History of the Copa America – Part One : Beginnings

The 44th version of the Copa America is currently taking place in Chile. Next year will see the centenary of what is the World’s first ever continental football competition. The 2016 tournament will see the current ten members of the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) play alongside six teams from the neighbouring CONCACEF confederation which covers teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean. The first Copa America in 1916, although it was then known as the South American Championship (it gained its current name in 1975), involved only four teams – Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil. It would be another 40 years before the second continental football trophy, the Asian Cup, was created.

International football officially began in November 1872 when Scotland and England participated in a goal-less draw in Glasgow. In 1876 Wales became the third international team and in 1882 Ireland became the fourth. The 1883-84 saw the inauguration of the first ever international tournament, the British Home Championship, involving all four British teams. The tournament ran for 100 years before finally being disbanded in the 1983-84 season.

During the remainder of the 19th century organised football gradually spread throughout the rest of Europe and eventually, to other continents. In 1893 the Argentine Association Football League, now the AFA – Argentine Football Association, became the first organised football association in South America. Its founder was the Scottish-born Alexander Watson Hutton and it was expatriate Brits who played a large part in the development of football in other South American countries in the late 19th century. British immigrants had introduced the game to the continent in the 1860s and the first recognised football match was held in Buenos Aires in 1867 between two teams of railway workers.

Many football clubs started out playing other sports such as rugby or cricket and only later switched to football. The first game to be played in Uruguay may well have been played between teams representing Montevideo Rowing Club and Montevideo Cricket Club in 1881 and the first football only team, Albion FC were founded the following year by an English teacher at the William Leslie Poole School in Montevideo. The first Uruguayan league title was won by the Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club in 1900. In this year the Uruguayan Football Association (UAF) was also created. The CURCC club was originally made up of employees of the British-owned Central Uruguay Railway Company and had initially played both cricket and rugby before changing sports to football in 1892. In 1914 the club changed its name to Club Atletico Peñarol, after the district in which it was located, and nowadays are the most successful club in the history of Uruguayan football with 49 league titles to their name.

In Peru the football section of the Lima Cricket club won that country’s first title in 1912 whilst another of the oldest clubs were Ciclista Lima, belonging to a local cycling club. Initially only clubs from Lima took part in the Peruvian League but later clubs from neighbouring Callao were added. Only in 1966 did teams from other parts of the country participate in the first Peruvian national league. The Football Association of Chile (FAC) was formed in 1895 following a meeting held in Valparaiso, organised by the English journalist David N. Scott. The first football club in Chile had been formed by students of the Mackay and Sutherland School, mostly children of British and Chilean aristocracy, in that city in 1882.

It was a Dutchman, William Paats, who is said to have introduced football to Paraguay. 18 year-old Paats moved from the Netherlands to the capital of Paraguay, Ascuncion, in 1894 and soon afterwards became employed as a Physical Education instructor at a local school. After a trip to Buenos Aires he returned to Paraguay carrying a football, something which was virtually unknown in that country. Before too long the sport had grown to become very popular, initially with member of the elite but later with people from all social statuses. In 1902 Paat formed the first club in Paraguay, Club Olimpia, and in 1906 there were sufficient clubs for the creation of both the Paraguayan Football League and the Paraguayan Football Association (APF).

Charles Miller, the son of a Scottish railway engineer, was born in Sao Paulo in 1874 then sent away to public school in England where he learned to play football and cricket. Upon his return to Brazil once his schooling was complete Miller brought with him two footballs and a set of rules. In 1901 he decided to create a league, the Liga Paulista, for the various teams which had been created by the many British and European immigrants found throughout the Sao Paulo region at the turn of the century. In the league’s first season Miller’s club Sao Paulo AC won the title with Miller himself being the league’s top goal-scorer. In 1914 the Confederação Brasileira de Desportos (Brazilian Sports Confederation) was created and was responsible for the organisation of all sport within the country. It was only in 1979 that an organisation solely responsible for football, the Confederação Brasileira de Futebol (CBF), was formed.

Football in other South America took longer to establish. The first club in Ecuador was established by the Wright brothers, Juan and Roberto, who had lived in England and had played for the Union Cricket football side in Peru before returning to their home city of Guayaquil in 1899. Soon afterwards they created the Guayaquil Sports Club and over the next few years other clubs formed both in that city and in the capital, Quito. In Colombia the game was introduced around 1900 by English workers from the Colombia Railways Company who had been employed to build tracks linking the city of Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast, to various cities inland. Organised football didn’t arrive in Bolivia and Venezuela until the 1920s and was only played in a regional basis up until fairly recently.

Many British teams also toured South America at this time and initially the gulf between these clubs and the local sides was vast and many heavy defeats were suffered. Charles Miller’s old club Southampton visited Argentina and Uruguay in 1904 and easily won every match. Nottingham Forest tour of Argentina the following year saw them win every game, scoring 57 goals in their 8 games whilst scoring 3, although 13 of these came against a selection made up of local British players. Corinthians FC, another club Miller has once played for during his time in England, made two tours of Brazil, in 1910 and 1913. After their first trip they so impressed a group of local railway workers that they decided to form their own team named after the English club. Sport Club Corinthians Paulista are now one of the most popular, and successful, clubs in Brazil.

Exeter City toured Argentina and Brazil in 1914 and lost only 2 of their 11 matches. The first loss came in the first game of the tour, only 12 hours after they had got off the boat following their long voyage from England. The other loss, 2-0, came in their final match of the tour, against a Brazilian Select XI. This is believed to the first ever game played by the Brazilian national side. In 2004 Exeter City celebrated their centenary and, to celebrate, played a friendly against a team made up of former Brazilian legends, who won 1-0, in recognition of the part they had played in Brazilian football history. Over time the immigrants, often from the elite class, playing for many of the South American teams were replaced by talented native-born players and the standard slowly improved.

May 1901 saw the first ever international football match played in South America, indeed the first one played outside of the British Isles, when teams representing Uruguay and Argentina met in Montevideo with the latter winning 3-2. Many of these teams were either British immigrants or sons of British immigrants and there is some doubt over the official status of this match. The game between the two countries in July 1902, in which Argentina won 6-0 (still Uruguay’s biggest ever defeat) is often referred to as both sides official international debut instead. Uruguay and Argentina would go on to play each other regularly over the next few years in various different tournaments. The Copa Lipton – named after Sir Thomas Lipton, the Scottish tea magnate who donated the trophy – began in 1905 and was a tournament between teams made up of native born players from either country. The first Copa Lipton match was held in Buenos Aires and was won by Uruguay following a goal-less draw as they were the away team.

In 1906 another competition between the two countries was introduced, the Copa Newton, named after a director of the AFA, Nicanor Newton. As with the Copa Lipton the tournament was used to raise money for charitable causes such as looking after the poor children of each participant. Both cups were played once a year up until 1913, apart from 1910 when no Copa Newton took place, with the venue alternating between each country. On a number of occasions both cup took place simultaneously with one version of the Argentina and Uruguay teams playing in Montevideo whilst different versions took to the field in Buenos Aires.

Up until the 1929 both cups continued to take place regularly but after this date they occurred only sporadically. The Copa Newton was abolished in 1976 whilst the Copa Lipton lasted until 1992. Further tournaments between Argentina and Uruguay also existed. The Copa Premier Honor Argentina was played annually in Buenos Aires between 1908 and 1912 whilst the Copa Premier Honor Uruguay took place once a year in Montevideo between 1911 and 1924.

In 1910 the AFA announced plans to hold a football tournament, the Copa Centenario Revolución de Mayo, to mark the 100th anniversary of the May Revolution. This event, which took place in Buenos Aires in May 1810, marked the beginning of the movement that would eventually lead to the independence of Argentina from Spain in 1816. For this tournament the now traditional rivals of Argentina and Uruguay were joined by a new opponent, Chile. This was therefore the first ever South American international tournament to feature more than two teams. Chile made their international debut against the hosts in Buenos Aires two days before the tournament began and lost 3-1 despite taking the lead through Frank Simmons of the Badminton Football Club in Valparaiso.

The tournament format was that of a round-robin in which all three teams played each other once. Two venues within Buenos Aires were used – the Estadio Gimnasia y Esgrima and the home stadium of the Colegiales club in the Palermo district. In the first game Uruguay beat Chile 3-0, who then went down 5-1 to Argentina, for whom Juan Enrique “Harry” Hayes (the son of English immigrants) scored twice. Hayes also scored in Argentina’s 4-1 win over Uruguay in the final game of the tournament with another goal coming from Arnold Watson Hutton, son of the Scot Alexander Watson Hutton who had founded the AFA in 1893. This enabled Argentina to finish top of the table with two wins out of two.

FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) was created in 1904 to act as an international governing body for the fast growing sport of football. More and more international fixtures were being played around the world but and initially all of its members were from Europe. In 1909 South Africa became the first non-European country to join and Argentina was the first country from South America to become a member of FIFA in 1912. The following year Chile achieved provisional affiliation and this was followed by full membership in 1914.

A new international tournament also arrived in 1914 when the former president of Argentina and current ambassador to Brazil, General Julio Argentino Roca, had the idea of a cup that was to be played between his country and their northern neighbour Brazil. General Roca donated a trophy to the Argentine Football Federation (FAF), who had broken away from the Argentine Football Association in 1912 in order to create a rival league, one that wasn’t recognised by FIFA. For three seasons the FAF league ran alongside that organised by the AFA and thus between 1912 and 1914 Argentina had two different title winners.

Before the Copa Roca Brazil and Argentina played a friendly game in Buenos Aires which was won 3-0 by the home side, of of whose goals came in the first half. It is said that Roca told Argentina to ease off in the second half to prevent the visitors from taking a heavier beating which he felt would be disrespectful. This was Brazil’s first ever official international game, following their unofficial fixture versus the club side Exeter City the previous month. One of the Brazilians making his debut against Argentina was the forward Arthur Friedenreich, son of a German immigrant. Friedenreich would go on to win 25 caps for Brazil but he was much more successful in Brazilian club football and finished his career as one of the most prolific goal-scorers of all time with an estimated haul of 1329 goals in his 1239 games.

A week later the two teams met again in the the Estadio Gimnasia y Esgrima to decide the Copa Roca. After 13 minutes Rubens Sales, who was also coaching the Brazilian team alongside Sylvio Lagreca, put his team Brazil. This would be the only game Sales would play for his national team. Roca’s initial plan for the tournament was to play it once a year for three consecutive years with the first team to win it twice keeping the trophy permanently. However, The FAF merged with the AFA in 1915 and thus disappeared from the Argentine football scene with the result that the remaining two matches were never played. General Roca himself died only three weeks later at the age of 71.

Eight years later in, 1922, it was decided to resurrect the Copa Roca and this time the venue would be Sao Paulo in Brazil. Brazil’s 2-1 victory, with both of their goals coming from Alberto Gambaretto (known as “Gamba”), was their second consecutive win enabling them to keep the trophy outright. Despite this another fixture took place the following year and Argentina claimed the the first Copa Roca victory thanks to a 2-1 win. The cup returned again in 1939 after a break of 17 years and this time the format consisted of a number of games played in both countries with the overall winner taking the trophy until the following edition was played. Between 1939 and 1976 the Copa Roca took place eight times, at irregular intervals, with Brazil winning five outright, Argentina two outright and the two countries sharing the penultimate title in 1971.

In October 1913 an article was published in the newspaper La Argentina outlining plans for a new football tournament which was to be organised by the Argentina Football Association. This so-called “Copa America” would involve teams from Uruguay, Chile and Brazil alongside the host country and would be held in Buenos Aires on a date to be fixed later. The author of the article was Juan Claudio Susan, a former player, referee and current director with Estuadiantes and brother of club idol, and Argentina international, Maximiliano Susan. The three countries accepted the invitation to play in the tournament but it wouldn’t take place until three years later, in celebration of the centenary of Argentina’s independence on July 9th,1816.

By 1916 five South American countries – Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil had their own individual football federations, although only the first two were affiliated with the worldwide football governing body, FIFA. Paraguay had no national team at that point (they wouldn’t play their first international until 1919) and so had not received an invitation to the now called South American Championship. For the purposes of organising the Championship tournament the former president, of the Uruguayan Football Association (UAF), Héctor Rivadavia Gómez, proposed that delegates from football association of each of the four participants should get together.

On July 9th, the exact date of Argentina’s independence from Spain, a meeting was held in Buenos Aires which members of the FA’s from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil attended and agreed in principle that one governing body responsible for the organisation of football within South America should be formed. In December 1916 a meeting was held at the headquarters of the UAF in Montevideo which confirmed the formation of the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL). It was the first ever continental football confederation and was another 38 years before the formation of the next, UEFA in 1954.

The four teams took part in a single round-robin group with all six games being held at the Estadio Gimnasia y Esgrima, in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires. The opening game, on 2nd July, saw Uruguay easily beat Chile 4-0 with José Piendibene scoring the first ever goal in the tournament. His later added another goal and Isabelino Gradin also managed a brace. Gradin was the great-grandson of slaves originating from Lesotho in Southern Africa and he and his team-mate Juan Delgado were the first ever black players to represent their country during an international tournament. Chile complained both before and after the game, that the result should be annulled due to the fact Uruguay had selected “Africans”. Once it was pointed out that the pair had been born in Uruguay the Chileans relented.

Chile fared ever worse in their second game against Argentina, losing 6-1, with Alberto Ohaco, Juan Domingo Brown and Alberto Marcovecchio all scoring twice. The third game saw Chile managed a 1-1 with Brazil and this was also the result in the game between Argentina and Brazil.  In the penultimate match Uruguay beat Brazil, playing in a green and yellow striped shirt, 2-1 with the opening goal coming from Arthur Friedenreich before Gradin and Tognola replied for La Celeste  (‘The Sky Blues’). Therefore the final game, between Argentina and Uruguay, would prove to be the title decider. Uruguay had 4 points at that stage whilst Argentina had 3 points and so needed to win.

The game took place on the 16th July and created much interest within Argentina and Uruguay. The Estadio Gimnasia y Esgrima was considered to be one of the best stadiums in South America but had a capacity of only 18,000. However, around 30,000 people turned up and even before the game had kicked off the atmosphere both inside and outside the group was unruly. After just five minutes of play many spectators flooding onto the pitch as the stands were unable to hold such numbers. In response the referee ordered the players to return to the dressing rooms. This led to the crowd becoming even angrier. Sections of the stadium were damaged whilst one of the wooden stands was set alight. Eventually there was no other cause of action available other than abandoning the match.

It was decided to replay the game the following day, this time at the Estadio Racing in the Avellaneda district as the Estadio Gimnasia y Esgrima was now unusable due to the damage it had attained the previous day. This game passed without much incident and the goal-less draw meant that Uruguay were crowned as the first ever South American champion. However, they received no trophy as one had yet to be created. Later that year the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs donated a trophy that had been manufactured at the La Casa Escasany jewellers in Buenos Aires at a cost of 3,000 Swiss francs. This trophy would be up for grabs for the first time the following year when, due to the success of the initial edition of the tournament, the South American Championship would be repeated.



About Jeff Lawrence

Hi, My name is Jeff Lawrence and I'm a writer, photographer and Boro fan from north-east England who has an interest in football history, in particular that relating to Dutch (thanks to eight years living in the Netherlands) and Peruvian (thanks to a wife from Peru) football. Another interest is how English managers and players played their part in the development of football overseas, particularly in the early part of the 20th century.
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