Arthur Friedenreich: the first mixed-race hero in Brazilian football and the architect of their early glories

Arthur Friedenreich: the first mixed-race hero in Brazilian football and the architect of their early glories

Imagine the Seleçao without people of colour. Imagine that famous yellow jersey without the ragged brilliance of Rivaldo or the supersonic malice of Ronaldo. Imagine the World Cup without the players who made it; no Pelé, no Garrincha, no Ronaldinho or Romário. To a modern audience, such a notion is unthinkable. Yet just over a hundred years ago, Brazilian football was a white sport played exclusively by its white masters. 

“Brazil, at the turn of the century, was undergoing a period of great social change,” writes Alex Bellos in his book Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life. “The country had only abolished slavery in 1888 – the last place in the Americas to do so. Brazil was also the country that imported more slaves than anywhere else – about 3.5 million, six times more than the United States.” Emancipation created a bustling underclass which, whilst being free in name, were routinely discriminated against. Football was just one of the activities in which this population faced active prejudice. 

Ever since Charles Miller – the Scottish emigré who brought his two footballs to the port of Santos – had introduced the sport in 1894, football had been the exclusive preserve of the white, landed and wealthy. Much to the chagrin of these gilded custodians, however, the game was a virus that could not be contained. “By the 1910s football was Brazil’s most popular sport,” Bellos writes, “and Rio was believed to have had more football pitches than any other city in South America.”

Jogo bonito may be a vacuous marketing ploy but its genesis was in the skilful, individual style honed by an amateur game which dominated Brazil in the early 20th century. On every muddy pitch and empty field, an army of talented footballers set about building their nation’s footballing identity. None of them, however, were as gifted as Arthur Friedenreich. 

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Born in 1892, Arthur was the son of Oscar, a second-generation German immigrant and successful businessman, and Maria, a teacher of Afro-Brazilian descent. Small and wiry with an unerring eye for goal, he made his amateur debut in 1909, aged just 17. Three years later, he was the top scorer of the São Paulo league.

Whilst being undeniably talented, Friedenreich struggled to pair goalscoring success with collective trophies. After labouring through spells with Ypiranga and Mackenzie College, he joined Clube Atlético Paulistano in 1917. An irresistible talent, he would finish as top-scorer in six of the next twelve years. Friedenreich’s performances made him a shoo-in for the Brazilian squad during the 1919 Copa América and, in the first international football tournament to be held in the country, he became a national star, scoring the goal that beat Uruguay in the final.

For the first time, an entire nation swooned over its footballing triumph. At the final whistle, Friedenreich was carried by jubilant supporters all the way from the Laranjeiras neighbourhood to the centre of Rio, where his boots were put on public display. A song would even be composed in his honour: Um a zero – with Benedito Lacerda’s vibrant flute dovetailing alongside Carinhoso Pixinguinha’s purring saxophone – would herald the beginning of a national love affair. 

Two years later, however, Friedenreich would be reminded that success is no barrier to discrimination. Months before the 1921 Copa América, Brazilian president Epitácio Pessoa decreed a ban on non-white players in the national team. Friedenreich, the hero of Brazil’s inaugural triumph, was prevented from defending the title he had done so much to win. “He had to continuously prove he was part of an upper class, taking ‘whitening measures’ such as straightening his hair with hot towels or gel. Sometimes he even played with a hairnet,” writes Martin Curi in the book Soccer in Brazil.

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Despite this, Friedenreich continued to make light work of Brazilian defences. It was only in 1925, when Paulistano organised a whistle-stop tour of the continent, that he got to test his prowess against European defences. “They played ten matches,” Curi writes. “Seven in France, two in Switzerland and one in Portugal, resulting in nine victories … Friedenreich himself scored 11 goals.” 

Upon their return to Brazil, the team was met by an adoring crowd that included the president. There is still some debate about the number of goals Friedenreich scored during his career. Some have it as low as 500, others nearly treble that amount. What is not debatable, however, is his importance in the development of the Brazilian game. “Friedenreich helped the sport move away from a period when clubs were made from the local elite, rejecting black and mulatto players, to a new era where they began drafting working-class players of diverse backgrounds,” wrote Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates in the book Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience. 

More than that, however, Friedenreich was the first superstar to emerge from the home of footballing superstars. “This green-eyed mulatto founded the Brazilian style of play,” agreed Eduardo Galeano in his opus Football in Sun and Shadow. “He, or the devil who got into him through the soles of his feet, broke all the rules in the English manuals; to the solemn stadium of the whites Friedenreich brought the irreverence of the brown boys who entertained themselves fighting over a rag ball in the slums. Thus was born a style open to fantasy, one which prefers pleasure over results.”

Thus was born a nation’s footballing heritage, one that enraptured the world like no other and it all began at the feet of Arthur Friedenreich; son of Germany and Africa and father of a conquering style.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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