‘TheHardTackle Relic’ is a semi-regular column which dusts off the pages of football history. It intends to walk you down memory lane and relive events, players and teams long forgotten. Today we look back at a footballer who rose above racism and oppression to attain legendary status in Uruguay — Isabelino Gradin. Here is a man who was not only a brilliant footballer, but an extremely successful athlete.
Football, as any other sport, puts to test a lot of human characteristics. On the surface of it, it tests one’s athleticism, one’s ability to control a ball, to pass it, to tackle an opponent and to shoot. It also tests the ability to read the game and bond with teammates. But underneath all these apparently basic needs to play this game, perhaps the most crucial examination is that of a footballer’s mental strength. It is this mental strength that enables a footballer to realise his full potential, to go that extra mile to ensure victory and to face an evil that has haunted mankind since its inception – racism.
This war against racism has been the story of every human civilization which has ever existed on earth. Society has always faced division based on race, caste and creed. We might have stepped on moon and science is perhaps closer than ever to explaining the creation of universe, but even in this day and age we are no closer to eradicating racism from human society. But like everything else, there remains hope — mankind’s greatest strength. This hope is inspired by heroic tales of legends who rose above such discrimination and achieved success in life. Perhaps we are in need of such inspiration now as racism has once again gained the spot light, with numerous unfortunate events taking place in the footballing world all across the globe in the recent past.
17th December, 1944 — a group of young men made their way into the general ward of the Pasteur Hospital. The group contained fairly famous faces and the media followed them soon; after all, this group of young men had just won the Uruguayan championship for a record 15th time. It was a historic day for Peñarol, who are to this day the most successful club in the Uruguayan domestic league. But there was something special about that championship win, not only because it came after a drought of six years, but also because the whole team dedicated that win to a club legend — Isabelino Gradin.
The whole Peñarol team visited the hospital to pay tribute to Gradin after winning the championship. Gradin, aged 47 then, was fighting death. But that day, at that moment, the team’s arrival along with the club’s victory must have washed away all the discomfort from his mind and body. In his feeble mind, he would have re-animated all those moments when he had been standing on a podium and basking in the glory. It was those moments which made his struggle worthwhile. Having endured poverty and disregard during the later stages of his life, this gesture from the Peñarol players would have brought peace to his mind.
21st December, 1944 — with that peace in his mind, Gradin passed away just four days after Peñarol’s historic victory, leaving behind a legend which has been forgotten with time.
Gradin was born in Montvideo in 1897, but his parental roots were in South Africa. His grandparents were part of the mass settlement of ‘African slaves’ in the South American continent, who crossed the South Atlantic Ocean during the early part of the 19th century. In many ways Gradin was lucky that he was born in Uruguay and not in any other country on that continent.
Like most social entities, football had a massive social impact on the continent during those days. Uruguay’s early dominance in the world of football can be traced back to how the society was transformed through this game. Initially there was massive struggle in South American society over the percolation of football to the lower fringes of social order. The ‘elites’ refused to give up their control over the game and team selections weren’t based on merit — it depended on racial background. But Uruguay were perhaps the most socially progressive nation of the continent during that age. They established the world’s first welfare state and the government invested a lot in education — unlike other South American nations.
This resulted in massive expansion of the game in Uruguay and the social boundaries were well and truly demolished — at least in football. Team selections were based purely on ability and this provided Gradin with a platform to shine.
Gradin’s talent as a footballer was imminent from an early age. He joined Peñarol at the age of eighteen and his performances immediately grabbed the imagination of the whole nation. Moreover, in a nation that was still fighting for social equality Gradin stood out like a national hero.
It didn’t take long for him to be selected for the Uruguayan national team and the 1916 South American Championship was the perfect stage for him to shine.
The 1916 South American Championship was the first ever intra-continental tournament to be held in South America. Uruguay played their opening match against Chile and registered a massive 4-0 victory over their rivals. But the most significant development came off the pitch in that game. Gradin became the first black player to play in an international tournament in the history of the game. Take a moment to realise how massively significant moment it was. But Chile protested the presence of two ‘African’ players in the Uruguayan line-up — Isabelino Gradin and his team mate Juan Delgado. They pointed it out as an ‘unfair’ selection and this protest became ugly after Gradin scored two goals against them. The protests were eventually dismissed, but it was a reminder of how the rest of South American society was yet to attain the social-equality that Uruguay were close to implementing.
Uruguay defeated Brazil, Chile and Argentina to lift the trophy and Isabelino Gradin ended as the top scorer in the tournament with three goals. It was only a sign of things to come for this amazingly talented Uruguayan. It also marked the start of an era of Uruguayan dominance in South American football.
Gradin was also part of the squad which won the 1917 South American Championship, but he didn’t play a part on the pitch. Meanwhile in the domestic competition Gradin was terrorising defences and played a massive role in Peñarol winning the Uruguayan championship in 1918 — their first trophy after a gap of seven seasons.
Although the 1916 South American Championship was personally the most successful one for Isabelino Gradin, the 1919 championship holds greater importance in other aspects. This championship was hosted in Brazil, a nation which was still undergoing massive social struggle in their fight to attain equality.
Brazil abolished slavery back in 1888, but they found it hard to get it out of their social system. Rules can do only that much to change people’s mentality. As a result of which a lot of talented black footballers were overlooked and didn’t get the opportunity to represent their nation. So the sight of Isabelino Gradin playing for Uruguay was not well received from a certain section of Brazilian society. Gradin was already known to most Brazilians due to his performances in the 1916 championship, but the 1919 championship provided an opportunity for the crowd to see him live in action for the first time.
Gradin not only played in that tournament, but also shined with his performances, as he did three years ago. The sight of a black player playing in an international competition was rare enough, but the fact that this black player out-played most of his opponents didn’t go down well with the ‘elites’ of the Brazilian society and media. Brazilian newspapers criticized Gradin and Uruguay for this ‘atrocity’ and ‘satirized’ the Uruguayan international using comics. Renowned Author Hendrik Kraay depicts this incident in his book Negotiating identities in modern Latin America, saying:
“Historian Leonardo Pereira has pointed out, the Carioca media portrayed a homogenous Brazilian public opinion in which blacks and whites agreed that black players ought not participate in international contests, because, according to one newspaper, ‘the black man in Brazil doesn’t want to be black’”
But Leonardo Pereira also disclosed how despite such bad publicity by the Brazilian media, Gradin was welcomed as one of their own by the ‘lower sections’ of the Brazilian society. Although Gradin played for their opponent, the ‘black Carioca’ Brazilian spectators cheered for him and it was a revolutionary moment in not only in football history, but also in Brazilian socio-political history.
By 1920 Gradin had acquired legendary status in his nation and among the Peñarol fans. He was undoubtedly one of the best footballers of his time and more importantly he was someone who inspired a host of black footballers in South America to take up the sport. Even Brazilian legend Pele considered him as his idol.
Gradin had a wonderful left foot and tremendous skills. He had a powerful shot, tremendous pace and was a brilliant crosser of the ball. Quite astoundingly, his abilities and impact wasn’t restricted to the football pitch. In 1918 he won two medals in the Campeonato de Iniciación (South American athletic championship). He was named “terror of the track” after winning gold in the 400 meters race and a bronze medal in the 200 meters event. That was only the beginning of his successful career on the tracks. He won gold in both the 400 meters and 200 meters event in the 1919 championship and followed that up by defending his titles in the 1920 South American Championship in Athletics. His last gold in this tournament came in 1922, when he won the 400 meters sprint once again. Hence Gradin’s impact in the Uruguayan sport is beyond belief — especially considering the age in which he achieved such feats.
Gradin’s grace and talent on the footballing pitch found a lot of admirers, even outside Uruguay. In an era when football wasn’t broadcasted to all parts of the world like today, it is truly incredible to think how famous he became outside his country. The Peruvian poet Juan Parra del Reigo even wrote a poem on Gradin.
yo te vi en la tarde olímpica jugar.
Mi alma estaba oscura y torpe de un secreto sollozante,
pero cuando rasgó el pito emocionante
y te vi correr…saltar…”
The above excerpt from the poem describes Gradin as an ‘agile, ‘thin’, ‘winged’, ‘electric’ yet ‘delicate’ footballer. He was certainly one of the first footballers to grab such wide attention.
But Gradin’s career entered a tough phase after 1920. Peñarol and Central were disaffiliated by the Uruguayan football association. The incident took place after Peñarol and Central played friendlies against Argentinian clubs Racing Club and Independiente. The problem emerged from the fact that both these clubs belonged to rebel football organisation, Association Amateurs Football, and were not recognised by the Argentina Football Association.
After being disaffiliated by Uruguayan football association, Peñarol and Central went on to form a rebel football group of their own — Federacion Uruguaya de Football (FUF). Since Gradin sided with this organisation and played in the rebel Uruguayan national team put together by FUF, he wasn’t selected for the 1924 Olympics squad, like every other player of Peñarol and Central. Uruguay went on to win the gold medal in Olympics and Gradin missed out on his opportunity to win the biggest prize available at that point in football.
He did however play for the national team once again before hanging up his boots in 1927. Gradin refused selection for the 1928 Olympics squad as he felt that younger players deserved opportunities over him. Gradin’s stint at Peñarol also ended after a dispute with the board members. It was tough decision for him as Peñarol was more than a football club for him — Gradin even sacrificed his international career in support of his club when they played under the rebel organisation. But Gradin’s contribution to Uruguayan football didn’t end there; he laid the foundation in the establishment of one of the most famous Uruguayan clubs — River Plate. After leaving Peñarol, he was heavily involved in the establishment of another club, Olimpia. Olimpia was later merged with Capurro to form River Plate in 1932.
But despite such massive contribution to the development of the game, amazing achievements in both football and athletics, and most importantly being an revolutionary figure for the thousands of black footballers who were struggling for equality in that age, Gradin didn’t get much help after he left football. He slowly fell into financial problems. His health deteriorated over time — poverty and illness forced him to lead an isolated life. He didn’t receive much financial support from either his former clubs or the Uruguayan Football Association. It was as if Peñarol had deserted their favourite son after the dispute that ended their relationship.
By the time Peñarol players paid him a visit after winning the championship in 1944 he was no longer in a state of mind or body (which once terrorized defenders on the football pitch and fellow sprinters on the track) to fully appreciate or enjoy that show of respect. Yet he must have slept peacefully that night realising that his family, the footballing world, had not forgotten him yet.
Recognition from the government arrived as well, but as in most of these cases, it arrived a bit too late. The Montevideo local government placed a memorial in the square named after him back in 2009. As a certain famous character once said:
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done. Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hit, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you are because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that!”
One can almost envisage Isabelino Gradin uttering these lines to himself at various points in his life. Life wasn’t full of ‘sunshine’ or ‘rainbows’ for him, but he found a way to rise above all these odds in an age when bowing down to the ‘elites’ was the norm in the South American continent. He was an inspirational figure for all back then, and should be remembered as the man who rose above all boundaries and dogmas. He showed that football is the greatest equaliser. Sadly, very few remember his name outside Uruguay — but perhaps the greatest tribute to this legend would be a footballing world free of racism.
Special thanks to Rosario and her father, an Uruguayan sports journalist, for providing important information about the legend.