Association football has produced swathes of unpredictable moments over its 154-year history. From Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2015/2016 despite barely staving off relegation the season prior, to Arsenal not reaching 4th place this season, to an unknown 17-year old named Pele who introduced himself in the 1958 World Cup, and to everyone’s surprise becoming the most iconic player of all time, there have been countless other unpredictable moments. One of the most unpredictable yet significant events to have happened however, was the impact that a sprightly young man named Charles William Miller made in 1898 on world football for decades to come. It is with this man, the son of a Scottish expatriate, born in Brazil and educated in Southampton, that the origins of Brazilian football lie, as Miller was to become one of Britain’s finest exporters of the Beautiful Game.
Brazilian football. The very sound of it inspires an image of unseen artistry and astounding skill whilst painting a picture of players with unstoppable fluidity and unattainable finesse. The thought of Brazilian football provokes a mental photo reel of legendary players and their legendary achievements, and with good reason. Brazil has arguably achieved more in the footballing sphere than any other nation. With a world record of five World Cup victories, they are the only country to have played in every tournament.
Producing players such as Pele, who is widely regarded as the greatest player of all time, Brazil is regarded as an unstoppable force when it comes to football. The late Carlos Alberto Torres- once considered one of Brazil’s, and by default, the world’s best defenders- famously compared football in Brazil to a religion, and he could not have been more accurate. Brazil’s international domination of the sport does not stem individually from the sporting talent of its players, but from a holistic national attitude towards the sport. The obsession with football in Brazil is a way in which Brazilians express their nationality, power and character in a world where nations measure supremacy by military influence and wealth. It is a way that South America relates to the rest of the world. It is their national identity.
In order to fully understand the depths of the Brazilian connection to football, you would have to delve into the origins of football in South America. Miller is widely known for having been the exporter of football to Brazil and as the legend says, returned to Brazil from England with a football, a copy of the FA rules and his love for the game. Unbeknownst to him, he was actually taking part in what was to be known as the establishment of Britain’s informal empire. During the height of this empire, where British influence spanned further than their commercial control and bled into the depths of culture and society, Brazil experienced what historian David Goldblatt characterised as a “great wave of Anglophilia, (where) to embrace England and Englishness was to embrace sport”.
Miller’s feat in encouraging the growth of Brazilian football was significantly influenced by the British Empire’s efforts to export British culture at the time. The British Empire enjoyed another ‘Golden Age’ from a period of 1880-1914 – right when Miller was schooled in Southampton’s Bannister Court School. During this period, imperial content was actively encouraged by the Victorian elite to be included within school curriculum, particularly within public and grammar schools. There was an increase in imperial content within history textbooks in the second half of the nineteenth century, with a clear bias towards the Empire rather than printing objective history and including critiques of empire. Miller himself would have undoubtedly been influenced by these teachings in his formative years as a young boy in ‘training’ to become a citizen of the British Empire.
Furthermore, his time in Southampton also influenced his love of football. In accordance with the Imperial content found within the curriculum, team sports were also encouraged by grammar and public school masters, as they believed that it had a transformative effect on the youth’s character as a means of social control and cohesion, and promotion of the collective over the individual. In Josh Lacey’s biography of Miller, God is Brazilian, Lacey recounts that Miller did little else but played sports such as cricket and football during his youth, even going on to play for St Mary’s FC, (now the Premier League’s Southampton FC), and Marylebone Cricket Club. At the time, these sports were quintessentially a product of British culture. Miller’s role in introducing football in another foreign dominion therefore, could be considered to be an act of spreading ‘cultural imperialism’ to Brazil.
Miller, according to his account in Aidan Hamilton’s “An Entirely Different Game”, took his friends to a nearby patch of wasteland near a railway station, divided them into two teams and explained the rules.
“How do you play this game?” some of them asked.
“Which ball are we going to play with?” enquired others.
“I’ve got the ball. We just need to fill it,” answered Miller.
“Fill it with what?” they asked.
“With air,” retorted Charles.
“Then you go and fetch it, and I’ll fill it,” someone replied.
In this way, Miller’s introduction to Brazil of the formal rules of the game brought from Southampton, and his involvement in organising the league made him one of numerous cultural imperialists aiding the all-encompassing informal empire that grew in Brazil during the late 1800s.
Christopher Thomas Gaffney, an author on Brazilian culture and history describes how despite Miller’s role in diffusing British football across Brazil , which was initially only played by the elite, a social transformation took place whereby a nationalist sentiment was soon associated with the game.
“British soccer pioneers unwittingly created a way for communities to oppose their neighbours and colonial powers.”
He goes on to explain how Brazilians soon stepped out of their “subaltern” position under the British, as football was made accessible to be enjoyed by the greater population under a nationalist banner. From this we can see that although Miller, as an agent of imperialism, brought “British Football” to Brazil, what is left today in this vast country is what Hamilton describes as “National Football”. Charles William Miller is largely unappreciated for his role in gifting Brazil with a game they so treasure, and has made only sporadic appearances in books and articles, most popularly around the time of the 2014 Rio World Cup. Although a mural commemorating Miller is placed outside St. Mary’s stadium, it’s worth mentioning that from a survey of over 50 Southampton FC fans, 80% knew nothing of Miller, or his work in Brazil. Despite this, many of the Club’s older fans, as well as historians and writers such as Josh Lacey, (author of God is Brazilian), Alex Bellos, (author of Futebol – A Brazilian Way of Life), and Aidan Hamilton, (author of An Entirely Different Game), are committed to reviving his memory and giving him the commemoration he deserves, not just in Brazil, but in Southampton where he fell in love with the game.
Miller’s contributions to the international wonder of football are unparalleled and should be celebrated with all the enthusiasm with which we would praise former Saints player Matthew Le Tissier in Southampton. Producing more articles and books about him, maintaining his mural and in future possibly exploring other avenues for memorialisation such as constructing a statue in his honour are all part of how Miller could be remembered.
Due to the work of Miller, Brazilians have made the game their own, with their unique blend of creativity and natural instinct that they inspire and instil in each generation of players. The phenomenon of the Brazilian’s unrivalled footballing success and natural flair for the sport is embedded in the tale of one boy’s passion for football, learned in Southampton – blossoming into the obsession of 200 million Brazilians.
Credit: Abi Toha, Miniver Mortimer, Erin Mooney, Jordan Block, Philip Bettles, and Patrick Kennedy ( Based on the research of Group 13: University of Southampton Group History Project)