The Birth Of The Beautiful Game In The Land Of Bossa Nova, Carnivals And Coffee
Life is strange. Over the course of time, often such incidents and moments occur, that define us. That goes on to shape who we are. Numerous in collection, some of these moments are remembered forever, cherished in the arrears of our mind till we draw breath while others, get covered by the ruins of time.
Very fickle and inconsequential they may seem to the eye of the masses, but to the concerned, these moments remain entangled in the roots of their being, moulding them, into what they are today. The same applies in the world of sports as well. Football has witnessed this more often than not. However, one never speaks of the birth of the game itself. Many attest, many theories. We take a look tonight, at how the game was born as the “beautiful game”, in the land of Selecao. The moment, that revitalised it.
In the 19th century, the British funded the Brazilian economy, built Brazil’s infrastructure. Brazil was never part of the British Empire. However, a small but very influential group of Britons lived and worked in Brazil. British values, institutions, expertise and money permeated the country.
Even São Paulo, a provincial little town, plopped in the middle of uninteresting farmland – even that distant, dusty town had a stalwart British community which led a determinedly colonial existence.
The year was 1874. November 24th. On a cold wet winter night, in Sao Paulo to John Miller, a Scottish railway engineer and his Brazilian wife of English descent, Carlotta Fox, was born a little baby boy. Charles William Miller. Working on the railway linking the port of Santos to Sao Paulo, a stretch of almost eighty kilometres, maybe not considered much by today’s standards, but back then, it was tiresome and heavy for a Scot living abroad, work, development and growth in a country yet to be built. Life was hard..
Like many sons of British expatriates, Charles Miller went “back home” for his education. At the frail age of nine, he was put on a ship at Santos and sent to Banister Court Public School in Southampton. At that time, São Paulo was a small town with a few shambolic streets, whereas Southampton was one of the greatest ports on the planet. Travelling from one to the other meant moving from a sleepy hamlet to a thriving metropolis. This is where, he’d discover the seed. Learn the most important lesson of his life. The seed that would go on reinvent the sport as we know it. The lesson, named football.
Whilst a boarder at the Millbrook School, in the south coast of England, was Miller asserted English citizenship. Having already learnt how to play football and cricket, he was now eligible to play at least semi-professionally for teams plying their trade in the fledgling days of the game. Accorded to have been a fast and skilful player, his playing career in England lasted only in his school days, when he would have played both for and against The Corinthians and St. Mary’s. The Corinthians were the best semi professional team in England back then. With no FA, and the mighty Red Devils of today, a mere Railways Football Club and the great Liverpool, still some time away from being born, The Corinthians was the darling of the land. And St. Mary’s? Well, they are known by a different name today. Do the Gabbiadinis and Shane Longs and Dusan Tadics of the St. Mary’s today, know about a certain Charles William Miller who played for them once upon a time?
As a twenty year old, Miller returned to his homeland, in 1894. As fate would have it, in his luggage were two footballs and a rule book of the Hampshire FA. He wasn’t prepared for the footballing welcome he’d receive upon returning home. To his sheer horror, nobody knew how the game was played, or even what it was. The expatriate community had retained many British customs – cricket on Saturdays, afternoon tea at four, visiting-cards on silver trays – but not football.
Charles had found his mission. He pumped up the football, summoned his friends and colleagues to a patch of wasteland near the railway station, divided them into two teams and explained the rules. God was born that day. And on the rusty muddy terrain that day, was born his greatest gift to mankind, football in the feet of the Latinos. He wasn’t prepared for the amazing success of his game. Within months, people were playing football all over São Paulo. Within a few years, the game had conquered the entire country.
One of the most exubrazilnt pioneer sports clubs back then in his hometown was the Sao Paulo Athletic Club (SPAC), formed in 1888 by British ex-pat cricket lovers. Miller attainted membership of this club and with the help of a few fellow passionate, established the first football club in Brazil. Alongside another Scottish in Thomas Donohue, Miller began his drive of establishing the game as the foremost face of the country. The first official match to be played is said to be a five man encounter arranged by Donohue in 1894, in a pitch near his workplace in Bangu. Six months later, Miller had arranged his. Business was afoot.
As more football clubs started to rise and boom in and around Sao Paulo, Miller was the driving force and an instrumental figure in the formation of the first professional tournament in the land, La Liga Paulista de football. As striker, Miller led his team, SPAC to three consecutive title wins from the start, in 1903, 04, and 05. With the years rolling on, time started taking its toll on the man, as he restricted his play. 1906 saw him shift to the position between the sticks.
This year saw SPAC’s heaviest defeat in their history. With Miller playing at goal, they were upended 9-1 by Sport Club Internacional of Sao Paulo. After the result SPAC resigned from the league as did Miller from its directorate. SPAC eventually came back in 1907, even winning the 1911 title, and continued competing in the Campeonato Paulista until 1912, when it withdrew from official competitions.
Miller’s personal life was however uncharacteristically inconspicuous. He worked at the Sao Paulo Railway Company becoming the Royal Mail’s agent and Acting British Vice-Consul in 1904. He invested in the construction of garden suburbs in Sao Paulo, designed by Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, profiting considerably. In January 1906, he married the renowned pianist Antonietta Rudge; the union produced two children, Carlos in 1907 and Helena, two years later. The late 1920s saw the couple split with Antonietta moving in with the poet Menotti.
The summer of 1939 saw him return to England, perhaps for the last time, when he was nearly killed in the first IRA bombing on the mainland; his daughter had stopped him to window shop just seconds before the bomb went off on the steps to the nearby underground station. He continued to play cricket and golf in later life. He died on 30 June 1953 in Sao Paulo, and is buried in the Protestant cemetery there.
Fifty years after his death, Charles Miller has been forgotten. In Brazil, people know his name and a few inaccurate myths about his life, but nothing more. In Britain, hardly anyone even knows his name. The British influence in Brazil has dwindled to a few language schools and a dribble of investment. And when British footballers are confronted by Brazilian opponents, they pray that the score doesn’t reach double figures. The story of Charles Miller’s life isn’t just a tale of one man’s fascinating life. Nor is it merely an intriguing episode in the history of football. The spread of football from Britain to Brazil is a neat riposte to anyone who is fearful of cultural imperialism.
The English may have invented the rules of football, and the British may have carried the balls and the rulebooks in their imperial baggage, but Brazilians quickly made the game again in their own image. A hundred years later, talents and skills are flowing back the other way. In Britain, just as all over Europe, home-grown players display the skills and techniques which they have learnt from their Brazilian colleagues.
Charles Miller’s gift is being repaid, a wry smile from up above as God has been realised.