x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A hero and a football pioneer

Although I have no way of knowing whether he was as great a player as legend suggests, Andrew Watson has been a hero of mine for many a year.

Viv Anderson, right,  England's first black international, in First Division action for Arsenal.
Viv Anderson, right, England's first black international, in First Division action for Arsenal.

Although I have no way of knowing whether he was as great a player as legend suggests, Andrew Watson has been a hero of mine for many a year. One hundred and twenty-nine years ago this week (March 12 1881), Watson became the world's first black international footballer when he was selected to play left-back for Scotland against England at the Oval. The result of the match is an irrelevance (although I am happy to report nonetheless that Scotland hammered the Auld Enemy 6-1) compared to the historical significance of Watson's appearance in the dark blue shirt with white thistle of his adopted country.

Born in Demerara, Guyana, which was then known as British Guiana, on May 18, 1857, Watson was the son of Peter Miller, a rich Scottish sugar plantation owner, and local woman Rose Watson. Although he did not grant his son the family name, Miller proved to be a generous and caring father. As a youngster, Watson was sent to England to be educated at the prestigious King's College School on Wimbledon Common in London and, at the age of 19, went on to Glasgow University, Scotland, to study natural philosophy, mathematics, civil engineering and applied mechanics.

Watson was as brilliant on the football pitch as he was in the lecture room and after representing Glasgow against Sheffield at Bramall Lane, he signed for Queen's Park, then the most successful team in Scotland and one of the best in Britain. It is impossible to comprehend how the teenager felt in this strange, new environment because the Glasgow of the 1880s was a world removed from that which Watson had left behind when he boarded the steam ship for a life in Britain; from the swaying palms, unspoiled beaches and tropical climate of the north-east coast of South America to the dark, cobbled tenement-lined streets of Scotland's industrial capital where sightings of Caribbean people of African background were even rarer than that of the winter sun through the pea-soup fog.

I like to think that my fellow-Glaswegians of the 19th century looked upon the young man with curiosity rather than animosity and as he graduated with ease then married Jessie Maxwell shortly before joining Queen's Park, one can only assume he was made to feel at home in his strange surroundings. Certainly, the Scottish Football Association (SAF) office appear to have been unperturbed by the colour of his skin, passing more comment over the unusual colour of his boots which were brown in an era when only black boots were manufactured in Britain.

According to a newspaper report of the day: "Andrew Watson can now be considered among the finest players in the whole of Britain." Watson made two further appearances for Scotland (ending in 5-1 victories over Wales in Wrexham and England at Hampden Park) and gained two Scottish Cup winner's medals with Queen's Park before his work as a civil engineer took him to London where he was invited to play for Corinthians, arguably the foremost team in the country although they refused to compete in the FA Cup or league competitions.

Such was their prowess, however, that during Watson's time as a Corinthian, they beat Blackburn Rovers, the FA Cup holders, 8-1. As the SAF refused to pick foreign- based players, that interlude in the south marked the end of his international career although he did return to Glasgow and Queen's Park in his later years, serving the club as both player and secretary, a role similar to that of chief executive today, making him football's first black administrator.

Little is known of the remainder of Watson's life; the Queen's Park archives suggest he lived in Bombay, India, with his wife and children for a spell before emigrating to Australia where he died in Sydney in 1902. According to folklore, one of his grandsons went on to play Test cricket for Australia but there is no known documentation. Watson's reputation as a pioneer is well-founded. The first black footballer to play for France was Raoul Diagne in 1931, Leonidas da Silva, as far as I can ascertain, was the first black Brazilian international in 1932, Erwin Kostedde broke through the colour barrier for Germany in 1974 and England waited until 1978 to make Viv Anderson the country's first black international.

Leonidas was the first superstar of Brazilian football; renowned as the inventor of the bicycle kick, he was known as O Homen Borracha (The Rubber Man) until he first appeared in Europe at the 1938 World Cup finals in France where his stunning performances earned him the accolade Le Diamant Noir (The Black Diamond). Back in Brazil, Leonidas became known as Diamante Negro and the chocolate bar subsequently named in his honour remains the country's best selling confectionary.

Leonidas scored a hat-trick in Brazil's 6-5 first-round defeat of Poland - he would end the tournament as top scorer with seven goals - and became embroiled in a mystery when Brazil's coach, Ademar Pimenta, left him out of the team for the semi-final against holders Italy. Some say that such was Pimenta's confidence he decided to rest his star player for the final; other reports suggest that Leonidas pulled out of the game after being visited by a squad of Mussolini's henchmen. Whatever the truth, the Italians won 2-1 and went on to defend the trophy by beating Hungary 4-2.

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