SAO PAULO (AP) — The World Cup unfolding on your screens owes a debt of gratitude to a man with a mighty handlebar mustache.
Charles Miller stepped off a boat from England 120 years ago carrying two footballs, a pump to fill them, his football boots and a rulebook. From such unassuming beginnings, a nation-changing passion for futebol was planted.
Understandably, the great footballing history Brazil has since written for itself is celebrated and remembered far more than the British-educated pioneer whose Scottish expatriate father married a Brazilian.
But Miller isn’t totally forgotten. A square bears his name in Sao Paulo, which hosted the inaugural game of this World Cup. A hawker selling buttercup-yellow Brazil jerseys from the trunk of his car there didn’t hesitate when asked who Miller was.
“The guy who brought football to Brazil,” he responded without interrupting his brisk trade.
The largest megacity in the southern hemisphere was a more unassuming place of some 300,000 people, many of them immigrants from Italy, when Miller knew it.
Popular sports were cricket, gymnastics, cycling, rowing and a form of squash. English sailors who docked in Rio de Janeiro, pupils schooled by Jesuit priests, and British laborers who came to Brazil for factory and railway work also kicked around balls before Miller returned to Sao Paulo, his birthplace in 1874, from schooling in England.
But Miller is hailed as the forefather of Brazilian football because he is credited for organizing the first proper match using the common set of rules first drawn up in a London tavern in 1863.
That game on April 14, 1895, was played between teams formed of railway and gas company workers. Having first shooed oxen off the field, Miller’s Sao Paulo Railway team beat the Gas Company 4-2.
Initially, some Brazilians were stupefied.
In his biography of Miller, British author John Mills dug up a letter from a Sao Paulo journalist recounting to a Rio colleague that “mad as hatters” British sportsmen were getting together on weekends “to kick something around that looked like an oxen’s bladder, which gave them great satisfaction and displeasure when this kind of yellowish bladder got into a rectangle formed by posts.”
But it caught like wildfire.
Within a decade, Miller was telling friends back in England that Sao Paulo alone already had at least 60 clubs and crowds of several thousand for games in the city’s first league, which he helped found in 1901.
Sao Paulo’s football museum on Charles Miller Square has a photo of him sitting with teammates, a heavy leather ball between his crossed legs and a huge mustache hiding his top lip.
Museum director Daniela Alfonsi says one of the questions she gets most frequently is why football put down such deep and fruitful roots in Brazil. British empire builders traveled the globe, colonizing places like India, Australia and New Zealand. But none of those countries produced a Pele, won five World Cups or became football-obsessed like Brazil.
“I always say that there is no one answer,” Alfonsi said.
“It’s one of those miracles,” Mills said in a telephone interview. “Here he (Miller) just found the perfect place to plant the seed.”
Football’s simplicity is a big reason. Rolled up socks or paper can make a ball, anywhere flat can be the field.
“You don’t have to use shoes, you don’t have to use the official ball,” Alfonsi noted.
It also caught on as popular entertainment, cheaper than the theater. In his history of Brazilian football, author David Goldblatt records that by 1919, the Rio derby of Fluminense against Flamengo was drawing 18,000 “torcidas,” the newly coined word for Brazilian fans, with another 5,000 locked outside the stadium without tickets.
Football also has long been a social elevator out of poverty for players good enough to command wages. The sport is also a melting pot and shared rallying point for Brazil’s mix of races. Vasco da Gama won the Rio league, played the best football and drew the biggest crowds in 1923 with a team whose four stars were black, Goldblatt notes.
Success in soccer helped carve out Brazil’s place in the world and firmed up Brazilians’ confidence in themselves and their nation.
“Football was the first battle that the Brazil people entered and won,” said Alfonsi. “We transformed football into another thing, the Brazilian way.”
Mills thinks Miller, who died in 1953, would be “filled with wonder” but perhaps also somewhat appalled if he was still alive for this World Cup.
“He would marvel at the art and style of the Brazilian players,” he said. “But not at FIFA and the spending of hundreds of millions. He would be flabbergasted at that.”
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him on Twitter (at)johnleicester