The origins of the world’s most beloved sport can be traced all the way back to second century China, where a game that most closely resembles our modern brand of football, by the name of Cuju, was initially developed as a form of fitness training for members of the Chinese military.
This exercise saw two teams compete to win the affections of hordes of avid onlookers by kicking a feather-filled ball into a bamboo-stick net. As similar as the game’s fundamentals sound, Cuju, with its tendency to be played with only one goal in the centre of the pitch, is still little more than a distant cousin of the game developed in mid-19th century England, known as Association Football.
However, while it is common knowledge that the English were responsible for inventing the game, many would agree that it was the Brazilians who made it beautiful. But, before the Samba-loving South Americans could leave their unique mark on the game, the sport had to be introduced to them, and for that the history of football has two travelling Scotsmen to thank.
Commonly regarded as the father of Football in Latin America, Charles William Miller spent the first decade of his life in Brazil; the country in which he was raised by his Brazilian mother and Scottish father – a railway engineer, sent to South America from the British Isles along with over 3,000 immigrant families in order to assist with the railway construction project in São Paulo.
Aged just 10, young Charlie was sent to England to attend the Banister Court public school in Southampton, in pursuit of an education. At this time, around 1884, the game of football was growing in popularity and had taken on the role of the favoured sport of schoolboys across the kingdom; a demographic soon to include the eager Master Miller.
As the game developed, so did varying styles of play, often with the characteristics of the location forging idiosyncratic, stylistic elements into its brand of application. In the north of England, muddied, rain-beaten fields made for a slower, more physical game, while at the other end of the country, down on the south coast where Charles Miller was finding his feet, literally and figuratively, the harder pitches bred a need for, and a love of, dribbling and intricate footwork; a skill that Charles possessed in abundance.
Encouraged by their football-loving headmaster, Charles and the pupils of Banister Court played regularly and it didn’t take long for Hampshire’s most esteemed football club, St. Mary’s FC – which later became the Southampton FC we know today – to recruit the school’s star player, Charles Miller, to their squad to lead the line as centre-forward, a full two years before he left school.
Having spent the entirety of his teenage years in England, 20-year-old Miller felt compelled to head back to the country he called home in 1894; but he didn’t do so empty-handed. Though his time in Britain had drawn to an end, his innate desire to express himself on the football pitch had not, and so, back to Brazil he travelled, carrying with him two leather footballs and a copy of the Hampshire Football Association’s rulebook.
After introducing the concept of the game to the local community of São Paulo, Miller enlisted them in developing a revised set of rules and formally introduced the sport of football to the São Paulo Athletic Club: a popular, multi-faceted sports club, established by the British community living in the São Paulo in 1888.
By 1901, Miller and the São Paulo Athletic Club had orchestrated the launching of the state’s inaugural Football competition, the Liga Paulista de Foot-Ball, which, in April of the following year, saw the country’s first ever football league grace its glistening green pitches. Five teams entered the league: São Paulo Athletic Club, Internacional, Mackenzie, Germânia, and Paulistano. Though every team were eager to be crowned the first ever Champions of Brazil, it came as little surprise when the season’s top scorer Miller and his all-conquering team-mates claimed the top spot, a feat they achieved in the first three consecutive Liga Paulista campaigns.
Though Charles William Miller’s emphatic role in the growth of the game in Brazil is indisputable, some evidence points to another man being the first purveyor of football in the country. The maiden tie, organised by Miller, played by the all-British workforce of the São Paulo Railway and the local Gas Company, in April 1895, is widely considered to be the first organised game of football ever to be played on Brazilian soil. But in the Winter of 1894, over six months before Miller’s game kicked-off; a fellow Scot by the name of Thomas Donohoe was leading a six-a-side game between British workers, in Bangu; a small neighbourhood to the west of Rio de Janeiro, played on a field beside the textile factory he had emigrated from Scotland to work at as a master-dyer.
As his craving for the game he had left behind in Britain transcended the limitations of his new football-free surroundings, thanks to an emergency care package delivery from his wife – containing a leather football and a pair of his beloved boots – Donohoe’s game came to life, as a mix of British expats and Brazilian locals jumped at the chance to be involved.
The facts surrounding Donohoe’s role in the inception of Brazilian football are somewhat less certified than Millers, and he undoubtedly had less of an impact on a countrywide scale. While the legacy of Miller’s influence remains unquestioned, as the records show his impact on the São Paulo Athletic Club and his creation of the Liga Paulista de Foot-Ball, Donohoe’s influence boasts significantly less documentary evidence.
Nevertheless, the local pride of the people of Bangu sees a determination to be known as the rightful home of Brazilian football that is unrelenting, and census records accumulated by The Scottish Football Museum in 2011, which confirmed the accounts presented by the proud historians at now-second-tier Bangu Atlético Clube, give much-desired proof to their claims; that the birthplace of Brazilian football sits proudly on the pitch next to the textile factory that Donohoe worked at, in their small, sun-kissed neighbourhood.
Regardless of the arguments surrounding exactly who was responsible for introducing the game of football to Brazil, the remarkable events linked to both of these Victorian Britons become all the more appreciable when left to become peripheral to the rich history of the game that their efforts set in motion.
With over a century of outrageous, rhythmic participation, no less than five World Cups to their name, and having borne some of the greatest players the world has ever played witness to, between them, Thomas Donohoe and Charles William Miller have a lot to answer for.
By Felix Keith