This week my parents gave me a shirt for my birthday. It was a Brazilian football
top and was signed by its 2002 World Cup winning team, including Ronaldo,
Rivaldo, Roque Junior andoddly since he retired more than 20 years agoPelé.
Most foreign observers
could be forgiven for thinking Brazilians are football-mad. When the national
team loses, it sometimes seems as if the country has gone into nation al mourning.
Indeed, when Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup to Uruguaya game many believed
they were destined to winit was all too much for some: while some collapsed
others took the more extreme option of committing suicide.
And yet for all this passion,
it was the restrained and reserved English which introduced the game to Brazil.
In 1894 a young Englishman, Charles Miller, stepped off the boat at the port
of Santos in 1894 with a football in each hand.
But while there is general
agreement over this story until a few years ago there was a much greater dispute
over the oldest football club in the country.
In July 2000, a full page
advert appeared in some of Brazil's biggest newspapers, including the Rio-based
Jornal do Brasil. Sport Club Rio Grande is the oldest club in Brazil,
it metaphorically screamed, challenging the claims of several other clubs,
including those of Ponte Preta, São Paulo Athletic Club, Flamego, Vasco
da Gama and Bahian club Vitória. And for good measure and to ensure
it had the official seal of approval, it played its trump card by informing
readers that the president would be coming to their celebrations.
All this would have only
been of passing interest had I not been to visit the state of Rio Grande do
Sul the previous year. I had gone there in the middle of a freezing Brazilian
winter to see where I was born and visit relatives on my father's side of
Having been put up by
one of my father's cousins, we took a visit down to his parents' house, in
the small town of Cassino near the Uruguayan border. His father, Denis, was
my grandmother's youngest brother and was already in his eighties. Despite
having lived his entire life in southern Brazil, his English ancestry still
shone through and tea and cake was duly served a five o'clock sharp.
"Of course you know
that our family played a part in bringing football to this country?"
Denis said to me.
I put my cup of tea down.
This sounded interesting. "No I didn't. Really?"
"Yes, your grandmother's
and my uncle, helped found the first club in Brazil. In fact the stadium is
named after him. The Estádio Arthur Lawson. The 100th anniversary
celebration will be soon."
The following day my father's
first cousin drove me out to Rio Grande to see the football ground. In the
nineteenth century the city of Rio Grande had been an important trading centre
and port. From Germany, England and France European entrepreneurs had come,
lured by the prospect of making their fortune. It was the money which could
be made which had appealed to my great-great-grandfather and his brother.
They arrived and settled
down, marrying locally and sending their children to England to be educated.
Even in the decades leading up to the Second World War the city's opportunities
remained good, attracting migrants including my grandfather from London during
this period. Today though, most of that commercial activity has gone. While
Santos further to the north maintains its economic importance, Rio Grande's
once busy dockyards and wharves lie silent and empty.
Yet amongst this decline
though, stands a symbol of one of Brazil's most important contributions to
the modern world: football. The Sport Club Rio Grande continues to ensure
competitive football remains in the city, its players having the use of their
own football pitch and seating for its spectators in a solitary stand placed
along the half-way line. It is notand has never beena top ranked
team, but it revels in its position as the Vovô do futebol brasileirothe
grandfather of Brazilian football.
According to the club
history, it was the 25th birthday of a German, Johannes Minneman,
which brought together the 21 people who would found Sport Club on 19 July
1900. Among the predominantly German names were three Englishmen, S.W. Robinson,
William Ashlin and my great-great uncle, Arthur Lawson. Initially they played
amongst themselves, using balls brought over from England. Indeed, it may
well have been Arthur's football which they used.
In his 1975 book, Ingleses
no Rio Grande do Sul (The English in Rio Grande do Sul), the historian
Francisco Riopardense de Macedo notes that Arthur would receive packages of
strange objects from his siblings studying in London. "Again this rubbish,"
Arthur's eldest sister reportedly complained. "Instead of buying clothes
with the money Dad sends, they buy these useless things. I don't know where
With 22 founders, the
club had enough players to make up two teams. Along with the two other Englishmen
and Minneman, Arthur played in the A team and eventually became its captain.
The following May the club played its first game against external opposition,
beating a team of English sailors from the battleship Nymph 2-1. Two
years later the club finally settled on red, green and yellow as its team
coloursthe same as the state flagwhich it has kept to this day.
In 1906 Minneman returned
to Germany and Arthur eventually took up the reigns as club president. In
1922 the club won the Independence Cup, a competition to commemorate the 100th
anniversary of Brazil as an independent nation and in 1936 the state championshipits
last major success.
As football gained in
popularity throughout Brazil, there was much interest in claiming the credit
for the game and its origins. But while everyone pretty much agreed Charles
Miller was the game's pioneer, the argument over which was Brazil's oldest
football club became ever more passionate.
Supporters of First Division
Ponte Preta argued that it was older, because it began playing football matches
between its members before Sport Club had done so. But while Sport Club's
two teams only began playing properly against each other from October 1900,
Ponte Preta's official founding date was 11 August 1900nearly a month
after Sport Club's founders signed an agreement of understanding.
The other main contender
for Brazil's oldest club, São Paulo Athletic Club, was formed before
Sport Club. Indeed, it had been in existence since 1888 and was the venue
of Charles Miller's missionary first games. But whereas Sport Club had been
specifically set up to play football, the main sport played at São
Paulo was cricket; football then, was only an add-on.
While the club still exists
to this day, it hasn't played competitive football since 1911. And although
Flamengo (1895), Vasco da Gama (1898) and Vitória (1899) were all formed
before Sport Club, they too didn't start fielding football team until the
first decades of the new century.
Despite being team captain
and club president, Arthur never got to see the impact his and Minneman's
Sport Club left on Brazilian football, dying several years before the Second
World War. Several decades later, following behind-the-scene work in the 1970s
by his nephewmy great-uncle Denishis and his friends' achievements
were recognised by the state legislature, decreeing that 19 JulySport
Club's founding datewould be known as the official Day of Gaucho Football.
Because of his early death,
my father never met Arthur Lawson. But he remembers playing in his home and
visiting his widow as a child. "It's amazing to think how close these
football pioneersMiller, Minneman, Lawsonare to us," he said
over dinner last week.
"Through Denis and
his generation we can just about touch these people at one remove. But in
a few years' time almost everyone who has the most distant contact with those
beginnings will be gone. And then the origin of football in Brazil will pass
Guy Burton was born in Brazil and now lives in Londonseveral streets
from where his grandfather lived before boarding a ship to South America.
Never a particularly good football player himself, Guy can be contacted