The existence of a world which is completely devoid of racism is arguably is a very utopian idea indeed. A world like that has never existed and it most probably never will. If not barriers rooting from people belonging to different races, then barriers rooting from varying economic backgrounds will always exist. Perhaps our world was bound to be this way – full of societies trying to come close to the utopian idea of complete equality.
If there is any sport that has a history which is intertwined with that of imperialism and how racism influenced the world and the sport itself, then it is football. If there’s a continent which serves as an epitome to how racism and imperialism shaped its future, then it is South America. And if there’s a country whose history, present and future is defined by how football soothed the pangs of racism, then it is Brazil.
If a certain Arthur Friedenreich was alive today, he probably would have been the best man to know more about racism in football in Brazil. After all, racism is said to be one reason why he’s hardly known to the world, let alone Brazil. If not for that, Friedenreich would have been one of the best footballers of all time. And while the other Brazilian greats such as Pelé, Garrincha, Zico, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Kaká became prominent forks stuck in the long road of Brazilian football history, Friedenreich became a mere nondescript landmark in the same.
Call it lucky or unlucky, Friedenreich took birth into the world when football was considered a sport meant for the elites and the European imperialists and it was next to impossible for a black person to play the game at the top level.
Brazilian football falls into four broad categories and Friedenreich was born in the first one of them – when football was restricted to the private urban clubs of the foreign born population of the country. While this period started in around 1894 and concluded in 1904, the second period began in 1905 and ended in 1933 and was marked by progress in popularity and the rising need to subsidize athletes. 1933 saw the beginning of the period of professionalism and by the time it ended, Brazil had become a footballing superpower. Following 1950, the fourth phase came about and became known for being an era that was full of commercialism and maturity in the game.
Now Friedenreich was lucky to have his parentage in the favor of him going on to pursue football. Arthur’s father was a German businessman, Oscar Friedenreich, and his mother, Mathilde, was from an African descent and was the daughter of freed slaves. And because of this European background, Arthur came in contact with football very early during his childhood days.
While Arthur was born in 1892, Isabel, The Imperial Princess of Brazil had signed a Golden Law abolishing slavery in the country in 1888. About a year on from that day, Brazil had been declared a republic. And this sparked the beginning of São Paulo being one of the main coffee producing sites in the world. That is one reason why Arthur’s father, Oscar. had moved to Blumenau and it is because of this that the city witnessed a huge population boom over the next ten years. Another reason for this rise in population was immigration of Europeans from Italy, England and Germany.
These immigrants brought in human resources which were used as seamen, traders, railway constructors and whatnot. What they also brought in though was football – its rules and equipments. Although the game was being played in bits and pieces before the Europeans made its presence look more prominent, an Englishman called Charles Miller attempted to make the game more organized and professional in Brazil. Miller’s attempts led to the establishment of São Paulo Athletic Club.
It wasn’t really a proper football club as it is now and was designed to practice sports like cricket and football while also hosting British community meetings.
Just like how the English had founded São Paulo, different communities from Europe established similar clubs. Internacional was founded by a community from Southern Europe and Germania was established by German immigrants in 1899.
This was the time when a very young Arthur Friedenreich was imposing his authority in lawn teams and in school teams in São Paulo. Arthur had inherited green eyes and white features from his father and during times when football was dominated by the upper class white elites, Arthur gave the impression of being a European as much as he looked Brazilian because of a tanned face.
These were also times when football was seen by native Brazilians as a means of emerging out of the racial entrapments. It was seen as a way of expressing themselves when racism had hardly given them any rights to be themselves in their own country. That is one of the reasons why there is still an element of individualism in all the top Brazilian footballers of this era or of the eras gone by. Individual players saw football as a means of expressing their inner desires, skills and fancies and that is why Brazilian footballers have always retained this knack for individualism in the way they play.
Although Friedenreich was certainly half-European, he had to put rice power on his skin and flour on his face to look more European than he was. His playing style oozed individualism. He had the skill and pace that left defenders rattled. Historical accounts state that it almost seemed as if Friedenreich always had more space than anyone else on the pitch. This and his slightly white complexion helped him gain more acceptance in Brazilian football than some others of his age at that time.
Soon enough, Arthur’s father noticed the immense talent that his son had and sent him to ply his trade with SC Germania – a club that was established by Germans back in 1899. Because of his mixed race, Friedenreich was able to play in meadows as much as he could play for Germania. That helped his talent prosper.
Arthur stood at just 5 foot 7 inches tall, but it is said that he had the heart of a warrior and the fighting spirit of a tiger. He had typical South American desire to never give up about him and was also nicknamed ‘El Tigre’ fellow footballers. The pace, skill, power and tenacity made him the perfect package.
It is often described that Friedenreich’s dribbling skills were better than the likes of Pelé and Garrincha and it forced onlookers rise from their seats whenever he was on the ball. Also known as ‘Latin America’s Sweetheart’, Friedenreich made his debut for Germania in 1909 in a squad that was full of German immigrants. And in his very first season, his name had attracted potential suitors.
For the next four years from that year on, Friedenreich plied his trade with four different clubs. But what was common that he dazzled everywhere. His goalscoring records improved with every passing season. In 1912, the striker finished as the highest scorer in the São Paulo League with 16 goals. Almost every season from then on, Friedenreich finished the season as the highest scorer in the league.
In 1914, Friedenreich’s club showings had attracted attention from the national side and a he was called up to don the yellow of Brazil. His debut came against English side Exeter City and it is said that Friedenreich lost two of his front teeth in a heavy tackle on that day. Legend also says that despite losing those teeth, Friedenreich had carried on to finish the game.
A move to CA Paulistano became the most important one of his career in 1916. In the next 12 years at the club, Friedenreich helped them win the championship six times and he finished as the top scorer six times as well. It was in 1919 though, that Friedenreich became a national icon as his goal against Uruguay in the final of the third South American championship saw the Seleção win an international trophy for the first time ever. The triumph was celebrated on the streets of Rio and São Paulo as Friedenreich’s name was sung across the country.
It was felt that Friedenreich could well do something similar for Brazil in the 1930 World Cup, but due to strange political reasons, Friedenreich was never called up for the tournament. Now remember that these were times when there were no professional footballers in Brazil and Europe. When Uruguay were selected as the hosts for the 1930 World Cup, they were considered to be the best country in the world at football and FIFA was finding it difficult to convince countries like Spain, Germany and Italy to take part in the tournament because it would have taken players 15 to 20 days to reach Uruguay by boat and after staying there for nearly a month, the return trip would be just as long. And since the players in questions were all amateurs, there was always a risk that they would lose their jobs while participating at the World Cup.
Italy, Hungary, Spain and Germany had declined FIFA’s invite to play the World Cup. But the likes of Romania, Yugoslavia, Belgium and and France had decided to travel to Uruguay on the same boat. On their way to Uruguay, the boat had stopped at Rio de Janiero to pick up the Brazilian national side. Because of that, only Rio-based players had been picked for the national side. Poor Friedenreich, who probably deserved a call-up more than anyone else, missed out because he was from São Paulo.
This though, wasn’t the time when Friedenreich’s career had peaked. That happened in 1925 when Paulistano had organized a trip to Europe and they had to play upto ten games in total. Out of those ten, Paulistano won nine and lost just one, scoring 30 times and conceding just eight times. Out of these 30 goals, Friedenreich scored 11, capturing the attention of the European crowd in a fascinating way – so much so that the French press labelled the striker as ‘The King of Soccer’ for his goal scoring antics.
On their return to Brazil, Friedenreich and his teammates received a heroes’ welcome. It was certainly well deserved. But four years on from those times, things took a disappointing turn not just for Friedenreich, but for the whole Paulistano club itself.
The early 1930s are often described by football historians as a time when there existed a constant and a stern tussle between people who wanted the game to be professionalised officially and those who wanted the game to stay amateur. In 1933, it was announced that football was going to be a professional sport in the country. But Paulistano were one of the few clubs who were still very much opposed to that idea.
It was a club that was founded by the elites and a majority of the board members drew their income from coffee. The club’s long-time president Antonio da Silva Prado and his great-grandfather earned loads of money from real estate and invested a vast majority of it in the thriving coffee plantations. There was little need for them to earn money from a football club when they had other sources of doing the same in a very prominent way. They hardly cared about the profits Paulistano generated as it was merely worth their spare time.
Because of their stiff stand for amateur football, Paulistano did away with all their players, including Friedenreich, who was without a club. Not long after though, Friedenreich and some other Paulistano players joined São Paulo, which is currently one of Brazil’s biggest clubs.
After the debacle and frustration surrounding the political reasons for why only Rio-based players were called up for the national team during the World Cup, Friedenreich was deemed too old to play in the tournament in 1934 and that marked the end of his international career. A year on, he retired from playing football too, with another São Paulo based side – Fluminense, his last club.
It is claimed by many that Friedenreich didn’t just have better abilities than the great Pelé, but he appears to have a better goalscoring record than the man from Minas Gerais. It is said that Friedenreich scored about 1329 goals throughout his career, but records don’t seem to prove it too well. There seems to proper evidence of about 560 goals, but there is little and faded documentation for the goals that he scored in friendlies and the informal matches.
One way or another, a player like Friedenreich would never attract the attention and credit he deserves, despite probably being Brazil’s first footballing superstar. Heavens know if he was as good as Pele or better than him, but he certainly was one of the best Brazilian players ever. Even if you chop off the 800-odd goals that there is little or no account for, a tally of 560 goals is still an enviable example of goalscoring.
While political issues and racism held Friedenreich back, he was the first Brazilian player to set the tone for how football in that country was meant to be played. It reflected an aura of freedom, freshness and an expression of how the country’s population at that point was yearning for freedom of control from foreign powers.
Players like Friedenreich used the game to show not just how good the country was at football, but how they were desiring for freedom and expression at that time. If not for this man who never earned a cent while dazzling the Brazilians and making them dream, Brazil would probably have been lesser adept in the game than it currently is.