The Sheffield Zulus: Harlem Globetrotters of Football's Past

Tim OatesCorrespondent ISeptember 4, 2008

So you’ve heard about the Harlem Globetrotters, a basketball extravaganza that travels around the world exhibiting athleticism and comedy. Now surely that couldn’t happen in football.

I discovered this fascinating story last year while working on a thesis; it comes from Sheffield, England courtesy of South African "Zulus."

In England, when the thought of being paid to kick a football was merely a dream, a team of "South African Zulus" made a name for themselves at Bramall Lane, a ground in Yorkshire’s Sheffield. The Wednesday, later known as Sheffield Wednesday, played their important matches here. Unlike an open park, it was ideal for football in those early days because perimeter walls and turnstiles helped to control the crowd.

On a dark November afternoon in 1879, a large group of spectators turned up to watch a football game with a difference. The "Zulus" rose to this unique occasion, and with some cunning moves overcame a strong Sheffield Players’ XI, then one of the top clubs in England, 5-4.

Dressed in black jerseys and stockings, decorated with beads and feathers, these highly experienced footballers (who also used assegais and shields as part of their act) performed tribal dances before each game. These authentic items had been shipped from the battlefields of the Zulu War in South AFrica to Britain aboard the H.M.S. Shah.

The victorious team, which was of course not real Zulu Impis, but white men dressed up, lined up as follows: Ulmathoosi (H. Hinchcliffe), Cetewayo (T. Buttery) captain, Dabulamanzi (J. Hunter), Sirayo (G. Herring), Methlagazu (A. Malpas), Umcilyn (A. Ramsden), Ngobamabrosi (G. Butcher), Magnenda (S. Earnshaw), Jiggleumbeno (T. Cawley), Muyamani (G. Ainley) and Amatonga (S. Lucas).

The Sheffield Zulus developed a system of charging for playing, and the proceeds benefited British widows and orphans of soldiers killed in the war, which had started 10 months earlier. Further games took place in Chesterfield and Barnsley, with Scotland also on the agenda.

Although the players of this famous outfit did change, they remained unbeaten until 1882, when they were forced to disband by the Sheffield Football Association (FA). Had they continued to receive remuneration for their clowning, these men would have been barred from participating in any future league or cup games.

Nevertheless, the Zulus were under no illusions about the right to receive payment for playing football, just like any other working man.

Further troubles in the Lancashire area led to a review of the amateur game. During a Special General Meeting on July 20, 1885, the FA finally relented to this popular uprising, leading to the birth of professionalism.

The fact that the Zulu nation (which put up such a gallant fight against the British army’s invasion of its territory) indirectly had a hand in the history of professional football in England may not be generally known, but it is important to document in the light of so much that has happened between South Africa and Britain in football terms since T. Buttery (Cetewayo) captained the Sheffield Zulus.

When the real Cetewayo, King of the Zulus, went to London in 1882, it was too late for him to witness these events. In any case, he was too busy enjoying the beautiful surroundings of his Kensington house. And dressed in tailored European clothing, the King was taken sightseeing, and even lunched with Queen Victoria.

Fifty years after Cetewayo’s visit to England, his nation was able to boast its very own football club when Zulu Royals United (later known as Amazulu), were formed. Since that date, the club became the pride and joy of millions of Zulus who live in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

But when Sheffield Wednesday made their first-ever tour to South Africa in 1992, I wonder how many South Africans were aware of the fact that the English club had forgotten their Zulu "roots" of 113 years earlier. Wednesday failed to visit KwaZulu-Natal, their itinerary took them instead to the Cape and Gauteng.

Perhaps the ghosts haunted Wednesday thereafter, because the 21st century opened with their relegation from the English Premiership. Interestingly, Amazulu also fell from the South African Premier Soccer League (PSL) a few days later. So the next time you think about the advent of professional football in England, give the underrated story about the Sheffield Zulus some credit.

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