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Wednesday, April 2, 2014


The British overseas territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, situated in the sub-Antarctic region, is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, stuck as it is in geographical limbo in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean between South America and Antarctica.

The island of South Georgia is one of the last places one might expect football to be played, but the island has a long footballing history which it can rightly call its own, a history which stretches back for a hundred years or more, and one which owes a huge debt to the whaling industry and those who were employed at the various whaling-stations dotted along the east coast of the island.

South Georgia is a rugged place at the best of times, and for those employed in the whaling-stations, life was hard, especially in winter. There were often limited opportunities to indulge in recreational activity, but football was considered an almost essential form of recreation, and a number of football pitches were constructed in different locations.

Grytviken was the first whaling station and permanent settlement to be established on South Georgia; it dates from 1904 and its founding father was the Norwegian explorer Carl Anton Larsen. It is a place which features prominently in the history of football on the island; Leith Harbour, Stromness and Husvik, all founded within five years of Grytviken, are others.

One of the first recorded games to take place on South Georgia took place at New Fortune Bay (now known as Ocean Harbour) in January 1914, and pitted a team representing the Grytviken whaling station against a team made up of employees of the A/S Ocean whaling company, based at Prince Olav Harbour.

According to a quote taken from an unknown source, reproduced on the Falkland Islands' falklandstimeline site on Wordpress, the "team from Grytviken consists of Englishmen, Danes, Swedes and Norwegians and an impressive Irish player in defence. The team from Ocean is made up of nine solid built boys from Larvik and two Swedes." The Ocean team produced a more than solid performance, trouncing the Grytviken team 9:2. The team from A/S Ocean won another match against Grytviken, in Grytviken, a couple of weeks later. Nothing more seems to have been recorded about footballing life at Ocean Harbour, and the whaling station itself closed in 1920.

PITCH INVASION.. Seals and reindeer occupy the pitch at Grytviken
(Copyright: Kim M Kovacs and Christian Lydersen (2009); photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Norsk Polarinstitutt)

The whaling station at Prince Olav Harbour also had a sports field, and it played host to South Georgia's first sports day on 23/2/28, inagurated by the then Governor, Arnold Wienholt Hodson, not long after the island's first sports club was founded at the whaling station; the hosts took part in a football match against Grytviken during the sports day, and it was the visiting team, which would later become part of the Grytviken Idrettsforening (Grytviken Sports Club), who prevailed. 

The book "The History of Modern Whaling" (1982), written by Johan Nicolay Tønnesen and Arne Odd Johnsen, claims that Grytviken's victory against Prince Olav Harbour was "thanks to the inclusion in its team of the clergyman, who had been an outstanding football player during his student days."

Oddly enough, the last pastor at Grytviken church was one Sverre Eika, who was born in the former Norwegian municipality of Gjerpen in 1899. Eika was a former footballer who began his career at Odd, then moved on to Kristiania in 1918, and then on to Lyn Oslo in 1923, in the same year that he completed his theology studies. He was ordained as a pastor the next year, and came to South Georgia in 1929, and stayed for two years before leaving for Argentina in 1931.

Whilst in South Georgia, as well as taking care of his pastoral duties, Eika helped maintain the football pitch at Grytviken and assisted in the organising of friendly matches. However, due to the timeline, it is doubtful that Eika was the clergyman Tønnesen and Johnsen referred to in their book. Sverre Eika, who won two caps for Norway in 1923 against France and Germany, died of a heart-attack in 1971, aged 69.

No record appears to exist of the second island sports day, which took place in 1929. The third island sports weekend (as the gathering had become) took place on 22-23/2/30, with Leith Harbour taking on Grytviken in the football final at the end of the second day, the latter qualifying for the final after defeating pre-tournament favourites Stromness in the preliminary match. A report of the sports meeting appeared in an edition of the Falkland Islands-based Penguin newspaper some five weeks after the event. The report commenced in a fashion wonderfully evocative of the age: "To the Editor of the 'Penguin' from our Correspondent in the Dependencies."

The final itself began in a whirling snowstorm, and, with their backs to the wind, Leith Harbour took the lead after just three minutes. Although the Grytviken goalkeeper was, in the words of the Penguin correspondent, "carrying the whole team" in the first-half, Leith Harbour went in at the break 3:0 up. They eventually went on to win by 4 goals to 1, their fourth goal apparently being the pick of the bunch.

Tønnesen and Johnsen's book also mentioned that "Grytviken had the best football pitch" on the island, and that the whaling station hosted played host to the fourth South Georgia sports meeting on 14-15/2/31, when five stations - Grytviken, Husvik, Leith Harbour, Prince Olav Harbour and Stromness - entered teams for the football tournament. The Falkland Islands Government Cup was played for during the tournament.

The entry-list for the fifth sports meeting, held on the weekend of 13-14/2/32, was a mere three teams, with Leith Harbour, Grytviken and a combined Husvik/Stromness contingent making up the numbers. The meeting was originally scheduled to have taken place at Prince Olav Harbour, but the recent closing-down of the local whaling-station scuppered that arrangement. 

The football tournament, meanwhile, consisted of just one match, featuring the teams from Leith Harbour and Grytviken, and it was the concluding event of the meeting. By all accounts, the two teams served up a cracking game of football, with Grytviken leading 2:1 at half-time.

A thoroughly entertaining second-half saw Leith Harbour equalise on the hour, and, aided by an outstanding display from their goalkeeper, never looked back. Leith Harbour ultimately prevailed by 4 goals to 3 with their left-half being the star of the show, heroically playing with a broken rib. 

There were undoubtedly football matches between teams representing the various whaling stations on the island in later years, but records are non-existent apart the results of three finals of the later South Georgia Inter Whaling Station Football Championship which ran from 1958-61. Teams competed for what was actually a shield, which had been made in Edinburgh by the Alex. Kirkwood & Son company. The shield is now on permanent display in the CA Larsen Room at the South Georgia Museum in Grytviken. 

(Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of the South Georgia Museum)

Leith won all three editions of the championship, defeating Grytviken 4:1 in the 1958-59 season, retaining the title by beating Husvik 3:1 in 1959-60, and then completing their hat-trick of titles by defeating Stromness by 7 goals to 4 in the 1960-61 decider.

And there the trail of statistics more or less dries up, although matches were, and still are, played on an irregular basis on the Grytviken pitch by teams drawn from British soldiers stationed on the island, British Antarctic Survey members and those working at King Edward Point and the South Georgia Museum, who took (and take) on teams made up of crew members from visiting vessels. These teams appeared under a variety of names, as detailed in the following accounts of some of the fixtures which have been organised there down the years. 

(What follows might not be enough to keep the statisticians among you from having a sniffy grumble, but bear in mind that football was, and is, normally but a pastime in the sub-Antarctic region and records were/are not always kept.)

A team made up of crew members from HMS Endurance defeated a British Antarctic Survey side 6:0 on 16/3/82, just days before Argentina sent a small invasion force to occupy the island, thereby precipitating what became known as the Falklands War.

South Georgia Garrison - made up of Royal Irish Rangers soldiers - drew with Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on 4/1/87; the South Georgia Garrison also played against the crew of the Soviet survey ship Professor Dubov on St. Patrick's Day the same year.

Nowadays, the staff at King Edward Point, the modern-day administrative centre on South Georgia, carry on the tradition of participating in football matches at the Grytviken pitch, though their opponents are usually drawn from the crews of visiting boats and the games are more ad hoc in nature; some are 8-a-side, while others are 6-a-side.

THE TRADITION CONTINUES.. King Edward Point take on HMS Clyde in 2012
(Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of the South Georgia Museum)

One such match took place on St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day) 2002, when King Edward Point played - and lost 4:2 against - HMS Endurance. In February 2003, the local team took on a team from the RRS James Clark Ross; the visiting team came away with a hard-fought 3:1 win. 

A South Georgia United team reportedly lost two matches against RSS Ernest Shacketon (aka Shackleton All-Stars) in February and March 2005; the first, a 6-a-side affair on 13/2/05, was won by the visitors by 12 goals to 7, with the second, which took place on 4/3/05, going their way by 7 goals to 6. 

In June 2009, King Edward Point defeated a team, apparently made up of a number of the crew of a stricken South Korean fishing vessel, In Sung 22, by five goals to nil. The boat had caught fire in South Georgian waters and was brought to safety in Cumberland Bay. However, the boat sank some days later as it was being towed by another South Korean vessel to the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo.

The South Georgia team played a team from HMS Clyde in March 2009, and won 4:0. Three years later, in March 2012, the sailors got their revenge, winning 5:0.

Meanwhile, away from the action in Grytviken, the football pitch at Leith Harbour, located at the southern end of the old whaling-station, has undergone remedial work in recent times, though access is restricted as it sits within an area off-limits to the general public due to the dilapidated state of the buildings and the presence of asbestos in the area. 

The pitch almost played a part in the Falklands War of 1982, when the surrendering Argentine garrison at Leith Harbour, who had raised the white flag on 26/4/82, a day after their comrades at Grytviken, had been requested to line up on the pitch, but refused to do so as they had laden the pitch with land-mines. 

The landmines were intended to blow up a helicopter carrying the British Army officer charged with overseeing the surrender of the small Argentine garrison which had taken the island five weeks previously; he and his pilots decided at the last moment not to land on the pitch. The surrender was taken at another location close to the pitch.

As part of the Fourth International Polar Year (2007-08), a survey of buildings and recreational facilities at Prince Olav Harbour took place in, curiously enough, 2009, and it was noted that a lot of work went into constructing the whaling station's football pitch, which was built by employees of the Southern Whaling and Sealing Company (SWSC). The pitch was found to measure 70 metres by 30 metres; the goalposts appeared to be intact, but had long ago fallen down. 

Explosions had apparently levelled enough rocky outcrops to create a gravel football pitch, and it was shored up on its southern side with foundations consisting of metal barrels filled with waste rock. It is thought that a ropeway system was used in the construction of the pitch, bringing in gravel from a quarry to the west of the pitch. 

At the height of the whaling industry period on South Georgia, as many as two thousand people, mostly men, may have lived and worked on the island. The few women who lived on the island, the majority of whom were the wives of the higher-ranking officials stationed there, did, on occasion, attend some of the football matches played across the island, although they rarely, if ever, appear in photographs taken of football matches at Grytviken; it appears that they restricted their attendance to the more important matches which took place.

Nowadays, around 30 people live and work on South Georgia, the vast majority billeted at King Edward Point with a few scientists based at Bird Island; the local team - in all its guises - is often a mixed affair due to the limited number of scientific and administrative personnel based on the island, and its existence, albeit in an unofficial and ad hoc manner, ensures that women have found their place in the long, if still largely undocumented, history of football on South Georgia alongside their male compatriots. 

These modern-day scientists, soldiers and government staff take their place in South Georgian football history alongside those hardy inhabitants of the whaling-stations, who competed alongside, and against each other, from the early days in the early 1900s up to the closure of Leith Harbour whaling station in December 1965; they were the men who partook in and brought the world's favourite sporting pastime to a little, isolated, rugged and oft inhospitable island, a place out on its own at the end of the world.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many and sincere thanks are due to Sarah Lurcock and (especially) ex-intern Thomas Kennedy from the South Georgia Museum, and to Anne-Kristin Balto from the Norsk Polarinstitutt. All photographs used in the article are under copyright, and thanks go to the aforementioned persons, and also to Kim M Kovacs and Christian Lydersen for kindly granting permission to use their photograph.

To find out more about both organisations, kindly go to the following websites:

South Georgia Museum: 
Norsk Polarinstituut:

The Grytviken v A/S Ocean information was found via the following link:

The LASHIPA-6 report, which concerned itself with an archeological expedition to South Georgia, undertaken as part of the International Polar Year, was issued in 2009.

Other information was gleaned from a host of other websites, including Wikipedia.


1 comment:

  1. The high point of Grytviken football came in the 1970s when the BAS team, fostered by Scobie Pye, Pete Prince and others, trounced all-comers. They even had their own strip. Walter Nurse wrote "I'm as blind as a bat without my glasses so consequently never got to kick the ball in anger but I was the base referee. Therefore involved in every game that we won- WE ALWAYS WON."