There is a common saying that while the English invented football, it was the Brazilians who perfected it. It’s hard to argue with this, as since the sport arrived on these shores, Brazil have won five World Cups (more than any other country) and their national team has become synonymous with beautiful football.
There is another commonly held belief that it was the English who brought football to Brazil, courtesy of a man named Charles Miller. This is only partially true. First of all, Charles Miller was born in Brazil. Secondly, by the time he returned home to spread the gospel of football, the sport was already here, courtesy of a Scotsman from the south of Glasgow.
The story goes that in 1894, Charles Miller, the son of a Scottish merchant, returned to Brazil after spending ten years at a boarding school in England. During his time there, Charles learned the game of football. According to the legend, Charles Miller stepped off the ship in the port of Santos with a soccer ball under each arm, announcing to his father that he had “graduated in football”. The story is most certainly inaccurate, not least as records show Miller’s father died in Glasgow eight years before.
It is believed the very first games of football on Brazilian soil were in fact played by sailors who organized kickabouts during their stop-offs at the busy ports of Santos, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. The first concrete date for “football” appearing in Brazil is 1880, when students at a college in the state of São Paulo began to play a rudimentary version of the game. They learned the sport from their Jesuit headmaster, Father José Maria Mantero, who had traveled to France to learn new teaching methods and games for his students to play in their free time. Fourteen years ahead of Charles Miller, Mantero returned to Brazil with some leather balls and two sets of uniforms.
In the mid-19th century, the industrial revolution brought many workers and Empire builders from Britain over to the prosperous southeast of Brazil, as was the case with Charles Miller’s family, who left the west of Scotland in search of a better life. Another such immigrant was Thomas Donohoe, a Scottish factory worker who took a job in the Bangu textile factory in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of 1894.
Donohoe, along with the rest of 1890s Glasgow, was football-mad. He could not believe his favorite sport had yet to take off in his new home country. When his wife and children followed him across the Atlantic later that year, he demanded they bring him a football. Donohoe rounded up whoever he could at the factory in order to get two teams together and quench his thirst for the beautiful game.
Though it wasn’t exactly the most organized football match – there were only five players on each team, neither side had their own kits and the pitch was not regulation size – it was the first game to be recorded in Brazil, while Charles Miller was still sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. The sport was a huge success in Bangu and Donohoe continued to organize regular games at the factory until, some years later, with the help of his English coworker Andrew Procter, he founded The Bangu Athletic Club – still one of Rio de Janeiro’s most traditional soccer teams 113 years later. In 2012, Bangu commissioned a local sculptor to make a statue of Thomas Donohoe, which is now displayed outside the old textile factory, proclaiming him to be “The True Father of Brazilian Football”.
However, while the facts show he was not the first to bring football to Brazil, it is very hard to deny the importance of Charles Miller in the spreading of the game across São Paulo and then Brazil as a whole. While Donohoe was just craving a kickabout, Miller wanted to implant football as it was played in England. He wanted to start clubs, associations and tournaments. Eventually, he did just that.
Miller’s first move was to organize the first official football match in Brazil. Official, because unlike Donohoe’s games at the factory in Bangu, it followed the Football Association rule book to the letter. Using his connections in the São Paulo social scene, Miller managed to form two teams of 11 players, provided them with uniforms and gathered them on a field that had been meticulously measured to be the exact size as the pitches he played on in England. On April 14, 1895, São Paulo Railway beat the São Paulo Gas Company by four goals to two, often cited as the first football match played in Brazil.
The game was a complete success and encouraged Charles Miller to approach his sports club, São Paulo Athletic Club (SPAC), and convince them to start their own football team. Its popularity led Mackenzie University to form their own club, making them Brazil’s first club created specifically for soccer. The chain reaction continued and in 1902, the country’s first football competition took place: the São Paulo state championship. Five teams took part, with SPAC crowned champions. The tournament’s top goalscorer was, fittingly, Charles Miller himself, who scored twice in the deciding match against Paulistano.
Brazil’s other principal port cities followed soon afterward. In 1905, the Bahia state championship began in Salvador, while the Rio de Janeiro state championship had its first edition in 1906, all tournaments which have been held consistently to this day.
Charles Miller continued to be an important part of the primordial years of football in Brazil. Most importantly, he was one of the best players and is credited with inventing the trick known today in Brazil as a chaleira, which involves a player using his heel to make a pass while the ball is in the air. “Chaleira” is the Portuguese word for a kettle, but in this context, it is a Brazilianized version of the move’s original name, a Charles.
In São Paulo, Miller’s legacy can be explored at the city’s Football Museum, which is housed inside the beautiful municipal Pacaembu stadium, in front of Charles Miller Square.