Albert Johanneson is a legendary footballing pioneer. In 1965, he became the first player of colour to play in an FA Cup final, which paved the way for future generations of colour to be accepted into the world of elite footballing. However, it is often the case that greatness ends in tragedy, and this is the tragic tale of a talented, but tortured soul.
Albert was born in Germiston, Johannesburg on the 13th of March 1940 and spent most of his childhood in Apartheid South Africa. He was a gifted footballer but he would not have been able to hone his skills in a country that discriminated against him. However, when a teacher recommended Albert to Leeds United after noticing his soccer skills, Albert relocated to the UK and was signed by Leeds United in April 1961. Back then, the UK was not much different to Apartheid South Africa. It would not have been strange to find a sign that read, “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs”.
Despite his great debut in England, Albert was often racially abused by the crowd with reports of him being called a monkey and being thrown with bananas while he was on the field. This, however, did not deter him as he continued to play excellent football. In addition to his historic achievement in reaching the FA final, he was instrumental in getting Leeds out of the second division in 1963 and he was the first South African of colour to play regularly in the top division of English football. As a winger, he scored 48 goals for Leeds in 172 appearances. In today’s terms, he would have been worth at least R500 million. However, the more successful he became, the louder the demons in his head became.
By all accounts, Albert suffered from depression. Depression is basically a sadness inside of you that you cannot control. It makes you feel worthless, as if you do not deserve what you have. This is how his colleagues described Albert. He was described as having no confidence and as someone who did not think he deserved to be famous. Considering his traumatic experiences under the Apartheid regime, as well as the taunts and jabs he received in England, it is understandable that these experiences took their toll on the athlete
As he became more successful, his performance started to suffer, because he could not deal with the pressure. He became more withdrawn—also a symptom of depression. Back then, there was no real medical treatment for depression and people didn’t really talk about it. Albert tried to silence these demons in his head by turning to alcohol. The problem with using alcohol is that it worsens your depression. When you sober up, the depression is even worse and you will need even more alcohol, creating a downward spiral of alcoholism. Albert got caught in this spiral and never recovered. Depression had harmed his footballing career and alcohol killed it.
We could argue that Albert should have been stronger and resisted the pull of alcohol, but this is not true. Depression is an unstoppable force and it will end you if you do not get proper medical treatment. Albert lived in a time when there was no proper medical treatment and people just did not talk about it. Even today in our communities, we simply do not talk about these things, as if suffering from depression is a sign of weakness. Much like Albert, many people still use alcohol as a means escaping their depression, but unlike Albert, people suffering from depression in today’ times can find the help they need. Albert had become so withdrawn, that when he died at the age of 55, his body was only discovered a week later.
Although the story of Albert Johanneson ended in tragedy, it should never be forgotten that beneath all of that sadness, was a man who was described as a beautiful and brave soul. He had excelled despite the racial abuse and his teammates said that if you want to know how brave he was on the field, you just had to look at the bruises on his legs. Players from the opposition often tried to take him out by kicking at his legs, but after a kick to the leg, he just got up and played on. His teammates also described his playing style as brilliant and he could beat any opponent at close quarters.
Despite his success, he was never arrogant and appreciated the fans that supported him. The Leeds fans came to love him because he engaged with them and made them feel like they mattered. During warmups and breaks, he would liven up the crowd by doing ball-juggling and tricks. In those days, players were very conservative and rarely engaged with the crowd. Just by being a decent human being that never looked down on others, he became a hero to Leeds fans and broke down racial barriers in the process. He was also very fast, and Leeds fans fondly gave him the nickname, ‘The Black Flash’.
Among his footballing peers, he was a beloved figure who was described as shy but genuinely nice. Before he died, many of the greatest footballing legends tried to help him, but he was not willing to accept their help. He knew that his depression was killing him, and he did not want to drag others into the darkness with him. Even caught up in the grips of alcohol, the footballers that spoke with him described him as intelligent, thoughtful and with a sharp footballing mind.
Albert’s tale might end in tragedy, but his talent on the football field opened up the floodgates for future generations of colour, and for this, he should be celebrated. He broke down racial barriers on pure talent and by being a humble, kind and decent human being. He was a beautiful person that could not escape the darkness, but in life and death, he left a legacy that changed the world.
Note: Alberts tragic death highlights how important our mental well-being is, and that we should never be ashamed of getting help for any addiction or illness—whatever it may be. If you are, or know of someone who is, suffering from depression or alcoholism, there are helplines that are there to assist with any advice or help you may need. For anything related to Alcohol Abuse, Alcoholics Anonymous SA can be reached on 0861 HELP AA (435-722). Similarly, anything related to depression or anxiety can be directed to The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). They are available 24/7 on 0800 12 13 14 and if you would like to speak to a Counsellor, they are available Monday-Sunday from 8AM-8-PM on 011 234 4837. For any suicidal emergencies, please call 0800 567 567.