In August 1913, Montevideo hosted a Brazilian football team for the first time when a combined São Paulo league side toured the Río de la Plata. While the first official Uruguay-Brazil international match took place in 1916, the Paulista visit was no less significant.
Upon the arrival of the São Paulo delegation, a Montevideo daily was quick to welcome their ‘Brazilian brothers’, applauding the ‘coming together of not only two sporting associations, but of two peoples’. With the presence of a host of important football officials and public figures, including the Brazilian ambassador to Montevideo, the tour bore all the marks of a prestigious international occasion.
And there was real reason to celebrate. Uruguay had been closely tied to its giant northern neighbour since colonial times, its nineteenth-century existence defined by Brazilian invasion, occupation, and constant interference. Now, a new era of peaceful co-existence and cooperation seemed to be on the horizon, with both countries sharing ambitions to not only lead a unified Latin America, but march side by side amongst the world’s ‘civilised nations’.
By ‘civilised’, of course, we mean white. From the late 1800s, Brazil and Uruguay, along with most of Latin America, looked to European models of development while ignoring – and often denying – their important Black and Indigenous heritage. Football presented the perfect stage to express national pride in this supposed ‘racial progress’, with the Uruguayans taking particular interest in the game as a way to build strong citizens and to imagine themselves as a white nation.
The Uruguay-Paulista contests threw this mythical whiteness into doubt, however, through the inclusion of two players of colour in the Brazilian and Uruguayan sides – Arthur Friedenreich and Juan Delgado.
Friedenreich had just turned twenty-one when his name appeared in an initial Paulista squad list. Of mixed German and Afro-Brazilian heritage, the forward was top scorer for Mackenzie College in the Liga Paulista in 1912. That same year, the one they would call El Tigre also made his [unofficial] Brazilian selection debut.
Delgado was Uruguay’s first black football star. In contrast with Friedenreich’s privileged upbringing, Delgado was of humble origins. He played for Central FC, a club based in Palermo, a working class barrio with a significant black and immigrant community, and heart of Montevideo’s annual Carnaval celebrations.
Delgado made an immediate impact after his 1912 First Division debut. Playing in the coveted position of centre-half, Delgado controlled games through his impressive technical and defensive qualities, and week by week was singled out as his team’s main performer. Less than six months after his debut, calls were made to include him in Uruguay’s national team. These calls were eventually heeded in April 1913, with Delgado’s debut against Argentina kicking off an intriguing international career. Perhaps the most famous moment of Delgado’s career would come in 1916 at the inaugural South American Championships in Buenos Aires where he, alongside Isabelino Gradín, drew applause – and some protests – as they played an instrumental role in Uruguay’s triumph.
Many like to point to players like Delgado as proof of Uruguay’s enlightened social policies at the time. And indeed, Uruguayans take pride in that they were the first to include black footballers in their national team. With almost every one of its World and South American championship-winning sides boasting influential black protagonists from Gradín, to Andrade, to Obdulio, Uruguay’s monumental footballing triumphs have served the additional purpose of celebrating the country’s racially inclusive, egalitarian society.
Off the pitch, however, Uruguay’s black population were officially invisible. Despite their long and important contribution to national life, blackness in Montevideo remained tied to what George Reid Andrews described as basic tropes of ‘servility and deference’, and seen as incompatible with national ‘progress’. Indeed the very year Delgado made his international debut, a major geography text boasted that Uruguayans were made up of ‘all of the white race […] one must emphasise that in our country there are no Indians and very few blacks […] only Argentina has a race as select as ours’. In a supposedly progressive Uruguay, racial hierarchies and social discrimination remained.
Afro-Uruguayans like Delgado used football to tackle their official invisibility. And in that first Uruguay-Brazil game, played on August 15 at the Gran Parque Central, two black footballers were about to meet for the first time.
For the Brazilians, Friedenreich lined up at right wing. For Uruguay, Delgado started alongside none other than Glasgow-born centre-half John Harley, who by that stage was in his fifth year in Montevideo and already a popular and influential figure within the local game. After a slow and rather monotonous first half, a second period of Uruguayan dominance led by an inspired Harley allowed Uruguay to run out comfortable 2-0 winners.
A rematch was played just over a week later. In front of a meagre Parque Central crowd of just over 6000, and with both Delgado and Friedenreich absent from their respective teams, the Uruguayans won again, this time by 4 goals to 2. Despite the loss, the Brazilians left a favourable impression on the locals, who particularly noted their style of play in which combinations and short passing were deployed as priority.
The hard-working Brazilians impressed so much that a third contest was organised for just three days later. The game served as another practice game for a Uruguayan national team in the midst of a mini-crisis. With the monumental 1912 triumphs a distant memory, the Uruguayans recalled several national team starters. The most striking change, however, was the return of not only Juan Delgado for Uruguay, but also Friedenreich for the Paulistas.
Over 10,000 people crammed into the Parque Central – on a working day no less – for one final glimpse of the Brazilians. They were left stunned after just one minute of play, when Décio finished off a well crafted move involving Friedenreich. With the help of some heroics from Paulista goalkeeper de Moraes, the Brazilians amazingly found themselves ahead 1-0 at half-time. In the second half, however, the Uruguayans hit back with two goals, the winner coming after an unfortunate de Moraes error.
Despite losing all three games in Montevideo, the Paulistas hardly disgraced themselves. The Uruguayans once again praised the playing style of the visitors, who so clearly came ‘from the same school as us’. Almost immediately, sections of the Montevideo press called for the establishment of an annual contest between Uruguay and Brazil, which would finally come almost two decades later with the Rio Branco Cup.
But the real story here was the return and performance of both Friedenreich and Delgado. The local press looked positively at Friedenreich’s re-inclusion, praising the forward’s combination play with Juvenal on the right. For the Uruguayans, Delgado received even higher accolades. Replacing Harley at centre-half, the Central FC midfielder dominated, and was duly named the best player on the field by La Tribuna Popular.
While Harley’s superiority at centre-half was still unquestioned, there was no doubt that Delgado had earned a place in Uruguay’s midfield three. The star from Palermo paved the way for more black involvement in Uruguayan football, with a young Isabelino Gradín making his Peñarol debut less than two years later. Both would eventually face Friedenreich in 1916, and again at the 1919 South American Championship in Rio de Janeiro.
The first ever Uruguay-Brazil contests in Montevideo not only marked the beginning of one of the most significant rivalries in world football, but also revealed complex questions of identity and race affecting these emerging nations. The presence of both Arthur Friedenreich and Juan Delgado showed how football could make invisible people visible. On a grand national stage meant to celebrate the progress of two supposedly white nations, blackness, often hidden away, was now on full display, crushing the great white myths that sought to render Afro-Latin Americans obsolete.
Paulista 1913 Río de la Plata tour [Montevideo fixtures]
Uruguay 2-0 São Paulo League – Parque Central, Montevideo.
Uruguay: Demarchi; Castellino, Granja; Márquez Castro, Harley, Delgado; A.Marquez Castro, Mazzulo, Gorla, Legorburo, Campistegui.
Paulistas: H.de Moraes (Burcker 60), Chico Neto, Menezes; Burcker, Bicado, Alves; Xavier, M.Alencar, A.Friedenreich, Juvenal, Décio.
Scorers: Campistegui, Gorla
Uruguay 4-2 São Paulo League – Parque Central, Montevideo
Uruguay: Demarchi; Broncini, M.Benincasa; Vanzino, Harley, Oliveri; A.Marquez Castro, Gorla, Tognola, Farinasso, Altamirano.
Paulistas: H.de Moraes, Chico Neto, Menezes; A.Bertone, J.C.Bertone, R.Thiele; Xavier, Moretti, I.Malta, Juvenal, Décio.
Scorers: Uruguay: Farinasso (2) Tognola, Gorla; Paulistas: Moretti, Xavier
Uruguay 2-1 São Paulo League – Parque Central, Montevideo
Uruguay: Saporiti; Granja, J .Benincasa; Aphesteguy, Delgado, Fuggini; Legurburo, Pérez, C. Bastos, Vallarino, Landeira.
Paulistas: H.de Moraes; N.N, Netto; A. Bertone, J. C. Bertone, Thielli; Friedenreich, Juvenal, Décio, Alencar, Xavier
Scorers – Uruguay: Pérez, H. de Moraes (OG) ; Paulistas: Décio