Interviews March 15, 2024

The History of Modern Sports in South America: An Interview with Matthew Brown

Two balls were brought onto the pitch in the first soccer World Cup Final, held in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1930. The two teams, Argentina, and Uruguay had been unable to agree on which ball to use. Both were made of leather: one was slightly bigger than the other and manufactured in England; the other a little heavier and made in Scotland. The Belgian referee tossed a coin, and the game began with the Argentinian’s ball. The hosts won the match 4-2 and with it the title of the first World Champions.

Matthew Brown, Sports in South America.

In addition to this moment as the starting point of the FIFA World Cup’s trajectory in becoming the most widely viewed sporting event in the world, to historian Matthew Brown, it is the culmination of a long story that begins around the mid-19th century with the diffusion and development of modern sports in the South American continent. Brown is a Professor of Latin American History at the University of Bristol, and his latest work is Sports in South America (Yale University Press: 2023), a comprehensive examination of the sporting cultures in the South American republics from the 1860s until the 1930s, an extraordinary story that explores intertwined histories of sports, globalisation, politics and culture. While conventional narratives have focused on British pioneers as the great ones responsible for introducing organised sports to the region and on football as the preeminent sport in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Brown expands on these previous trends. He shows how indigenous and colonial sporting cultures existed long before the influence of the British informal empire and provided the foundation for South American countries' global recognition as soccer strongholds. In a period marked by the obsession with the idea of ‘progress’, South American elites saw the institutionalisation of modern sports as an opportunity to claim their place among the ‘civilised nations’. Thus, Sports in South America significantly contributes to the field by addressing the relevance of sporting cultures in constructing national identities and political discourse in the region. According to Brown, such research has been an adventure that implied several years of archive travel and immersion in South America's sporting landscapes and experiences, as he notes in the introduction of his work, “engaging with contemporary sporting environments, whether spectating, walking or playing, has contributed a hard-to-quantify element to the book” (Brown, 15).

Salvador Lima (European University Institute)

SL: I was fascinated by the introduction, especially the way you delved into the making of the book, including your travels in South America and your personal experiences with sports and football clubs around the continent. Could you tell us more about the research process?

MB: I had initially thought about writing one article on a revisionist global history of the role of Britain in the origins of association football in South America—the “fathers of football”, Alexander Watson Hutton, Charles Miller, these guys. According to popular tradition and shared knowledge, these British pioneers were the factotum of the development of modern sports in South America. However, this literature is mainly built on the testimonies and newspapers of the British communities in South American towns. Contemporary British writers said they were essential to the diffusion and progress of football, athletics, rugby, fencing, etc. Then, you looked at the details, and it turned out they were not that important, but they were often involved in writing the history themselves. That’s the case for the first accounts of the matches in São Paulo and Buenos Aires. The British sportsmen organised the games, played them, wrote up the articles, and published them in English newspapers. They were the protagonists and the historians at the same time. I kind of instinctively thought there had to be other sources.

At first, I aimed to write a history of football, but it turned out that football was one of the latest sports to arrive. Before the popularity of European sports, people in South America had their games, a mixture of Indigenous and Iberian leisure activities, which are often not categorised as sports because they do not adapt well to the modern notion of sport brought about by the British education system. Once I started the research, I realised that football was the least exciting part of the story. Animal sports -like cockfighting, bullfighting, and horse-racing-and other activities like rowing, athletics and cycling all predated football.  In a way, my original project evolved in this direction. I was interested in how football became South America's biggest game and cannibalised these pre-existing sporting cultures. What happened was that between the 1920s and the 1930s, governments, municipalities, and local elites discovered the representative power of football: eleven men on the pitch wearing the colours and fighting for a community with strong ties, whether it be class or ethnic identity, a neighbourhood, a city, or even a country.  


SL: What were the specific challenges of doing this research in South American archives?

MB: I had done the bulk of my research and writing for this book analogously before the digitisation of newspapers in most South American countries started to take shape. When I began the research around 2012, I was going to physical archives. Then, archives and institutions in Chile, Colombia, and Brazil started to share their digitised newspapers, but this was not a general trend on the continent. I kept trying to find sports clubs with well-preserved archives, and until very close to the end of the research phase, I thought I might have six or seven chapters around individual clubs, which I would use to tell these global stories. However, I found none. Even when I saw a club with an archive, they would not let me work as needed because of scheduling issues or because I was not a member. Many archives of sporting institutions have been destroyed or are fragmentary because they did not have the resources to maintain them. On the other hand, some institutions that are wealthier sporting clubs today with global brands are more protective of their reputation and archives.

Another factor is that I was based in the United Kingdom, making trips at different times of the year. If that was not necessarily convenient for the people who held the archives, I could still access a lot of funds to travel and do my research. Studying transcontinental South American history is much more difficult for a scholar in Buenos Aires or Santiago. They operate within funding and teaching environments that are always national. Being an outsider, I could bring a transnational perspective. Argentinian sociologist Pablo Alabarces told me once that Sports in South America is the kind of book that only somebody who is not from the region could write.


SL: The book deals with various sporting cultures and competitions, but football is inevitably the grand protagonist. Around the interwar period, we start to see the evolution of football across the continent, from a latecomer sport to the dominant game in South America. How would you explain that success?

MB: The most important reason was that the people who played it found it fun and meaningful to them. It is a popularity recognised and encouraged by governments, business managers, community leaders, etc. What is unique about football, I think, is captured by the words of Mexican writer Juan Villoro, and I paraphrase it: it is the sport that allows the freest expression of humanity within the limits of a pitch and ninety minutes of playing time. Anyone can practice it; it does not need many materials and can be packaged and spread through a globalised communications network. It is fantastic for spectators because it takes place in a short enough time for you to be able to work all day and then play or watch it. You can play football anywhere; you need nothing more than a ball and some improvised posts.

Football also became popular because of the urban development of South America at the turn of the twentieth century. All these people moved to the cities in the 1890s and early 1900s from the countryside and European countries, especially Italy, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom. It is no coincidence that immigration, urbanisation, and the arrival of association football occurred simultaneously.

I also have another theory about why football in South America surpassed any other British sport in popularity. I have compared it with rugby, given that many of my students at Bristol are really into rugby. Both sports developed and became popular in the late nineteenth century, an age of racism and eugenics, when elites were concerned about what kind of physical contact these games allowed and promoted. Football is a contact sport, but there are strict limits on how much violence can be used. So, just enough for it to be rough and good to watch, but not too much so that you must put your arms around someone physically different. That is why there were no multi-ethnic rugby teams in settler colonies like Australia, South Africa, or New Zealand. Because of its rules and game style, rugby works well where people feel comfortable with that close level of bodily contact. In multi-ethnic societies, like most of South America, rugby was just a step too far. Instead, with its controlled degree of physical contact, football generates fewer concerns and becomes much more popular. All the South American football federations put a lot of effort into controlling and limiting the violence in the football rules and became very influential in FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association).


SL: On the subject of violence in sports, you cite Norbert Elias’s thesis on the origins of sports in the book. In The Quest for Excitement: Sports and Leisure in the Civilization Process (1986), Elias and Eric Dunning define sport as a product and a catalyst of the civilisation process, in which societies moved from violence to self-control. According to this thesis, modern sports came to be among European nobilities of the 18th century, whose lives moved to a more controlled and less violent way of doing politics. How is this related to South American liberal elites of the late 19th century?

MB: Sociologists and historians in South America found a lot to like about Elias because most South American liberals and nation-builders of the late 19th held concerns about how to civilise their countries and end chronic violence and civil war. Domingo Sarmiento, an Argentinian intellectual and statesman, simplified the drama of his generation in terms of Civilización y Barbarie, whether Argentina would adopt the European ways and become a civilised society or keep the Spanish-Indigenous barbarism. In retrospect, Sarmiento’s tenets were not that far from Elias talking about the civilisation process. South American liberal elites were keen to delineate peoples, to draw lines between “us and them”. To be civilised in this model was to do European things, like practising football, tennis, rugby, cycling, golf, and so on. They could endorse the spread of sports in schools and clubs, but they could not control their popularity across class and ethnic lines. So, by the early 20th century, liberal elites would retreat their leisure time to country clubs with exclusive memberships and less popular sports, like riding, tennis, fencing, golf, and rugby. The high class did not want to engage in football games with people from working-class neighbourhoods or shantytowns.

Matthew Brown, author of Sports in South America: A History

SL: What was the relationship between the emergence of the Nation-state in South America and the diffusion of modern British-like sports?

MB: I would say that there are four key strands to that relationship at the end of the 19th century. First, this period of expansion and globalisation of modern sports was a period of international peace in South America. At the same time, European news spoke of colonial conquest and the threat of war. So, there was a sense of apprehension among South American elites; they had to educate their citizens and shape male bodies in preparation for war. To this matter, the memory of the regional conflicts, such as the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) and the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), was still alive. This contributed to the desire to formalise physical education. Argentine governments led this effort in the region, advocating for comprehensive public education and organising the Pedagogic Congress 1882 in Buenos Aires. This event brought experts from Europe together and developed guidelines that other countries without the same resources, like Ecuador or Peru, tried to adopt. For instance, the Peruvians would discuss the appropriateness of some sports or different for people who live at sea level and others who live at altitude. Those international conferences were possible thanks to the technological advances in communications. The rise of steamships, telegraphs, printing presses and photography meant that, for the first time, the movements of human bodies in an artistic sense could be captured and circulated very quickly. That is why we find, from the 1910s, the immense popularity of illustrated magazines that cover sports competitions, like Caras y Caretas and El Gráfico in Argentina and Zigzag in Chile. These publications had excellent writers and journalists, but they were visually driven. The front covers were heavily designed, and the colours were intense. They created images of sporting ideals, associating them with the nation's virtues. In the front covers of El Grafico, you can see a natural transition away from athletes dressed in white vests or plain colours towards those representing the national colours through the 1920s and 1930s.

The research on these sources demonstrates that South American states pioneered using sport for national ends before the British. In 1910, Argentina organised the Centennial Cup, the first international competition in South America, where more than two football nations participated. It was contested between the national teams of Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. Again, in 1916, Argentina held the first South American Championship, played by Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil, to celebrate the centennial of its Declaration of Independence. The success of this tournament encouraged the football associations of these countries to found CONMEBOL (South American Football Association). Following the Argentinian example, Brazil organised the Latin American Olympics in 1922 to celebrate its Centennial of Independence. Uruguay organised the first World Culp of 1930 in its Centennial of Independence. So, there were much more flag waving, national colours, and games between rival countries in South America than in Europe. FIFA was created in 1904, but until 1930, its main international event was the football competition in the Olympic Games, and UEFA (Union Européenne de Football Association) took off only in 1954. South American leaders were two generations ahead in recognising that these activities were popular and had the potential to be exploited for social, political, cultural, and economic ends.


SL: Your book also addresses the history of the amateur ethos, a chivalric understanding of what being a good sportsman was supposed to be. This ethos was shaped by concepts such as fair play, self-control, discipline, team spirit, and respect for the rules. This ensemble reminds us of a British “middle-class ideology” of the late 19th century that could be found in other aspects of modern industrialised society. If South American elites imported this amateur ethos into the development of their sporting cultures, do you think this can be related to a form of informal British imperialism? 

MB: I think it manifests the consequences of the British informal empire. The concepts you mentioned are British words of the late 19th century. Take fair play, for example. It may be a pure English code, but it does not mean that before it was globalised. Did South Americans have no social concept of honour? They did; they just used different words to talk about it. The Spanish bullfighter’s culture was all about honour and chivalry. These previous codes were translated into the British fair play, and South Americans held their forms of practising it. Take, for instance, the Mano de Dios, the goal scored by Diego Maradona with his hand during the quarter-final match of the 1986 World Cup between Argentina and England. What is so beautiful about that moment is that Maradona went against the British sense of fair play. It was not a dishonourable action at all, considered within its context. The Mano de Dios was proof that there are two different understandings of what it means to play fair and to be a good sportsman.

The other manifestation of Britishness in sports is its use as a mechanism to control bodies and enforce time discipline, which were critical concepts to the British industrial society of the late 19th century. What is being imposed by football is a sense of discipline and fair play, which came out of the Industrial Revolution and new urban societies in the late 19th century. However, the arrival and evolution of sports were not clear-cut manifestations of British soft power. British cultural influence was more potent in some areas of the continent than others. Some pioneers may have consciously tried to assert British power, yet sport was not an overriding philosophy of informal imperialism. We really find a strong belief in British superiority in these men's biographies. Men like Alexander Watson Hutton, in Argentina businessman and teacher, or Charles Miller, in Brazil, who worked for the post office, supported British sporting culture not to endorse British power but because they were confident these games would improve individuals and South American races. To see them as exclusively British is a common mistake. Miller was born in Sao Paulo, and his mother was Brazilian. He has transcended history as a British gentleman, partly because the dominant narrative wanted to see British pioneers arriving, sharing, and teaching. Other communities, such as Germans, Italians, French, and Spanish, also participated in sports development, and the Creole, Mestizos, and people of African heritage were there throughout the process. We must not forget that places like Valparaiso, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo were very cosmopolitan, and football clubs included players from different ethnic origins. This was one of the crucial reasons for its popularity, as it provided a non-political, non-religious arena where people could come together to do fun things.


SL: You previously mentioned the connection between industrialisation, urbanisation, and modern sports. What was the role of the railroad? 

MB: The arrival of railways was a crucial transformation of South American republics, especially in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is interesting to compare the number of football clubs in a country with kilometres of railways being built. The period saw a lot of teams created around train stations or railway workers, like Peñarol, in Uruguay, one of the first great South American Champions. The railway also allowed the creation of more significant competitions, connecting teams of amateur players that otherwise could not have moved from one city to another to play. The same goes for steamboats travelling across the River Plate and the Atlantic, which allowed institutions to organise sporting events between teams and athletes from Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. The transport revolution also brought benefits to the crowds that followed their teams. The extension of tramway systems in big cities and the railroad connections allowed fans to attend away matches and come home the same day. This is what gives sports an extra level of importance for people's identities and sense of self. Fans travelled to other districts and penetrated an opposing territory to support their colours.

It is important to remember that national leagues in South America did not develop meaningfully until the second half of the 20th century. The vast and scarcely populated extensions of these countries’ territories were difficult for the football organisers to overcome. The Argentinian league was born mainly as a product of Buenos Aires, with some exceptions where there were connecting train lines to Rosario and Santa Fe, for example.  The same happened in Chile, where there was an intense rivalry between the leagues and organisations based in Valparaiso and Santiago. There was even institutional factionalism about which federations would represent Chilean football in international championships, to the point that Chile sent two different football teams to the Olympics of the 1920s.

Then you have these essential splits between professional and amateur sports, one of the main concerns of much of their historiography. The question was what it meant to be paid to perform as a sportsman. This issue divided most sporting institutions and the press. The concern with sport being something for amateurs was the apprehension of the British middle-class and upper class, later adopted by Charles Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, the founder of modern Olympism. Coubertin was an enlightened aristocrat and a scholar from Sciences Po who saw amateur sports as a tool to promote understanding between countries, thereby lessening the dangers of war. His amateur ideal for athletic competition implied that the competition itself was more important than winning. Way into the 20th century, the amateur-driven Olympic movement ended up creating all sorts of messy and ugly forms of discrimination and marginalisation against professional sportsmen, many of them coming from working-class origins.


SL: The last chapter of the book addresses the efforts of South American sports institutions to put the region into the international arena through the organisation of grand events. As you said before, there was a convergence between building national memories and football's increasing popularity. Your book certainly gives full credit to South American football for organising the first World Cup.

MB: The 1930 FIFA World Cup was possible thanks to the intervention of football officials from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru, who supported the Uruguayan initiative to host the first Coupe du Monde. It is not just me, though. Stefan Rinke of the Free University of Berlin has addressed the same argument in his works. South American football and state authorities practised a strong level of diplomacy to demonstrate actively that this was a region that, by its involvement in European sports, was part of the modern world. Uruguay won the gold medal at the football competitions of the 1924 Olympics in Paris and the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. In the latter, they beat Argentina in the final match. So, Uruguay had an excellent claim to organise the first World Cup. As Argentina and Brazil did before, in 1910, 1916 and 1922, Uruguay used the political commemoration of independence to give meaning to the sporting event. It was also a reason to initiate the building of grand infrastructure projects. The whole sporting arena around the Centenario Stadium in Montevideo is still there. It has a velodrome, an athletics track, and parks for people to walk and enjoy the city. These services were all enabled by the hosting of the FIFA World Cup.

There were conscious efforts by South American citizens, sporting administrators, and government officials to use sports for soft power projection. I have worked for a long time on the wars of independence in South America, and one of the reasons why I moved away from that topic to sports history is that I had enough of Bicentennial events and politicians talking about the héroes de la patria. I thought I needed to do something else. Ironically, when I looked at the sport's history, I found politicians and ideologues doing the same thing: using the sport for political or nationalistic goals. It is a relatively safe way of bringing people together to do something peaceful and to build the national community. That is probably why sports are still important today. Despite all the neo-colonialism surrounding the Premier League clubs -that buy South American players when they are sixteen- sport is still vital to ordinary people because it is fun. It gives you something to order your way of thinking about your position in the world. On a grassroots level, it brings people together, so it is something worth protecting.


SL: To conclude, what new lines of research do you think the book opens for yourself and other researchers?

MB: I hope that the book provides a kind of foundation for a lot of new different ways of thinking, particularly for researchers working in South America. I did not plan it in terms of a chapter on each country (that kind of thing never works). Still, it tries to tell a common story so that people working in different local environments can situate their stories within the more extensive patterns. There is a new network of sports historians in Latin America called REHDAL (Red de Estudios Históricos del Deporte en América Latina), which has been ongoing for a few years. I hope my book is a contribution to that community. 

Secondly, I hope that the book opens the field of sports history to be more inclusive of Indigenous games, which still to this day are excluded mainly as being pre-modern and pre-industrial and having nothing to do with the British, so they are not regarded as proper sports. The definition of sports we use needs to be broader to include those things. The traditional discrimination has been that to be a sport, it must have written rules. But if, as a historian, you are working with Indigenous societies that did not have written codes, then you will exclude their leisure physical activities from the category of sport, which is ridiculous.

The third line of research I hope to encourage with the book is the women’s experience with sports. Undoubtedly, there have been many unique works on women's sports in Latin America recently. I did not write a single chapter on women, but I have incorporated the theme of gender into every chapter of the book. Modern sports have been a means used by the national states of the early 20th century to control the bodies of their people and to create citizens according to the specific masculine and feminine values of the time. I hope people in this field will adopt or expand such an approach.

Regarding my future research, after finishing this book, I started to focus my work on one of the remarkable individuals I wrote about, Lillian Harrison, an Anglo-Argentinian woman who was the first to swim across the River Plate in 1923. I have worked closely with Pablo Scharagrodsky, a historian of physical education at the University of La Plata in Argentina, and together, we have written a book about her. We drew on her family's archive, which they generously opened to us, and it had telegrams, photographs, and all sorts of personal documentation.  What we tried is to write a global history of her own experience through the 1920s. The book is coming out next year in Spanish with the Prometeo publishing house; hopefully, we will translate that into English later. Sports in South America is having its Portuguese translation soon with Ludopédio, a fantastic sports publisher, and I will sort out a Spanish translation soon. The problem of having different audiences and languages involved is one of the eternal difficulties of working in global history. I teach and write in English, but my subject matter is Spanish or Portuguese, and most potential readers are Latin Americans. We are still trying to do everything in every language.


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