The land of Brazil is famous for three things – samba, festival and football. The Brazilians, untouched by the tragedies of World War I and II, shaped their own unique history in that time, letting football grow and take root as the national pastime. Brazil has – for the most part - led a quiet life, interrupted by political tensions, overthrowing of dictatorship and of course, football. In this episode, we turn the pages of history and take a look at the formative years of football in Brazil.
The Early Years of Football in Brazil
Like in Italy, the growth of football in Brazil started from the port towns, since they served as hubs for global travelers. Football came to Brazil as late as 1894, when a young lad of 20 years of age brought with him two footballs and a set of rules from his school in England. The young lad was named Charles Miller and he is widely regarded as the Father of Football in Brazil. Having played for St. Mary’s (later named Southampton FC), Miller had an inclination for the game and upon his arrival, looked to popularize the game in São Paulo.
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And hence the first club in Brazil was set up. But other than a handful of people, nobody seemed interested in football. Enter Oscar Cox. Born in a wealthy family, Oscar traveled the world and upon his return from Switzerland, helped set up the first football club of Rio de Janeiro. Again, being a port city helped.
These two pioneers took it upon themselves to spread the magic of football in the land of samba, dance and festival. Both of them learned the game from the English and needless to say, in the formative years of the game, were head and shoulders above other players in terms of skill and general know-how. So much so that Miller is recognized as the inventor of “Chaliera”, a move where a player moves the ball with a deft flick of the heel.
Up until then football had not tricked down to the general public and remained a pastime for the upper echelons of society. Both Miller and Cox were foreigners and their contributions helped glamorize the sport. Their matches usually drew crowds by the hundreds and were major social events in those days. But all that would change with the freeing of the African-origin population from their bonds of slavery.
Impact of Slavery Abolition on Football in Brazil
The year was 1888. After Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in the United States in 1863, its impact was felt on a world-wide scale. Although before that Argentina, Peru and Venezuela had abolished slavery, the move by Lincoln started a domino effect which was first felt by Brazil in 1871. In 1888, slavery was totally abolished when Brazil passed the Golden Law. With millions of people now savoring the sweet taste of freedom, their minds turned to more enjoyable pursuits. A folklore states that the love affair between the freed slaves and the beautiful game started sometime in 1888, when a group of them were observed watching a football match in progression in a port city.
The impoverished African-origin segment of the population, lacking any proper footballs, took matter into their own hands and crafted their own footballs with either a bundle of socks or rags or even filled a cloth with paper. Using these novelties, football spread to the urban poor, who took to the game by numbers. With most of the freed slaves now working in the local factories, the afternoons and evenings were filled with impromptu football matches played with nothing but bare feet.
Bangu Atlético Clube and CR Vasco da Gama had a huge hand in shaping in the history of football in Brazil and around the world. Bangu was the first club to break the aristocracy of football when they included people of non-European ethnicity in their team from the nearby Bangu Factory. Although it created a furore, the support from Vasco da Gama, another top club, helped in reducing it. However, this action of the two clubs was not accepted by the rest of the league and the clubs were banned until they threw out the new players. However, both the clubs persisted in their claims and eventually won over the rest of the league. This marked a watershed moment in the history of football. The doors of football were thrown open to people of all races.
Football becomes a professional sport
What started of as a pastime soon gathered steam and by early 1900, almost every village had its own club. But still the players were not solely dependent on football as a source of income. Most of them were industrial workers who only played the game as a source of joy. But with the advent of football and its rapid spread among the underclass of Brazil, soon exceptionally talented players emerged. Needless to say, playing with a rag full of socks or a bag filled with paper involved a degree of control unseen anywhere.
The inclination towards skill over physical dominance find its roots here. With the suburbs turning out skilled players one after another, it became imperative to hold on to them so as to dissuade the European clubs, who by that time were aware of the dormant giant that is Brazil. The club which did away with the amateur aspect of the game was Vasco da Gama. With working class whites, blacks and mulattos now making up their squad, professionalism arrived for the first time in Brazil.
Sources: Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos. An Entirely Different Game, The British Influence on Brazilian Football by Aidan Hamilton. Celso – O Livro de Ouro do Futebol by Celso Unzelte and various Internet sources.