The English created it and the Brazilians perfected it; but football’s most successful nation may owe a lot of its success to Southampton.
It’s been 118 years since Charles Miller set sail from Britain for a sunnier life in Brazil, carrying with him the hope of spreading the word of football in the land of his birth. Since then, five World Cups and eight Copa Americas as well as Pele, Socrates, Zico, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho (to name but a few) might just deem the mission to be a success. It’s not just that Brazil has been the most successful nation in football history though, but the style and flamboyant nature in which the game has been played brought a revolution of creativity and enjoyment to the pitch, and stood entirely opposite to the efficient and ruthless nature of European football. In Brazil, football is art.
It began though with Charles Miller, popularly recognised as the ‘father of Brazilian football’, who was born to Scottish railway worker John Miller and a Brazilian mother, Carlota Fox in Sao Paulo in 1874. Football, having only been played under common rules in England for just over a decade, had not reached Brazil during Miller’s early years. But at the age of ten, Miller – along with many children of British workers who lived in Brazil – moved back to Britain to attend Banister Court boarding school. His name can be seen on the 1891 census when he was attending the school.
After arriving in Southampton, Miller learned to play cricket (a game often played amongst the British community in Brazil) and football for the first time, showing an exceptional aptitude towards football. During his ten years on the South coast, Miller played with both St. Mary’s FC – which would later become Southampton FC – and Corinthians FC; an amateur development squad based in London. Allegedly, Miller was an all-round athlete and a talented left winger with an eye for goal, and was given the nickname ‘Nipper’, because of his slight size. However, though Miller played for the club which would become the Saints as we know them today, he is rarely remembered as his impact was short lived; having packed up and moved one year before St. Mary’s entered into the English Southern League.
Nevertheless, Southampton was the place he fell in love with football and after finishing school, Miller returned to Brazil in 1894 with two footballs, a set of FA rules and some boots. Alex Bellos, writer of Futebol: the Brazilian way of life, calls Miller’s landing back in the port of Santos ‘year zero’ for Brazilian football and tries to imagine what he must have said to his father upon arriving with only two footballs to show for ten years in Britain:
“What is this Charles?” asked his father, John Miller, who was waiting on the dockside”.
“My degree!” he replied.
“Yes! Your son has graduated in football!”
Shortly after his arrival in Brazil, Miller set about arranging games with friends – though supposedly he had to wait some time before the cricket season ended – as well as playing amongst local British workers in the city. Eventually, these kickabouts became noticed and the game grew in popularity.
Brazilians took to the sport straightaway, though Miller’s games rarely included any of the working class or black Brazilians, often isolated to the white middle class Anglo-Brazilian community. But by the turn of the 20th Century, Miller had set up Brazil’s first football team within Sao Paulo Athletic Club (SPAC) who had played in numerous friendlies against the other emerging football teams around Brazil as well as Exeter City no less, before playing in the first Liga Paulista in 1902, which Miller had been instrumental in organising. At the time, he noted the extraordinary pace with which the sport soared in popularity: “Some 2,000 footballs have been sold here within the last 12 months. Nearly every village has a club.”
Not only did Miller organise both the team and the league, but he played a pivotal role in SPAC winning the first three Brazilian leagues; his experiences playing in Southampton giving him a much superior advantage to the locals. But in 1906, after a terrible season for SPAC, during which Miller played in goal and suffered a 9-1 defeat to rivals Sport Club Internacional of Sao Paulo, the club resigned from the league and Miller left for pastures new.
He kept his close ties with Britain though, with both Southampton and Corinthians visiting his home nation for friendlies. In fact it was after the visit of Corinthians 1910, that Miller suggested the name to a newly formed Sao Paulo based team; a team which still plays in the top division today.
By 1933, Brazilian football had become distinctly professional, allowing the poorer underclasses who were now playing the game to make a living from it. In 1950 Brazil had established itself as a footballing giant, and hosted its first World Cup. Miller, who had been working for a railway company and Royal Mail in his time since leaving football, was given the satisfaction of seeing the result of the immense growth of the sport he had introduce over half a decade ago. Charles Miller died in 1953 at the age of 78, five years before Brazil won its very first World Cup.
It’s hard to believe though that Miller could have known what his time in Southampton and two footballs would create in that country. In fact, despite recent claims that he may not have been the first to stage a football match in Brazil, Miller remains the father of the game in Brazilian eyes and soon after his landing he became a national hero. The Praça Charles Miller can still be found in the centre of Sao Paulo, as Miller’s legacy lives on.