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Black History Month: Sol shines bright

Sol Campbell was one of the best defenders in English soccer history. Learn about what made him so great.

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FC Porto v Arsenal - UEFA Champions League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

For about 15 years, one of the most dominant defenders in the world was a man they called Sol. Shining as bright as the sun, Sol Campbell was able to use great on field awareness with his offensive and defensive talents to leave a lasting impact on just about every match.

Born in Plaistow in East London to Jamaican parents, Sulzeer Campbell was the youngest of 12 children. He grew up a recluse because of the rough neighborhood he lived in and being in a house with so many people expressing himself. He decided that his expression would come through the game of soccer. He began as a striker in the West Ham United academy, but left after a couple years when, as he mentioned in his biography, a coach made an offensive joke to him about the West Indies cricket team. It turned him off to joining another program, but he was convinced to give it a go once again by joining the academy at Tottenham Hotspur. It was there where he stood out, eventually joining a prestigious training program at Lilleshall Hall. He was offered the captain’s armband of Spurs’ youth team, but Campbell declined, citing the desire to work on his own game.

In December 1992, Campbell made his Spurs first team debut, appearing as a substitute and scoring the lone goal against Chelsea FC in a 2-1 defeat. Despite that dream debut, he did not see the field for the rest of that season.

The next season, under a new coach, Campbell started at left back at the beginning of the season, but eventually moved to right back. He had 42 appearances that season, scoring a goal in the League Cup. Over the next 7 seasons for the club, he was the everyday starter for the club, rotating in several places on the back line. But, he eventually developed a knack for providing the big goal as well. He was incredible with his head, his 6’2” frame allowing him to launch over everyone to head balls home. He also had the ability to fire lasers from outside the box into the net for goals that would be on any highlight reel.

Despite all this, coaches originally would site his physicality or his speed as the reasons why he was good, which was a common descriptor for Black players. However, what made Sol Campbell great was his determination to work on other areas of his game to make them great. He worked hard on developing his aerial game to become one of the greats with his head. He made an effort to work on his agility and his footwork along with his on field awareness and positioning to make sure those areas were great. He was extremely versatile. While he’s known primarily as a centerback, he played right back and left back successfully during his career, which wasn’t something tall defenders could naturally do in his time. Finally, he was fearless, going into tackles and duels with no regard for his own safety. Because of that, teams thought twice about going at him because he played like there was no tomorrow. The soccer field was where he could express himself, and he worked tirelessly to make sure he would always be a factor when he stepped on his stage.

While he was starring at Spurs, he was fast moving up the ranks on the international level. At the 1993 UEFA U-19 Euros, he picked up 2 Man of the Match awards as England won the title over Turkey. He eventually made his senior international debut in May 1996, coming off the bench as a substitute for England against Hungary. Despite only having the one cap, he made England’s roster for Euro 1996, earning a cap against Scotland. England would go on to finish 3rd at Euro 1996.

In his biography, Sol Campbell described the pride he had to represent England on the international level:

“When I put on the England shirt, I had a collection of thoughts. It was like going into battle, fighting for your team and your country. I would think that I’m playing against the best players in the world and would love that I could master them, control them and nullify them.”

In 1998, Sol Campbell received the captain’s armband, becoming only the 2nd Black player to ever captain the Three Lions. He wore the armband for 3 games in his career.

In 2001, after his Spurs contract expired, Sol Campbell decided to move to Arsenal FC, Spurs’ arch rivals, in the hopes of playing Champions League football. It was a very controversial move, as many players who played in the North London Derby for one team wouldn’t dare move to play for the other. But, Campbell thought it was the place that he could further his career, and he was able to take his game to the next level. However, his returns to White Hart Lane to face the team where he got his start was always met with vitriol, with fans chanting insults and sometimes racial slurs. Still, he desired to be the best player he could be, and he wanted the team success to go along with it. Arsenal won the Premier League in Campbell’s first season at the Highbury, and he was a featured defender on the 2003-2004 Arsenal team that would become known as The Invincibles, as they would go unbeaten in league play on their way to winning the Premier League.

Sol Campbell went on score 29 goals in 646 appearances for Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Portsmouth, Notts County, and Newcastle in his storied career. He also had 73 caps for England, scoring his lone goal at the 2002 World Cup against Sweden. He won a League Cup with Spurs; 2 Premier League titles, 3 FA Cups, a Community Shield, and a Champions League runners-up medal with Arsenal; and a FA Cup with Portsmouth. He also was on World Cup rosters for England in 1998, 2002 (earning a place on the World Cup All-Star Team), and 2006, and he also played for England in Euro 1996, Euro 2000, and Euro 2004, earning a place on the Team of the Tournament. In his post-playing days, he has been a manager, with recent head coaching stints at Macclesfield Town and Southend United.

Sol Campbell was one of the great defenders in the world, and his ability to continually improve his game is what made him the best. He played with fire, and his desire to express himself through his game contributed to the many successes he had on the field.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing stories throughout the month to highlight some of the biggest moments in Black American and world soccer history.