Mark Gleeson: The anorak's anorak

Mark Gleeson is a living legend of African football—and probably the only man at the Africa Cup of Nations who has been photographed naked for the Serbian edition of Playboy.

It was not full frontal, which is just as well as he’s taller than Peter Crouch. It was just a picture of his big toe, with a palm tree in the background, but it was important to the editorial staff back in the Balkans to establish that Mark Gleeson was in fact a real person.

Why? Gleeson features in a few books by the former Observer columnist and renowned football author, Simon Kuper, who wrote in particular of a wacky trip to Swaziland with Gleeson, who describes himself as “the anorak’s anorak”.
Kuper’s article was translated for Playboy in Belgrade and they wanted a number for Gleeson.

“They called and asked me ‘Are you a real person?’ I said yes and they wanted photographic evidence. So that’s where the big toe came into the picture.”

He tells me this story during one of the highlights of any Africa Cup of Nations, the biennial dinner with Gleeson.

Fifteen years ago he started out on a quest to do what nobody has ever done and build a record of football on this continent. His efforts are recognised by Fifa—for whom he is the official archivist for Africa—and without him nobody would know how many caps which players have, how many goals have been scored in the African Champions League and so on and so on. This sort of thing is taken for granted in Europe and elsewhere, but in Africa next to nothing is known. Or was known, until Gleeson stepped in.

As an example, I tried to find out what I could about the first tour of Britain by a team from Ghana, then the Gold Coast, back in 1951. The only mention of that historic visit is a minute of an FA committee meeting in the Soho Square archives, which reads: “It was agreed to pay the Gold Coast AFA 17s 6d [87p] towards the costs of their tour.” In Ghana there is nothing. When a researcher once visited the Nigerian FA records section/library he found a grand total of three publications.

Much of the evening’s conversation revolved around Gleeson’s garage back home in Cape Town. It holds his drum kit and other unimaginable treasures—if you like that sort of thing. He has photocopied team line-ups from years and years of matches in the top African club competitions. “CAF [the continental federation] burned the rest when they moved offices in Cairo recently,” says a horrified Gleeson. He went with his wife to copy as much as he could before CAF moved.

He also has the complete record—and there is plenty of it—of the “whites only” FA in South Africa that was suspended from world football, and piles of information, which took many hours of difficult research to unearth, on the “blacks only” league, which was scarcely reported. He wants to compile a record of every game played in that league before football became mixed in 1976.

He knows everything and everyone. He tells of the Brits who played in South Africa years ago.

“I saw George Best play at the Rand Stadium—a full house. Bobby Moore made plenty of visits, Johnny Haynes, Budgie Byrne. In one season, I think it was 1999, Budgie Byrne, his two sons and his son-in-law all coached teams in Cape Town in the South African league. He was at Cape Town Spurs, his son David at Santos, Mark at Hellenic and Gavin Hunt, who married Budgie’s only daughter, Karen, was at Seven Stars. Nine weeks in, David was sacked.”

“Didn’t David win a cap for South Africa?” asks one of our well-informed dining companions. “No,” says Gleeson. “He got an under-23 cap at the age of 35 against the United States.”

Did you also know that Lucas Radebe played in goal for Bophuthatswana against a South African amateur XI? That Eusebio’s dad was Angolan? That two brothers currently playing international football turn out for different countries, Uganda and Rwanda?

And did you know this: no team in world football is compelled to send its team lists to Fifa for archiving. There is no record of the line-ups for senior international matches—just scores and the venue.

“It’s scandalous,” says Gleeson, who is not your normal dysfunctional football nerd. He is a family man with children (most unusual in nerdland) and is great company.

“Now it’s even worse than it used to be. Surely Fifa should recognise the value of this information? What are they playing at?”

He invited me to see his garage during the 2010 World Cup. How can I say no?—Â

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