Remembering Arthur Friedenreich, Brazil’s first football superstar

Remembering Arthur Friedenreich, Brazil’s first football superstar

IN BRAZIL, perhaps more than in any other country, football is seen as an expression of national identity. It is a game of the mass of the people, played by all no matter their wealth or social status, no matter where they have come from or where they may be going. It one of the few social phenomena that is capable of uniting the nation across all social and racial boundaries.

It was, however, not always thus. Introduced to the country in 1894 by Charles Miller, the son of a British railway engineer and an Anglo-Brazilian mother, football was initially the preserve of a wealthy, white elite. Played in the gentlemen’s sports clubs of the British, German and American immigrant communities, it was an exclusive pastime for a select few of superior social standing.

In the transformation of the game into the unrestricted activity it has become today, one man played a vitally important role, but his is a story that is often forgotten when people talk about the greats of the Brazilian game.

Arthur Friedenreich, a man of mixed European and African-Brazilian heritage, was Brazil’s first footballing superstar; the greatest player of his generation, he helped not only to define o jogo bonito but to define a nation and what it means to be Brazilian.

Friedenreich came into the world on 18 July 1892 in the neighbourhood of Lapa, in the west of the burgeoning metropolis of São Paulo. Arthur was born to a businessman of German origin named Oscar Friedenreich and an African-Brazilian mother named Mathilde, who, despite popular stories that she worked washing clothes on the banks of the River Pinheiros, was actually a teacher for the Friedenreich family.

He lived a privileged childhood, attending elite schools and colleges and frequenting the exclusive sports club SC Germânia – a club for German immigrants – to which he was permitted access, despite the colour of his skin, owing to his father’s reputation and social standing.

It was at Mackenzie College, still one of the most prestigious faculties in the country, that he got his first taste of the new game. He immediately showed promise, being well coordinated, physically powerful despite a relatively small frame, and incredibly tenacious – characteristics that he would carry on demonstrating throughout his career and that would eventually earn him the nickname El Tigre.

Owing to the fact that he was mixed-race, Friedenreich could take part in the disorganised community football matches that were starting to become popular amongst the city’s working classes, as well as the more organised matches played in the colleges and clubs of high society. This perhaps developed his game in a different manner to other top players of the time, cultivating the inventiveness, improvisation and trickery that we now expect from Brazilian footballers who have grown up playing the game on tight streets and rough dirt pitches.

At the age of 17 Friedenreich started to play matches for SC Germânia’s first team in São Paulo’s official football league, of which the club was one of the founder members. He spent the next few years playing for various clubs around the city, including Ypiranga, Paulistano and the Mackenzie College team.

During this time he learnt directly from some of the protagonists of early Brazilian football history. In a memoir that he wrote after his career, discovered just a few years ago, he recalled: “I started perfecting my abilities watching Charles Miller, and shooting the sphere under his gaze, he was my primary-level teacher in football. But it fell to Hermann Friese, football champion in Germany, to teach me the secondary and superior levels. With him I climbed the hill to arrive at the highest level of football.”

sao paulo

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And arrive at the highest level he soon did. In 1912, for the first of nine times, he was top scorer in the São Paulo league, at this point playing for Mackenzie. Despite early individual success, however, collective glories initially eluded him and he was not able to claim a league title in the formative period of his career.

Two years after becoming the top scorer for the first time, he repeated the feat, this time playing for CA Paulistano. In the same year, as part of Exeter City’s South American tour, a Brazilian Select XI was called upon to take on the English club in Rio de Janeiro, and Friedenreich was picked as their number 9.

It was not the first time a Select XI had taken on an English club, the tours of Corinthians FC in 1910 and 1913 had featured games against Brazil XIs, but the 1914 game against Exeter was to be recorded by the football authorities as the first official outing of the Seleção.

The match almost didn’t happen, as the day before a group of Exeter players decided to take advantage of their surroundings and have a dip in the sea. Unbeknownst to them, however, this was frowned upon by the locals and they were arrested for gross indecency. Fortunately, the incident was resolved, the players did not have to spend the night under lock and key, and the fixture went ahead as planned.

It was a game of contrasting styles, the Brazilians already showing signs of the samba football for which they would become famous, whilst the English were aggressive to an extent that surprised and disgusted the crowd of 10,000 that had gathered in Fluminense’s newly built Laranjeiras Stadium. Friedenreich had two teeth knocked out during the game but played on regardless.

Despite Exeter’s physicality Brazil prevailed 2-0, with goals from Oswaldo and Osman. It was a shock result for a national team thrown together at the last minute playing against a professional English side, especially at a time when the reputation of British teams as unbeatable masters of their own game had yet to be destroyed.

Later that year Friedenreich was invited, as part of the same team, to travel to the Julio Roca Cup where Brazil would play Argentina in a best-of-three game series. The competition was created by the former Argentine President, Roca – at the time ambassador to Brazil – who had led a genocidal campaign against Argentina’s native peoples in the late 19th Century.

Friedenreich scored the only goal in the third game, winning the tournament and taking his and Brazil’s first international trophy.

The first South American Championship, the tournament now known as the Copa América, was organised in 1916 and Friedenreich was again called upon to represent Brazil. The team travelled to Buenos Aires where they took on hosts Argentina, Uruguay and Chile in a round-robin format, coming third after two draws and a loss to champions Uruguay. Friedenreich scored once in the three games.

Owing to the presence of Friedenreich and other players of African heritage in the team, the Argentine press consistently referred to the Brazilians as ‘monkeys’, something about which the newly formed Brazilian Football Federation felt deeply ashamed. In his book Futebol Nation, sports historian David Goldblatt says: “More of this was a prospect so acutely embarrassing to the Brazilian football authorities that they sent an all-white team to Buenos Aires for the following year’s tournament.”

rio de janeiro

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Though this was the best-recorded incident of direct racism that Friedenreich experienced in his career it was certainly neither the first nor the last. At the time there were relatively few black or mixed race players, as the football leagues were still ostensibly amateur, permitting only the wealthy (almost always white) enough time to train and play.

The few black players there were often used rice powder on their skin, or, as in the case of Friedenreich, straightened their hair in order to appear whiter and thus more acceptable to the high society crowds that came to watch them. Friedenreich had green eyes and quite light skin, so with straightened hair he could, according to Mário Filho, the most famous Brazilian football writer of the time, “pass” as white.

In 1917, after spells with Ypiranga, Flamengo and Payssandu, Friedenreich made the move back to CA Paulistano, the club where he had been the São Paulo league’s top scorer in 1914. This transfer was the most important of his career and he would stay with them until 1929, winning the city league six times and finishing as top-scorer on six occasions as well.

After the debacle of 1917, the next edition of the Copa América was held for the first time in Brazil, all matches taking place at the Laranjeiras Stadium in Rio. This time round Friedenreich, along with the other players previously left out because of their race, was included in the squad.

Brazil thumped Chile 6-0 in the opening game, with a hat-trick from their star man, before beating Argentina and drawing with Uruguay. This meant that Brazil were level with Uruguay in the final standings and a playoff was scheduled to decide who would take the cup. A reported 35,000 people packed into a stadium built for 20,000, with more on the surrounding hillsides and thousands in Rio’s squares and plazas listening on loudspeakers especially erected for the occasion.

After 90 minutes the score was still even at 0-0, so it went to extra-time. After a further half an hour there was still no score, so another 30 minutes were added on. Ninety seconds into this final period Friedenreich scored the only goal of the marathon 150 minute match, sending the crowd into raptures and taking the title of champions of South America to Brazil for the first time. Friedenreich’s four goals also made him joint top-scorer in the tournament and, after the game, he was carried through the streets of Rio on the shoulders of his newly adoring public.

It was a seminal moment, not just for Brazilian football but for the conception of the nation and what it meant to be Brazilian. A man of mixed African and European heritage had just turned himself into a hero. According to Christopher Gaffney, author of Temples of the Earthbound Gods: Stadiums in the Cultural Landscapes of Rio, “he not only won the tournament for Brazil but also signalled the impending inclusion of blacks and mulattos into the nation”.

This moment gave credence to the growing image of Brazilians as a mixed people and showed that Brazil could be successful not just despite this miscegenation, but because of it.

As a result of this success Friedenreich became known to the Brazilian press as Pé de Ouro, or Golden Foot, and in Uruguay earned the nickname El Tigre owing to his combative style and never-say-die attitude. He returned to São Paulo somewhat of a celebrity, even having a song written in honour of him and his glorious team by the popular black musician Pixinguinha, entitled Um a Zero (One Nil).

Unfortunately for him, however, he would not go to the Copa América in 1920 owing to an internal political struggle between the Rio and São Paulo state football federations which led to the São Paulo federation refusing to liberate their players.

In 1921 the Copa was again held in Argentina; despite the success two years earlier the authorities once more refused to send black players. Clearly the message of a mixed Brazil had not yet reached the highest ranks of the national football federation. Some might say it still has not today – there has never been a non-white president of the CBF.

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The Copa América was at the time an annual affair so another chance for Friedenreich was not long in coming. In 1922 the tournament was again held in Rio, as part of the celebrations of 100 years of Brazilian independence. At home, black players were invited and Brazil triumphed, once more in the Laranjeiras. This time, though, for reasons unknown, Friedenreich only played in two of Brazil’s five games and failed to find the net.

El Tigre played in the Copa yet again in 1925, in what would be his last international tournament. Brazil could only manage a runners-up spot. Friedenreich scored once in the championship, in a 2-2 draw with Argentina in the final match, with Argentina earning the point that they needed to guarantee the trophy.

In this same year he also took part in the first tour of Europe by a Brazilian team, as CA Paulistano travelled across the Atlantic to test themselves against the Old Continent’s finest. It was perhaps, at the age of 33, his finest hour as a player.

Paulistano played seven matches in France, two in Switzerland and one in Portugal. They won nine and lost one, with an aggregate score of 30-8, Friedenreich bagging 11 of those goals himself. The crowning glory of the trip was a 7-2 thrashing of the French national team on home soil, after which the French press christened Arthur ‘Le Roi du Football’. A video is available on YouTube of the encounter between CA Paulistano and France, some of very little footage of El Tigre still in existence.

The players returned to Brazil to a hero’s welcome. They were greeted by a waiting crowd and the President himself, an honour since reserved exclusively for the national team when they return from the World Cup.

At this point professionalism, though explicitly banned, had started creeping into the Brazilian game. The pressure to be successful in order to attract paying spectators had led some clubs to indirectly or discreetly pay players for their services. Friedenreich, though from a relatively wealthy family, was not rich enough to survive without making his own living and was probably amongst the players being paid in this manner.

CA Paulistano was funded by a wealthy businessman named Antônio da Silva Prado Júnior whose family had made their fortune from the coffee boom, as well as being proprietors of a railway company and a bank. The family was also heavily involved in São Paulo politics and it was recorded that Friedenreich worked at the ministry of internal affairs. In all likelihood Arthur spent little to no time there, the job instead being a method of underhand payment.

CA Paulistano were certainly not the only team to do this. Many sports clubs from São Paulo and Rio were linked to successful businesses or factories and players were given jobs that either did not exist or were extremely undemanding to allow them to preserve energy for football.

In 1929, however, the decision was taken to disband Paulistano’s football team. This was probably due to the increasing professionalism, of which the club outwardly disapproved as it let poorer players into the game, as well as the Wall Street Crash, which had a significant effect on the da Silva Prado family business, leaving less money to invest in the club.

In reaction to this decision several of the Paulistano players, along with players from another side, AA das Palmeiras, formed their own club. Named São Paulo da Floresta, or São Paulo of the Forest, it would go on to become the famous São Paulo FC, three-time winners of the Copa Libertadores.


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By now 37, and in his 21st year playing top-flight football, Friedenreich showed no signs of letting up. In their first season he led São Paulo da Floresta to second place in the state championship, behind Corinthians, and just a year later he lifted the club’s first championship title. Unfortunately for him Brazil took only Rio-based players to the 1930 World Cup, owing to the long-standing political feud between the Rio and São Paulo state football federations. Had this not been the case, he may well have made the squad, even at the ripe old age of 38.

The first few years of the 1930s were a tumultuous period in Brazilian politics, and the effects of this turmoil were felt in all parts of society. In 1930 Getúlio Vargas snatched the presidency in a bloodless coup supported by the country’s military. Vargas ruled with the singular authority of the fascist dictators of Europe, promoting the modernisation and industrialisation of Brazil.

His iron-fisted rule was rejected by the São Paulo elites who feared the impact that industrialisation would have on their wealth and power, which was based on the production of coffee and rural landownership. In 1932 the replacement of elected state governors with officials directly appointed by Vargas lead to mass protests and then an armed rebellion, named the Constitutionalist Revolution. The revolt was initiated by the middle and upper classes of São Paulo who wanted the Brazilian constitution to be upheld and democratic elections called once more.

Along with around 1,500 other sportsmen of all different ethnicities and backgrounds, Friedenreich took up arms against the Vargas regime. He was one of the protagonists in this regard, donating all of his valuables – including his sporting medals – to help finance the revolution and making a radio appeal for other sportsmen to join him in heading for the front line. The sporting battalion headed to war on 2 August and spent almost a month engaged in daily combat.

It was reported soon after that Friedenreich had died in battle. As he was Brazil’s greatest sporting idol at the time, the story caused unimaginable consternation in the press, but fortunately it proved to be merely a rumour. During the campaign he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant for acts of bravery and he returned unscathed after the revolution was crushed by the numerically superior and better-armed government forces.

The constitutionalist army surrendered on 2 October and its leaders were arrested for the attempted counter-coup, though not a single sportsman was among them.

In 1933, after returning from the interruption of this failed military campaign, Brazilian football caved into the growing pressure and officially professionalised. The first game of the new era was a friendly between Santos and São Paulo at Santos’ Vila Belmiro stadium. Of course, Friedenreich could not refuse the opportunity to write his name in the history books one last time. He scored the opening goal, the first in Brazilian professional football, in a 5-1 victory for his side.

Friedenreich, after two more seasons with São Paulo and a brief spell with Flamengo in Rio, finally retired in 1935 at the age of 43. It is sometimes reported that he scored 1,329 goals over the length of his career, though there is no real evidence for this claim. Two different biographers have found records of 558 and 554 goals respectively, either mark making him the 10th most prolific player in history. There may well have been more, but sadly we will never know the exact figure for sure.

One thing is for certain, though: his career, and life, was an incredible one. Present at the first ever game of the Seleção, present at their first game against another country’s national team and scorer of the only goal in the final of their first ever Copa América triumph. Present on the first ever tour of a Brazilian team to Europe, and once more at the first ever fully professional match on Brazilian soil, in which he scored the first goal. It is difficult to imagine that any other player has ever taken part in so many of the seminal moments of their nation’s football history.

Arthur Friedenreich passed away in São Paulo on 6 September 1969, suffering from Parkinson’s disease and somewhat forgotten by the world of Brazilian football, a world which had moved on so much in the years between his retirement and his death.

Friedenreich was the first Brazilian football superstar, bringing a new explosive style to the game and scoring a multitude of goals along the way. But, more important than this, he was the first black football hero in the country. With this achievement he not only changed Brazilian football but also started to change perceptions of people of African descent in Brazil, playing his part in making the image of a racially diverse Brazil one of which the country could be proud.

By Joshua Law. Follow @FootyCanarinho

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