham of his time who broke the law on segregation in sport to coach in the township.
Now a football coach in his own right, Moeketsi practises everything that Matthews preached. In his 20 years, the Soweto coach has trained and mentored young players who made it to the South African national team, Bafana Bafana.
“I met [Matthews] when I was very young. I was around 11 and now I’m 51. It was the first time, personally, that I met a white man,” he says.
Matthews’ trained 60 young players under the eye of apartheid police in what was as much about courage as it was about sport.
“It was unsafe, a white man in Soweto; in those days it was difficult. I thought [that] white people were not good, that they were bad people, but I changed…”
For many of Stan’s Men he was the first white man they had ever seen, if not, he was certainly the first who had been kind to them.
Matthews’ first trip to Soweto was in 1955. Completing his pre-season training with his young wards, he returned to England just as his team, Blackpool, was ready to do battle with Arsenal at Highbury.
According to Matthews’ memoir, The Way It Was, his manager, Joe Smith, was anxiously waiting for him in the team’s hotel lobby.
“Where the bloody hell have you been?” he says.
“South Africa, I rang and told you but you never listen,” replies Matthews.
“When did you get back?”
“Are you match fit?”
That day, Matthews, who had kicked his last ball in Soweto, played what is considered one of his best games for Blackpool securing a 3-1 victory. His boots may have lived in England but his heart was in Africa.
“I had some extraordinary experiences during my time in Africa. In Ghana in 1956, I was crowned King of Soccer… The initiation was a real crowning as befits a king and left me not a trifle embarrassed. A witch doctor danced around me then spat on a football [that] I had at my feet. I was then seated upon a throne, a crown placed on my head, and my clothes removed and replaced by traditional Ghanaian robes…”
Matthews travelled through the continent; from Ghana to Zimbabwe but most of his time was spent in Soweto coaching Stan’s Men. He moved to South Africa briefly with his wife, Mila, in the 1970s.
“It was 1975 and apartheid was, of course, still very much in force… I never had any luck 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,” he says in his book
According to Matthews, Stan’s Men were a promising bunch of dreamers who were funded by the Sunday Times newspaper in Johannesburg.
“The boys told me that their dream was to go to Brazil and play football there, though they knew this would never happen.”
Moeketsi and his fellow teammates had a point. It was the height of apartheid, an exit permit for a black football team would have been nigh impossible. Then there was the issue of money, none of their families could afford a passage to Brazil. They believed it was mere fantasy.
Matthews decided to make the trip happen, flouting apartheid to the extreme. He used his reputation and connections to secure money from a Coca-Cola executive and the Sunday Times. A Brazilian airline offered 16 free tickets to Rio de Janeiro.
Then, Matthews and his men headed for the airport under the threat of arrest.
“I figured that if we turned up at the airport for our flight, the authorities would not prevent us from leaving the country because it would cause a major incident,” writes Matthews.
He was right. They let him go, with the first all-black football team to tour outside of South Africa. The authorities were content to send two secret agents to tail them.
Moeketsi, like many of the Soweto players, couldn’t make the trip.
“My grandfather was worried that I wouldn’t come back so I didn’t go. It was difficult; a once-in-a-lifetime trip and our parents said ‘No!’”
On the flight there, Gilbert Moiola, the 18-year-old team captain, turned to Matthews and shook his hand.
“Stanley, you are a black man with a white face,” he said to his coach, a title coined during the crowning in Accra.
The team arrived to a hero’s welcome and a grand reception. Along with meeting Pélé, they also trained with Brazilian coaches including Zico. Matthews even had tea with the Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, at his Rio apartment, who told him that he was a fan of Charlton Athletic.
The legacy of that remarkable trip, even for Moeketsi who did not go, is strong in Soweto.
“It took so long to forget about him. Even today, he’s still alive in Soweto. His spirit is still with us,” he says.
Matthews died in 2000, just months after he made his last trip to Soweto, before Moeketsi had a chance to say goodbye.
“I asked him to take me to England, but unfortunately he passed away.”
In 2010, the year the football World Cup came to South Africa, Moeketsi finally made the trip to Stoke City, the club where Matthews made his name in the town where he was born. It had been almost four decades since he first saw Matthews gliding across the rough Soweto pitch.
“The important part of it is me being able to fulfil my dream, to lay the wreath on Sir Stan’s grave to say thank you so much… I’d [wanted] to come and thank him and say rest in peace,” he told journalists at the stadium where Matthews’ remains are buried.
Matthews’ daughter, Jean Gough, stood beside him and was clearly touched.
“It’s so wonderful that he’s come all this way just to do this. It’s really emotional for me,” she says as they both battle tears.
On the note attached to the wreath was the farewell that Moeketsi couldn’t deliver in person.
“Sir Matthews, thank you so much for what you did in our country… I will never forget you.”