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Sir Stanley Matthews - Global Icon

Stanley Matthews only won a single trophy in his career and never played in European club competition - despite that, he was football's first global icon. David Goldblatt explains how it happened. 

When Sir Stanley Matthews died in 2000, Pele declared him "the man who taught us how football should be played". He was not alone in offering his admiration and while Pele is considered to be football's first global icon, the honour should go to Matthews. 

That he emerged from an insular and unadventurous culture makes his iconic status unlikely. He was born in February 1915, in an industrial village near Stoke, England, called Hanley. He made Stoke City debut in March 1932, and ended his career there 33 years later, after a spell with Blackpool. His only trophy success was the 1953 FA Cup; he never played in European club competitions (English clubs did not participate before 1956 and Stoke did not qualify) and was never shown a yellow or red card. 

Matthews' career as an England international stretched from 1933 to 1957, during which time he scored 11 goals in 52 appearances. But his international exposure was limited by the football and wider politics of the era. He missed both the 1934 and 1938 World Cups because England had withdrawn from FIFA. The Second World War took another six years out of his international career leaving him only the 1950 and 1954 World Cups as a chance to shine on the world stage. Even that was not a huge hit - England departed early from Brazil in 1950 and lost to Uruguay in the 1954 quarter-finals. In all, Matthews played just three World Cup games. 


So why was Stanley Matthews so revered? It was simply due to the power of word of mouth in football cultures. Even in today's media-saturated environment, there is no stronger recommendation than a breathless friend exclaiming, "You have just got to see this guy". That is how it was with Matthews, whose nickname 'The King of the Dribble' summed him up. He was a classic, attacking right-winger who displayed the incredible speed and an exciting body swerve. His crosses were sharp and his running at defenders direct. No-one who saw him would forget it - whatever the result - and no-one could have failed to pass on the news of his skill, in any language.

This more than made up for the fact that there was no television coverage of football in Matthews's prime. There was little film and while specialist sports newspapers around the world had begun to keep an eye on foreign football the coverage was very limited. And yet when the magazine France Football created its prestigious European Footballer of the Year award - now known as the Ballon D'Or - in 1956, there was no question that the first would go to Matthews. He set the standard of excellence that his younger contemporaries, like Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Raymond Kopa, would have to meet. 

One year later in 1957, Matthews was the star attraction at the Independence Day celebrations in Ghana. He played in a series of celebratory football matches played before President Nkrumah and massive enthusiastic crowds - his fame had truly reached global proportions.

 

 



 

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