Leicester City players in the Apartheid NFL, banned by FIFA, but deals where too lucrative to turn down

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A little told or totally unknown story about the footballers that during the 60’s and 70’s travelled to South Africa to play professional football, getting lucrative deals in a country banned by FIFA.

South Africa established and founded a professional football league back in 1959. The NFL (National Football League) was an “only white” league, and in name the only football league regulated by skin color.

South Africa had a ban from FIFA during those years and was not allowed to participate in international football at any level, getting their sanctions lifted as late as in 1992, when the Apartheid regime was history.

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No players and teams talked about the money involved, and not much were said or talked about when travels to South Africa were made.  Leicester City, became historical, as the first foreign professional team to play a team in the Apartheid NFL. In 1961, just 11 days after the FA Cup final v. Spurs, Leicester City travelled Rhodesia and South Africa. They played “all whites” Durban City.

The NFL was heavy influenced by foreign import and to get players from other nations made it possible to attract crowds to the games. A special “guest star” system made it possible for a number of star players to make the trip and play a few games, then return and go home again, of course these were lucrative trips as former Liverpool forward Ian St. John revealed in his biography. He got an offer from Hellenic FC, a Cape Town based club, and Shankly told him he would be earning the same as he did at Anfield, and coming to a certain age St John left and joined the Apartheid NFL in 1971.

Going down the archives you will also find a number of former foxes on the list of players appearing in the Apartheid NFL. Sadly found are Gordon Banks, Frank McLintock and Derek Dougan.

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All three made the trip down to South Africa. Gordon Banks turned out for Hellenic FC, Frank McLintock played for Cape Town City and Derek Dougan played for Arcadia Shepherds. They all appeared as “guest stars” playing just a few games, while other players such as Ian St. John, Alan Ball, Geoff Hurst and George Eastham stayed for longer periods of time. Bobby Moore the England World Cup captain also had a period in the NFL, so had former greats, Johnny Haynes and George Best.

More than 250 English and Scottish players attended the NFL during the time this league existed, starting in 1959 and ending in 1977. A game in 1976, when one club fielded a black player, was the start of the end of this Apartheid league system, and football founded a new league later that had no such rules, which many says could have affected the move in the right direction.

Foreign players were not sanctioned to play, so they did it legally, and foreign teams could travel and play friendlies in South Africa. But still visiting a country banned by FIFA to participate in international football makes this a bit of a strange place to travel when doing your trips abroad.

The players who made the move to the NFL knew that it would be a chance to lengthen their professional career, or get a start to one, when you were not given the chance in England or had to go down the league ladder and sign for less money and less interesting teams and play in front of lower crowds. Former England boss and now Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson is one who also had a spell in the NFL, so had Aston Villa and England forward Peter Withe.

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Hodgson and Withe were both, in this stage of their career, not able to get the same deals at home as they could get in South Africa and they travelled out and played in the NFL, Hodgson for Berea Park and Withe for Arcadia Shepherds and Port Elizabeth City.

The stories are many and when South Africa arranged the 2010 World Cup, a number of British players were interviewed and their stories became public. Joe Frickleton, was probably good enough to play for Scotland, but he never did. He left a life in Scottish 2nd tier football with East Stirlingshire, to become a star at the best club in the NFL, Highlands Park.

Highlands Park won the NFL eight times and ended runners-up in five seasons. The NFL Cup competition saw Highlands as winners six times reaching the final in nine. Joe Frickleton later went into coaching and management and today one of the most known football personalities in South Africa.

Of the group of British players who joined NFL, most of them travelled back either to Britain or got a chance to play on in the NASL or in Hong Kong, who had established leagues based on British influence, since most of the management at those clubs were British and they tend to “go back” to their “roots” to find their “best players”.

NFL was a very popular league domestically and most of the stadiums used in the 2010 World Cup had their roots and first builds from this period in time. Long before England had sponsors for their cups and league competitions, it was commen in NFL, who had big major World brands sponsoring their Cups and Leagues.

This was a massive industry in South Africa, but few or no one talked about this Apartheid NFL in any foreign countries, despite having former internationals from Britain, Brazil, West Germany, Scandinavia and several other countries with “white skin” people, who were the only allowed to play.

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