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Football arrives in Brazil

By Matthew Brown


Charles Miller claimed to have brought the first footballs to Brazil, stepping off the boat in the port of Santos with a serious expression, his boots, balls and a copy of the FA regulations, ready to change the course of Brazilian history. There are no documents to record the event, only Miller’s own account of a conversation, in which historians have picked numerous holes. There are no images either, which is why to mark the impending Miller-mania surrounding English participation in the World Cup in Brazil, I recreated the scene on the docks at Santos, today South America’s biggest and busiest port. (Thanks to my colleague Gloria Lanci for capturing the solemnity of the occasion).

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Opposite the passenger terminal, where the photo was taken, an old building is being converted into the Museu do Pelé, to house the history of Santos Futebol Clube’s most famous player, heralded by many as the greatest footballer of the twentieth century – though it will not be ready to open in time for the World Cup. The stories of Miller and Pelé are often linked to illustrate the development of football in Brazil. Gilberto Freyre, the Brazilian sociologist and historian, was one of the first:

‘[It was] Englishmen who introduced into Brazil the principal sporting and recreational replacements for our colonial jousting tournaments: horse-racing, tennis, cycling and football itself, which here became fully naturalised as a game not for fair-haired European expatriates in the tropics but for local people: […] people increasingly of varying shades of brown; with de-Anglicisation culminating in the admirable Pelé, after shining with Leônidas.

[Football] has become a veritable Afro-Brazilian dance, with footwork never imagined by its inventors. Has it stopped being British? Not in the slightest. Association football cannot be separated from its British origins to be considered a Brazilian or Afro-Brazilian invention. What it is, in its current, triumphant expression, is an Anglo-Afro-Brazilian game’. (Gilberto Freyre, The British in Brazil, London, 2011, first published in Portuguese in 1954, p.13.)

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Charles Miller was born in São Paulo to a Scottish father and a Brazilian mother whose surname, Fox, reveals her English origins. During his lifetime the population of São Paulo ballooned from around 100,000 in 1874 to well over 2 million in 1953. Most of those new citizens were migrants and their children. São Paulo and Brazil were remaking themselves. Football and music became central ways for Brazilians to express a new inclusive identity after the abolition of slavery (1888) and the establishment of a new republic to replace monarchy (1889).

The sense of Brazilian football leaving its British origins behind as it headed for global domination on and off the pitch, as suggested by Freyre, is why there is no statue or plaque to Miller in the city, not even in the Praça Charles Miller, the square at the front of the Pacembu stadium which houses the Museu do Futebol. Though he was born and died in Brazil, and lived almost his entire life in Brazil (the exception was his schooling in Hampshire, England) Miller’s legend is that of an immigrant, stepping off the ship in Santos to begin a new life. His ambiguous identity, floating between Scottish, British and Brazilian might explain why his simple grave in the Cemeterio de Protestantes in São Paulo is so modest (a cross marked C.W.M, which the director of the cemetery asked me not to photograph, “out of respect”). The Museu Charles Miller, housed in the exclusive Clube Athletico Sao Paulo, and available to visit on appointment, contains old photographs, trophies and a letter from Pelé.

In Brazilian football historiography, “Charles Miller” has become a cipher for the elite, foreign origins of a game which was were subsequently embraced by the Brazilian povo (the people). Something similar is true of Alexander Watson Hutton for Argentina, a more conventional immigrant figure, a Scot who arrived in Buenos Aires as an adult and set about institutionalising and regulating the game of football through schools, teams and leagues. At the II Simpósio Internacional de Estudos Sobre Futebol that I attended in São Paulo last week, Miller was referenced by many of the researchers as a scene-setter to establish their credentials, his name alone enough to conjure images of moustachioed elite white men in blazers tapping a ball around.

At the Simposio, discussing museums and football with Richard McBrearty, director of the Scottish Football Museum, and Daniela Alfonsi, Diretora de Conteudo do Museu de Futebol, Kevin Moore, director of the [English] National Football Museum, noted that Miller’s story is ‘the very epitome of the multinational, global nature of the origins of football’. But they also pointed out that the origins of football were anything but a one man show. Hundreds of people played football in Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century, and historian José Moraes dos Santos Neto has argued pretty convincingly that football was being played in several places in Brazil before Miller’s much-heralded return from England. The ways in which Brazilians took on the game and made it their own is the subject of many wonderful books, including Alex Bellos’ Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life and David Goldblatt’s Futebol Nation: A Footballing History of Brazil. The importance of Charles Miller lies not in any individual greatness but in the way that his story has captured something of the essence of being Brazilian, and of the ways in which football was adopted, regulated, internationalised and embraced around the world.

Dr Matthew Brown is a reader in Latin American Studies at the University of Bristol, and specialises in the history of sports in South America. In particular, the history of the very first football teams to be established. He contributed the biographies of Charles Miller and Alexander Hutton to Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s May update.

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Image credits: (1) Matthew Brown arriving in Brazil, impersonating Charles Miller, © Gloria Lanci. (2) Site of the forthcoming Museu do Pelé, © Matthew Brown.

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