Brazil was a major inroad to South America for the British in the late-19th and early-20th century. It was recognised as a vast country with an abundance of natural resources and, therefore, opportunities. The British Empire, having gained and lost large proportions of the world, had never settled in Brazil – the complications of doing so were too great – but that doesn’t mean Britain’s imperial goals there were limited.
Of the few Britons living there, many were important figures. Amongst them were diplomats, bankers and engineers which meant that British values, ideas and money circulated through the country inadvertently becoming a part of Britain’s Informal Empire.
From the late to mid-19th century to the early-20th century, under the heady influence of Britain’s exogenous empire, sociologist David Goldblatt described Brazilian society as being under a “great wave of Anglophilia, [where] to embrace England and Englishness was to embrace sport.” Britain, well aware of the potential of sports’ ability to influence a population, was about to finally coax Brazil into falling in love.
Small in numbers and peaking in São Paulo, the British contingent exerted clear influence through their financial control. As mentioned, a coup-style takeover was inconceivable. Instead, the focus was turned to transporting culture and values. This would be a war of hearts and minds, not collecting heads.
Born in Brazil to a Scottish father and Brazilian-English mother, Charles William Miller, upon reaching schooling age, was sent back to the bustling industrial hub of Southampton to an elite educational institution. He excelled at sports, and when he returned, his briefcase contained a Hampshire FA rulebook and a deflated ball. His head full of ideas for the game; his heart full of love for it.
During his educationally formative years back in England, a young Miller developed a reputation as a talented and dedicated sportsman. Beyond the grassy-green rectangle, he was taken by cricket and was reputedly similarly skilled in this endeavour. But it was football, with both Corinthian FC and St. Mary’s – now Southampton – that he developed his pedigree as a pioneering footballer at the vanguard of a coming cultural explosion.
His education at Southampton’s Bannister Court School meant that the curriculum had a heavy inflection of Imperial content, per the advice of the Victorian ruling class. Fresh off his Atlantic-travailing boat, on the warmer shores of Brazil, he gathered a rag-tag group of peers on a patch of wasteland that would pass as a pitch by a railway station. Here he explained the rules with his deflated ball in hand.
After acquiring the necessary air – football’s first hurdle in Brazil – the game was off. It’s hard to imagine now what a match of football would look like as played by people that had no concept of it, such is the game’s global appeal. It does conjure images of joy, though, of childlike discovery as untrained limbs bashfully swing at the heavy ball, as the earliest participants struggled to make sense of their own body’s relationship to the object and objective.
It caught on quickly. Miller was the first person to bring a football to Brazil, although there were allegedly indigenous games that were similar and a small game arranged by Scottish textile worker Thomas Donohoe. In sports, pride reigns supreme and there’s no pride in coming second.
Miller is the accepted origin of the game – certainly he is the one who ‘officially’ introduced it – and Miller’s influence went above and beyond arranging a kickabout with friends. An educated man from a well-to-do family, he had the ability and contacts to communicate and organise on a larger scale, with only a minor headache.
On 13 May 1888, Miller set up the São Paulo Athletic Club (SPAC), which still competes today in various spots including futsal, volleyball and rugby. Beyond that, and perhaps his greatest legacy, was the foundation of the Liga Paulista: the first organised tournament in the country. The league’s most crowned champions Corinthians had a similar beginning to Miller’s SPAC. They too were a product of early British immigration.
São Paulo, once Miller’s home, is a vibrant megalopolis that leads an unforgiving existence. Its huge population is cramped and dense, giving rise to widespread criminality. It’s fast and chaotic. A bomb could go off unnoticed in amongst the high-rise towers, emblazoned with the sharp, heavy-metal-inspired pichação lettering. Still, nestled in amongst it is a small paradise – SPAC.
To many it feels as if the city, vastly different now from then, was built around the club. Its expatriate veneer has yet to crumble. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth II is the crown jewel in this picturesque homage to colonialism. Miller’s compatriots from the early days by the railway finally got the hang of it. The team photos are all that remains from those early days and the men’s well-oiled hair and perfectly-sculpted moustaches are evocative of a bygone era.
This isn’t a reflection on the Victorian influence in Brazil; rather the speed at which the home country took to the sport and left the club as a relic of times gone by. Winning the first three championships from 1902, with Miller spearheading the attack, the Brazilians’ grace and guile seemed to take naturally to the sport. They picked up the baton and quickly left their forebears in the dust.
It didn’t take long for the country to be considered the home of football. In 1958, they hosted their first World Cup. They won it. Then they won the next one, to further cement their reputation. Those were the first of five, up until this point. More than stars above their crest of trophies in the cabinet, though, their success proves that they are not puppets or mouthpieces, rather an independent force in the beautiful game.
Waxing lyrical about Brazilian football is contradictorily simple and difficult. It’s simple to find the desire, yet difficult to properly articulate. It’s the highest compliment to the Brazilian way that they were given something, took it, and turned it into something uniquely theirs.
As kids, like a young besotted Miller, football captures our imaginations. When we close our eyes at night and dream of the possibilities with a ball, our dreams are not black and white, nor sepia, but filtered in yellow and green. For to think of football is to feel joy and to feel joy in football – pure joy – is to play it the Brazilian way.
To understand exactly what it is that made the native population acclimatise to the sport so quickly is cause for an in-depth study. The success would certainly have been unimaginable for the young fellow with the deflated ball and tatty rule-book. Nonetheless, that is where the story of Britain’s footballing influence in Brazil began – next to a train station with a group of friends – and that’s subsequently where it ended.
By Edd Norval @EddNorval