Rifts, racism and rioting: the story of the first Copa América

Rifts, racism and rioting: the story of the first Copa América

From South America to Panama to the United States, the Copa América has been inching ever closer to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, where the first match of the Copa América Centenario – the special 100th anniversary edition of football’s oldest international continental tournament – will take place this June.

Recently the procession had reached Panama City, where Haiti sneaked past Trinidad & Tobago 1-0, while hosts Panama smashed Cuba 4-0, to secure the last two spots at the 16-team tournament. It was fitting that one of the playoff matches was a tight and narrowly-won affair, while the other was – quite frankly – a drubbing, as that was the same pattern that the very first Copa América followed a full century ago.

Held in Argentina between 2 July and 17 July in 1916 to coincide with the country’s 100th anniversary of independence, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile joined the hosts to contest the first official Copa América tournament, which was, at the time, named the Campeonato Sudamericano de Selecciones – it would not be rebranded as the Copa América until as late as 1975.

A similar competition had, in fact, been held six years previously, but with Brazil pulling out before a ball was kicked, CONMEBOL do not recognise it as part of Copa América history. That first tournament had also been held in Argentina, with a title that hardly rolled off the tongue: the Copa Centenario Revolución de Mayo. Just as the 1916 tournament would celebrate a centenary of Argentine independence, this 1910 prequel commemorated the beginning of that struggle to part from Spain, which had commenced in 1810.

It was fitting, therefore, that the hosts won the 1910 faux Copa América, beating Uruguay 4-1 in the final match, but Argentina’s independence celebrations were not to be celebrated with another tournament win six years later. Instead, the inaugural Copa América – just like the most recent edition held last summer – was one to forget for the Argentines. In fact, the unsavouriness of the whole tournament made it one to forget for all involved.

While the first Copa America would quickly descend into chaos and in-fighting, the initial idea had been borne out of unity between the South American footballing powerhouses. Uruguayan journalist and politician Héctor Rivadavia Gómez conceived the idea of a continental tournament between the “fraternal countries” of the continent, namely Argentina, Brazil, Chile and his native Uruguay.

However, his idea of a South American championship was not his sole objective. Rather, Rivadavia Gómez sought to create a continental football association that could unify the South American football federations and be “a powerful governing centre”. It was certainly a controversial idea given that FIFA, established in Europe in 1904, was firmly against the idea of continental federations. As John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson explain in their 1998 piece FIFA and the Contest for World Football: Who Rules the People’s Game?, the eventual FIFA president Jules Rimet was firmly against the creation of continental associations as they “ran contrary to his notion of FIFA as a single ‘family’”.

But if FIFA was a family then the South American nations were the ugly sisters. The continent was isolated from the sport’s governing body through both class and geography and needed to look after itself. Andreas Campomar sums the situation up succinctly in his excellent book Golazo: A History Of Latin American Football when he says: “Who would look after South American football’s interests if not the South Americans themselves?”

The only solution those nations saw for fixing the existing rift between world football and South American football was to go a whole step further and to fully fissure from FIFA’s desire for “a single family”.

And so, on 9 July 1916, in the middle of the first Copa América and on the exact anniversary of Argentina independence, the leaders of the Argentine, Brazilian, Chilean and Uruguayan football associations formed the South American Football Confederation, better known as CONMEBOL.

South America had just founded world football’s first confederation of national associations right in the middle of the world’s first international continental football tournament – it would be a whole 44 years before Europe’s first European Championships. All of this should have kick-started a friendly relationship between these four founding nations. The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth.

The opening match of this round-robin tournament was played on 2 July in Buenos Aires between Uruguay and Chile. Uruguay were tournament favourites, along with Argentina, while Brazil and Chile – two countries where passion for football developed far more slowly – were, as the cliché goes, there to make up the numbers.

That much was evident when Uruguay destroyed Chile 4-0 in the first ever Copa América match, but the fixture would be remembered for far more than simply the score. Uruguay’s fielding of Isabelino Gradín and Juan Delgado made this the first match in an international tournament to feature black players.

Gradín was an exceptional and elegant player, as cool as the other side of your pillow. He proved as much by netting twice in the 4-0 win, while his famous pace – with which he would later claim the gold medal in both the 200 metres and the 400 metres at the 1919 South American Athletics Championship – was also worth the entry fee. He was affectionately known as “el negro con el alma blanca” – the black man with the white soul – but he would be described with far less affection by the Chilean delegation after the match.

Without mincing their words, the Chileans filed an official complaint, arguing that Uruguay had gained an unfair advantage in their 4-0 win as they had fielded two “African slaves” that were not Uruguayan. Ignoring the abhorrent racism, even if Chile had wanted to raise the issue of eligibility they would have had no case; Garín was born in Uruguay’s capital Montevideo and Delgado in the inland city of Florida.

Unsurprisingly, Chile’s complaint was not upheld and the Pacific-coasters would finish bottom of the table following a further heavy defeat to Argentina – a 6-1 loss this time – before drawing 1-1 with Brazil.

Following that 6-1 win over the Chileans, hosts Argentina were ahead of their Río de la Plata rivals Uruguay on goal difference. That would quickly change, however, when Argentina could not conquer Brazil on 10 July in the first ever match to be played following the formation of CONMEBOL the previous afternoon. Uruguay, on the other hand, managed to sneak a 2-1 – Gradín scored another goal to make him the tournament’s top scorer – victory over the Brazilians to hold an advantage over Argentina ahead of the decisive final match. All Uruguay required to win the inaugural championship was a draw, while Argentina needed to win.

The final match was to be held on 16 July at the 18,000 capacity Estadio Gimnasia y Esgrima de Buenos Aires, where every other match of the tournament had been played. Yet this was back in the age before football became a TV show and such was the appetite to see the climax to the first Copa América in person that the match had to be called off after five minutes due to overcrowding. A riot duly broke out amongst the furious supporters and the terraces – wooden at the time – were set alight by fans who extracted petrol from the cars in the parking lot.

Partly due to the capacity constraints and partly due to the damage done to the stadium, it was decided that the match would be replayed at Racing Club’s 30,000 capacity stadium in the nearby city of Avellaneda one day later. Despite the extended hype, the match was far from a classic and ended goalless, with the Uruguayans having done enough to achieve South American football immortality by penning themselves into the history books as the first winners.

The tournament had been a success in the sense that it had sparked an appetite among the masses for competitive international football between the leading South American football nations; an appetite that saw a second edition played just one year later and an appetite which has only grown and grown to the present day. Add to that the fact that CONMEBOL was born midway through the tournament and you’d be forgiven for labelling the tournament a complete success.

However, the racist accusations of cheating, the riot that broke out in the stands in the final match and the Brazilian press’ criticism of the violent nature of their rivals’ blue collar style of play all overshadowed the tournament.

As we inch ever closer to the 100th anniversary edition, which will be the first held outside of South America, have tensions calmed? Absolutely not, if Chile’s 2015 tournament is anything to go by. We had Gonzalo Jara poke Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani in the anus, an all-out brawl between Colombian and Brazilian players, as well as a whopping seven red cards and several subsequent suspensions.

Yet that is exactly the beauty of the Copa América; the high emotions of South American football only add to its appeal. Let’s hope the 2016 edition has none of the rifts, racism and rioting, but let’s pray that it be as eccentric as ever.

By Euan McTear @emctear

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