John Salako knew things were different in South Africa, but it wasn’t until the final night of Crystal Palace’s 1992 pre-season tour that he saw just how different.

A few hours after Steve Coppell’s Eagles lost 2-1 to Orlando Pirates in Durban, Salako and the rest of the players were sampling the Indian Ocean city’s nocturnal delights. “We were at a club having a few drinks and doing a real bit of bonding at the end of a great trip,” he recalls. “Most of us were about to go back to the hotel but [Mark] Brighty and Eric [Young] wanted to go somewhere else. It was pretty late by then, but the guy who had been sorting everything out for us agreed to take them. When they got there, they ran into some Afrikaners. They were big guys who were looking for a bit of trouble and didn’t want them in there.”

They both came back pretty shaken up. It was the first time on the trip we had seen anything like that

Sensing danger, Bright and strapping former Wimbledon centre-back Young – nicknamed ‘Ninja’ for his trademark headband – made a quick decision. Time to leave. “They both came back pretty shaken up,” Salako recalls. “It was the first time on the trip we had seen anything like that but it was a real reminder that things were still very edgy over there.”

In July 1992, South Africa hovered on the brink of civil war. After the celebrations that had greeted Nelson Mandela’s release from prison two years earlier, 46 people were massacred by Inkatha Freedom Party militia in Boipatong on June 17.

Future Bafana Bafana captain Aaron Mokoena, then an 11-year-old resident of the township located 50 miles to the south-west of Johannesburg, later recounted that his mother had dressed him up as a girl to keep him safe from the machete-wielding mob. In response, African National Congress (ANC) leader Mandela suspended negotiations with President FW de Klerk, accusing the government of setting the country on a “collision course” by failing to stop the violence and finally bring down the curtain on the hated apartheid regime.

Shoot-outs weren't common, but they were deadly

Shoot-outs weren't common, but they were deadly

 

It was against this backdrop of political uncertainty that Salako, Bright, Young and the rest of Crystal Palace’s multi-racial squad landed at Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts Airport three weeks later. Traditionally, the south Londoners had spent pre-season playing lower-league opponents at picturesque grounds in rural Sweden. But with the inaugural Premier League season about to kick off, chairman Ron Noades had accepted an invitation to become the first British club to visit South Africa since Tottenham in 1963.

“It felt special to us that we were flying the flag,” he told FFT, years later. “We knew there may be a situation where we would take our players to places where some were allowed and some weren’t. It was a test, really, because there was no way we could have stood for any of that. If one player went, the lot went.”

Since the establishment of the first non-racial league in the mid-70s, football had taken a lead in fighting against the injustices of apartheid in South Africa. In direct contravention of the laws of the land, leading clubs Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs were regularly fielding ‘mixed’ sides before the 1990s, as white players were often smuggled into Soweto to play home matches.

A seismic change in South African football

“The government knew they couldn’t stop everyone playing together,” says journalist Billy Cooper, who has covered the South African game for nearly 40 years. “All it needed was to be rubber-stamped in 1994, but football had long been different to the rest of the country.”

Yet the ending of the international sports boycott following Mandela’s release from prison still brought about a seismic change in South African football. Their readmittance to FIFA in November 1991 coincided with the emergence of satellite TV, while clubs were flooded by new sponsorship deals with big companies who were keen to establish links with 40 million potential customers who had previously been of no interest to them.

“All the money in South Africa was white at that stage and they realised they had to get involved in the black market, which meant football,” recalls Peter Auf der Heyde, who set up the South African Soccer Yearbook in 1992. “That opened up a lot of doors for people to get seriously rich out of the sport.”

In a country where support for the English game has always been fanatical given the number of expatriates, fledgling TV company M-Net also sensed an opportunity. CEO Barry Lambert had already secured the rights to screen the first Premier League season the following year on their new dedicated sports channel, and with the sporting boycott lifted, he and Chris Day from African Sports Promotions sounded out heavyweights Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal about a pre-season tour.

Manchester United eventually did visit South Africa in 1993

Manchester United eventually did visit South Africa in 1993

 

Politely rebuffed, they turned to Palace, who had come so close to winning the FA Cup final against United in 1990 and finished third in the First Division a year later under Coppell. “We were approached about six months beforehand to see if we might be interested,” remembers Noades. “At that time, pre-season tours were all about generating some income for the club. Other teams like Manchester United could demand lots of money but no one wanted to go to South Africa because of all the problems there still were. It was unknown territory.”