They wore a white kit with blue trim and their opponents were an unheralded English Southern League side. At a time when Brazil’s leading clubs were still in the process of being founded and the sport of football had yet to take off in the country, the Estadio das Laranjeiras, in Rio de Janeiro, was packed to the rafters for a game that merited all the attention it attracted.
The date was 21 July 1914 and the match in question was the first-ever outing of Brazil’s national team, the opening chapter in a long-running success story that has yielded five FIFA World Cup™ Trophies, seen the emergence of countless stars, and made terms such as A Seleção and jogo bonito an integral part of the footballing lexicon.
On Wednesday, nearly one century on, Brazil will play their 1000th official game, as recognised by the Brazilian Football Association (CBF). Fielding young stars of the calibre of Neymar and Oscar and established acts such as Kaka, the Brazilians will take on Colombia in the landmark match, to be played in New Jersey, USA - just one indication of how times have changed since that inaugural contest.
Where it all started
Though the shirts the home players wore in that first match did not bear the emblem of the CBF or of its forerunner, the Brazilian Sports Confederation (CBD), the governing body of Brazilian football has always recognised the game as the starting point for its national side.
Prior to that, international matches involving Brazilian teams had only featured regional sides and clubs, with the opposition provided by teams from neighbouring South American countries, Europe and even as far afield as South Africa.
Brazil’s national side was formed following the creation of the Brazilian Sports Federation (FBS) on 8 July 1914, with players drawn from the country’s two biggest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where the game had taken root faster than anywhere else. Featuring in the line-up was one Arthur Friedenreich, considered by many to be the first of the nation’s long line of footballing superstars.
Facing them that day were the professionals of Exeter City, who had been on tour in Argentina. Founded in 1904 and now playing in Football League Two – England’s fourth tier – the southern outfit is famous for producing Cliff Bastin, the striker who made a name for himself with Arsenal in the 1930s and is remembered as one of the Gunners’ finest ever goalscorers.
At the time, and despite their relatively low profile back home, visiting teams like Exeter were given star treatment in Rio de Janeiro and generated a great deal of expectation.
“Thousands of people would wait hours on end outside the Hotel dos Estrangeiros, the swankiest in the city, where the English delegation was staying, in the hope of seeing the British players,” wrote Antonio Carlos Napoleao and Roberto Assad in their official history of A Seleção.
Such was the fuss that surrounded Exeter’s visit that the owner of a bar close to the hotel even auctioned off the chairs, table and glasses used by the players on a brief refreshment stop there. The English side played two friendlies prior to taking on Brazil.
In the first of them they beat a team of Rio-based ex-pats 3-0, before seeing off the Rio state side 5-3 a few days later. Then came the highlight of their trip to Brazil at Fluminense’s home ground, where nearly 5,000 gathered to see A Seleção earn a somewhat surprising 2-0 win.
The first of those goals, and the first of many scored by a side that has posed countless headaches for opposing goalkeepers since then, was converted by Oswaldo Gomes 15 minutes into the game, with Osman completing the scoring a quarter of an hour later.
Coming as it did against a professional team, the result was quite an achievement for Brazil’s amateurs, who showed their fighting qualities in what turned out to be a physical encounter. To prove the point, Friedenreich shook off the loss of two teeth in one full-blooded clash and returned to the field of play after receiving treatment.
A sporting act
Later in the year Brazil made its first international excursion to compete in its maiden competition against neighbours Argentina. The prize at stake for the teams was the Copa Roca, which had been created in a bid to revive sporting links between the two countries and which would mark the start of one of the greatest rivalries in world football.
The teams tuned up for the trophy game with a friendly, which the Argentinians won 3-0. Then on 24 September they met again, this time with silverware at stake. Yet to adopt their distinctive yellow shirts, which they would wear for the first time in 1954, the Brazilians took the lead on 13 minutes. The goalscorer, with a firm shot from outside the area, was the diminutive Rubens Salles, who had missed the first game between the sides and was one of Brazil’s leading players.
Argentina levelled things up in the second half when their forward Leonardi powered the ball into the back of the net. Jogging back to the centre-circle after awarding the goal, the Brazilian referee Alberto Borghert was then approached by the goalscorer, who admitted to controlling the ball with his hand and said the goal should be disallowed.
Congratulated by the official for his honesty, Leonardi was then praised by the Brazilian ambassador in Buenos Aires, Sergio Dantas, who said: “It was such a wonderful gesture that the goal should have counted double.”
Brazil eventually emerged winners and were given a hero’s welcome when they stepped off the boat that took them back to Rio, the first of many, many parties that their football-mad fans would enjoy in the decades to come.