The modern-day Copa América features South America’s ten footballing nations, as well as some of the biggest names on planet football. Barring severe injury or unforeseeable disfavour, the 2019 edition in Brazil will feature the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Edinson Cavani; the star-studded event sure to draw fans and media from all corners of the globe.
The competition can trace its roots back to 1916 when, as the South American Championship of Nations, just four countries battled for continental supremacy in Buenos Aires. There, one man in particular etched his name in the history books, paving the way for some of the game’s greats that would later follow.
In the tournament’s curtain raiser Uruguay thrashed Chile 4-0, with the opening and closing goals coming from Peñarol legend José Piendibene. The other two goals came from the foot of a teenager by the name of Isabelino Gradín. Alongside teammate Juan Delgado, Gradín became the first black player to take part in an official international match, much to the chagrin of the Chileans who absurdly complained that their opponents were illegitimately fielding “Africans”.
Gradín also found the net in a 2-1 victory over Brazil, finishing top scorer and being named best player as Uruguay won the inaugural tournament to be crowned South America’s first champions.
Gradín was the great-grandson of slaves from Lesotho, the mountainous landlocked kingdom within South Africa’s borders. However, he was Montevideo through-and-through, born in the Uruguayan capital in July 1897, and grew up in the Palermo neighbourhood in the south of the city. Like many of his fellow Montevideanos who shared a passion for football, Gradín honed his craft on the wasteland pitches and narrow streets close to the port, where he was forced to improvise in order to adapt to the conditions, thus improving his technique.
His break in football came with Peñarol, the highly decorated outfit based on the outskirts of the city, for whom he made his debut in 1915. Gradín racked up more than a century of goals in six years with Los Aurinegros, helping the club win two league titles in the process. International recognition came swiftly after his club debut, culminating in success at the inaugural South American championships. La Celeste retained their continental title on home soil in 1917 although Gradín didn’t take to the field in the sophomore edition of the tournament.
In the 1919 championships, Gradín’s football ability, as well as his race, would once again come to the fore. The forward notched the winner in a 3-2 victory over neighbours Argentina and opened the scoring in a 2-2 draw with Brazil, the hosts and eventual champions. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 but, more than 30 years later, still had an evident problem with racism. Gradín’s presence was an issue for many spectators and, despite playing for a rival, he was warmly greeted by many black Brazilians.
In 1922 Gradín walked away from Peñarol following a dispute with the Uruguayan Football Federation (AUF) that led to the club becoming disaffiliated and aligning themselves with a rival organisation. Gradín became a driving force behind newly-formed Olimpia, now Uruguay’s own River Plate, who he represented for seven years before his eventual retirement from club football.
The rupture also curtailed his international career, during which he scored ten goals in 24 appearances, with his last appearance for the Celeste coming in 1927. Gradín didn’t appear at the 1924 Paris Olympics, in which Uruguay won the gold medal, and he refused a call-up for the subsequent games in Amsterdam where his countrymen once again brought home the gold medal.
Uruguay were indisputably the world’s first football superpower. La Celeste won six of the first ten continental competitions; a successful 1920s, in which two Olympic gold medals were captured, was topped off with triumph at the first ever World Cup in 1930.
The South American republic, by far the CONMEBOL federation’s smallest country by population, has historically been able to punch well above its weight, something that is still evident to this day. During its nascent days, football on the continent was typically the preserve of the white, upper classes. However, the game spread much more rapidly throughout Uruguay, from the elites who introduced the sport to the immigrants and descendants of African slaves such as Gradín.
Compared to many of its South American counterparts, Uruguay had a much more equal, horizontal society, fostered through advanced social policies such as the world’s first welfare state and massive investments in education. Uruguay drew on a much wider portion of their society compared to their rivals, maximising the small population, utilising every player at their disposal.
Gradín displayed skill, flair, spirit and a powerful shot with his left foot on the field throughout his colourful career. His athleticism and blistering pace also augmented his undoubted technical ability, and it wasn’t just on the grass that he excelled. He won gold in the 200 and 400 metres in the 1919 and 1920 South American Championships, as well as medalling in unofficial continental tournaments in 1918 and 1922. At one stage, he held five South American sprinting records.
A far cry from his physical peak, Gradín became seriously ill and died in hospital in December 1944 after spending his last days destitute and in poverty.
The true definition of a pioneer is not necessarily just what they achieve during their lifetime, but more so what they leave behind. Sixty-five years after his death, a small plaza close to the ferry terminal in the south of the city, which transports people across the Río de la Plata between the Uruguayan capital and Buenos Aires, was renamed in his honour, putting him, quite literally, on the map.
His life’s work has been immortalised by fellow Uruguayan and internationally renowned author Eduardo Galeano, who, in Soccer in Sun and Shadow, described him as “a man who lifted people out of their seats when he erupted with astonishing speed, dominating the ball as easily as if he were walking.” Peruvian poet Juan Parra del Riego, who moved to Montevideo in 1922, dedicated a whole poem to the multi-talented star. In Dynamic Polyrhythm to Gradin, Parra del Riego lovingly wrote: “You suddenly made my heart beat a thousand times faster.”
Aside from the municipal honours and heartfelt words, the pride of Uruguayan sport laid the foundations for players of African descent to not only strive to play international football, but to excel, creating new notions of nationalism and identity in the process. Gradín shone in an era of ignorance, and modern football may look eminently different had he not walked the path and been brave enough to put his head above the parapet.
By Dan Williamson