Watching England Captain Rio Ferdinand hobble on crutches after a nasty ligament injury is as painful for England fans to watch as it is for him to endure.
To be a black English captain playing in the first African World Cup in Mandela’s rainbow nation would have been quite an achievement for a footballer who has led the fight against racism in English football.
Of course we have come a long way since Vivian Anderson became the first black man to play in an England shirt. England won that game in 1978 1-0 against Czechoslovakia. 32 years ago this unofficial colour bar was finally broken and since then 59 black players have been selected for England
The history of black peoples involvement with the beautiful game is simply fascinating. The first England debut could have been as early as 1920’s when the black Londoner Jack Leslie who scored a massive 400 goals for Plymouth Argyle in a career that spanned 15 years. Having been informed by the then manager Bob Jack that he had been selected to play for England, he was then dropped once the England team realised he was black.
We would have to wait another 15 years to see the first black English captain in the pioneering form of Paul Ince who in 1993 captained England to a 2-0 shock defeat to the USA. The indomitable lion Ince was then followed by Sol Campbell in 1998 whose debut game resulted on a 0-0 draw with Belgium. Sol was followed by Rio who’s probably one of the best English captains we have had for his professional ability and behaviour both on the pitch and off. Rio has been a fantastic role model for young people throughout the country.
Three England managers worth a mention as men who broke the mould of the English team are Graham Taylor who between 1990 -1993 used 136 and debuted 12 black players. It was Taylor who famously reported at the 10th anniversary of the anti racist football campaign Kick It Out in 2004 that FA officials had asked him not to play too many black players preferring a majority white English team.
He was followed by another England great Bobby Robson who equalled Taylor’s record and tried out 160 black players eventually bringing in 12 new black faces.
But the Sven is the man when it comes to picking black players for England. He used a massive 337 black players during his five year reign between 2001 – 2006, giving debuts to 16 players in the English team. As for those who were seemingly reluctant to play their best team, two managers stand out as excluding black players. Howard Wilkinson who to be fair didn’t last long, but included 6 players in the squad. Similarly, Peter Taylor included four black players in the squad. Both of these managers served just over a year, so even these figures should be viewed with a strong health warning.
All the first three are giants of the game all with a clear commitment to bringing the best talents to the fore regardless of race.
My view is that within the next 10 years we will see an all black England team and these early player pioneers will have each in their own way carried the baton forward on their leg of this fantastic journey despite having endured the sordid racism of some managers and of some fans.
Watching and listening to Rio after his injury has reaffirmed his status as a truly great English captain. After all, the custom and practice of English players injured during a World Cup is to immeddaitely fly home to harbour their dissapointment. However, Rio chose despite this to stay with the team and this speaks volumes about the character of the man himself.
He wants to be there, backing the team, providing encourgement, doing what he can and being an ambassador for the game in Africa. Signing autographs and taking pictures with the young people from the townships Rio made time to ensure that the young people were not disappointed by corralling his team mates into meeting the local community.
Whatever the outcome of the competition itself a real winner has already emerged in captain Rio Ferdinand whose commitmement to anti-racism and professional standards make him a World Cup winner.