Who is Frank Soo, I bet many of you are asking?
I can imagine even some hardcore football fans won’t know who he is. Or even many ESEA people.
Born in 1914 in Buxton, Derbyshire to a Chinese father and White English mother and brought up in Liverpool, Frank Soo has the accolade of being the first person of East South East Asian (ESEA) heritage to play in the EFL (English Football League), debuting for Stoke City Football Club on 4th November 1933.
Sadly, Frank’s story has largely been forgotten, where in his time, even his wedding was reported on; making him somewhat a celebrity back then. However, very few people nowadays know of his story. But, thanks to Alan Lau, Founder and Director of The Frank Soo Foundation, and an FA (The Football Association) Community Champion, this has started to change recently – with plans to continue that in the long-term.
I sat down with Alan for The ESEA Echo ahead of 9th May – the 81st anniversary of Soo’s England debut – to talk about the footballer’s story and what the Foundation are trying to do with his legacy…
What else did Frank achieve in his years as a football player?
AL: He played for Stoke City 173 times, even captaining the side alongside footballing legend Sir Stanley Matthews. He also made wartime appearances for a whole series of clubs, including Newcastle United, Chelsea, Everton, Millwall and Brentford. His playing career after the war took him to Leicester City and Luton Town as well as a managerial career across Scandinavia, winning the Swedish Allsvenskan with Djurgadens IF in 1954-55.
His most momentous achievement is playing for England 9 times in Wartime friendlies marking him as the first person of colour to play for the Three Lions. As this was during the Second World War, the FA did not recognise these as official England Internationals and as such, he does not officially have any caps. He also played in many teams representing the British Armed Forces and even captained the RAF XI on several occasions.
During his career, you can imagine Frank did unfortunately face barriers as the first prominent player in English football of Chinese descent. But do we know much or the extent of that?
AL: It is very hard to say for certain what barriers he faced at the time, but of course we know that the era that he played in was a very different time to now. He was born at a time where there was much unrest in England in regard to “foreigners” coming to settle with many attacks on immigrants. A barometer of the tolerance the society had for people from ethnic backgrounds can be seen by the story of Jack Leslie – a Black player who was selected for England but was then withdrawn when the selectors learnt of the colour of his skin. It was only in 1978 when Viv Anderson played for England making him the first Black player to play for England. Frank’s family also maintains that his career suffered after a national newspaper printed a racist cartoon of Frank with the stereotyped slanted eyes and a coolie hat.
We also have to take into account that many footballers suffered in this era as their careers would have been cut short by the Second World War, with Frank being in his late 20s, which is generally considered the peak of many players’ careers.
Ultimately, he was also somewhat a celebrity in the day too. Do you think something like that could be repeated for an ESEA player?
AL: I think it is an interesting question as you see a player like Son Heung-min, who arguably is one of the best players in The Premier League, having recently joined the 100 club (100 Premier League goals) and also having a great World Cup last winter. However, does he have the same kind of celebrity status as his contemporaries? If he was not of ESEA heritage, would he be even more praised and more in the public eye?
On the other hand, Son does show a shift. There are more and more players of ESEA heritage playing professionally in the UK since the beginning of the Premier League era. Though homegrown players have been rarer, mainly in the Championship, Perry Ng (Cardiff), Alfie Chong (Birmingham), the PL has seen many Korean and Japanese players the last few seasons.
I would say I am hopeful that there will be more players from ESEA heritage of renown developing and succeeding in professional football.
What does the Frank Soo Foundation aim to do?
AL: The Frank Soo Foundation has 3 main aims;
Heritage – To tell Frank’s story and that of the wider ESEA footballing community throughout history.
Community – To work with and support other ESEA community groups to help build better communities.
Aspirations – To help and support anyone from a ESEA background in their aspirations in football; as a player, coach, fans.
Frank has recently been honoured as part of the Chinese and British exhibitions across the UK for his mark on British Chinese and footballing history. What is next for his legacy?
AL: We have several plans to really build on the publicity from the exhibition and feel that the story and education piece on Frank and the wider ESEA footballing contribution in history is really important. For the 81st anniversary of Frank’s England debut we are launching an Investigative Radio Documentary produced by Lewis Peers, journalist and graduate from UCFB (University Campus of Football Business). This will be the first time a documentary has been made about Frank and we hope this short piece will attract attention and create an appetite for a longer documentary on Frank and other forgotten footballers/sports people. The listener will be taken on a journey to find out about Frank which takes us all the way to Sweden.
Alongside the radio documentary, I have a team of volunteers working on an exhibit piece to tell the story of ESEA footballers throughout the history of football. We are also looking to doing something big for Frank’s Stoke debut in November, marking the first person from a ESEA heritage to play in the EFL.
We also encourage people to read Susan Gardiner’s book The Wanderer; The story of Frank Soo to learn more about his life.
How are you hoping to increase representation for ESEA players in football and encourage an uptake in the sport for ESEA people?
AL: I feel that we are only at the beginning of our journey – we need to work on the grassroots in football and our own communities first; giving more opportunities for people to fall in love with football. We are doing this with our Communities Youth Football projects, collaborations with Youth Clubs/Community Centres to hold coaching sessions and also the work we are doing with the FA and their Community Champions to find, encourage and support more coaches from ESEA communities. This is on top of the tournaments and playing opportunities we are creating and also bringing people together to watch football (sometimes for the first time at a stadium) and creating fan groups for clubs.
We want to normalise football and sport into our communities; this is one of the biggest barriers we have always had, which is very similar to the arts and music space. I want to change the perception of people to say, “yes, my child CAN play sports and become a professional sports person if they want.”, “yes, being involved in sport shouldn’t be detrimental to their studies and it is a positive thing for them to be involved in” or “football isn’t just for hooligans, I can get excitement from it too”. This is already changing in the ESEA communities compared to previous generations; however, we want to help this along the way!
What are the future goals (hehe, love a good pun, me!) for the Frank Soo Cup and other similar projects?
AL: A lot of our projects we have done have been very localised, mainly in London and the South East. We hope to roll out similar initiatives across the country, either headed by ourselves or working in collaboration with local organisations. I believe that every community is different and will need different solutions for the different challenges, but the Foundation can be a focal point to help put this together. The Frank Soo Cup was originally a collaboration with Liverpool County FA, now we are rolling it out with the Middlesex FA and hopefully other county FAs. The same is hoped for the Communities Youth Football which was started in Watford Football Club and now we are in talks with other professional teams around the country.
One of the challenges we have in the ESEA community is that we do not have the same critical mass as say the South Asian or Black communities and we are generally spaced out geographically across the country. Our aim is to try and replicate across the country or help co-ordinate the good things which are going on already.
If you are interested in volunteering to help Alan and The Frank Soo Foundation with their upcoming heritage projects, please do contact him directly! You can check the Foundation’s social media channels for further updates here: