It's difficult to think about tennis without the Williams sisters. It’s difficult to contemplate basketball without the likes of Michael Jordan or LeBron James. But, as we're all aware, there was once a time where black athletes were not allowed to participate equally in sports.
In English football, world class talents such as Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Marcel Desailly and Didier Drogba have graced the Premier League in recent years but - more importantly - they have played a huge role in FIFA’s #NoToRacism campaign.
While racism occasionally still rears it's ugly head, in honour of Black History Month we choose our top 6 footballers who we feel were the first to achieve such huge transformational change in the game - inspiring many other to follow in their footsteps for years to come...
Andrew Watson was the world’s first black person to play association football at international level. Although Arthur Wharton is sometimes considered the first black player in Britain, Watson predates Wharton by over a decade. In 1880, the British Guianan-born full back joined Scotland’s amateur team Queen’s Park, where he was described as “one of the very best backs we have; well worthy of a place in any representative team."
During his time at Queen’s Park, Watson won three caps, in back-to-back victories against Wales and England: 6-1, 5-1 and 5-1 again. Watson moved to London to play for the Corinthians in the summer of 1882, which effectively ended his international career as the Scottish Football Association only picked players based in Scotland at the time. The colour of his skin was of no significance to his Corinthian peers, and there is no historical record of racism on the part of the SFA. In fact, one match report is more interested in Watson's unusual brown boots rather than the customary black boots of that time!
Laurie Cunningham was previously known to be the first black player to play for England, playing at U23 level in 1977, nearly 100 hundred years after Andrew Watson’s achievement. However, The Football Association amended their records shortly after, with Odeje representing England seven years earlier at schoolboy level. The South-East London born teenager remembers the moment the band stopped playing, and the players began to walk onto the Wembley pitch.
“My knees were knocking and if you'd given me the choice to forget it I probably would have, I was so nervous."
Odeje earned 5 caps for the national side, while also quickly earning the nickname “Pele”, after scoring 400 goals in just 3 seasons in school's football.
‘The Three Degrees’ - Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis
All three of these men deserve their own praise, however their work together has stood the test of time as being one of the most dominating forces in English football. Right-back Brendon Batson began his career at Arsenal, but quickly joined West Bromwich Albion alongside former Leyton Orient winger Laurie Cunningham and French Guiana born striker Cyrille Regis, in 1977
In 1978, West Brom became the first team to field multiple black players regularly in their starting eleven. They endured racial abuse from fans when starring for West Brom during the 1978-79 season, in which the club finished third and beat Manchester United 5-3 at Old Trafford.
The trio became known as The Three Degrees, in homage to the 1960s American Soul group, stunning crowds of the time - many of whom harboured deeply-ingrained racial prejudices. With their skilful play, they gradually won hard-fought acceptance as pioneers for a new generation of black footballers.
Their quick feet and style was a sight to behold, with both Cunningham and Regis gaining moves to Real Madrid and Coventry City respectively, while Batson sustained a knee injury and decided to end his footballing career early. The group were record breakers, with Laurie Cunningham becoming the first British player to sign for the Corinthian inspired Real Madrid, while Regis ended with his career with 5 Senior International caps.
As both a player and manager, Paul Ince played a huge part in the lowering of racial barriers in the 1990s. During his 206 game stint at Manchester United, the midfielder became the first black player to captain the England team, taking the armband during a tour in the USA in 1993. In context to when Benjamin Odeje made his debut, this 16 year milestone has opened the door to black players, with both Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand following in his footsteps.
Ince also set records in his managerial role, with the midfielder becoming the first British black manager to take over a team in England’s Division 1, being confirmed as the newest Blackburn manager in 2008.