African professionals? Uruguay’s Black stars of the 1916 Copa America

Uruguay went into the 1916 Campeonato Sudamericano in Buenos Aires seeking not only redemption, but reaffirmation. Of course, they there to avenge the humiliating 4-1 defeat suffered against Argentina at the Revolución de Mayo tournament six years earlier. More importantly, however, the tournament was an opportunity for Uruguay to measure both their progress as a nation and to confirm their exceptional place in America. And reflecting this growing sense of Uruguayan exceptionalism was the presence of two Black players in their squad, Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín.

Gradín’s appearance at the tournament capped off a meteoric rise for the 18 year old. As a youngster playing in Barrio Sur, Gradín’s raw talent caught the eye of Peñarol scouts who soon made a move for the 13 year old. Promoted to the senior team at 17, Gradín instantly made an impact. The winger’s pace and determined dribbling efforts combined with Peñarol legend Jose ‘el Maestro’ Piendibene to forge a devastating partnership. Gradín’s dominance of the Uruguayan first division was so great that he earned his first Uruguay call-up just months after his senior debut. The following year, he’d be among the first to be called up for the sudamericano.

The importance of international contests to Uruguayan football was reflected in the team’s preparation for the tournament. Weeks earlier, twenty two of the league’s top players were called up. Divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams, a series of practice matches would ultimately decide the Uruguayan starting XI. While retaining a core of experienced players, the clear standout of the first team was Gradín, who dominated the first two practice matches. While respect was granted towards the veterans, young Gradín was the great hope.

Following a 3-1 loss to the B side, however, uncertainty surrounded Uruguay’s chances. The weak link of the side was Alfredo Zibechi of Montevideo Wanderers, who occupied the position of centre-half. Revolutionised by Scot John Harley, whose short passing and control of tempo complimented and strengthened the Uruguayan dribbling game, the position was arguably the most important in the national team.While he retained the confidence of the selection committee, Zibechi’s performances failed to convince both the public and the press. ‘Above all else, Zibechi is not mature enough to carry out such an important role’ wrote El Día, laying the blame on the centre-half for the failure of the A side.

The solution was found in the opposition. Juan Delgado was already a household name in Uruguayan football, having played for several clubs in Montevideo in addition to a brief stint at Boca Juniors in the second half of 1914. Upon his return from Argentina, Delgado rejected overtures from Peñarol, opting instead to play for Central Football Club of Palermo, a barrio with a significant Afro-Uruguayan presence. Capped at national level in 1913, and among the most experienced in the team, it was a wonder why Delgado had not been first choice from the outset.

Playing at centre-half for Uruguay B, Delgado’s superiority over Zibechi was clear. Zibechi couldn’t intercept a single pass, forcing his teammates to leave their positions to support him. Delgado was the opposite. The Central midfielder held his own, leaving star forwards Gradín and Bracchi impotent while saving his side from other dangerous moments. At 21, Zibechi was vastly inferior, lacking the confidence and experience of Delgado. Those present at the ground were convinced, applauding Delgado’s performance and calling on the selectors to include the Central player in Uruguay’s first team.

The press agreed with the popular call, with the inclusion of Delgado a no brainer. For El Día, the Central midfielder was at ‘the peak of his career, and it can be affirmed that none of our players can rival him’. Not only was Delgado unshakable in his defensive responsibilities, he was a threat in attack through his precise passing and organisation of his teammates. The Central player was a natural fit for the role of centre-half. After initial hesitance, the committee gave in to popular pressure and Delgado was given a starting place in the team. With the additions of the explosive Gradín and the ‘popularly consecrated’ Delgado, expectations in Montevideo were high.

Uruguay faced Chile in the tournament opener. From the very first kick off, Delgado repaid those who had called for his inclusion with a timely interception of Chile’s very first play. The centre-half imposed himself on the rest of the game, with Chilean attacks repeatedly broken up by what the Uruguayan press called a ‘formidable adversary, watching their every move’. Delgado was just as effective with the ball at his feet, starting multiple plays that elicited admiration and applause from the crowd.  The first half finished 1-0 with a goal to Piendibene.

The second half was all Uruguay, with Gradín the star as they relentlessly attacked their Chilean rivals. Eleven minutes in, the Peñarol forward controlled a Somma cross with ease, putting Uruguay 2-0 ahead with a strong finish. Soon after, Gradín once again received a cross from Somma, coolly heading the ball into the net for Uruguay’s third. Piendibene rounded off a dominant Uruguay performance in typical fashion, dribbling a series of opponents before beating the Chilean keeper with a fierce drive. The game finished 4-0 with Delgado pulling the strings and Gradín starring in attack.

The next day, controversy. The Chilean media, lamenting the loss to Uruguay, had ‘discovered’ the cause for such a loss. The adverse result was explained by the composition of the Uruguayan team, which had included two ‘African professionals’. Startled by the claims, the president of the Asociación Atlética y de Football de Chile sent a telegram to his country’s delegation in Buenos Aires, demanding a formal complaint if such allegations were true. In response to the furore, the Uruguayan press lashed out, rejecting the Chilean complaints as absurd. Referring to the Chilean officials call for calm, El Día responded by quipping ‘perhaps they fear that our ‘African’ players are cannibals, too!’

The reaction from Chile caused indignation among Uruguay’s officials, who demanded an official explanation. The head of the Chilean delegation, deputy Hector Arancibia Laso, immediately backtracked and apologised to the Uruguayans. Accompanying the apology was a letter of congratulations, the Chileans stating their extreme pleasure with the ‘gentlemanly attitude of the Uruguayans, who played the game fairly, winning because of their evident superiority.’ Overwhelmed by the result, but also clearly eager to smooth relations, the Chileans invited Uruguay to a practice game the following day to learn the superior ‘scientific football’ they had recently fallen victim to. The Uruguayans accepted, reciprocating with an invitation of their own to play a friendly game in Montevideo.

Two days after their official encounter, Chile and Uruguay played a practice game, one half of 45 minutes and a second of 30. The game was indeed a friendly, with three Uruguayans, including their captain, playing for the Chilean team. Despite fears that Uruguay’s star forwards would be targeted, the practice was deemed a success. It finished 3-2 to the Uruguayans, with Gradín scoring once again. While their compatriots back home remained in a panic over the scandalous presence of ‘African professionals’, the Chilean players were eager to meet and learn from the superior Afro-Uruguayans.

Gradín and Delgado continued to dominate the Campeonato. Two days after the Chile practice, Uruguay went out and defeated a tough Brazilian side 2-1 after trailing at half time. Gradín was again the standout, scoring the equaliser in the second half. Interestingly, another Afro-descendant was playing, with one Arthur Friedenreich scoring the opening goal for Brazil. Uruguay would now play Argentina in the tournament decider, needing only a draw to be crowned champions.

In what seems outrageous today, the Uruguayans travelled back to Montevideo the day after the Brazil match for a friendly against Chile in the middle of the tournament. Despite the first team being rested for the game, the entire Uruguayan squad made the trip back together. Present at el Parque Central were Delgado and Gradín, whose attendance drew most of the attention. Gradín, the undisputed star of the tournament, received an emotional ovation from the public, with a group of excited fans lifting him onto their shoulders, carrying him around the stadium.

The Uruguayans returned to Buenos Aires for the decider against the hosts, only to have the match abandoned due to crowd violence. The replay the next day finished goalless, and Uruguay were crowned champions. Uruguay’s Black players again received the plaudits, with Gradín in particular ‘a colossus in every sense of the word’ according to El Dia, undoubtedly ‘the best element of the forward quintet’ with his great runs and powerful shots on goal.

Uruguayans are proud that they were among the first to include black players in their football teams. Their inclusion is seen as a reflection of Uruguay’s policies of social justice under the influence of Jose Batlle y Ordoñez. Batlle strongly believed that the ‘masses’ deserved to be included in the national story, and football played a fundamental role. The inclusion of Delgado and Gradín was yet another celebration of the progressive, democratic nature of Uruguay, a country exceptional in both its football and its laws.

Afro-Uruguayan achievements in football, however, didn’t reflect their own place in society. By promoting the inclusion of the ‘masses’ through football, Uruguay merely obscured issues of race and national identity. The fact that Gradín was nicknamed ‘the black man with the white soul’ shows the extent to which Afro-Uruguayans were absorbed into the national story of a homogeneous, white Uruguay. Stripped of their blackness, Afro-Uruguayans were encouraged to forget the everyday cultural racism that had continuously left them on the margins of society. Despite starring above all on the football pitch, Afro-Uruguayan footballers maintained the roles of servants and entertainers, rather than citizens.

Although they were confined to the accepted space of the sports field, Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín challenged racial ideas that had kept them in their place. The two resisted the confining nature of the pitch to show their true qualities, with Delgado exemplifying the intelligence, leadership and maturity needed for the important role of centre-half. Soon after the tournament Delgado moved to Peñarol, taking over from John Harley and making the position his own. He joined star teammate Gradín whose skill, explosiveness and efficiency won championships, gold medals and the imagination of football lovers.

Uruguay’s Black stars were not only entertainers, but hard workers, and by penetrating and dominating football, they would not be made invisible in this supposedly white nation.

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