In 1888, as the first football league season was born in England, Brazil passed the ‘Golden Law’ abolishing slavery in the last South American country where it had been acceptable for one person to own another one. Inevitably, however, de facto trails de jure by a significant period, and it would be wrong to assume that all discrimination and abuse ended with that piece of legislation.
It was, into a land still burdened by history and bigotry that, on 18 July 1892 the son of Oscar Friedenreich, a German merchant, and Mathilde, a Brazilian laundress – a white father and a black mother – entered the world. Despite the troubled environment and the hurdles faced, Arthur Friedenreich, described by Eduardo Galeano in ‘Soccer in the Sun and Shadow’ as the “green-eyed mulatto who founded the Brazilian way of playing”, would grow up to be a sporting superstar.
As with so many other countries in the continent, football had burrowed deep into the soul of Brazilian culture. Overwhelmingly, however, in the early years of the twentieth century, it remained the preserve of the white man. To succeed in such an environment, Friedenreich – born at the junction of streets named Vitoria (Victory) and Triunfo (Triumph) and with skills developed on the streets of the city of São Paulo – would not only need to be an outstanding player, he’d also need to conquer power, privilege and prejudice.
In doing so, this Robin Hood in football boots would steal the game away from the wealthy, advantaged and white, gifting it to the humble, the poor and the downtrodden. He would provide a way for those that emerged from the streets, from the depths of deprivation and despair to journey to the Seleção and deliver a brand of football the country would become synonymous with.
As Galeano explained. “Friedenreich brought to the solemn stadium of the whites the irreverence of the brown boys who had fun playing with a ball of rags in the suburbs. Thus, was born a style, open to fantasy, that prefers pleasure to the result.” Without Arthur Friedenreich, the Brazilian Jogo Bonito may never have entranced the world.
Despite the barriers blocking access to football for blacks and mulattos – those of mixed race such as Friedenreich – largely thanks to being raised in Europeanised family, football quickly became an important part of the young boy’s life, and his father’s eager support and encouragement carried him through periods of doubt when his nascent ability had yet to find its way out. It was therefore hardly surprising that, the first club he played for was SC Germânia, a club set up in the city for the benefit of German immigrants. Despite his father’s national credentials though, there were still hurdles to cross. Before turning up at the ground to train or play, Friedenreich would have to spend time straightening his naturally curly hair to appear more European. Some reports even suggest that he would also smear his body with rice powder to hide the darkness of his skin.
Still in his teenage years, Friedenreich’s hours of playing on the street, often with a bound ball of rags rather than a football, had honed his skills and dictated the way he played. Even in his prime, he stood well under six feet tall and his wiry physique would see him comfortably fit into the ‘Flyweight’ division of boxing. As such, he had the low centre of gravity that allowed him to weave quickly, dribbling past less adroit opponents, play quick passes, and the pace to dart into spaces, collecting the ball with unerring control.
To many, his performances were as some lithe dancer, hypnotically guided by an unheard Samba beat. Add onto that list of qualities, the determination and case-hardened hunger for success etched into his soul, and the package was complete. The first ‘Black Pearl’ – the first Pelé – would set light to the blue touch-paper of Brazilian football. Fireworks would follow!
At 17, the blossoming talent was clear and other clubs sought his services. Although records are unclear and some evidence is doubted by many scholars as to his precise goalscoring records, it’s indisputable that he was a potent force. By the time he was 20 he was the top goalscorer in the São Paulo league, scoring 16 times. It’s an accolade he would claim numerous times over the following 17 years or so of his career.
By 1914, he was becoming a recognised star of the Brazilian game and when the Seleção played their first game as a recognised national team, the name of Arthur Friedenreich, then playing for Clube Atlético Ypiranga, was inevitably included on the team sheet. The game itself was somewhat less celebrated than others that would follow. The opponents on that day were in fact, English club Exeter City who were returning from a tour of Argentina at the time.
It took place on July 21st, 1914 at the Estádio das Laranjeiras, just weeks before the outbreak of World War One. Although debuts on the international stage are always memorable events, there was another reason why Friedenreich would recall his confrontation with the West Country’s Grecians, as he lost two teeth during a heavy tackle from one of the tourists, but completed the game after receiving hasty dental treatment.
The game ended in a surprise 2-0 victory for the Brazilians – the game was still amateur then, and would remain so for years to come. Friedenreich didn’t score either of the goals, but some sources report that he had a hand in the second goal scored by Osman Medeiros.
Five years later though, now unquestionably South America’s first footballing superstar, he did score the winning goal in the final of the 1919 Copa America against Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro. The extra-time strike, added to his hat-trick against Chile in a group game made him the tournament’s top scorer. By now, the style of Brazilian football, driven by Friedenreich, had shed the traditional tactics of the early European pioneers of the game in the country.
He was the flag-bearer for the revolution to the style that would take Brazil to the summit of world football. After the triumph, a São Paulo newspaper would describe the new style of play “which dictates that the ball be brought by all the forwards right up to the oppositions goal, where shots were taken from any distance, and the collective whole of the forward line is not necessary, it’s enough for two or three players to break away with the ball, which by it’s devastating speed disorientates the defence.”
The 1919 victory was probably the zenith of Friedenreich’s career. Huge crowds thronged the city to acclaim the success and especially the exploits of Friedenreich. The boot with which the winning goal was struck would later be placed on display in the window of a jeweller’s shop, after being taken on a tour of the city, for all to marvel at and pay homage. It’s somewhat strange to say therefore, that just two years later, and then at the peak of his powers, and arguably the best player in the world, Arthur Friedenreich would not be part of the Brazil team that travelled to Argentina for the 1921 Copa America competition.
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Argentina was a predominantly white country and the authorities there announced that only white players would be allowed to represent the country and compete in the tournament. There were even cartoons in the Argentine newspapers championing the decision and pointing fingers towards Brazil, declaring that “The monkeys are coming.” In a shameful and cowardly decision, Brazilian president Epitácio Pessoa cravenly followed suit, apparently concerned that having black players may bring shame on his country. He need not have worried. His decision did that on its own. Friedenreich was excluded from the Seleção and the hosts won the trophy winning all three of their games. Brazil would win just once, defeating Paraguay 3-0, but defeats to Argentina and Uruguay were perhaps just reward for Pessoa’s craven collaboration.
Perhaps the sad reflection of the decision, the consequences of it or a combination of both and the inevitable awakening of a more open attitude, the whole scenario had a transforming effect on both Brazilian football in general and Friedenreich in particular, feeding the springing seeds that would flower into the ending of racial discrimination in Brazilian football. His career with the Seleção would span eleven years but, with games so sparse, inevitably compromised by the demands of travel in that time, would only comprise 23 games. A similar length of time in modern days would more usually mean many more. Neymar for example has played over 100 games for Brazil since his debut in 2010.
By 1925, Friedenreich’s international career was finished. Despite this, his fame showed little sign of diminishing. He was now playing for CA Paulistano and, for some time, the club had been invited to play a number of friendly games across the country so people could see the great Friedenreich in the flesh. In 1927, however, the call came for the club and their star, now 37, to travel to Europe for a series of games.
For players of a much younger age than Friedenreich, the demands of travelling across the Atlantic by boat before arriving in a different continent and playing eight games, with more travelling in between would be difficult enough, but Friedenreich would hardly let down the fans who came to watch not only the team with the strange footballing style, but also the star player whose reputation had crossed the ocean before him. In those eight games, he would score 11 goals, and richly entertain the spectators.
Despite his athletic prowess, and natural fitness, time and tide eventually takes its toll on all things, and age was something Friedenreich could only temporarily ward off. An inability to even walk out of the door of his house only added to the pressures he was under. Although living the life of a celebrity, he did so without the financial income to sustain it, earning a relatively meagre salary, especially given his international renown. Despite this, he still tried to live an extravagant lifestyle, with reports suggesting that he owned more than 100 suits, and developed a taste for particularly expensive beers.
The first World Cup tournament held in Uruguay in 1930 should have been the perfect stage for Friedenreich’s swansong, but it wasn’t to be. Despite being in his late thirties at the time, there was little doubt that he would have warranted a place in the squad that travelled to Montevideo for the first global celebration of the game. Due to some unexplained mix up, however, only players from the states of Rio de Janeiro were selected, and Friedenreich, along with other stars from the São Paolo area missed out.
As the years rolled on, he began playing less and less, and when he did play, often it would be for far smaller clubs than in his heydays. Professionalism was gradually spreading through the football ranks in Brazil and by 1933, the game had dispensed with amateurism completely. Whether through a fit of pique for missing out on what could have been hugely financially rewarding times when playing his best years, or merely through idealistic grounds, Friedenreich raged against the changes, and in essence decided to walk away from the game. At 43 years of age, on 21 July 1935, he played his last game for Flamengo in a 2-2 draw against Fluminense.
Finished with football, he began working for liquor company until he retired. His latter years saw the once great hero of Brazilian football brought to his knees by Alzheimer’s disease. Treatment for the condition would drain his financial resources without ever coming close to arresting the deterioration of his mental faculties and memory. He died on 6 September 1969 aged 77, leaving behind a wife and son, whom he called Oscar after his father, penniless.
One of the tragedies of Friedenreich’s mental deterioration was that, towards the end of his life, he had little or no memory of his footballing achievements, or even his name at the end, and was totally unable to corroborate any records offered up by others, hence leaving clouds of doubt over his goalscoring abilities. Perhaps the least contentious account, however, comes from a former team-mate, Mário de Andrada. Friedenreich’s father began to keep a notebook record of his son’s goals from the day he first started playing, and in 1918, feeling he would no longer be able to maintain the record, he passed the task on to Mário de Andrada, who vowed to ensure the records were maintained for posterity.
In 1962, Andrada showed the records to Brazilian journalist, Adriano Neiva da Motta e Silva, more commonly known as De Vaney. It suggested that across his career spanning 1,329 games, Friedenreich had scored a staggering 1,239 goals. The figures become even more impressive when taking into account that many of those games were played well past the peak of Friedenreich’s powers, through his late thirties and into his forties. Originally, De Vaney added more fog to the uncertainty by inadvertently reversing the figures, before they were corrected. The error hardly aids legitimacy and confidence, especially as Andrada’s written records were lost when he died.
If there are doubts about his precise goalscoring records, there is little to diminish the role that Friedenreich played in both shaping the way that Brazil played football and helping to break down the malignant walls of discrimination. Eduardo Galeano wrote that, “From Friedenreich onward, Brazilian football that is truly Brazilian does not have right angles, like the mountains of Rio de Janeiro and the buildings of Oscar Niemeyer.” The lyrical description does great honour to the former star. To some he was the greatest Brazilian footballer of all time, but without television images to enhance the legend, that accolade often falls to the “’Pelé after Pelé’”.
The great man was once asked if there would ever be another player to compete with his own achievements. After musing for a second, Pelé shook his head slowly. “My parents closed the factory,” he said with a smile. That may well be true, but if his parents did bring down the shutters on that factory, the keys to initially open it for black players to flourish in Brazilian football were crafted and used by Arthur Friedenreich, the ‘Pelé before Pelé’.