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'Matthews' Sheds Light on English Football Star's Coaching during Apartheid in South Africa

This sports documentary highlights an important story lost to sports history.

Babe Ruth swung for the fences in the 1920s, and America crowned him the Sultan of Swat. In England, Stanley Matthews compares at the same cultural magnitude, and one upped the Bambino’s royalty by becoming the only active footballer to receive a Knighthood. Their off-the-field activity also made them both larger than life. But just because Sir Stanley was slight and his exploits far harder to spot amongst Ruth’s girth and gregariousness, doesn’t mean the English legend got his proper due in the history books. Finally, he is the subject of an upcoming sports documentary called, Matthews.

The story that filmmaker Ryan Scott Warren is telling begins as Matthews was traveling to an exhibition tour in Johannesburg. “He was driving from the airport, and he saw little boys playing soccer with a ball made out of a plastic bags. They were doing his signature move. So when he stopped the car to get out, these little boys in Soweto knew immediately who he was,” says Supervising Producer Mitch Horn. “He had no idea how far his fame had reached, and was really taken.”

Coaching the Children of Apartheid in South Africa Begins

As a result, Matthews returned every summer for 20 years to coach the boys. “It’s a story that not a lot of people know,” says the Bedford resident.

The triumph culminated in 1975 prior to the Soweto riots. “He put together a team called Stan’s Men to go to Brazil and train with their national team,” says Horn.

That even went unnoticed. “Coca Cola sponsored the team and didn’t publicize the trip,” says Horn. “It was a different era.”

The low profile still ran up against vehement opposition from the Apartheid government, but they weren’t the only ones who took issue. “The anti-Apartheid movement said you shouldn’t be going into Soweto because of the boycott,” says Horn.

Regardless, Matthews refused to let politics disenfranchise his pupils. “These are kids. This is football,” Horn conveyed Matthews' sentiment. “The game is above politics and the children deserve it.”

Soweto Riots End Outreach

But the excursion to Brazil proved to be the end of his outreach. “It wasn’t feasible to get back into Soweto after the riots, and all communication was shut down for several years. By then he was too old,” says Horn of a film he hopes gains notice among sports documentaries.

There was also no real discernible impact on Apartheid in South Africa. On the other hand, Matthews’ love of the game let him leave no one untouched by his presence - especially these boys. “All he ever wanted to do was share football with others,” he says.

Horn can attest to the impact firsthand.

The production was able to find nine of the youngsters who made the trip to Brazil. “My trip to South Africa to meet these gentlemen was one of the most monumental experiences of my life,” he says. 

The Film Crew

Photo courtesy of Mitch Horn

The Story Comes Home

The instinct to story-tell aside, providence apparently played a role according to Hamilton, who long hoped his mentor’s story would be told. “He gave me hug, and with tears in his eyes said, ‘I was praying for 40 years that you would come,’” Horn conveyed.

However, the story did start coming to light in England as journalists began interviewing him retrospectively about his career. “He’s England’s guy, so they know,” says Horn, “But when we brought this up to US players or coaches or random people, they have no idea.”

Given the current state of Sports, he believes it's an education that must not be omitted. “In modern sports, there was a time we came to a crossroads, and the road that Stan choose was incredibly noble. I can’t say that sports as a whole chose that road since, concludes Horn. “He reminds us it is still possible.”

Matthews is in the final stages of production. Watch the Trailer here.

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'Matthews' Sheds Light on English Football Star's Coaching during Apartheid in South Africa
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