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Isabelino Gradín and Juan Delgado: Football’s first black heroes

105 years ago today was a very special day in football history.

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Isabelino Gradín (left) and Juan Delgado (right).
@africasacountry on Twitter

On July 2, 1916, Isabelino Gradín, descendants of slaves from Lesotho, and Juan Delgado became the first black footballers to play for a national team at an international tournament in the world’s most popular sport.

They proudly represented Uruguay at the 1916 Copa América tournament in Argentina, which happened to be the first edition of the world’s oldest official international football tournament. (Interesting trivia: Argentina organized the first Copa América to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its independence.)

I wrote about the significance of Gradín and Delgado’s heroic achievements in You Say Soccer, I Say Football. To honor their legacy and celebrate this special anniversary, I’m sharing this (lightly-edited) excerpt from my book about the story of football’s first black heroes.

Chile faced Uruguay in the opening game of the 1916 Copa América tournament. The Uruguayans ran rings around their opponents and won 4-0 thanks to two goals each from José Piendibene and Isabelino Gradín. Gradín, the descendant of slaves from Lesotho, was the star of the game and ended the tournament as top scorer with three goals in three games.

He and his teammate Juan Delgado were the only two black players on the Uruguayan team. In fact, according to Uruguayan writer, journalist, and literary genius Eduardo Galeano “back then, Uruguay was the only country in the world with black players on its national team.”

Perhaps this remarkable achievement explains the even more remarkable series of events that followed the game. With no evidence to back their claims, the Chilean media made the extraordinary accusation that Gradín and Delgado weren’t Uruguayan but were actually African professionals. The story attracted so much attention that the president of the governing body of Chilean football sent a telegram to his country’s delegation in Argentina demanding a formal complaint if the allegations were true.

After a heated back-and-forth between Uruguayan and Chilean officials, the Chilean delegation finally backed down, apologized to the Uruguayans, and sent a letter to their counterparts stating their extreme pleasure with the “gentlemanly attitude of the Uruguayans, who played the game fairly, winning because of their evident superiority.” While this fascinating piece of history makes for a fun story to tell, it contains important lessons about the relationship between race, racism, and football.

For example, even though Uruguay was the first country in the world to field black footballers and the first in South America to establish a welfare state (thus showing how it was a pioneer in social progressivity and racial inclusivity) black Uruguayans weren’t accepted with the same enthusiasm outside of football by what was a very homogenous, white country.

Despite their important contributions to the country’s history, black and indigenous Uruguayans were, as George Reid Andrews described it in his book Blackness in the White Nation: a History of Afro-Uruguay, reduced to “servility and deference.”

In fact, in the year that Delgado made his debut for Uruguay, an important geography textbook proudly proclaimed that Uruguay consisted of “all of the white race… one must emphasize that in our country there are no Indians and very few blacks… only Argentina has a race as select as ours.” Moreover, even though he was incredibly popular and successful, Gradín’s nickname was still, condescendingly, “the black man with the white soul.”

“Stripped of their blackness, Afro-Uruguayans were encouraged to forget the everyday cultural racism that had continuously left them on the margins of society. Despite starring above all on the football pitch, Afro-Uruguayan footballers maintained the roles of servants and entertainers, rather than citizens.”

—From the article African professionals? Uruguay’s Black stars of the 1916 Copa America

Make no mistake about it though: Gradín and Delgado were absolutely phenomenal players. “A man who lifted people out of their seats when he erupted with astonishing speed,” said Eduardo Galeano in his book Football in Sun and Shadow about Gradín, “dominating the ball as easily as if he were walking.” His extraordinary talents were not limited to football, as he won gold medals in the 200- and 400-meter sprints in the 1918, 1919, and 1920 South American Championships in athletics.

In a 2014 article, Tim Vickery, one of South America’s most distinguished English-speaking football journalists, lauded Gradín’s impact on Brazilian football and footballers by comparing him to Artur Friedenreich, a famous Black Brazilian footballer.

“Poor black Brazilians”, writes Vickery, “could recognize themselves in [Gradín] more than they could in Brazil’s hero, Artur Friedenreich, son of a local black woman and a German immigrant, whose skin might have been dark but was from an impeccable middle-class background… ‘If he [Gradín] can do it,’ thought the [poor black Brazilian] locals, ‘then so can we.’”

In another article, Vickery writes that while Brazil’s elite “worked overtime to try to promote the idea that football was their activity [emphasis added], Gradín showed they were wrong.” To recognize his achievements and extraordinary impact, a plaza in Uruguay’s capital Montevideo was renamed in Gradín’s honor sixty-five years after he died in abject poverty.

Delgado, meanwhile, was the first heir to John Harley, the legendary Uruguayan footballer of Glaswegian descent. Playing in the center-half position, Delgado’s elegant ball-playing skills and strong defensive skills made him more than worthy of the honor and began a tradition of monumental central defenders at his club Peñarol, one of the biggest in Uruguay.

Delgado is at the bottom left and Gradín is the second from the right (seated).
CONMEBOL website

Although today it’s a game of the people and the masses, at the time that Gradín and Delgado were serenading fans with their majestic play, football in South America was a sport reserved for white, upper-class citizens.

Though it might be hard for people of younger generations (myself included) to believe, the beautiful game used to be a tool for segregation — black Brazilians, for example, were prohibited from playing for the national team in the 1921 Copa América — and a way to signal who belonged to the elite and who belonged to the lower class.

Once again, Uruguay was an anomaly because the nation’s footballing organizations tapped into all social classes to recruit players. As a result, the game spread much more quickly throughout its social classes, such that even descendants of Lesothoan slaves like Gradín were allowed to participate.

Nevertheless, Uruguay, with its population of just under 3.5 million, remains a peculiar contradiction. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it received an immense influx of European immigrants — almost 600,000 between 1880 and 1930.

Perhaps as a result of this, it always wanted to emulate European models of development and present itself as one of the “white republics” of South America. Debbie Sharnak of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) writes in an article that:

“Uruguay endorsed a myth of racial homogeneity that advanced the interests of Uruguay’s large European immigrant population, while ignoring both the indigenous and Afro-descendants within its borders… Afro-Uruguayans have been continually pushed to the sidelines of society, both socially and politically, with the lack of access to the highest reaches of government and business in the country, and geographically, like during the nation’s dictatorship from 1973 to 1985, when Afro-Uruguayans were forcibly removed from their neighborhoods in the center of Montevideo and displaced to the outskirts of the city.”

Uruguay has a dark history of slavery (which country doesn’t?) and the marginalization of minorities similar to that of the United States. In both cases, enslaved labor forces formed the economic basis of the nations’ construction and provided free labor for centuries. In both cases, even after slavery was outlawed, both African Americans and Afro-Uruguayans struggled to obtain the same rights, access to opportunity, and prosperity that their white counterparts had.

To truly understand the impact of Delgado and Gradín’s achievements, they must be viewed through the lens of the sociopolitical context of early-twentieth-century Uruguay. Even though they did not intend to do so, the two players accused of being African professionals did more than just help their team win games. They challenged Uruguay’s stereotypes of black Uruguayans and showed the country and, dare I say, the region that they were more than just footballers.

Through their mesmerizing play and captivating performances on the pitch, they proclaimed with their feet: “We are more than just entertainers. We are human beings, just like you.” And by doing so, they inspired poor, black footballers throughout South America and gave them role models. “If they can do it, so can we.”

“The pride of Uruguayan sport [Gradín] laid the foundations for players of African descent to not only strive to play international football, but to excel, creating new notions of nationalism and identity in the process. Gradín shone in an era of ignorance, and modern football may look eminently different had he not walked the path and been brave enough to put his head above the parapet.”

—Dan Williamson, Isabelino Gradín: the First Black Icon of Uruguayan Football

The stories of Gradín and Delgado demonstrate not only the remarkable social and racial contradiction that was, and perhaps to some degree still is, Uruguay, but also how their success gave voice to its marginalized and forgotten people.

It showed how football, and sport in general, can make the invisible in society visible again.