Arthur Friedenreich: Brazil’s Supreme Revolutionary

Pele, Garrincha, Jairzinho, Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, and now Neymar – there is a very incomplete yet staggeringly talented list of attacking forwards who have helped lead Brazil to great things. It’s a list that no other nation on Earth can come even close to matching for talent or success, each one (Neymar aside) not only a winner of at least one World Cup but has stamped their authority on a World Cup win.

They also all have one other thing in common – each of them is black. None of this, from the success to the style to simply being black players starring for Brazil, could have happened without the original Brazilian star – Arthur Friedenreich.

The name “Arthur Friedenreich” is quite un-Brazilian – in fact, it’s about as un-Brazilian as you can get. Unsurprisingly, Arthur Friedenreich was the grandson of a German immigrant on his father’s side, but it was that his mother was Afro-Brazilian that would make Arthur one of the most noteworthy players in history.

To truly understand the significance of race in Brazil at the time, a little background is needed. Brazil was, for starters, the last country in the western world to abolish slavery – taking all the way until 1888 to do so. That’s just four years before Arthur Friedenreich was born, for some perspective. Brazil was in a very strange place at the time, run by white people, with almost a forced culture that disregarded the non-European population. This included football, which was very much run in the British way, with British ideals and British attitudes. Importantly, only white people could play.

Black players were eventually “allowed” to play too, for the game had grown to such a popularity that it would be impossible not to. It would take until the 1930’s for Black players to be what could be considered fully integrated and until then the game was rife with racism. The most famous example of a player dealing with racism is that of Carlos Alberto, who on his debut for Fluminense tried to cover up his complexion with rice powder. His sweat would cause the powder to fade, leading to jeers from opposition fans. Fluminense fans throw talcum powder (it’s cheaper than rice powder and they’re not made of money) into the air as a tribute to this day.

It was this attitude that paved the way for Friedenreich to become the first true idol of the Brazilian game. A “mulatto” (an expression meaning biracial that isn’t much used in the English speaking world anymore), Friedenreich was able to somewhat bridge the gap between the two sides of Brazil. While he was white enough to be just about included with one side of the country (he still wouldn’t be allowed to grace the social circles kept by whites), he was also of working-class roots, able to be a hero to the black side of the country.

Not that Friedenreich was completely comfortable with his place. Like Carlos Alberto and his rice powder, the German-Brazilian would have his own way of calming any abuse from the crowds. Friedenreich was born with naturally curly hair, giving away his African roots. He attempted to hide this before games, slicking his hair into a side parting as much as he possibly could in order to look more white.

None of that, however, would matter if Friedenreich wasn’t as good as he was – he was hardly the only “mulatto” to play in Brazil. No, Friedenreich stood out because he was an absolute sensation; he was the original superstar striker of Brazilian football.

Friedenreich fittingly started his career with Germânia in Sao Paolo, a team founded by German immigrants in 1919 and the fourth oldest club in Brazil (the club would change its name to Esporte Clube Pinheiros during World War II in an effort to distance itself from Germany). He would then change clubs virtually every season, playing all over Sao Paolo – the three years spent at São Paulo FC being the longest he would ever hang around.

This really didn’t appear to unsettle his ability to perform. While records from the time have to be taken with at least a pinch of salt, Freidenreich is considered to have scored 1329 goals in 1239 games. By some, at least. Others believe it was actually 1239 in 1329. Does it matter when considering just how good Friedenreich was? No, not really – he scored over 1000 goals and was an absolute phenomenon. Does the second figure conveniently take the number of goals scored under Pele’s 1281? Yes, and we better leave that at that.

Friedenreich won the Sao Paolo state-championship seven times over his career – a hell of a feat considering the wide array of clubs he played for – but his crowning success was the 1919 South American Championship.

Brazil would host the four-team tournament, with Friedenreich opening with a hattrick against Chile in the first game. While he wouldn’t score again until the last game, the goal was an extra-time winner against defending champions Uruguay to win the trophy for Brazil – their very first. Friedenreich was top scorer and awarded player of the tournament.

A superstar goalscorer, International Champion, and racial pioneer, Arthur Friedenreich led a career that paved the way for the legends of the Brazilian game. It may be cliche to say, but perhaps the Brazil of the past 65 years wouldn’t have happened if not for Friedenreich setting a standard and helping to break down barriers. It would be decades until black players would enjoy the same status as whites in the country, but no one is claiming that Arthur Friedenreich solved racism on his own. What he did do, however, was lay foundations that would allow the likes of Pele and Ronaldo to shine. For that, he is surely the most important Brazilian footballer there has ever been.