Brazilian-Scottish Miller is a fabled figure in São Paulo, having first taken the organised game to Brazil in the late 19th century
“There seems no end to the hospitality out here. Every day we get some new sight finer than the last while the evenings are a continual round of feasting, drinking and entertainment.” Not, as it turns out, a line home from a member of the English press pack at this World Cup, but instead the opening sentence of the only match report of one of the first international-flavoured football matches played in Brazil, and a peculiarly poignant encounter all round for Anglo-Brazilian sporting relations. England may have been safely lanced from this World Cup, their rattling, juddering, non-start in Manaus, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte now no more than a fading blank in the short-term memory. But there are deeper traces of English football that will always remain here.
The Sportsman newspaper’s report of that 8-1 victory for Corinthians (the English one) against Rio in August 1910, authored “By One Of The Team”, is one of several sheets of newsprint preserved in a downstairs room at the venerable, oak-panelled, only slightly creaky São Paulo Athletic Club (SPAC) in the city’s Higienópolis district.
It is in these pages that a potent figure in the development not just of Brazilian football, but of Brazil itself makes his first appearance in print, cropping up in the following act of English-accented good-sportsmanship. “At the end the referee gave a penalty against Page,” One-of-the-team writes. “Miller, who was captain of our opponents, seeing that the referee was mistaken, was so sporting as to kick the ball gently to our goalkeeper Rogers who cleared.”
Here he is, then: Charles Miller. Preserved in mahogany bust form, the moustachioed but still mischievous founding paterfamilias of Brazilian football has spent the last two weeks peering out at this burnished modern mega-sport – still recognisably the same activity Miller himself imported across the Atlantic 120 years ago – from his private mausoleum in Brazil’s largest city. Miller is a fabled figure here, the English-schooled, Brazilian-Scottish father-mentor-instigator of football in Brazil, who famously set sail from Southampton in 1894 with two leather footballs and a copy of the Hampshire Football Association’s rules of the game. And who from there set up not just the first Brazilian football team but the first organised league, and thereby a grand, glorious, essential sporting future.
Miller’s chief shrine, home to the Sportsman’s reports and his own antique regalia of cups and ribbons and family photos, is in a downstairs room at SPAC, known in Brazil’s busiest and most international city as the English club. It is a lovely, green-tinged rambling old place of verandas and panelled stairwells, with a set of beautifully maintained red clay tennis courts and – something of a mirage in parched Blade Runner-ish São Paulo – a perfectly manicured crown green bowls pitch. This is a private club, its members a mix of Brazilians and the city’s broad expat community. But its roots are distinctly British. At the top of the central staircase is an elegantly staged portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, a quietly maintained shrine to clubbable semi-colonialism in the middle of Brazil’s most furiously exhausting city.
For all the proprietary ties of his founding club Miller remains a much-contested figure. The provenance of such a giddily prized asset as Brazilian football is no small matter, and Brazilians are quick to point out there is evidence that a kind of football was already being played informally when the moustachioed Victorians rocked up with their rules, their measuring sticks and their sense of rigorously defined fair play.
Plus of course Miller was in effect coming home anyway having been born in São Paulo to émigré Scottish and Anglo-Brazilian parents. It is a nicely apt part of his story, with a temptation to imagine Miller already carrying the dormant Brazilian football bug even before becoming obsessed with the sport while being educated in England and returning on his steamship a full-blown carrier of the virus that would subsequently spread right across his home continent.
Chief among the accumulated silverware of Miller’s shrines is Brazilian football’s own goblet of fire, the inaugural São Paulo state champion trophy, the first ever football copa awarded in this copa-obsessed nation. If Brazilian football has a grail this is perhaps it, although watching Ricardo Amirato, the club’s charming and garrulous director of sport, reach in and prize it out of its perspex case it is tempting to wonder if perhaps this original Miller artefact might deserve a little more ceremony (or a slightly taller ladder). The 19th-century trophy, engraved in English, is a reminder in itself of the deep, pregnant bond between Brazil and Britain, a finely wrought thing, not immediately obvious from the outside but still there from the maritime ties between the Portuguese and British during the Napoleonic wars, to the 19th-century influx of British engineers employed to produce an imitation of the Scottish railway system for a cartel of progressive São Paulo noblemen.
As the city began to teem with overseas workers – the photos of Miller’s own stern-faced São Paulo family picnics could have been posed on a rug in Kew Gardens – SPAC was one of many social organisations to mushroom up, founded in 1888 by a group of Brits in a bar on the São Bento Road. The club held bicycle races and played cricket against teams from Rio and the River Plate. And six years later Miller himself, described on his departure in the minutes of the Hampshire County FA as “a clever little left winger”, duly returned to São Paulo to kickstart a cultural phenomenon.
Over the years that followed what began as a curiosity in the city, that group of hair-oiled Englishmen performing a bafflingly rigid activity in the public parks, grew into a formal league, with German ex-pats and Brazilians from the curious merchant classes quickly integrated. The league became a city and then state championship, with players and crowds from all classes drawn to this new entertainment. A visiting English coach, Jack Hamilton, returned in 1907 with tales already of compelling skills among the local players (“their combination play is really quite clever”).
And the rest is football history, from the first great Brazil team of Leônidas da Silva, top scorer at the 1938 World Cup, to the brittle new dawn of 1950. And from there the outright ascent of full-blown Pelé-ism, and a nation that has in many ways defined itself with the help of football, not just a gauge of progress against the world, but a force for cohesion across a geographical space large enough to fit Australia, England and France inside, and peopled by a genuinely diverse ethnic mix.
Looking around the shrine to Miller now in the elegantly weathered grounds of São Paulo’s original sporting club, it is notable how distant all this feels now. All that remains are those photos of Corinthians’ opaque travelling Victorians, that faint but discernible whiff of Anglo-Brazilian sporting fraternity, and outside beyond these walls the bafflingly vast spectacle of Brazil 2014, monstrously irradiated great-great-grandchild of Charles Miller’s founding zeal.