Brazil is the most fashionable country on the planet. Brazilian clothes, shoes, music, food, football…. from Gilberto Gil to Ronaldinho, havaianas to caipirinhas, Brazil is everywhere. But no one remembers the debt that Brazil owes to Britain – and to one British man, Charles Miller.
In the 19th century, the British funded the Brazilian economy, built Brazil’s infrastructure – and taught Brazil how to play football.
Brazil was never part of the British Empire. However, a small but very influential group of Britons lived and worked in Brazil. British values, institutions, expertise and money permeated the country.
Even São Paulo, a provincial little town, plopped in the middle of uninteresting farmland – even that distant, dusty town had a stalwart British community which led a determinedly colonial existence.
In 1874, the chaplain of St Paul’s, the British church in São Paulo, registered the birth of a boy. The father was Scottish; the mother was English; the boy’s name was Charles William Miller.
Like many sons of British expatriates, Charles Miller went “back home” for his education. At the frail age of nine, he was put on a ship at Santos and sent to boarding-school in Southampton.
At that time, São Paulo was a small town with a few shambolic streets, whereas Southampton was one of the greatest ports on the planet. Travelling from one to the other meant moving from a sleepy hamlet to a thriving metropolis.
Charles Miller went to a small boarding school on the outskirts of Southampton. From his education, he had learnt only one lesson that really mattered to him: the rules of football. He was a fast, skilful player. He played for the Corinthians (the greatest amateur team of all time) and St Mary’s (now better known as Southampton Football Club).
In 1894, Charles Miller sailed back to Brazil. In his luggage, he carried a book of rules and a deflated football.
When Charles Miller arrived in Brazil, he discovered to his horror that no-one knew how to play the beautiful game. The expatriate community had retained many British customs – cricket on Saturdays, afternoon tea at four, visiting-cards on silver trays – but not football.
Charles had found his mission. He pumped up the football, summoned his friends and colleagues to a patch of wasteland near the railway station, divided them into two teams and explained the rules.
He wasn’t prepared for the amazing success of his game. Within months, people were playing football all over São Paulo. Within a few years, the game had conquered the entire country.
Fifty years after his death, Charles Miller has been forgotten.
In Brazil, people know his name and a few inaccurate myths about his life, but nothing more. In Britain, hardly anyone even knows his name.
The British influence in Brazil has dwindled to a few language schools and a dribble of investment. And when British footballers are confronted by Brazilian opponents, they pray that the score doesn’t reach double figures.
The story of Charles Miller’s life isn’t just a tale of one man’s fascinating life. Nor is it merely an intriguing episode in the history of football. The spread of football from Britain to Brazil is a neat riposte to anyone who is fearful of cultural imperialism.
The English may have invented the rules of football, and the British may have carried the balls and the rulebooks in their imperial baggage, but Brazilians quickly made the game again in their own image.
A hundred years later, talents and skills are flowing back the other way. In Britain, just as all over Europe, home-grown players display the skills and techniques which they have learnt from their Brazilian colleagues.
Charles Miller’s gift is being repaid.
Josh Lacey’s God Is Brazilian is a biography of Charles Miller.