It is incredible now to think that the concept of one race group playing against another in a football tournament, in front of packed stadiums and amid feverish media attention, would have been hailed as a major breakthrough.

But back in 1973, South Africa was a bizarre place. Legalised racism was deeply entrenched and the country had become a world pariah, ostracised because of its apartheid system. It had been more than a decade already since the sports boycott had been launched, when South Africa was stopped from sending athletes to the Olympic Games from 1964 onwards, and also suspended by Fifa before the country could compete to qualify for the 1966 World Cup in England.

Symptomatic of the thinking of the time was an appeal to Fifa for an entry into the qualifying competition if they fielded an all-black side instead of the customary whites-only team. But mixing was out of the question and ultimately their suspension was upheld.

During those years, the apartheid government further entrenched the revulsion of their policies by stopping England’s cricket team from touring with the South Africa-born non-white player Basil d’Oliveira in their ranks, and also insisting that the All Blacks leave their Maori players at home – which the New Zealanders agreed to.

In the early 1970s, despite these despicable incidents, there was a confidence among white administrators that the tide might have shifted and that the banning of South African sport would soon be lifted. This was despite the fact that the racist government was firmly ensconced and the concept of universal emancipation was seen by the regime as nothing more than a quixotic quest.

These perceptions were emboldened by a visit from the Fifa president Stanley Rous and the tacit support of International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage – two men starkly out of step with the majority view of what to do about South Africa.

Despite their obvious sympathy with the apartheid regime, they were incapable of stopping the mounting disgust and there was to be no lifting of South Africa’s suspension and no chance to compete, as had been widely been speculated, in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

As compensation, South Africa’s government organised the South Africa Games, to which foreign competitors were invited… and a few came. It was, as would be expected, a rather unremarkable event, save for the football, where for the first time barriers that separated the country’s different race groups were lifted and teams of all races allowed to compete, albeit with the government’s policy of ‘separate identity’ firmly in place.

Initially, it had been planned for South African teams to take on an amateur representative side from either England or West Germany, but Fifa, after at first giving permission, withdrew it when it became clear the South African side would again not be of mixed race.

In 1973, South Africa’s football landscape was made up of three different racial entities. Whites had begun professional football in 1959 and their National Football League (NFL) was well established by the early seventies. It was the summer haven for a myriad of British stars who came out for a paid holiday – Gordon Banks, George Best, Bobby Charlton, Derek Dougan, Geoff Hurst, Francis Lee, Peter Lorimer and Bobby Moore all competed for local clubs for a few matches in the English league off-season. Some stayed a lot longer and played most of the season, like the Welsh striker Ron Davies, not long before he signed for Manchester United, or a young Peter Withe, later to score a European Cup final winner. George Eastham travelled back and forth between Cape Town and Stoke, scoring a League Cup winner, before settling in South Africa, where he still lives.

The NFL received most of the media spotlight and radio airtime. It also drew support from the other race groups, although what were termed ‘non-European’ fans had to stand in a separate enclosure, usually in the worst part of the ground.

Black professional football had finally got off the ground in 1970. Previous efforts had been stymied by a cynical closure of facilities by the authorities who tried every trick to thwart the establishment of anything that might pose a threat to the status quo. But by 1973 the National Professional Soccer League was beginning to thrive, drawing impressive crowds and attracting blue chip sponsorship. The league had a popular beer as its title sponsor with prize money for the clubs and a cigarette brand sponsoring the main knockout competition.

It had the potential to evolve into a significant political force, too, but pointedly steered clear of any agitation of the regime, controlled by moderate black politicians, who found it more convenient to be collaborative than confrontational.

South Africa’s other two racial groups – so-called ‘Coloured’ or mixed-race people and Indians – had the Federation Professional League, a much more politically attuned organisation that vehemently opposed apartheid sport and would have nothing to do with any window dressing.

White and black clubs had occasional contact in clandestine training-ground matches but mostly looked across the racial divide at each other with growing interest and envy. Whites had the facilities, the spotlight, the means. The black league had the fans and the flair. Society was totally fragmented in those days; race groups were confined to separate residential areas and most contact between whites and the race groups was an employer-employee, master-servant relationship. Mixing anywhere, never mind the sports fields, was absolutely minimal.

The SA Games were to provide the first formal contact across the colour line with a tournament featuring ‘national teams’ from the four race groups. It was a suggestion from the football fraternity that the government was happy to go along with in an effort to creative a narrative of ‘mixed’ sport that could be peddled to the world and maybe hoodwink them into ending the isolation.

‘Mixed’ or ‘multi-racial’ sport however meant little more than being able to mix on the pitch. Off it, apartheid still tormented life and subjugated the majority with separate facilities for race groups and the black facilities inevitably vastly inferior. The four teams at the SA Games were to be the South African Black XI, South African Coloured XI, South African Indian XI and South African White XI. It was a round robin contest at first with each team playing the other once, followed by a final between the top two in the table – all played over six successive days between Monday March 26 and Saturday 31 March 1973.

The Coloured and Indian sides were not only inhibited by the small size of their population but also by the fact their best players refused to take part and were, therefore, vastly under strength, leaving the tournament effectively a contest between Black and White.

“That was apartheid, you know,” remembered Pule ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe, arguably South Africa’s greatest player. “We knew we carried the hopes of the Black people of this nation on our shoulders. There we were, the top Black side playing against the top White side at the height of apartheid. We knew our responsibility. It was important to our pride and the pride of all Black people for us to win.”

At first the tournament was set for Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, a citadel of apartheid rugby, but then moved to the home of white soccer – the Rand Stadium in Johannesburg, a much more liberal city. The government explained it away as a move of convenience because most football fans came from Jo’burg anyway and would be spared having to travel the 40-odd minutes up the highway to Pretoria.

But the truth was Pretoria was a cradle of Afrikaner Calvinism and wanted nothing to do with any mixing of races, while far-right nationalist groups had threatened violence if blacks were allowed to play sport in their city. The opening day of the tournament attracted a sizeable crowd for a Monday, but spectators were still kept apart with separate entrances into the ground, though these were left unmarked to try to create a different picture.

At one gate, several hundred Black patrons had queued for entry, only to be told, to their irritation, that gate was for whites only. “Tempers grew short before the official in charge of ticketing came to escort them to a ‘black’ entrance,” reported the anti-apartheid Rand Daily Mail the next morning. “As he led the way, a policeman shouted at the crowd, ‘follow the baas’. Came a quick retort from a Black spectator, ‘At the Games, there’s no baas. We’re all gentlemen’.” Baas is the Afrikaans term for ‘boss’, or in the apartheid days ‘master’, and often whites insisted on being addressed as such.

A capacity 40,000 came on the second day to watch the Black and White XIs meet for the first time. The headlines spoke of a potentially momentous breakthrough. “The fact that racial barriers have been lowered, perhaps only temporarily, has set tongues wagging. From the champagne and caviar suburbs of Johannesburg to the shanties of Soweto, talk is about the battle of supremacy to come,” added the newspaper.

But for all the build-up, the match itself in pouring rain was a one-sided win for the White XI, who were two-up in the first 20 minutes and won 4-0 in the end. “Africa wept last night at the Rand Stadium,” wrote the World newspaper, the black daily later banned by the apartheid regime. “Not even the (defiant) singing of the anthem ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ helped when the South African Black XI went down against the White XI. On the shoulders of the 11 brave young men had ridden the hope of 18 million Africans.”

Other match reports, notably in the liberal English-language Press, had dollops of condescension, insisting despite the defeat it had been a triumph for the Black team. “In 90 minutes,” wrote the Star, “they learnt more about the tactical and studied side of soccer than they might have in the last 90 years. The game, more than anything else, was an indictment of apartheid in soccer for it proved that what the Whites have to teach the Blacks about the game can only be learnt by contact – and vice-versa.”

The two teams met again on the Saturday in the final, again in front of a packed house, and this time the Whites won 3-1. “Had we won it would not have taken away from the situation we found ourselves in and losing just perpetuated the sorrow,” said Ephraim Mashaba, the Black XI midfielder who later would go on to have two stints as coach of a free South African national team.

“We felt we had to show the gap was not that big and there could have been some positives that came out of it because it made us stronger and emphasised how we needed to fend for ourselves. It wasn’t a good situation.”

But the top black sportswriter of the day, Leslie Sehume, saw the exercise as a success, even though the Black team had lost. “It would be tragic if this wonderful spectacle is seen and experienced only every four years,” he wrote about the prospect of the Games being repeated in an Olympian cycle.

“Of course, the dream of every sports-minded person in this country is to see one day integrated sides walking onto a South African sports field. This year’s SA Games have laid the foundation and it [multi-racial sport] can no longer be regarded as a dream. It is coming.”

The exercise was to be repeated again in 1974 – this time as a tournament sponsored by a cigarette brand – and in 1975 came the first tournament for clubs from the various leagues.

By 1977, the white clubs saw it prudent to fold their own league and merge in with their black counterparts, in what was a blow to the apartheid structure. For almost two decades thereafter, while the apartheid system grimly held on, football was an example of what a future, non-racial South African society would look like and how it could function.