A lone man sat in the back of the stand, cigarette smoke permeated the air. He laughed to himself as he gazed upon the hapless display in front of him, excited to report back his findings. On the pitch, Uruguay collided with each other, tripped over the ball, misplaced pass after pass, and blazed shots high, wide and far from handsome. They looked to have paid the price for their long trip to France to take part in the Olympics of 1924.
With limited backing from the Uruguayan government, they made their first trip to Europe via boat, with a stopover in Spain to play friendly matches to raise necessary funds. Aboard, they travelled in third class, slept in basic accommodation, and were only able to train in what cramped space they could find.
Intrigued by the prospect of their South American opponents, Yugoslavia sent a spy to watch them train ahead of the opening game at the Stade de Colombes near Paris. When the report came back, the sympathetic Yugoslav coaches approached their Uruguayan counterparts before kick-off and offered their condolences for what they were about to endure.
What little attention the South Americans received was evident when their flag was hung upside down at the stadium and a Brazilian march played instead of their national anthem.
When the game kicked off, however, the majestic sky blue shirts glided about the pitch, their passes dissecting the Yugoslavians with surgical precision. The crowd gasped as time and time again Uruguay bewildered the European defence. By the time referee Georges Vallat whistled for full-time, La Celeste had run out 7-0 winners.
Unbeknownst to Yugoslavia, Uruguay were already one step ahead of their opponents. Having been tipped off about the undercover spectator, they decided to put on a show of their own for his benefit. José Cea and Pedro Petrone both scored braces in the opening game but it was their half-back, José Leandro Andrade, who stood out for more than one reason.
For European spectators, he was the first black footballer they had seen. The six-foot midfielder was the best player in the pitch, both in terms of technique and his understanding of the game. Although footage of him is limited, one player from the modern game he is likened to is Zinedine Zidane. It’s quite some praise.
He dominated play in both halves of the pitch, displaying power, energy and elegance on the way to helping secure the Olympic gold for his country. France was captivated by not only the player but also the man, gaining just as many admirers for his exotic good looks as for his footballing ability.
Andrade was born in Uruguay’s second city, Salto, at the turn of the 20th century. It is situated on the east bank of the Rio Uruguay and is also the birthplace of current La Celeste stars Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani.
Mystery surrounds Andrade’s earliest days. His father’s name was left blank on his birth certificate, with some claiming it to be the man who had signed it as a witness. The fact that this man was 98 years old and said to have used magical powers to escape slavery in Brazil only adds to the Andrade myth.
He moved to Montevideo and lived with his aunt in the capital’s suburb of Palermo. Although he rarely attended school, the progressive racial integration that set Uruguay apart from other South American nations afforded Andrade the chance to mix with other social classes. He soon became involved in neighbourhood football and, when his ability set him apart from his peers, the unique nature of Uruguay’s racial outlook provided him with the opportunity to try out for various teams.
Andrade joined the newly-founded Club Atlético Bella Vista, based in his adopted city. His assured performances caught the attention of the national team and Uruguay’s most successful club, Nacional. He spent six years with the Tricolor, winning the league title in his first season. All in all, he played over 100 games for Nacional, scoring 29 goals, an outstanding tally for someone playing in his position and the rugged nature of the game back then.
A year after making his international debut, Andrade embarked on the arduous trip to France for the summer Olympics. Despite being an unknown quantity in Europe, back home Uruguay had won the previous year’s Copa América and provided the only South American representative at the tournament.
Not content with being one step ahead on the pitch, off it Uruguay were more than happy to fool the opposition too. Along with duping the Yugoslav spies, Andrade played up to their provincial reputation by telling the press that they had kept fit by “chasing chickens” at their villa in the sedate village of Argenteuil near Paris. The reality was that goalkeeper Andrés Mazali, a South American rowing champion, had put the players through a rigorous fitness regime to ensure they were the fittest side in France.
Andrade soon had all of Paris under his spell. A renowned tango dancer back home, he soon became the toast of the capital’s fleshpots. He had left behind a second life as a shoeshine and carnival musician, which helped to make ends meet, while other rumours of extra-curricular duties as a gigolo could neither be confirmed or denied.
As Uruguay advanced in the tournament, Andrade’s popularity soared, described as the Black Marvel and the Black Pearl by the French press. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Colette and star of the silver screen Josephine Baker both fell under his spell. One evening when he didn’t return to the villa, a teammate found him in a hotel room entwined in a bed full of women.
A 3-0 win over Switzerland in the final saw Uruguay toasted as the kings of world football, with star man Andrade invited to stay in France to continue the celebrations. Upon his return home, locals were taken aback by what they saw. The quiet, penniless, shoe shine boy was gone, replaced by a vaudeville dandy, resplendent in top hat, silk scarf and bright leather gloves. The black community in Montevideo arranged a celebration in his honour, only for their hero to shun it with no explanation.
To build on the nation’s success, Nacional set out on a tour of Europe, where Andrade and his teammates were set to play in front of over 800,000 fans across nine countries. Andrade, however, only completed half of the tour, culminating in him visiting a doctor in Brussels after complaints that he felt unwell.
He returned to Montevideo two months later a different man, with the Belgian doctor diagnosing early onset syphilis. Andrade’s new decadent lifestyle had begun to take its toll. Despite undergoing treatment he continued to play, though teammates now found him arrogant and aloof.
Success continued at an international level, with Uruguay crowned South American champions in 1925 after a goalless draw in the final with Argentina secured top spot in the group format. By the time of the 1928 Olympics, they were no longer an unknown quantity, with fans now flocking to watch the world’s best team, led by the emblematic Andrade.
The final, a repeat of the Copa América showdown with Argentina, in Amsterdam saw some 250,000 people apply for tickets. The all-South American affair saw Uruguay run out victorious, 2-1 yet the semi-final with Italy had severe repercussions for Andrade. A seemingly innocuous collision with a goal post started the clock on what would be a downward spiral of health problems for La Merveille Noir, which would eventually cost him first the sight in one eye, then his life.
In response to the Olympics and football’s growing popularity, FIFA started their own tournament as they looked to curb the excessive expenses the players commanded by turning the game professional. Uruguay was chosen to host the inaugural World Cup in 1930, a year that also coincided with the country’s centenary celebrations.
Despite his health issues, Andrade was still at his influential best on his way to being awarded the Bronze Ball as the tournament’s third best player. Uruguay won every game, completing a triumvirate of championships where they also disposed of old foes Yugoslavia and Argentina.
After a final runners-up place with Nacional amid escalating financial troubles, Andrade headed for pastures new, moving across the city to Peñarol. Now aged 30 and with his eyesight failing, he was utilised in a deeper role where he ensured the Manyas finished no lower than second in his four years there. A brief stint in Argentina followed before he returned home to make a handful of appearances at two other clubs.
Not much was seen of Andrade over the next 15 years. Former teammates and opponents had gone on to forge coaching careers and become successful businessmen, yet La Merveille Noir drifted away from the game. Attempts by former friends to arrange benefit games in his honour fell on deaf ears, while teammates found him difficult to get along with, his arrogant persona leaving him largely unpopular amongst his peers. He reappeared in 1950 as a guest of honour at the World Cup, where his nephew Víctor Rodríguez Andrade helped repeat Uruguay’s success from 20 years earlier.
By now, Andrade’s life had descended into despair and the days of dancing the tango with a string of beautiful women were all but a distant memory. According to many, syphilis had claimed the sight in his eye, although the goalpost collision had seemingly exacerbated the problem. Andrade sought refuge and respite in alcohol. In 1956, a German journalist tracked him down to a dank, dark apartment and was shocked by who he found.
Andrade’s alcohol consumption had left him confused and unable to answer any of the journalist’s questions or recount any stories from his career. A failed marriage and depression had only added to his problems and within 12 months, he was dead in an asylum having contracted tuberculosis.Sadly, his story is all too familiar; a genius of his craft caught up in the trappings of newfound fame and fortune.
José Leandro Andrade is one of only four players to win three world titles, the others being two of his former teammates and the great Pelé. His name has been lost over time but his impact on the game in Uruguay cannot be understated in a country of only 3.5 million people. The prominent Uruguayan, Atilio Narancio, who funded the players’ trip to Europe in 1924, said afterwards: “We are no longer just a tiny spot on the map.”
The four stars that adorn the sky blue shirt to this day are a reminder of the success of that era, with the Olympic victories regarded in the same stature as the World Cup ones that followed. Noted writer Eduardo Galeano said in his glorious book Football in Sun and Shadow: “The sky blue shirt was proof of the existence of the nation: Uruguay was not a mistake.”
The importance of keeping alive the memory of players whose brilliance shone so briefly is paramount to illustrate the pitfalls that come with fame. It arrived like a bolt from the blue for Andrade’s and introduced a world of decadence he could only have dreamed of when he was sleeping on his aunt’s floor in Montevideo. While he was one of the first to succumb to such trappings, he wouldn’t be the last. Still, in the words of Galeano: “He was black, South American and poor, the first international football idol.”
By Matthew Evans @Matt_The_Met