LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

A century ago today, 15 footballers set off on a boat trip into the unknown. They played for modest Southern League outfit Exeter City and their destination was Brazil. For the later five-time world champions, this would be their first competitive football match, against a non-league team of farmers and yet-to-be discovered England internationals. This July, Exeter return to the very stadium in Rio where this historic match took place. Paul Martin takes up the story.

 

On the eve of World War I, little Exeter provided Brazil with the opposition for their first ever competitive football match.

This bizarre quirk of history is being celebrated this July when the Grecians return to Rio to play Fluminense, at the same Estádio das Laranjeiras that the 1914 game took place. See www.grecianvoices.com for details. At the same time in Exeter, the play ‘The Day We Played Brazil’ will be running at the Northcott Theatre, featuring 120 local actors and singers.

So how was it that Exeter City ended up on a ship to Brazil? In January 1914, the Argentine Football Association had met with the English FA to organise a team to tour South America that June. Tottenham Hotspur and Exeter City were both invited but Spurs had toured Argentina in 1909 and were reluctant to make another long trip. The Grecians stepped up and agreed.

Exeter had been in the frame because of a friendship between FA Secretary Frederick Wall and Exeter chairman Michael McGahey, whose family-run tobacconist is still going strong on Exeter High Street today.

City Brazil 1

The City squad was named a week before the departure, around May 16. It included John Fort, a full-back who went on to play for England; Reg Loram, a part-timer who abandoned his farming duties to play his one and only Exeter match against Brazil; and Dick Pym, the goalkeeper – no relation to Christy, who plays in goal for The Grecians today. Pym later played for Bolton Wanderers in the famous White Horse Cup Final of 1923, the first match at Wembley Stadium, having been transferred for a then world-record fee from Exeter. He recalled taking a parrot home from Brazil with him that lived at St. James’ Park. Upon its death, the parrot was buried under one of the goalmouths only to be hurriedly dug out again to end a losing run that had begun with its demise – a real case of a dead parrot sketch.

For the hosts, Pele, Romario, Ronaldo and five World Cups were all to come. Charles Miller, born in São Paolo before attending boarding school in Southampton, is widely credited for having introduced football to Brazil in the 1890s, but it remained strictly an amateur activity there until the 1930s.

As soon as Exeter’s players arrived in 1914, they were involved in a diplomatic incident. Unimpressed by the training pitch they’d been allocated in Santos, they decided to train on the beach instead and took a dip in the sea. They didn’t know that bathing was then illegal in Brazil, so they were all promptly arrested.

Once they had negotiated their release from a Brazilian jail, they set sail to Buenos Aires to play eight matches in Argentina. They lost the first, leading the Argentine press to suggest their players travel to England and show them how to play. The Grecians recovered to win their next match 3-0 against Argentine South. The next match, against Racing Club, had even more drama, as Harry Holt’s goal for Exeter led to a Racing fan pulling out a gun and threatening to shoot the referee. Overall, City won six, drew one and lost one of their eight matches in Argentina.

City Brazil 2

Then came Brazil. Exeter were lined up to play Rio English, Rio de Janeiro and a Brazil XI. Local newspapers drummed up support for the Brazil XI and managed to get four São Paolo players on board, with the match against Exeter seen as a warm-up for their first clash with Argentina later that summer. The Brazil team was met by rapturous applause at Fluminense and impressed to win the game 2-0.

When the final whistle blew, the crowd carried the Brazilian players on their shoulders, proclaiming them as national heroes. Newspapers reported ‘praise for the correctness and mastery with which the Brazilians had rendered useless the efforts of the English professionals’. The locals were not happy with Exeter’s ‘rough and unsportsmanlike’ style of play and the Grecians failed to meet expectations, namely teaching the Brazilians skills and techniques.

The fates of the two teams could not have been more different after the match. Brazil went on to beat Argentina that summer and we know the rest. Exeter, on the other hand, saw their team ripped apart by World War I, with only six of the 15-man squad returning to play for the club after the conflict. Fort and Pym went on to play for England, while Jimmy Rigby returned to Exeter to become a director. The club have hovered around the lower reaches of the Football League ever since – except for five years in the Conference.

The two teams marked the 90th anniversary of the match at St James’ Park when a Brazil select XI containing five World Cup winners (including 1994 captain Dunga) came to Devon to take part in a friendly match, which they won 1-0.

City’s directors announced the centenary rematch last summer, but a desperately poor league season and struggling finances have left fans wondering if the trip is really necessary. However, for the 100 or so Exeter fans making the trip to Brazil it represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – and marks Exeter’s unique place in the history of world football.