In June 2016 the USA will host the Copa Centenario, celebrating 100 years of the Copa America. Usually this tournament is contested by the ten footballing nations of South America. However, for this special anniversary edition, the teams from COMNEBOL will be joined by six teams from CONCACAF, the federation of North and Central America. This tournament has been mired in controversy and it wasn’t even guaranteed to go ahead until around a year ago. It has been seen as more of a marketing exercise than a sporting event, hence it taking place in the United States, a mere year after the last official Copa was held. Saying that, the strength of the squads named by the 16 managers would contradict this, and it is sure to be as keenly contested as any previous version of the competition. Brazil’s Neymar Jr., playing at the Rio Olympics instead, is the only major player to miss out.
Some of the most marketable players and national associations can now be found on the South American continent. Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and James Rodriguez need no introduction, and the Argentine and Brazilian national teams draw huge crowds at home and abroad, even for friendly matches. However, the beginnings were much more humble and owe a lot to the British. They also owe a lot to a particular Uruguayan: Isabelino Gradin.
Football was introduced to South America by British railway workers in the late nineteenth century, and this was no different in Uruguay. Across the continent the sport was initially the preserve of the British, the white, and was a private affair which excluded the locals. The poor, illiterate and those of colour weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. This wasn’t necessarily the case in Uruguay, a country which was much quicker to embrace and integrate black players.
Uruguay is often said to be more progressive than its South American counterparts, with one of the highest standards of living in the Americas. According to author Andreas Camponar, Uruguayan football’s embrace of black players “would be reflected in the country’s domination in international football for over a decade”. However, the introduction of black players into the national team was more to do with necessity than altruism.
He went onto the say that the country wasn’t exactly a utopia of equal opportunities, moreover it was the smaller size of the country and pool of players to choose from that meant they couldn’t be as fussy. The development of football in the poorer parts of the city was encouraged, and public playing fields sprung up. The black minority was encouraged to play football and it was during this era that Isabelino Gradin grew up.
Gradin, and his teammate Juan Delgado, became the first black men to play international football. Gradin, the great-grandson of slaves, was born in Montevideo in July 1897, and it was soon apparent that he was a superb athlete, who excelled not only with a ball at his feet, but on the running track as well. In 2019, whilst his football career was in full swing, Gradin won the gold medal at 200 and 400 metres at the South American athletics championships.
The inaugural Copa America, in which Gradin made his name, was held in 1916. It only consisted of four teams – Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, and hosts Argentina – who competed in a round-robin format. In the opening game Uruguay thrashed Chile 4-0, with Gradin scoring two goals.Legendary Uruguayan author, Eduardo Galeano, who rose to fame with his seminal book Open Veins of Latin America, wrote of Gradin in Soccer in Sun and Shadow: “A man who lifted people out of their seats when he erupted with astonishing speed, dominating the ball as easily as if he were walking, and without a pause, he’d drive past the adversaries and score on the fly”. The Brazilian great Pele allegedly considered him an idol, which is some praise indeed.
The other black player in the team, Juan Delgado, also scored against the Chileans. Delgado was from the countryside but noted as equally as flamboyant. Delgado, according to Galeano: “liked to show off…with the ball” and he’d “tease opponents”. Outrageously, but perhaps not surprisingly given the era, Chile made an official complaint that Uruguay had fielded “slaves” in the match. In the final game of the tournament, a goalless draw against the hosts Argentina saw Uruguay win the tournament on points and become the first champions of South America.
In the club game, Gradin made his name with Montevideo side Peñarol, now named after the working-class, immigrant, neighbourhood on the outskirts of the Uruguayan capital from which it emerged. Originally, the club was founded in 1891 when employees of the Central Uruguay Railway Company founded a cricket club. One year later, football would become the club’s focus.
Gradin would go on to make 212 appearances for Peñarol, scoring 101 goals, as well as netting ten in 24 for his country. He died in 1944, aged only 47, in surroundings not befitting a man of his achievements. It’s a shame that a trailblazer like Isabelino Gradin isn’t as well-known. You’ll be hard pressed to find much about him written in the English language, or decent photographs for that matter.
Fast forward 100 years, the Copa Centenario is upon us. Football has changed immensely in the ensuing century. Although it isn’t perfect – there are still problems with racism and corruption amongst other blights – this change will be none more so evident than in this summers show-piece tournament.