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Brazzil - Sport - February 2004

My Family Helped to Bring Football to Brazil

It was the 25th birthday of a German, Johannes Minneman,
which brought together the 21 people who would found Sport
Club, Brazil's first football 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.

Guy Burton

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 and—oddly since he retired more than 20 years ago—Pelé.

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 Uruguay—a game many believed they were destined to win—it 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 the family.

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 not—and has never been—a top ranked team, but it revels in its position as the Vovô do futebol brasileiro—the 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 it'll end!"

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 colours—the same as the state flag—which 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 championship—its 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 1900—nearly 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 nephew—my great-uncle Denis—his and his friends' achievements were recognised by the state legislature, decreeing that 19 July—Sport Club's founding date—would 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 pioneers—Miller, Minneman, Lawson—are 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 into history."

Guy Burton was born in Brazil and now lives in London—several streets from where his grandfather lived before boarding a ship to South America. Never a particularly good football player himself, Guy can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com

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