The existence of a world completely devoid of racism is a utopian idea indeed: a world like that has never existed and it most probably never will. If not physical barriers between people belonging to different races, then more intangible barriers with vastly varying economics separating people of different backgrounds will always exist.
If there is any sport that has a history intertwined with that of imperialism and how racism influenced the world and the sport itself, then it is football. If there’s a continent that serves as an epitome of how racism and imperialism shaped its future, then it is South America. And if there’s a country whose history, present and future are 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 elucidate racism in football in Brazil. After all, racism is said to be the reason he’s little known to the broader game outside Brazil. If not for that barrier, Friedenreich would have been regarded as 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 chapters in the long road of Brazilian football history, Friedenreich remains a mere postscript.
Friedenreich was born into the world when football was considered a sport for the elites and European imperialists and it was very difficult 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 of them: when football was restricted to the private urban clubs of the foreign-born population. This period started around 1894 and concluded in 1904, the second period began in 1905 and ended in 1933 and was marked by the advancement of the game’s popularity and the growing need to remunerate athletes. 1933 saw the beginning of the professional era and by the time it ended, Brazil had become a footballing superpower. Following 1950, the fourth phase emerged and became known for being an era of commercialism and maturity in the sport.
Arthur’s father was a German businessman, Oscar Friedenreich, and his mother, Mathilde, was of African descent and the daughter of freed slaves. Because of this European background, Arthur came into contact with football very early during his childhood. He was born in 1892 just four years after Isabel, the Imperial Princess of Brazil had signed a Golden Law abolishing slavery in the country. About a year on from that day, Brazil had been declared a republic and this sparked the development of São Paulo into one of the main coffee producing sites in the world. That’s one reason why Arthur’s father Oscar had moved to Blumenau amidst the huge population boom that brought extensive immigration of Europeans from Italy, England, and Germany over the next ten years.
These immigrants brought in seamen, traders, railway constructors and many other professions – and they also brought in football; its rules and equipment. Although the game was being played in a limited manner before, the arrival of the Europeans made its presence more prominent. An Englishman named Charles Miller was responsible for improving the organisation and professionalism of the game in the country which also led to the establishment of São Paulo Athletic Club. This wasn’t really a proper football club as we know it now and in its fledgeling days had the purpose of allowing sports like cricket and football to be practised while also hosting British community meetings.
Just as São Paulo had English roots, so different communities from Europe established similar clubs around the country. Internacional was founded by a community from Southern Europe and Germania was established by German immigrants in 1899. By this time a very young Arthur Friedenreich was imposing his authority on 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 like a Brazilian.
These were also times when football was seen by native Brazilians as a means of emerging from the racial entrapments, one of the reasons why there is still an element of individualism in many top Brazilian footballers to this day. Players saw football as a means of expressing their inner desires, skills and fancies.
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 with skill and pace to leave defenders rattled. Historical accounts suggest that it seemed as if Friedenreich always had more space than anyone else on the pitch. Soon enough Arthur’s father noticed his son’s immense talent and sent him to ply his trade with SC Germania – a club established by German immigrants back in 1899. Arthur stood just 5 foot 7 inches tall but had pace, skill, power and the fighting spirit of a tiger, leading to the inevitable nickname of ‘El Tigre’. It’s often suggested that Friedenreich’s dribbling skills were better than those of Pelé and Garrincha and his skills had onlookers regularly on their feet when he was on the ball.
Friedenreich made his debut for Germania in 1909 as part of a squad full of German players and in his very first season was attracting potential suitors from further afield. For the next four years, Friedenreich plied his trade with four different clubs and dazzled at all of them. 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 and the pattern continued almost every season from then on. In 1914 Friedenreich’s club form attracted attention from the national side and he was called up to don the yellow of the seleçao for a debut against travelling English side Exeter City. Legend has it that Friedenreich lost two front teeth in a heavy tackle during the game but still had carried on to the end.
A move to CA Paulistano in 1916 became the most important one of his career. Over the next 12 years there, Friedenreich helped them win the Campeonato Paulista six times while he himself finished as top scorer on a similar number of occasions. In 1919 his reputation soared 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 and Friedenreich’s name was sung across the country.
It was hoped that Friedenreich could well do something similar for Brazil at the 1930 World Cup, but due to strange political reasons he was never even called up for the tournament. Remember these were times when there were no professional footballers in Brazil and Europe. When Uruguay was selected as hosts for the 1930 tournament, they were considered to be the strongest footballing country in the world and FIFA was finding it difficult to convince countries like Spain, Germany and Italy to take part in the tournament because of the travel logistics – 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 a similar length. And since the players in questions were all amateurs, there was always a risk that they would lose their jobs back home while participating at the World Cup.
So Italy, Hungary, Spain and Germany declined FIFA’s invite to play in the tournament, whereas Romania, Yugoslavia, Belgium and France did all decide to travel to the tournament on the same boat. En route to Uruguay, the boat docked in Rio de Janeiro to pick up the Brazilian national side and because of that, only Rio-based players had been selected to represent the national side. Poor Friedenreich, who probably deserved a call-up more than anyone else, missed out because he was from São Paulo.
Probably the peak of Friedenreich’s career had come five years earlier in 1925. Paulistano organised a trip to Europe and scheduled ten games to play, nine of which were duly won with the other ending in defeat. The Brazilians scored 30 times in these games and Friedenreich scored eleven of them, a rate which really captured the imagination of the watching fans – so much so that the French press labelled the striker as ‘The King of Soccer’ for his goal-scoring antics. Upon their return to Brazil, Friedenreich and his teammates received deserved heroes welcome.
Four years later events took a disappointing turn not just for Friedenreich, but for the whole Paulistano club itself. The early 1930s is often described by football historians as a time when there existed a constant and a stern tussle between people who wanted the game to pursue the route of professionalism and those who wanted the game to stay amateur. In 1933 the advocates of professionalism won out and the rules were changed, but Paulistano remained one of the few clubs still very much opposed to that idea.
This was a club founded by the elites and a majority of the board members drew their income from the coffee industry. The club’s long-time president Antonio da Silva Prado and his great-grandfather had earned fortunes from real estate and invested much of it in the thriving coffee plantations. There was little need for them to earn money from football when they had other much more lucrative sources for achieving this.
Because of this strong stand in favour of retaining amateur status, Paulistano dispensed with all their players, including Friedenreich, who was now without a club. Soon after he and some of his former Paulistano teammates joined São Paulo. After the debacle and frustration surrounding the political reasons for why only Rio-based players were called up for the national team to attend the 1930 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 altogether with his last club being Flamengo, ironically Rio-based.
It is often claimed that Friedenreich didn’t just have greater talent than Pelé, but he appears to have a better goalscoring record than the Santos man too. Arthur Friedenreich is reckoned to have scored around 1329 goals throughout his career, though records are understandably sketchy. There seems to proper evidence of about 560 goals but little or incomplete documentation for the many goals that he scored in friendlies and other non-official matches. He might never attract the attention and credit he deserves, but it’s beyond question that he was probably Brazil’s first footballing superstar and stands as one of the country’s greats.
Political and race issues held Friedenreich back, but he overcame those impediments to become 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. If not for this man who barely earned a cent while dazzling his compatriots and making them dream, Brazil would probably have not become the footballing power we know it as today.