Creole football, or fútbol criollo, is a term rarely heard in the modern football vernacular, but the importance of Creole football and its historic significance cannot be underestimated. Without it, famous names such as Pele, Maradona and Lionel Messi may never have graced the international stage…
The Name of the Game
“Creole” is a tricky little word with various meanings, but typically refers to a person of European descent – most often Spanish – born in one of the New World colonies. Creole football, however, owes its existence to British immigrants and workers who brought their beloved game to South America in the latter half of the 1800s.
At first, the British maintained an exclusive aloofness when it came to playing their football abroad. The first recorded football match in Argentina took place in 1867; the two teams, the White Caps and the Red Caps, were made up entirely of British merchants. Football arrived in Brazil and Chile during the next two decades, again brought by British railway and dock workers. In Peru, meanwhile, one of the first recorded matches was that of Englishmen vs. Peruvian, a game played in Lima in 1894.
Official football clubs soon developed in South America, with the British remaining in control despite playing on very foreign soil! Many clubs bore English names such as Alumni Athletic Club, Quilmes Athletic Club and Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina, São Paulo Athletic Club and Corinthians in Brazil, and Valparaiso Football Club in Chile. These teams often fielded British players only and, for a while at least, dominated their respective leagues. The inevitable emergence of local teams – “Creole” teams – would soon pave the way for the rise of South American football.
A New Style of Football
Some efforts were made to keep football on a British-dominated pedestal. The fledgling Argentine football association, for example, at first banned the speaking of Spanish during directorial meetings, while the Uruguayan football league outlawed Sunday matches due to the British custom of playing only on Saturdays. The beautiful game, however, could not be contained.
Football spread like a bush fire during the first few decades of the twentieth century. It found a new home among the working classes of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay; it was being played on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and in the dusty streets of Buenos Aires.
In his book Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano speaks of the game’s transition from Old World to New:
“Soccer had made a lovely voyage: first organized in the colleges and universities of England, it brought joy to the lives of South Americans who had never set foot in a school”.
The joy of playing, and the entirely inclusive nature of the game, would prove fundamental in shaping a new style of football. This became the Creole style, a free flowing format that would resonate throughout the following century and define some of the greatest footballers of all time.
Stylistically, strange things were happening to the British game abroad. While the gentlemanly British were priding themselves on discipline, effort and physical power, the Argentines were playing to the rhythm of the tango. The Brazilians, meanwhile, were bringing the beat of samba and the agility of capoeira to the football field.
The Creole style was flourishing and, according to football writer Eduardo Archetti, was about to have a defining moment:
“The emergence of a truly criollo (Creole) foundation began in 1913 when Racing Club, a football association started by Argentinean natives and Italian immigrants, without a single player of British origin, won the first division championship for the first time”.
A key figure for Racing Club was Argentine striker Alberto Ohaco, a man now remembered as one of the greatest Argentine footballers of all time. Ohaco spent his entire career with Racing Club, amassing an incredible 244 goals in 278 appearances.
From Maradona to Messi
Racing Club had literally beaten the British at their own game. Creole football, however, was not going to be just about club level competitions. The first World Cup was played in Uruguay in 1930, with the Uruguayans claiming the cup in an all-South American final (Uruguay beat Argentina 4-2). The team was captained by José Nasazzi Yarza, a man born in Montevideo, Uruguay, to parents of Italian and Spanish descent. Of the 18 subsequent World Cups from 1934 to 2010, Uruguay would claim one more title in 1950, with Argentina winning the World Cup twice (1978 and 1986) and Brazil an impressive five times.
South American football had reached a stage of prominence whereby the term “Creole football” had lost much of its meaning. Countries such as Brazil and Argentina had become powerhouses of international football – they were no longer criollos under British sporting dominance.
Finally, we must NOT forget that Pelé and Maradona showed the world that football could be played with fluidity and freedom, with technique and flair, traits that were born with the Creole football style. This torch burns brightly in modern players such as Lionel Messi and Neymar, two talents set to shine when world football comes back to Brazil later this year.