In order for our stars of the present and future to aspire to be the best they can be, they need to know about where our fraternity has been and what we have accomplished. With the sad passing of Mzansi Diski’s first black international football star, we at GSV felt obliged to dedicate this piece to one of the greatest men to ever paint pictures on a football field; a beaming smile having creation of beauty, a man that stayed true to himself, overcoming adversity to become Mzansi Diski’s first global superstar.
Born in Doornfontein, Johannesburg on March 23rd 1932, Stephen Madi Mokone was a young man with the abilities, looks and determination that epitomise a true diski superstar. The bright smiling goal scoring machine was relocated from Tshwane to Durban, Kwa Zulu Natal by his taxi driving father who felt his son was better off acquiring an education at Ohlange High School and further studying to be a lawyer after high school than he was playing football in a racially segregated South Africa. Yet fate has a way of working things out its own way and no amount of man-made planning and scheming can stop the application of purpose, Kalamazoo, who got the nickname from mates in Tshwane who said he sounded like a freight truck flying past when he was in full flow, became a teenage star during his stay on the coast with his eye-brow raising performances for Durban Bush Bucks; those scintillating performances even lead to Kala becoming one of the youngest internationals in football history when he debuted for South Africa’s Black (Bantu) XI at the tender age of 16. Such outstanding form and potential, even in a racially immoral society, still managed to attract the attentions of teams from abroad with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Newcastle United both being rebuffed in their advances to sign the promising Mokone by his steadfast father who felt that his son should at least complete his high school education before even contemplating a move overseas.
A year later Coventry City were alerted to the prodigious talents of the South African and they duly invited the lad over to England to undergo a trial with the Sky Blues, after being left to arrange his own transport across the channel, Kalamazoo was aided by former Arsenal and Sunderland centre forward turned football writer, Charlie Buchan, who offered to pay the fare to take the forward over to England and make him the first Black South African to play professional football in Europe. Steve finally secured his hove to Coventry City at the age of 23 and the legend was well on his way to rewriting history.
His arrival in Coventry was surrounded with much fanfare and intrigue as supporters of the Sky Blues flooded to Highfield Road for a glimpse at the first Black import to don their club jersey. His first training session alerted them all to the brilliance of their new signing as Kala sent club stopper and future England international, Reg Matthews, the wrong way from the penalty spot. As his teammates clamoured for the lad to do it again, he stepped up and dispatched yet another spot-kick that sent the bewildered Mathews the wrong way yet again. Although he only played 4 times for the Sky Blues during his stay in England, due to managerial differences and a battle with niggling ankle injuries, Kalamazoo is fondly remembered by Coventry City supporters as one of the most talented footballers to don the Sky Blue jersey. After being released by Coventry, Kala could have been disinterested in furthering his stay in Europe and returned home, like many talented lads do today, yet he showed the character one expects from a superstar and persevered through the rough patch.
Signed by Heracles Almelo from the small Dutch town of Almelo after impressing and scoring in two friendly games while on trial, Kala had found a new home where his astounding abilities were held in extremely high regard. The small 35 000 population town and indeed Dutch football as a whole were buzzing at the arrival of the first Black footballer in the Netherlands, as the attendance for home games swelled to 20 000 and Heracles also attracted a large following for away matches too during Mokone’s time as a Heracles player.
The skilful forward was dubbed The Black Meteor by the football adoring Dutch public and the legend went on to score an amazing 15 goals in his debut season including a brace on his first appearance while also providing countless of assists for centre forward Joop Schuman who himself went on to score 47 goals as Heracles Almelo won the Dutch Tweede Divisie B title during the 1957-58 season and attained themselves promotion into the Eerste Divisie by a four point margin with a healthy goal difference of + 52, largely thanks to their 85 league goals scored, the team was now headed to the 2nd tier of Dutch football having made a statement of intent to the football fraternity in Holland. The importance of the South African star cannot be understated as the Heraclieden only lost 4 games during their league winning season; The Black Meteor was injured for 3 of those encounters.
By 1959, Steve Mokone was rated amongst the best players in World Football at 27 and his reputation had grown to the point that respected Italian football writer Beppe Brancco famously stated that, “If Pele of Brazil is the Rolls-Royce of soccer players, Stanley Matthews of England the Mercedes-Benz and Alfredo di Stefano of Argentina and Spain the Cadillac of soccer players, then Kala of South Africa, lithe and lean, is surely the Maserati.”
It was a year later in 1960 that The Maserati of Football was recognised as one of few players in Europe to earn £10 000 a year, it is safe to say that the Doornfontein born Madi Mokone had finally staked his claim for football greatness. A man that had a book written about him, a movie made about his stay in Holland, Die Swart Meteor (The Black Meteor), received the honour of having a stand named after him in Heracles’ Polman Stadion and a street named after him in Amsterdam surely deserves his title as Mzansi Diski’s first and quintessential global football superstar.
The legacy of Kalamazoo should be remembered as one that inspires young lads in Mzansi to become more than just good enough to earn a good wage playing local football and win a few Bafana caps along the way, to this day, Mokone remains the only South African footballer to be signed by legendary Spanish football side FC Barcelona and had football supporters at every club he played for willing to swear by the legendary forwards’ soccer boots. Not much has been written in our local fraternity about the first global superstar Mzansi Diski has produced and that fact irks me somewhat, yet one would be remiss to insinuate that Stephen Madi Mokone did not pave the way for talented Mzansi lads to strap on their boots and take to the field dreaming of being one of the world’s greatest footballers. Kalamazoo showed the world that Mzansi does have talent, all while staying true to who and what he was and Bob’s your oom.