One of the reasons I wanted to write about Frank Soo – and there are many – is that, although he played nine times for England, he never received an official England cap. This is an oversight which ought to be put right. It seems unfair that players whose international careers were affected by the outbreak of war should not have their achievements recognised. In Frank’s case, all of the nine games he played for England were categorised as Wartime or Victory Internationals and were classified as “unofficial” by the Football Association. It was generally acknowledged at the time that Frank would have played for his country more often, but he was often unavailable because of his RAF duties. It’s still difficult to understand why he was never picked for England after 1945 however.
Many footballers who played in these matches were aggrieved that they did not count as England caps, even stars like Billy Wright who went on to play for England 105 times in total, but still missed out on the five more caps which should have been awarded for his Victory Internationals. Among the many other brilliant players who lost out were Raich Carter (17 appearances in wartime or victory internationals), Stan Matthews (29), Tommy Lawton (23) and Joe Mercer (27), but for those whose only appearances in an England shirt were in this series of “unofficial” matches, the unfairness seems much greater.
The first wartime international was played at Ninian Park, Cardiff on 11 November 1939. The gate receipts were donated to the Red Cross and St John’s War Organisations appeal and it was advertised as a charity game. This fundraising aspect of the international series continued although there’s no doubt that the spectators who packed stadia like Hampden Park and Wembley felt every bit of the passion and rivalry that characterised internationals before and after the war.
In the match played at Hampden Park on 17 April 1943, brothers Leslie and Denis Compton were the star attraction. They were the first siblings to play for England since the 1880s and Denis, who played for Arsenal as well as being one of the best England cricketers, was a star almost on a par with David Beckham in our era, with lucrative advertising contracts and press photographers following his every move, on or off the pitch. He had even been photographed signing his call-up papers when he joined the army. The Comptons earned many honours between them, but none of Denis’ England appearances were regarded as “official.” An injured knee curtailed his football career.
This clip of a match at Hampden in April 1945 when England beat their hosts, Scotland 6-1 in front of 133,00 people gives an idea of the atmosphere of these wartime matches. As the war drew to a close the atmosphere became even more celebratory and Victory internationals were played against France, Belgium and Switzerland. Many players were still serving in the forces, although most of the stars had been deployed as PT instructors, a few had seen active combat. Thousands of the spectators had also served their countries too, of course. Before the matches the players lined up to shake hands with King George VI, King Haakon of Norway, Charles de Gaulle and other representatives of the Allied nations.
Among those players who only played in the unofficial matches were Joe Bacuzzi of Fulham, who was from Islington, the son of Italian parents. During the 1960s, his son David Bacuzzi would play for Arsenal, Manchester City and Reading. John Balmer was a Liverpool player who had played in the same scholboy teams as Frank Soo in West Derby and had a great career with Liverpool, but played in only one wartime international. Very few of the best players, however, were denied a “full” England cap, even players of lesser talent than Frank Soo. Not long before the war, in April 1938, a sports journalist had written about Frank not being selected for England: “Soo stood out so high above the others on Saturday that one wonders what he really has to do to be officially acknowledged the best wing-half in England today – he is already officially acknowledged to be that, on those grounds that have seen him in the last two or three months. His right to international honours has been overlooked in the past in such a way that we are tired of hoping for the best for him.… Soo is playing better now, since taking steps captaincy, than ever he has done in his career.” It was not an uncommon view.
The last unofficial international match was played in Paris on 19 May 1946 and as subsequent internationals were regarded as official, players were awarded their caps. Despite still being praised by journalists, fans and fellow players alike, as being one of the greatest players, Frank Soo was never picked for England again. He believed that his “Chinese blood” was a factor in this, and although a great deal of the contemporary press coverage was very favourable to him, I believe there was an element of open racism in some newspapers which raised the question of his eligibility to play for England, regardless of the fact that his mother was Lancashire-born. She would have lost her English nationality upon her marriage to Frank’s father anyway, under the Aliens Act of 1905. All five Soo brothers served in the RAF during the Second World War. One, Ronald, was killed when his bomber crashed in Germany in 1942. Still the atmosphere in Britain post-war was not well-disposed – or even grateful – to the Chinese, many of them merchant seamen who had risked their lives for Britain. Many were deported in 1946-7, despite having settled in the UK and having children there. Heartbreakingly, some families were forcibly split up forever.
So the prospects for Frank Soo at such a time, when English football was dominated by Stanley Rous, then secretary of the FA, a man who would later become a notorious supporter of the apartheid system in South Africa, were probably not good. Given that the war had robbed Frank of the best years of his club career – he was 32 when he was “demobbed” in April 1946 – it seems wrong that his double service to his country, in uniform and on the football field, has never been properly acknowledged.
Please help raise funds for my book and campaign, if you can: the Frank Soo project.