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The midfiled missionary

In 1894 Charles Miller disembarked at the Brazilian port of Santos with two footballs, one in each hand.

“What is this, Charles?” asked his father, John Miller, who was waiting on the dockside.

“My degree,” he replied.


“Yes! Your son has graduated in football.”

Miller fils was returning to Brazil after spending his school years in Southampton. Miller père was a Scottish rail engineer who, like many European immigrants at the end of the 19th century, had followed the lucrative smell of Brazilian coffee. John put down track linking Santos to the inland plantations of São Paulo state. He sent his son back to Britain for boarding school, where Charles was such a promising left-winger that he played for St Mary’s, a forerunner of Southampton FC.

Whether or not football was played on Brazilian soil beforehand, Charles is deemed the ‘official’ progenitor. He can hardly have imagined the role his spherical baggage would have in the country’s destiny. The two footballs would later turn him into a national hero, immortalised in the name of a square in central São Paulo – the Praça Charles Miller. His name also lingers in football terminology: a trick he developed, in which you chip the ball behind your leg, is a ‘chaleira’, a corruption of ‘Charles’.

Brazil had to wait a few months before Charles’s footballs were put to use. With good reason. The British community was midway through the cricket season. In time, however, he set about organising football kickabouts with friends. According to lore, the first ‘controlled confrontation’ between two teams happened on a piece of land where the mules that pulled São Paulo’s trams grazed. The participants were expatriate employees from the railway and the gas companies. “The general feeling was ‘What a great little sport, what a nice little game,’” reminisced Charles 50 years later. Soon his kickabouts were being noticed. Some were left confused. “It gives them great satisfaction or fills them with great sorrow when this kind of yellowish bladder enters a rectangle formed by wooden posts,” wrote a journalist in 1896.

In Rio, two hundred miles up the coast, football’s arrival was similarly inconspicuous. Oscar Cox, another Anglo-Brazilian, returned with a football from his studies in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1901 he arranged a game between members of the Rio Cricket and Athletic Association and young well-to-do locals. It was the first time football in Rio spread beyond the Brits. The event passed almost unnoticed. The spectators were made up of the father and sister of a player, two friends and eleven tennis players who stumbled on the game by chance.

Yet the yellowish bladder gained adepts. Fast. Brazil’s first football club was founded in 1900 – by a German colony in Rio Grande, near the Uruguayan border. São Paulo inaugurated a local league in 1902. Charles Miller, two years later, wrote in a letter of how enthusiastically Brazilians were taking to the game. “A week ago I was asked to referee in a match of small boys, twenty a side; but no, they wanted it. I thought, of course, the whole thing would be a muddle, but I found I was very much mistaken… even for this match about 1,500 people turned up. No less than 2,000 footballs have been sold here within the last twelve months; nearly every village has a club now.”

Football’s European origins helped establish it as the sport of Brazil’s white urban elite. Oscar Cox and nineteen friends founded Fluminense, Rio’s first club, where matches became glamorous social events. Teams comprised young students and professionals from the city’s best families. Fluminense was a stage to show off cosmopolitanism and refinement. In the stands, women wore the latest fashions and men, impeccably dressed in suits and ties, attached coloured team ribbons to their boaters. They revelled in the Englishness of it all, cheering players with ‘hip hip hurrahs’. The sport was resolutely amateur, in tune with modern European theories of fitness and hygiene.

Brazil, at the turn of the century, was undergoing a period of great social change. It had only abolished slavery in 1888 – the last place in the Americas to do so. Brazil was also the country that imported more slaves than anywhere else – about 3.5 million, six times more than the United States. Many newly liberated slaves moved into the cities, creating a large, impoverished underclass.

Football would only become ‘Brazilian’ when blacks were able to play at the top level. At first they were excluded from taking part. This did not diminish their curiosity. Unable to enter Fluminense by the front door, they climbed neighbouring rooftops and watched from there. The game, as they discovered, was much more interesting than cricket. And it was simple to copy. All you needed was a ball. If you could not afford it, one could be improvised inexpensively with, for example, a bundle of socks, an orange or a cloth filled with paper. You didn’t need proper kit or even a pitch. The informal game, which could be mastered without a privileged background, spread rapidly among the urban poor. By the 1910s football was Brazil’s most popular sport and Rio was believed to have had more football pitches than any other city in South America.

Football was acquiring opposite reputations. It was both the private hobby of the rich and the preferred pastime of gangs of poor youths. Kickabouts became a common sight in Brazilian streets. On their way to Argentina in 1914, Exeter City arrived in Rio. As they were coming ashore they spotted a game of football in progress “only to discover that… they were all n******. Black as your hat, and most of them playing in bare feet.” Exeter chairman MJ McGahey sent the dispatch to the Exeter Express and Echo. He would have another fright when the tour party passed through Santos. “If you imagine one of the worst junior grounds you know of, and then take it up and shake it like a carpet and plentifully besprinkle it with stones and pieces of bricks, and then bake the lot in a tropical sun, you will have some remote notion of the ground.”

The first club in Rio to field black players was the Bangu Athletic Club, a team started in 1904 by the British managers of a textile factory in the outlying suburb of Bangu. Factory workers, many of them non-white, were allowed in the team. But Bangu was the exception. Rio’s important clubs stayed aristocratic. Bangu was not strong enough to threaten the status quo, and, paradoxically, it buttressed the game’s “amateur ethic” since its players earned their wages as industrial workers.

” ‘It gives them great satisfaction or fills them with great sorrow when this kind of yellowish bladder enters a rectangle formed by wooden posts,’ wrote a journalist in 1896″

Slowly, mixed-race players started to filter through to the big clubs. They were made to feel ashamed of their colour. Artur Friedenreich, the son of a German immigrant and a black Brazilian, looked white apart from his frizzy hair. Before matches he tried to flatten his hair as much as he could, covering it in brilliantine and rolling a towel around his head like a turban. He was always the last on the pitch. Most famously, Carlos Alberto, the son of a photographer and the first mulatto to play for Fluminense, whitened his face with rice powder. When his make-up started to come off the opposing fans started to chant “Rice Powder”, which became, and still is, the club’s nickname. To this day Fluminense fans throw talc – a cheaper version of the original powder – in the air before big games.

Membership rules at the big clubs were essentially rules to keep the sport as white and upper class as possible. Football provided a justification to reconsolidate theories of white supremacy, which had been thrown into doubt by the abolition of slavery. The insistence on amateurism – which required players to have alternative sources of income – was a bar for players from poorer backgrounds.

It took the Portuguese – another discriminated-against race – to open football up to everyone. Brazil was ‘discovered’ by Portuguese navigators, and controlled for centuries by Lisbon, yet by the beginning of the 20th century Brazilians looked to other European countries for cultural guidance. The Portuguese were – and still are – the butt of jokes, a close-knit community of shopowners and merchants.

Vasco da Gama, named after the 15th century navigator, was Rio’s Portuguese club. Vasco broke the big clubs’ hegemony because instead of choosing players from among their own, Vasco’s directors chose the best footballers from the burgeoning suburban leagues – regardless of background or colour. To get round the rule requiring all athletes to be otherwise employed, the Portuguese community gave them jobs in their shops. In 1923, the first year they were promoted to Rio’s first division, Vasco were champions – with a team made up of three blacks, a mulatto and seven working-class whites.

Outraged by this “fuzzy professionalism”, the main clubs set up their own league, excluding Vasco. But Vasco had great popular support and were invited back under a set of elaborate conditions that, while not specifically banning black and poor white players, was meant to have that effect. Each player had to sign their name. Vasco, with most of its players illiterate, sent its squad to reading and writing classes and, if need be, changed their names. A player with a complicated surname would become, simply, ‘Silva’. Then the league insisted that each team had to have its own stadium. The Portuguese replied in grandiose style. They built São Januário, the largest stadium in Brazil.

Vasco paved the way for the end of amateurism. When, by the 1930s, European clubs had started to contract Latin Americans, professionalism became a necessity to hold on to the country’s best players. In 1933, Rio and São Paulo founded professional leagues. Barriers against class and race collapsed. In the inaugural year, the Rio club Bonsucesso fielded a team of eleven blacks. Football, once the preserve of the elite, was finally eclipsed by the masses.

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