On May 9, 1942, a crowd of more than 30,000 gathered at Ninian Park in the Welsh capital, Cardiff, to watch Wales take on England. The game would provide some fleeting joy to fans – particularly to the Welsh whose team won 1-nil – in the dark days of the second world war.
In the England team was Frank Soo, a player who was making history that day as the first non-white player and the first player of Asian descent to represent England. Eighty years later, he remains the only player of Asian descent to have played for England at that level.
The 28-year-old had already established himself as a pioneer – as the first player of Chinese descent to play in the English Football League, he made 265 appearances for Stoke City, Leicester City and Luton Town between 1933 and 1948.
Soo would go on to play eight more times for England over the course of the next three years – but all these games took place during wartime and were classified as unofficial, so he never earned an official cap.
Although Soo was hugely popular with fans during his career, his name was largely forgotten after it.
“He was one of the most important figures in twentieth-century football history,” Susan Gardiner wrote in Soo’s biography The Wanderer.
“During his lifetime he was recognised as an equal of Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Billy Wright, Joe Mercer and Stan Mortensen, and anyone who knows anything about football from that era knows that they were the greats.”
‘The Smiler’ is born
Soo was born in the village of Fairfield, near Buxton in Derbyshire in March 1914 to Quan Soo, a Chinese sailor, and Beatrice, who hailed from Lancashire, England. He was the second child of seven – six boys and a girl.
The Soo family moved to the West Derby area of Liverpool in 1920 when Soo was six and opened what became a thriving laundry on Town Row.
The young Soo would often be seen outside kicking a football around and developed a talent that, at the age of 18, saw him join Prescot Cables FC in the Cheshire League while also working as an office clerk.
He was scouted by the two biggest local teams, Liverpool and Everton, but it was Tom Mather at Stoke City who acted the quickest, offering Soo a route into professional football by signing him for a transfer fee of 400 pounds sterling ($26,251 today) in January 1933.
Soo was a quick and intelligent player and had “a calculated mastery of the ball”, as one newspaper put it. He started as an inside-left before evolving into a half-back, renowned for his accurate passing.
In November 1933 Soo made his debut for Stoke against Middlesbrough in the First Division, and though they lost 6-1 that day, he still impressed, with one newspaper describing his performance as “a cracker”.
He went on to establish himself as an important figure for Stoke, starring alongside the legendary Sir Stanley Matthews, who became known as one of English football’s all-time greats. Gardiner said, however: “Many Stoke City fans who watched both Matthews and Soo play for years thought Frank was the better player.”
In addition to his skills on the pitch, his personable and charming character earned him the nickname “The Smiler”.
Soo was adored by Stoke fans, and when he married Beryl Freda Lunt in 1938, more than 2,000 of them surrounded the church where the ceremony was held.
His neighbour Alan Chadwick said: “He was always immaculate, sleek black hair, he had the Brylcreem look. He was very softly spoken, a very nice man.”
A rising star
In the 1935-1936 season, Soo played 40 games to help Stoke finish fourth in the First Division, their best-ever league season. His teammate Neil Franklin described him as “one of the grandest wing-halves and greatest fellows you could ever wish to meet”.
In the summer of 1938, Soo became Stoke City’s captain. Later that year, his brilliant performances persuaded Brentford to make a 5,000-pound ($308,609 today) offer for him, which was immediately rejected.
After another impressive season, Soo was on the verge of being called up to the England team in 1939. The Daily Express declared, “Soo, of Stoke, is one of the finest halves in the game, and it would be no less than he was worth if they put him in.”
But the outbreak of the second world war would rob Soo of this chance and, at the age of 25, ultimately deny him the best years of his career.
At the start of the war, Soo was forced to swap the football pitch for the engineering department of the Michelin tyre company, but he was still able to play some games for Stoke and made guest appearances for several clubs, including Newcastle United, Chelsea, Brentford, Millwall, Burnley and Everton.
He also played for England in nine internationals that were known as Wartime and Victory Internationals, making history as he faced Scotland four times, Wales three times, and Ireland and France once each.
He was called up to the Royal Air Force in July 1941 to help train air crews and served alongside fellow footballers, including Matt Busby and Joe Mercer. Soo would captain the RAF in friendly games, and also play for the Football Association against the British Army. He did not see combat himself, but his younger brother Ronald was killed as an air gunner in a bombing operation over Germany in 1944.
At the end of the war, Soo joined Leicester City for 4,600 pounds sterling ($182,056 today), where he was reunited with Mather, who appointed him captain. A series of injuries, however, hampered his career at Filbert Street, though he is still fondly remembered there.
“He was a wonderfully clever and skillful player, respected by players and fans, who appreciated intelligent, polished football,” Leicester City historian John Hutchinson once wrote.
In the summer of 1946, Soo moved on to Luton Town for a fee of 5,000 pounds ($192,023 today) before finishing his playing career with a two-year spell playing for Chelmsford City in the Southern League.
His management years
After retiring, Soo embarked on a remarkable career in management that would span the next two decades and take him all around the world.
His greatest accomplishments came in Sweden, where he won promotion from Division Three with Eskilstuna in 1953, the Allsvenskan title with Djurgarden in 1955, and another promotion from Division Three with Oddevold in 1956.
He also had a season in Italy with Padova in 1951-1952 and spells with clubs in Norway and Denmark, and back home in England with Scunthorpe. He also took charge of the Norwegian national team at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki and was, in 1963, briefly the interim manager of Israel.
Honoured after years of being forgotten
Soo eventually returned to Stoke-on-Trent in the early 1980s. In January 1991, at the age of 76, he died of dementia at a hospital in Cheadle.
His death produced very few headlines, and his legacy would be ignored for several decades until the publication of Gardiner’s book in 2016 and the creation of The Frank Soo Foundation, which has campaigned for him to gain greater recognition.
There are some who question whether his ethnicity stopped him from being remembered in the manner he deserved. In a rare interview in 1975, Soo said his “oriental blood” had possibly prevented him from winning more England caps.
In March 2019, a Frank Soo Street was inaugurated. It is in a new development of houses in Stoke, built on the site of the demolished Victoria Park, where Stoke City played for 119 years until 1997.
The following year on May 9, 2020, the 78th anniversary of his England debut, Google created a doodle that honoured Soo for his achievements.
The artist who produced the doodle, Matthew Cruickshank, said he believed it represented “a love of football and a celebration of the diversity we have in the modern game today, and Frank really played his part in achieving that”.