THERE IS NO TELLING how and when the Brazil national football team would have been formed if it hadn’t been for Exeter City Football Club. It was July 1914, just two weeks before the start of World War One, when the Devon-based English side arrived in Brazil.
The English FA had previously received an invitation from Argentina’s nascent football community to nominate a team to travel to Buenos Aires for a series of exhibition matches against local sides. Exeter were chosen as a “truly representative side”. For this little club, founded only 10 years earlier, the journey would have been an opportunity to make money. Association Football had been thriving in the UK since 1863 and, by the turn of the century, it had been already exported to Uraguay, Brazil and Argentina. Visiting English teams and players were welcomed like heroes.
On 22 May 1914, a squad of 15 players left Southampton docks and arrived in Rio de Janeiro 18 days later – but their stay started anything but glamorously. During a break in Santos, the entire team was arrested after taking a dip at a beach where bathing was banned. Only the intervention of a British diplomat prevented the entire squad being sent back to England, and the players got away with a complaint about public indecency.
Next stop on the itinerary was Argentina, where Exeter played eight friendly matches. But instead of returning home, the team then received an invitation to return to Brazil to play another three fixtures, in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Exeter officials applied for visa extensions but, as it transpired, the team could only fulfil the match in Rio.
Rio was, in 1914, Brazil’s capital city, but São Paulo, too, had been bitten by the football bug and wanted to participate in the big tour. Thus it was decided to create a team made up of players from both cities – effectively the birth of the Brazil national side. The process became known as Seleção (the Portuguese equivalent of selection in English), which to this day remains Brazil’s official nickname.
The Seleção made its debut against Exeter at Estádio das Laranjeiras, the home of Fluminense, in Rio on 12 July 1914. The local newspapers hyped up public interest in the game, describing Exeter in superhuman terms, sent to Brazil from an unknown universe to spread the gospel of football all over the nation. Fluminense’s stadium was only small in those days, but it was packed way beyond its maximum capacity, with some sources quoting the attendance as high as 10,000. Within a few short years of this exhibition game, football would completely dominate Brazil, becoming synonymous with the Samba beat, a sport loved by all Brazilians.
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That love affair started with the match at the Laranjeiras. Exeter showed their typical hardiness, an aspect of the game that was new to the home supporters. Brazil striker Arthur Friedenreich was on the receiving end of an English elbow, losing two teeth for his trouble. Ultimately, though, the Brazilians’ natural flair and ball skills proved to be too much for the dogged visitors, and O Seleção won 2-0. After the final whistle, the players were carried off on the crowd’s shoulders and proclaimed national heroes.
Exeter came back to England, exhausted by the heat and a prolonged sea journey home. Most of the individuals from that historic team took to the trenches during the World War. Dick Pym, who also fought in the war, would later lift the FA Cup with Bolton at the White Horse Cup final in 1923.
On 21 July 2014, exactly 100 years after that definitive match in Brazil, Exeter and Fluminense under-23’s met in a commemorative game. The original 1914 ball was used to kick things off; since the 2-0 win, the lucky ball has remained in Fluminense’s club museum. There were a number of hardy souls in the stands celebrating this unique bond, including 600 travelling fans from the Devon. Sadly, the visitors could not enjoy the satisfaction of revenge, with the match finishing 0-0.
They had come to Rio to remember “that time when we played Brazil”, a very special piece of history for two clubs which have, literally and symbolically, travelled in different directions since 1914. Brazil has featured in every single World Cup tournament since the inception of the Jules Rimet trophy, winning it a record five times. Meanwhile, Exeter have only managed a meagre string of successes and near-misses, mainly confined to tenacious wins against bitter local rivals Torquay and Plymouth.
Never rising higher than the Third Division, Exeter has yo-yo’d between the Football League and the Conference. But the club’s greatest moment came as recently as January 2016, when they forced Liverpool to a replay in the third round of the FA Cup, losing 3-0 at Anfield after a ballsy 2-2 draw at St James Park.
The commemoration of 21 July 1914 remains the most beautiful chapter in the 110-year history of this little side based in sleepy Devon – the day when the Exeter’s young masters faced the first-ever Seleção team, contributing to the birth of the myth and legend that surrounds the gold and green colours of the Brazilian national football team.