It is one of the many tragedies of the apartheid era in South Africa that footballers from the country were denied a chance to perform on the international stage.

Generations of stars never got the opportunity to test their mettle in competitions like the FIFA World Cup ™ and the CAF Africa Cup of Nations because of the policy of separation practiced by the white minority regime.

South Africa did not compete in a FIFA World Cup or a Cup of Nations qualifying campaign until 1992, which means that for some 60 years their footballers stood on the sidelines and watched while the rest of the world got on with the business of competition.

Yet there were South Africans who did manage to taste international football, but had to represent other countries to compete at that level.

Hodgson the hero
The first real superstar of South African football was Gordon Hodgson, who played in the country's first-ever international against Northern Ireland in Belfast in 1924.

He later went on to play for Liverpool and England and his record of 17 hat-tricks for Liverpool is yet to be broken.

After World War Two, a flurry of South African footballers left to play in England, almost all of them white, who were members of the racially-segregated national side.

Bill Perry played for England and scored the winning goal in the famous 'Matthews' FA Cup final of 1953 when Blackpool came from behind to beat Bolton Wanderers 4-3.

John Hewie was the first South African to play in a FIFA World Cup. Thanks to his ancestry, he was picked to play for Scotland in Sweden in 1958.

The first black footballers to leave South Africa were Darius Dhlomo and Steve Mokone, who made a major impression at Heracles Almelo in the Netherlands. They were major heroes for the black population, who because of apartheid had few role models in their society.

Later David Julius left South Africa because of apartheid and played at Sporting Lisbon. As 'David Juliao', he was capped by Portugal.

South African Albert Johanneson was the first black player to play in a FA Cup final for Leeds United in 1965.

Colin Viljoen and Brian Stein, whose father was an anti-apartheid activist and had to flee the regime, both played later for England at a time when there was no South African national side to represent.

Roy Wegerle, who competed for the likes of Chelsea, QPR and Luton Town in England's top flight, became an American citizen through his wife and competed at the 1994 and 1998 FIFA World Cup finals. His decision to take up the opportunity to play for the USA came just before South Africa's re-admission into international football.

The forgotten footballers
Names like Pule 'Ace' Ntsoelengoe, Kaizer Motaung and Jomo Sono are legendary in South Africa, but their impact on the international scene is negligible.

Had they, however, been exposed to international audiences and competition, who knows how different their futures and profiles might have been.

Ntsoelengoe, who died last year at the age of 50, is generally regarded as the best ever South African footballer. His career alternated between the colours of Kaizer Chiefs and clubs in the North American Soccer League. Two years ago he was inducted into the US Soccer Hall of Fame.

In the late 1960s and throughout the 70s, the NASL in the USA and Canada was only the outlet for top South African talent and Ntsoelengoe was one of many who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to play in the league.

Sono was an understudy to Pele for New York Cosmos and later helped Toronto Blizzard to win the NASL title.

Motaung was the first South African to go the USA and was named Rookie of the Year in 1968. He later came home and started a new club called Kaizer Chiefs, today the country's best supported team.

Since the end of apartheid, South African footballers have had the same opportunities as the rest of the world and players like Lucas Radebe, Benni McCarthy and Steven Pienaar have been able to compete at the highest level.

Indeed, McCarthy is the only South African international to have won a UEFA Champions League medal, with FC Porto in 2004.