For a country that is so small in terms of size and population, Uruguay has had a lot to offer to football over the years. From the guile of Diego Forlán to the genius of Luis Suárez, the legend of Enzo Francescoli to the might of Alcides Ghiggia, there have been a host of iconic footballers bringing sparkle to the country’s football history. Before all that, though, came the great teams of the 1920s and 30s, without which the future may never have been possible. These were pioneers that inspired generations and one man amongst them, José Leandro Andrade, would be a catalyst for many.
On the face of it all, Andrade’s story is heroic. A young, poor South American boy whose surroundings gave him no chance of making his life of glitz and glamour, but still fought against adversity to become a world champion on multiple occasions. But on greater inspection, and improved learning of his tale, it will be known that Andrade’s life and livelihood were ecstatic, built on his own genius that eventually led to his downfall. At his best he was magnificent on the ball, but at his worst, he was dealing with extreme ill-health and rifts with his own.
Andrade’s incredible story began in Salto – itself a breeding ground for exceptional Uruguayan footballers – where it is claimed his birth certificate was signed by José Leandro Andrade, a 98-year-old man who had fled from Brazil to escape slavery. To add to his bizarreness, it is claimed that he used magical powers to escape the country, and that he was a witness at the time of Andrade Jr’s birth, thus giving reason as to how a man of his age could become the father of a child. From his first days on the planet, mystery would chase Andrade.
At a time where racial discrimination was prevalent around much of South America, Uruguay’s openness to all societies and cultures aided Andrade. It would allow him to attend school and play football, thus giving him the chance to join Bella Vista in Montevideo. An excellent footballer from a young age, he would progress through the ranks swiftly and appear for the national side in 1923, being part of his country’s roster that won the South American Championship, now known as the Copa América.
It was the following year, however, that truly propelled him to international stardom. The Olympic Games were to be held in Paris that year, which gave Uruguay the chance to put themselves on the map. In a largely Euro-centric line-up, Uruguay were one of four non-European sides that took part in that summer’s competition – and they grasped the opportunity with both hands. Andrade’s skin colour was of importance. He became the first black footballer to take part in the Olympics; an influential moment for all of sport.
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For a person who spent his younger days as a carnival musician and on the streets polishing boots, representing his country at the Olympic Games and being part of a small minority made him a hero at home. The team was also given little importance by the country and they personally had to arrange for funds to travel to France. They travelled in second-class carriages and slept on wooden benches during the journey. Just before the games kicked off, they arranged a tour of Spain, playing several matches to make the necessary money ahead of the tournament in Paris.
The country was relatively unknown in world football and, ahead of their opening game against Yugoslavia, the Eastern European nation sent spies to the South Americans’ training sessions to observe their methods and ideologies. Tipped off about the impending recon mission, Uruguay intentionally trained poorly, misplacing passes and playing lazily. On the day of the match, they showed their true colours, winning 7-0. Andrade’s influence on this event mustn’t go unnoticed.
A defensive midfielder by trade, as well as a renowned and supposedly revered tango dancer, he would often find himself doing well on the side of the field less accustomed to his presence. For Bella Vista and later Nacional, he scored 36 times in around 190 appearances; a solid record for a player that played so deeply. However, his record for Uruguay was slightly less extravagant. For La Celeste, he specialised most often in showing his incredible defensive fortitude, which was was evident at the Olympics.
After keeping a clean sheet against Yugoslavia, the Uruguayans would follow that up with one against the United States in a 3-0 success. As they progressed, Andrade’s form continued to catch the eye and he found himself being labelled La Merveille Noir (The Black Marvel) as a result.
It was in the third round, however, that the world really paid attention. Coming up against the hosts, they would beat France 5-1 and, in the semi-finals, they would beat another European nation in the form of the Netherlands 2-1. This fine form was carried to the final against Switzerland, who were comprehensively taken apart, losing 3-0 to the South Americans. Uruguay, who were unknown quantities before the tournament, were now world beaters and gold medalists.
Andrade’s form was well-received in his home of Salto. Sadly, the fame soon went to his head. After Uruguay’s success, he stayed back in France for some time, revelling in his new-found popularity, becoming a womaniser and developing a dapper clothing sense. Gone were the days of shining shoes; in came leather gloves and a top hat, along with a pinch of arrogance.
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Upon his return home, the black community in Montevideo scheduled a celebration in their hero’s honour, but the player would shun it without reason. Perhaps his pride overcame his sense of gratitude. While he continued to be a fine footballer, setting records and succeeding wherever he went, his outgoing lifestyle would often hold him back.
He added national titles to his name with the teams of Nacional and Peñarol, Montevideo’s finest. While at Nacional, he would contract syphilis – diagnosed by a Belgian doctor – coming as a result of his extravagant lifestyle. Fortunately for Andrade, the disease took a toll on his football only mildly. He would continue to represent club and country, albeit at a slightly reduced level, playing fewer matches.
He was part of the team that went to Amsterdam for the 1928 Olympics. Now South America had greater representation, for Uruguay’s early successes sent the world a message. Here, Andrade didn’t feature as much as he did four years ago but was often used as a crucial figure. His fame, though, was still shooting for the stars. For Uruguay’s matches, fans would flock with the aim of getting a glimpse of Andrade, his superstardom unparalleled in comparison to any of his teammates. The team was impressive again, and they would progress to the final with ease.
Coming up against Argentina, this match in the final was a testament to South American football. La Albiceleste were the only team in Olympic football history to hold them to a draw, but in the replay of the final, they would fall to their rivals, earning Uruguay a second successive gold. Two years later, Uruguay hosted the first World Cup, once again winning and again with Andrade used in a lesser role. By now, his trophy cabinet swelled but his dwindling health was a cause of great worry.
Following his retirement from the game in 1934, Andrade’s last years were harrowing. He went blind in one eye – although it is unclear whether that was caused by syphilis or by an incident during a game in which he collided with a goalpost – and alcoholism contributed to further ill health. In 1956, German journalist Fritz Hack went to visit him, and his record made for an appalling read. He noted that Andrade lived in an unhygienic basement, unable to answer questions or follow instructions and aided by his wife to provide information to the journalist.
A year later, Andrade passed away with nothing except his medals to his name. A once great footballer, he died destitute. The end, though, shouldn’t eclipse what a wonderful and memorable athlete he was. There exists little footage of him, but many suggest he can be compared to Zinedine Zidane for his swift, artistic movements, a testament to both players. An oft-forgotten legend of the game, Andrade remains one of Uruguay’s greatest.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26