They never played in a competitive league; they never won a knock-out competition; they were the champions of nowhere. Yet, by the time they visited South Africa for the first time in 1897—they went again in 1903 and 1907—the Corinthian Football Club was probably the most famous in the world. How did this happen? Why were those who hosted them so willing to roll out the red carpet on their arrival? And what was a team of English gentlemen amateurs doing in South Africa anyway, especially just before and after the South African War (1899-1902) when relations between the British and Afrikaner communities there were so precarious?
As we discovered while researching English Gentlemen and World Soccer (Routledge, 2018) contemporary newspaper coverage of these sporting tours is immensely useful to historians seeking to answer these questions. Few clubs have been so successful in promoting an attractive image of themselves. The Corinthians were welcome in South Africa and elsewhere because their reputation preceded them wherever they went. It helped that the club’s founder and moving spirit, “Pa” Jackson, was a prolific journalist and promoter who could see that sport—even amateur sport —was a license to print money.
This meant creating a distinctive brand which soccer followers everywhere would recognize. Its ingredients were social exclusivity, playing excellence, and an idealized version of sportsmanship. Corinthians were recruited only from those who had learned the game at their English “public” (i.e., private) schools or at “varsity” (Oxford and Cambridge). They were fine players, yet even in 1882 when the club was founded, they belonged to an era that was passing. Gentlemen amateurs were being surpassed on the field by working-class professionals and superseded off it by the businessmen who owned the clubs that employed them.
The Corinthians, however, were important for what they represented. Its players were recognized as the best of the gentlemen amateurs so their matches against professionals took on a symbolic significance, especially as they cultivated a nonchalant image. Ambling into action, impeccably attired in tailored shirts and shorts, they exuded effortless superiority. They also embodied “the Corinthian spirit,” a chivalrous code of gentlemanly conduct, claiming the moral high ground, even when results went against them.
All this was wrapped up in the sporting ideology of amateurism. By the 1890s this was causing problems. The press asked probing questions of the players about what happened to their share of the gate from matches played when on tour in the North of England. Allegations that the Corinthians were cashing in, with players paid generous “expenses” were embarrassing. On September 17, 1893, the Umpire, a Manchester newspaper, reported a speech by A.N. Hornby, a high-profile amateur sportsman himself, claiming that the Corinthians “received big gates, which more than covered their expenses, and nobody ever heard of the rest.” This was refuted by the club but the mystery never quite went away.
The Corinthian Football Club’s status as an amateur “superclub” was its unique selling point. It gave it an edge when arranging tours, especially abroad, where other countries were developing an appetite for the game that the Corinthians claimed to play better—and in a better spirit—than anyone else. On February 22, 1895, De Express en Oranjevrijstaatsch Advetentieblad in Bloemfontein reported that “a first-class amateur team” from England had agreed to visit South Africa, “provided the expenses were guaranteed.” Two years later the Corinthians arrived for their first overseas tour.
They visited not only South Africa but several countries in continental Europe, the United States, Canada and Brazil before 1914. We wrote English Gentlemen and World Soccer because the Corinthians were clearly important in explaining how soccer became a global phenomenon. Yet available club histories by ex-players and self-confessed fans served only to polish an image that the Corinthians themselves had manufactured. Recent research by sports historians suggested that the story was more complex. We knew a lot about how they saw themselves. But how did others—especially those who hosted their tours—see them?
First impression were favorable. The tourists, as the Port Elizabeth Telegraph and Eastern Province Standard reported on July 29, 1897, were “typical English sportsmen and an exceedingly good lot, the majority belonging to either Oxford or Cambridge University.”
The South African Football Association (SAFA) hoped to raise the profile of soccer and the Corinthians would help to achieve that end. They returned home unbeaten, winning 23 matches and being held to a draw twice, once in Durban where the Natal Witness, 23 August 1897, reported that the achievement of the local heroes in matching their illustrious opponents had prompted “a scene of the wildest excitement.”
Both the hosts and their guests could be satisfied with the 1897 tour. After the Jameson Raid of 1895, a botched attempt to unseat President Kruger of the Transvaal, Afrikaners had cause to distrust the British, but nothing untoward happened to disturb the fragile peace. The Corinthians were popular, attracting crowds that pleased the clubs that staged matches. The Johannesburg Times, 5 February 1898, reported that the Wanderers’ Association Football Club had made an annual net profit of £113, “due chiefly to the visit of the Corinthian football team, which has given a great impetus to ‘socker’ football throughout South Africa.” SAFA recorded a loss on the tour, but there was every reason to ask the visitors to come again.
Returning in 1903, in the aftermath of the South African War, circumstances were quite different. On their first visit, the Corinthians were regarded primarily as ambassadors for soccer. They now arrived as “missionaries of empire,” bearing messages of goodwill. On the field, the cakewalk of 1897 was repeated, save for a single defeat. The Natal Mercury, 3 August 1903, praised the way they played: it was “pretty, neat and scientifically attractive,” but it was strengthening the ties of empire that counted now. As for the tourists, The Sportsman, 28 September 1903, reported on their return to London, that when asked if they had enjoyed “a rattling good time,” they could only agree: “We had a splendid time.”
Four years later, it all fell apart both on and off the pitch. The Corinthians arrived in South Africa having resigned from the Football Association (FA), the game’s governing body. The Cape Times, 9 July 1907, greeted them as “the splendid apostles of amateur football,” but they soon lost friends by using the tour to flout the FA’s authority. They had long resented the award of penalty kicks for fouls denying goal-scoring opportunities, arguing that no gentleman would stoop so low. Now, as reported in the Rand Daily Mail, 25 July 1907, when awarded a penalty they “deliberately kicked [the ball] past,” causing great offence to SAFA, still affiliated to the FA, and local referees.
After the 1903 tour, the Sporting Life newspaper in London, 9 January 1904, had suggested that some of the Corinthians who had enjoyed such a splendid time “returned with fatter purses than they took out.” As the 1907 tour descended into acrimony—The Times of Natal, 7 August, reported that the visiting captain was complaining about “indifferent” referees who “were not impartial”—the by-now familiar allegations regarding excessive expenses resurfaced. It did not help that the Corinthians themselves were performing indifferently, leading to awkward questions about the hefty pre-match guarantees they demanded. The Rand Daily Mail, 25 July, described the visitors as “only a moderate lot and are not up to either of the former visiting combinations”. Did the 1907 team still offer value for money?
As the Cape Times, 9 October 1907, made clear, the integrity of the Corinthian brand had been badly dented. The myth was unravelling. Gentlemanly amateurism was not all that it seemed. They did not visit South Africa again.