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Sunday, February 12, 2017


Football is played all over the world, and often in some rather unlikely places, but not many are as isolated, and surely none are as inhospitable, as Antarctica. The world's coldest continent may be inhabited by no more than 3000 people at any one time - the population mostly consists of scientists and civillian staff billeted at a large number of research stations dotted around it - but it does have a football history dating back more than a century, although you would not believe it if you took everything some people claim at face value.

In a documentary released at the beginning of 2016, David Beckham: For The Good of The Game, which chronicled David Beckham's successful attempt to play seven games of football in the space of ten days seven continents, the man himself informed the viewer that neither he nor his team of researchers could "find any record of any official match played in Antarctica" and that, as far as they were concerned, they had played (and his team had won) the first official match on the continent..even though the match was played on what was essentially a seven-a-side pitch.
The intention of this article is not to ridicule Beckham's claim, but it should be noted that perhaps the first recorded mention of football being played in Antarctica was during the British National Antarctic Expedition, more commonly referred to as the Discovery expedition - named after the boat which left London for Antarctica in 1901 - and on one occasion involved quite "a good deal of promiscuous kicking and foul play ("Scott of the Antarctic: A Biography," David Crane, 2006/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge) amongst those involved in a kickabout. 

An extract taken from the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) website mentioned that, sometime between April 1902 and September 1902, during the Antarctic winter, in other words, sporting activities became part of the routine: "To entertain themselves the men played football, formed a theatre group and learnt to ski and toboggan."

A much less heralded expedition, the Scottish National Expedition, led by William Speirs Bruce, left the Scottish town of Troon in November 1902 aboard the Scotia, bound for Antarctica. The expedition, which made two voyages to the Antarctic, discovered Coats Land, at the eastern end of the Weddell Sea, but was in danger of being hemmed in for the winter by pack-ice. To keep the crew's spirits up, Bruce first organised a football match on the ice on or around 9 March 1904. The expedition eventually made it safely back to Scotland, reaching the mouth of the Clyde in July 1904.

One of the first pictorial records - probably the first - of football being played in Antarctica is a photograph on the Scott Polar Research Institute website, dating from during the Antarctic Relief Expeditions (1902-04), entitled "Football match between Mornings and 'Terra Novas.' 18 miles from Discovery."

Arguably the most famous photograph demonstrating football being played on the continent is titled "Eleven-a-side," which was taken by the famed Australian photographer Frank Hurley sometime during the British Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which took place between 1914-17 and was headed by the Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackelton. The photograph was among those featured in an exhibition at the Ralls Collection gallery in Washington, DC back in 2012 entitled "The Photographs of Frank Hurley." 

The photographer hosted a series of lectures-cum-exhibitions ("In The Grip Of The Polar Pack Ice") around his native Australia in 1918 and 1919, and one of his segments, called "Antarctic Football", documented a midwinter football match between the crew and the scientists sailing on the Endurance. Hurley, whose contribution to documenting Antarctic expeditions cannot be overstated, experienced the First World War at close hand, and later became an acclaimed film-maker and journalist. He died in 1962, aged 76.

It is unclear as to whether Shackleton actually played football himself at any time, let alone during his expedition, but in his book "South!", he wrote of a football game that took place five days before Christmas 2014: "We remained moored to a floe over the following day, the wind not having moderated; indeed, it freshened to a gale in the afternoon, and the members of the staff and crew took advantage of the pause to enjoy a vigorously contested game of football on the level surface of the floe alongside the ship."

Of a game that took place on 06 January 1915, which included a lucky escape for Frank Worsley, Shackleton wrote: "The weather was clear, and some enthusiastic football-players had a game on the floe until, about midnight, Worsley dropped through a hole in rotten ice while retrieving the ball. He had to be retrieved himself."

There is, as mentioned above, no direct evidence that Shackleton had played football during the expedition, but it was noted in "South!" that games of football and hockey were played on and after 25 February 1915 and that "all hands joined in many a strenuous game."

THE BALL ROLLS ON: A kickabout at the Norwegian Troll Base in January 2011 (Photo: Bertran Kill/Norsk Polarinstitutt  Picture reproduced under copyright conditions and with the kind permission of Bertran Kill and the Norsk Polarinstitutt)

The diary of Captain Robert Falcon Scott noted that the members of his ill-fated Terra Nova expedition (1910-13) played football from time to time, as this excerpt, dated Tuesday May 2nd, illustrates: "To-day have had our first game of football; a harassing southerly wind sprang up, which helped my own side to the extent of three goals."

The entry for Friday 19th May 1911 illustrated this: "We played football during the noon hour – the game gets better as we improve our football condition and skill." Another excerpt, this time dated Monday 17th June 1911, noted that "there is little to attract one out of doors..Yet we are only nine days off the ‘light value’ of the day when we left off football – I hope we shall be able to recommence the game in that time."

One man who was on Captain Scott's Terra Nova expedition but who ended up not joining him on his journey to the South Pole was the Australian scientist and geographer Frank Debenham, who suffered a knee injury whilst playing football in Antarctica; this unfortunate occurrence may have ended up saving his life as he was subsequently judged unfit to take part in Scott's tragic trek. Like Frank Hurley, Debenham fought in and survived the First World War. He went on to have a distinguished career in the field of geography and died in Cambridge in 1965.

Another individual who went to Antarctica with Scott but did not join him on the journey to the South Pole was Tryggve Gran, who had actually represented Norway in the country's first ever international match as a 20 year-old, an 11:3 defeat away to Sweden on 12 July 1908; it was to prove the former Mercantile player's only appearance for his country. Gran was part of the search party that found the bodies of Scott and his comrades Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers in November 1912. At the outbreak of the First World War, he was a pilot in the Norwegian Army Air Service, and joined the RAF (then known as the Royal Flying Corps) in 1916, two years after his original application was refused because Norway remained neutral during the Great War. 

Curiously, he was suspected of being a member of the Nasjonal Samling, the Norwegian Fascist political party led by Vidking Quisling, during the Second World War, and was made head of the Hirdens Flykorps, the government's air force at the time. As a result of his collaboration with the NS, he was jailed for 18 months in 1948. Gran died in 1980, aged 91, having spent most of the rest of his life writing a number of books and giving lectures on Scott's expeditions to the Antarctic.

One location in the sub-Antarctic region (although not located on the continent of Antarctica) which features heavily in the history of football in those parts was the British dependency of South Georgia; it was a very popular pastime for those employed at the various whaling-stations dotted across the island right up to and including the 1960s. It is still played there today.

BREAKING THE RUN: Personnel from the Rothera and McMurdo Bases pose after the game in February 2011 between the two bases. McMurdo won 1:0, breaking a run of defeats by American base and ship personnel against the UK base (Photo: Lihini Aluwihare  Picture reproduced under copyright conditions and with the kind permission of Lihini Aluwihare and The Antarctic Sun)

Most of the football played on Antarctica takes place on the Antarctic Peninsula, the warmest and most northerly of the continent. Several of the bases have rudimentary football pitches, but according to an edition of a Lonely Planet book covering Antarctica, the Argentine scientific base of Esperanza, built in 1951 at Hope Bay in the northernmost reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula, proudly possesses its very own gravel pitch. However, this claim has been scotched by staff working at the base. Nowadays, those stationed at the base play games inside one of the hangars or, weather permitting, out on the ice.

Among them are a group of thirteen children who, together with their parents, live at Esperanza. They and their teacher, Fredy Miranda, take part in the annual Global Rural Community Football Gathering, which is organised every October by Argentine charity Red Comunidades Rurales, which involves schoolchildren from rural areas across the world playing football and also taking part in a project which benefits their community. The pupils of Escuela no. 38 Ptte. R. Raúl Alfonsín have played football to their hearts' content and, together with their teachers, taken part in projects on and around the base highlighting recycling, the need for cleaner air, soil and water, and better management of the environment in general.

In years gone by, the base's footballers played host to teams from other bases in games played outdoors, including a fixture against the Chilean Bernardo O'Higgins Base in May 1971; what was proclaimed to be the first-ever match between teams representing two Antarctic bases ended in a 7:3 win for Esperanza.

However, other records show that - with apologies to Beckham & Co - the honour of participating in the first "international" match to be played in Antarctica fell to the crew of the British vessel HMS Snipe and their counterparts from the Argentine ship ARA Seaver, who, along with their two countries, were intertwined in a territorial dispute (what's new?) some twenty-three years earlier. The game between the two teams took place at Port Foster on the South Shetland Islands on 5 February 1948, and HMS Snipe won the match by a goal to nil.

What was claimed by the journal of the Chilean Air Force to be "the world's southernmost international football match" took place at the Chilean-run Teniente Marsh Air Base on 19 January 1986 between a team from Marsh and another representing Uruguay's Artigas Base, situated a couple of miles down the road. The match was refereed by a member of the Chilean Navy, Rolando Carvallo, and the final score was 2:2. The journal listed the teams in the following order:

TENIENTE MARSH: Hugo Godoy, Pedro Sandoval, José Vidal, Alejandro Frías, Omar Saéz, Osvaldo Bahamondes, Gerardo Saavedra, Carlos Salazar, Marcos Arévalo, Raúl Cuadra, Reineri Merino

ARTIGAS: Germiní Ferninando, Jacinto Acuña, Melconian, Derseo Da Costa, Domingo Montaldo, Miguel Dornelles, Luis Laurias, Luis Freitas, Orosman Pereira

There was also an Inter-Bases Championship, a World Cup for Antarctic bases, if you will, which took place in January 1988 and which was hosted by Artigas Base, involved personnel from the host base plus representatives from Frei (Chile), Bellingshausen (Soviet Union) and Great Wall (PRC) bases. The Uruguayans went on to win the tournament. Unfrtunately, no record of any results from the tournament appear to exist.

More recently, a football tournament was due to have been held in November 2014 at the privately-run Camp Union Glacier Base in aid of Global United and Cancer Research, though it is unclear as to whether the tournament ever got off the ground. A football match was held at the Chilean Glaciar Unión Base, which was opened in January 2014, not far from the Camp Union Glacier Base, on 4 December 2015. The match was between a Glaciar Unión side made up of military personnel and scientists stationed at the base and a team from the ALE company, who arrived at the Chilean base on a trailer behind a Caterpillar truck. Due to the lack of a suitable coloured disc, the time-honoured "stone, paper, scissors" routine was used to determine who would kick off. Glaciar Unión went on to win what was described online as the latest edition of the Clásico Antárctico by 2 goals to 1. (ALE also played a match against a Chinese side on 28 December last, but no result is available.)

For the more statistically-minded readers, please find below a small selection of results of friendlies played between Antarctic stations - principally Rothera - and/or visiting ships. Kindly note that there is no full-size pitch at Rothera, and the list of results is not exhaustive.

05/02/48 HMS Snipe 1:0 ARA Seaver 
12/02/49 Base Soberanía 1:1 Station B (Deception Island)
19/01/86 Teniente Marsh 2:2 Artigas
??/01/05 Rothera 2:0 RV Lawrence M Gould
20/12/05 Rothera 1:4 RRS James Clark Ross
03/02/07 Rothera 4:0 RV Lawrence M Gould
26/02/07 Rothera 0:0 Morrisons Builders Dream Team
18/03/09 Rothera 5:1 RRS Ernest Shackleton
23/01/10 Rothera defeated RV Lawrence M Gould 
??/02/11 Rothera 0:1 McMurdo
21/01/12 Rothera 6:0 RV Lawrence M Gould
07/03/12 Base Prat defeated RRV Ernest Shackleton
20/01/13 Rothera 1:0 RV Lawrence M Gould
18/01/14 Rothera 3:0 Palmer Station LTER
07/06/14 O'Higgins Base 3:2 Rancagua (O'Higgins Base)
04/12/15 Glaciar Unión Base 2:1 ALE (Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions)
16/02/16 South Georgia 3:0 Antarctic Endurance (mixed Royal Navy & Royal Marines team)

Football continues to be played on the Antarctic continent, although information on matches is extremely difficult to come by, and dates and/or results are not always available or verifiable. Many of the bases which play football, such as China's Zhongshan base, appear to indulge in kickabouts amongst themselves rather than take on teams from other bases, supply ships, etc. Others, such as McMurdo, have small internal competitions (mostly indoors) but do play friendlies against "outsiders" on occasion. Rothera, the biggest British base in Antarctica, regularly hosts matches against visiting ships, one of the most recent being a game in mid-March last year against HMS Protector.

Visits to bases by supply ships and scientists to and the changing of personnel at bases have long been regarded as social occasions by those working at bases on the White Continent, and football matches between those stationed at the bases and their visitors are an integral part of these. What the likes of Scott, Shackleton, Hurley and others would make of the advances in equipment and the way Antarctica has become steadily more and more accessible over the course of the last hundred years one can only guess, but these pioneers and others like them would be gratified to know that football remains, just as it always has been, a method of recreation in Antarctica and that games - or their outcomes - don't appear to be taken too seriously by those taking part. Long may it remain that way.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Some of the results were taken from the following websites/blogs (again, the list is not exhaustive):,,

Other information was gleaned from sources such as:


Glasgow Digital Library:

Cronicas del Uruguay y la Antártida:

Many thanks go to Waldemar Fontes (Instituto Antártico Uruguayo), Peter Rejcek (The Antarctic Sun), Ann Kristin Balto and Ivar Stokkeland (Norsk Polarinstitutt), Nisha Harris and Stephenie Cahalane (Australian Antarctic Division), Reiner Canales (INACH), Fredy and Gabriela Miranda, Georgina Cronin and Lucy Martin (Scott Polar Research Institute) and Joanna Rae (British Antarctic Survey) for their help and advice.

Kindly note that the photographs provided for this article were provided under strict conditions - they were, and remain, under copyright - and with the kind permission of those individuals and organisations (Norsk Polarinstitutt and The Antarctic Sun) mentioned under said photographs in the article. Should you wish to use these photographs, it is recommended that you contact said sources directly and not lift them from this article or anywhere else on the internet.

Please find below the link to the "Football in Antarctica - South Georgia" article, which was published in 2014: