The first black South African footballer to play in Europe, was told whenever he scored it would be in the cause of independence. Jonathan Wilson tells of a legend's ups and downs. When Steve Mokone arrived at Coventry City in 1955, he was probably the most eagerly awaited signing in their history. Fans queued simply to get a look at their new star, but their interest had less to do with his reputation as an explosive and skilful player than with the fact he was black, and was thus the first black South African to play in any of Europe's professional leagues. He was nicknamed Kalamazoo, and carried a distinct sense of the exotic.

Mokone was one of two sportsmen named by Thabo Mbeki, the South Africa president, as members of the Order of Ikhamanga, the nation's highest honour for achievement in the creative and performing arts, when the award was inaugurated in 2003. Recognition, though, had been a long time coming; 13 years earlier Mokone had been released from a New York jail after serving 12 years for a crime he insists he did not commit.

He was 16 when he began making a name for himself with Bush Bucks in Durban, and was called up to play for a black South African XI, for whom his performances began to attract the attention of a number of English managers. Wolverhampton Wanderers and Newcastle United made offers, but Mokone's father, a taxi driver who had once studied to be Methodist minister, insisted he should finish his schooling first. And so it was Coventry, of the Third Division (South) - then the fourth tier of English football - who secured his signature in 1955.

It would be another year, though, before Mokone left, held back by red tape. When his passport was issued, he was told, "Stay out of politics, or else". But as the first black South African to join a European club, his move was inevitably political, something made clear to him by William Nkono, a senior figure in the African National Congress, who was a friend of the family. "Dr Nkono, who was like a second father to me, said that every goal I scored would be one more goal towards independence," Mokone remembers. "There were doubts and fears. I had reservations. But this was a chance of a lifetime to show that South Africa was not a bad place."

Before he could start scoring goals, though, Mokone had to get to Coventry. Stepping off the plane in London was a major shock. "I'd never been in an all-white environment before," he says. "I had no one as a mentor. I had no one to talk to, no one to confide in. It was a very lonely experience. There were white people serving me in the restaurant and white people making my bed. It was a total culture shock."

One night in London he went out to meet Jake N'tuli, the South African boxer. On the way back, Mokone bought a newspaper at Piccadilly Circus, but came out of the wrong exit of the tube station and found himself lost. He saw a policeman, but his experience in South Africa had made him uneasy about asking a uniformed white man for help. When Mokone summoned the courage to do so, he was so nervous he forgot the name of his hotel. Fortunately the policeman's supervisor recalled seeing an item on Mokone's arrival on the television news earlier that day, and remembered he was staying at the Strand Palace.

There were other disconcerting novelties - he had a television in his room that he had no idea how to turn on, while he hid his shoes under the bed because he was so puzzled by the notion of somebody taking them away each night to polish them. In Coventry, where he was billeted with a devoutly Christian white family, he became an instant celebrity, for his novelty as much as anything else, and remembers children running up to touch him and people staring at him. "It felt uncomfortable using the same cups and the same toilet as a white family," he recalls, "but these were problems of my own making, my cultural baggage."

And then there was the football. Mokone was a skilful winger, possessed of great pace and a subtle touch, which were not necessarily the most useful assets in the Third Division in the fifties, and Mokone played just four times in 1956/57. "It was the long-ball game and I was used to short passing," he says. "We had to climb ropes like we were in the marines. We could only train with balls one day a week. I found it completely baffling." Mokone became increasingly frustrated and lonely, and after a year was contemplating a return to South Africa.

He had a trial at Real Madrid, and was then offered a trial with the Dutch side Heracles, who played in the third division. He played and scored against Eintracht Frankfurt, and was asked back the following week. When he scored again, he was offered a contract. Mokone became so popular that Heracles would draw crowds in excess of 20,000, despite being based in Almelo, a town of just 35,000 people. He scored 15 goals in his first season, and provided countless assists for Joop Schuman, the centre-forward, as Heracles won the division.

An ankle injury hampered his second season, as Heracles finished second in the top-flight, and Mokone decided to leave, partly because he felt he could play at a higher level, and partly because the club wanted him to give up his part-time job as a singer in a local theatre. He joined Cardiff City, then in England's Second Division, and scored on his debut in a 3-2 win over Liverpool. Ankle problems, though, again beset him, and having rarely played as Cardiff won promotion, he was offloaded.

Barcelona signed him, but they already had their full quota of foreign players, so loaned him to Marseille, where he never played but spent the season manufacturing boots. He had a game for Barnsley, then moved, with his new wife Joyce Maaga, a South African he had met in London, to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where he played for Salisbury. In 1962, he returned to Europe with Torino, where early performances earned comparisons with Eusebio, the Portuguese great, but again he never delivered on his early promise and faded from prominence.

He drifted on through Spain, Australia and Canada to the USA, where he gained a degree, a master's and then a doctorate, becoming an assistant professor in psychiatry. He also separated from his wife, leading to an acrimonious battle for custody of their daughter, who had been born in 1966. Mokone was, by then, a respected academic, while Maaga was a nurse who lived in hospital accommodation; he won custody. And that's where the story becomes rather more sinister than that of an ingénue abroad. First, Mokone was attacked in a car park by three masked assailants. Then, on November 20, 1977, lye - a sodium Hydroxide - was thrown into his ex-wife's face outside her Manhattan apartment. A week later, an almost identical attack with sulphuric acid left her lawyer, Ann Boylan Rogers, disfigured and blind in one eye.

Mokone was arrested and charged with the attacks on the two women. He still finds it hard to discuss the issue. "I wasn't guilty," he says, but in 1978 he pleaded guilty in a New Jersey court to the attack on his wife and was sentenced to between eight and 12 years in jail. In 1980, a New York court convicted him of orchestrating the attack on Rogers and sentenced him to between five and 15 years. He was released in August 1990.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had been a student with Mokone in South Africa in the early fifties, made appeals for clemency on his behalf, bewildered that such a "gentle man" could have committed such acts. Tom Egbers, the Dutch journalist, who wrote De Zwarte Meteor (The Black Meteor), a book about Mokone's time at Heracles, was equally disbelieving, so he began re-examining the evidence. In 2002, he published Twaalf Gestolen Jahre (Twelve Stolen Years), which raised serious doubts about the verdict. One prosecution witness, he alleged, had been coerced to testify, while prejudicial material from the trial dealing with the first attack had been made available to the jury in the second.

Most significant, though, were a series of letters he uncovered between the South African Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) and the CIA. As Mokone had progressed through academia, he had become increasingly politicised, condemning apartheid and generally making trouble for the South African government; Egbers showed that the DIA had asked the CIA to bring Mokone into line. Whether they were responsible it is impossible to say. Perhaps with the pressure of the divorce and custody proceedings Mokone did simply lose his head for those few September days. Good men do sometimes do bad things. What makes it strange, though, is that Mokone had won custody; the attacks could only have been detrimental to him. Again, nobody is always rational. But the inconsistencies and procedural flaws in the trials uncovered by Egbers, and the fact that, whether it was acted upon or not, there was some level of conspiracy against him, suggest that Mokone, having begun as a pioneer for black South African sport, ended up as a martyr to it.