Legacy of a football pioneer who broke racial barriers
On the streets of Ghana’s capital, Accra, the names of English Premier League stars fly off the tongues of football-crazed youths.
But a pioneer of the sport who broke racial barriers is familiar to few.
That may soon change for Arthur Wharton, an all-round athlete from the 19th century who was the first black footballer to play professionally in Britain.
A foundation including Ghanaian and British football enthusiasts as well as artists are seeking to resurrect Wharton’s name, both as a symbol of hope for the impoverished area he grew up in and as a stand against racism in the sport in recent years.
“If you look at his story, you realise that he must have gone through a lot in order to play whatever sport that he was playing,” said Kofi Bawuah, the Arthur Wharton Foundation’s representative in Ghana.
“If he could overcome all these things to achieve what he achieved, then we in this present era have no excuse but to push the agenda that racism will not be tolerated.”
Besides being one of west Africa’s most stable democracies and its second-largest economy, Ghana has long been known as a football powerhouse.
Legends like Abedi Pele came from Ghana, and its national team made it to the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals. Ghana is also considered a strong contender in the Africa Cup of Nations, which kicked off in South Africa on Saturday.
Instances of racism have recently cast a pall on the sport’s supporters in Europe.
One involved the German-Ghanaian AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, who earlier this month stormed off the field in Italy after spectators shouted racist chants at him, sparking a Europe-wide debate about how to tackle bigotry.
The foundation hopes to convince the Ghana Football Association to name the stadium in nearby Tema after Wharton and to adopt the Jamestown Declaration, a statement against racism in football bearing the name of his old neighbourhood.
Born in 1865 to a Ghanaian mother and a father of Scottish and Grenadian descent, Wharton spent his early years in Jamestown, one of the oldest districts in Accra. The nation of Ghana did not yet exist and the area was then known as the Gold Coast.
He eventually moved to Britain to train as a missionary teacher.
But Wharton proved better at athletics than education, and as a competitive runner he set a 10-second record for the 100-yard sprint in a tournament that at the time was essentially the world championship of the sport, said biographer Phil Vasili.
Wharton later found his way to professional football, where he joined up with one of the best clubs of the era, Preston North End, he added.
As a goalkeeper, Wharton was known for his eccentric style: he wore leather foundry gloves to protect his forearms and crouched in the corner of the goal to protect himself.
Being the first black player to compete professionally was a burden for him, both on and off the field.
“He became a paid sportsman, and that’s a short career,” Vasili said. “The prejudice against his colour was held against him quite largely.
“That’s one of the things that stopped him from achieving the decent career after his sports career ended.”
He struggled with alcohol, eventually dropping out of the sport for a working-class life as a miner, and died in poverty in 1930 at the age of 65.
Memories of him faded both in Ghana and Britain, in the latter because of his skin colour, Vasili said.
Since Wharton’s widow chose not to buy a tombstone for him — perhaps because she was poor or maybe because Wharton fathered children with her sister — he only received a proper gravestone in 1997, paid for by anti-racism group Football Unites, Racism Divides.
That group has since been leading a resurrection of sorts for Wharton’s name in Britain, Vasili said.
But on the streets of Jamestown, now a fishing-dependent slice of Accra where the murky streams of sewage in the gutters and mould-ridden colonial architecture betray its poverty, football is as much a lifestyle as a sport.
Matches happen at sun-up and sun-down in graffiti-covered old buildings or on dusty fields, the goals bereft of any net.
Matthew Aboagye, an aspiring defender who was waiting for his turn to play on a dirt field during a late afternoon in Jamestown, named Real Madrid and Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo as his idol.
But when asked if he knows who Arthur Wharton is, his answer was unequivocal: “No.”
The foundation is trying to change that piece-by-piece, Bawuah said. They have held a football tournament on Wharton’s birthday and last year presented a statue of him to the Ghana Football Association, with a ceremony in Jamestown.
“We felt that if we can use Arthur’s name to bring the plight of the Jamestown people to the fore, then we might be able to get some development in there and then at the same time be able to honour Arthur,” Bawuah said.
“If a 15- or 16-year old boy coming up on the football scene picks Arthur’s stories and becomes a symbol for it, we know how far he can take the story.”