To many football fans, the greatest player ever is one that divides opinion and consists of the usual suspects: Pelé, Maradona, Ronaldo, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Cruyff and Best. But, what if I was to tell you of a player, not known today, who scored more goals than all of the above. His name was Arthur Friedenreich, and he was known as El Tigre – The Tiger.
Birth of a pioneer
Born July 18th, 1892 in the neighbourhood of Lapa, west of São Paulo, Friedenreich was the son of a German merchant and Brazilian washerwoman. His father, Oscar, emigrated to Brazil and met Mathilde, the daughter of freed slaves, a relationship frowned upon in Brazil at the time amongst many.
As a result of this relationship, Friedenreich was seen as a mulatto or ‘mixed’ by the elite class of white Europeans in Brazil at the time. This derogatory term would be placed upon those with African heritage like Arthur, despite Brazil becoming the last South American to abolish slavery in 1888 in what was known as the ‘Golden Law’.
However, the passing of this law was not enough to stop the boiling pot of bigotry and discrimination within Brazil. Despite this, Friedenreich had quite a privileged childhood, mainly due to his father’s social status, so was able to attend the more prestigious schools within São Paulo. Having fairly light skin, green eyes and only slightly wavy hair, he was still seen as the product of an interracial relationship so still had to face the racism abundant in early 20th century Brazil.
Following in his father’s footsteps
The inception of football in Brazil is seen as the work of an Englishman, Charles William Miller, who returned to his country of birth in 1894. Due to its heritage, football was seen as a ‘white man’s sport’ by many of the natives of Brazil because of its popularity in Europe.
With all the racism and discrimination at the time, it is no surprise to find that players of African descent were excluded from playing for any teams, but this would not stop their developing passion for the game. Many young players took to the streets to showcase their talents, and it was on the corner where the two streets Vitória (Victory) and Triunfo (Triumph) met, where a young Friedenreich displayed his talents with a football and impressed his father in the process.
Amazed by the talents of his young son, Oscar Friedenreich was a positive encouragement for Arthur. This encouragement led to Arthur taking up the sport at one of the most prestigious schools in São Paulo, and Brazil in general, Mackenzie College.
However, it was here that he also experienced his first taste of discrimination. It is said that before partaking in any games or training sessions, Friedenreich was expected to spend time straightening his naturally curly hair in order to appear more European.
Outside of college, he continued to hone his footballing ability by playing on the streets of São Paulo. It was this exposure to two very contrasting environments that allowed him to cultivate the inventiveness, improvisation and trickery that he displayed in the years to come. Friedenreich’s development became monumental in 1909 as he signed for the same team his father played for, SC Germânia, making him the first player of African descent to play for a club, at the tender age of 17.
The German Prodigy of Brazil
Now, with a platform for his talents to be displayed on a regular basis, Friedenreich wasted little time in showcasing his skills. His unbelievable talent and knack for finding the goal caught the eyes of many admirers at Brazil’s top clubs. With every impressive performance and goal, more came to catch a glimpse at the newly touted young ‘German’ prodigy.
After one impressive season with SC Germânia, Friedenreich went on to play for four different clubs in the next four seasons, progressing with each campaign. This progression saw him become the top scorer of the São Paulo League in his fourth season with 16 goals in 1912.
Finishing top scorer would not be a rare occurrence for Friedenreich as he went on to become the top scorer in 1914, 1917, 1918, 1919, 1927 & 1929. To this day, it is said that no other player has managed to equal having this many golden boots in the Brazilian league over a 17 year period.
The beginning of the Seleção and……Exeter?
With every emphatic performance, the legend of Arthur Friedenreich continued to grow and grow. Now seen as a future superstar of Brazilian football, Friedenreich was selected to be part of the first recognised Brazilian national team in a friendly against English side, Exeter City.
In what would be the ninth time a British football team toured South America, it was to be the first time Brazil fielded the best players of their nation to play an opponent. The game was to take place at Fluminense’s Estádio das Laranjeiras stadium, in front of 10,000 people.
However, the fixture nearly did not go ahead. On the day before the game, a group of Exeter players decided to take a dip in the sea as a way to enjoy their ‘holiday’. After complaints from the locals, the players were arrested and charged with ‘gross indecency’. Despite this predicament, the incident was resolved just in time for the players to be included in the squad and the game to go ahead as planned on the 21st of July, 1914.
Brazil went on to beat Exeter City 2-0, with Friedenreich assisting the second goal, scored by Osman Medeiros of América Football Club-Mesquita. Though not on the scoresheet, the game would be memorable for Friedenreich as he ended up losing his two front teeth. After a heavy challenge from an Exeter City defender, Friedenreich left the pitch bleeding but returned in a short time after some hasty dental treatment.
First taste of International success
With success on their first outing as a recognised national side, the Brazilian team received an invitation later that year. The request was for a cup series called the Julio Roca Cup, named after the Argentine ambassador to Brazil at the time, Julio Argentino Roca. Roca’s reasoning behind the three match cup series was to create a healthy rivalry between the two countries and to help develop the sport.
Controversy surrounded the series from the start, as many in Argentina had not forgotten the genocidal campaigns waged by Roca against the native people of the country when he was President of Argentina.
Nevertheless, the matches went ahead, and with the series poised at one game a piece, it was Friedenreich who went on to score the only goal in the third game to give Brazil their first international trophy.
Copa America and Racial tensions
Two years after this historic feat, Brazil featured in the first ever Copa America tournament in 1916, in Buenos Aires again, but this time Friedenreich and his colleagues would finish a dismal third out of four teams.
Due to this embarrassing finish, the Argentine press went on to refer to Friedenreich and his fellow teammates of African descent as ‘monkeys’, another example of the racial segregation within South America at the time. Unfortunately, these remarks made the Brazilian Football Federation feel ashamed, so for the competition the following year the decision was made to assemble a squad consisting of only white Brazilian players.
Brazil followed the same fate as the previous year, finishing a dismal third. A viral pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the tournament in 1918, so the competition didn’t return until the following year, this time in Rio De Janeiro.
With the tournament coming to Brazilian soil for the first time, the decision of omitting any players of African descent was reversed, meaning Friedenreich was to be selected to represent his country once again. With common sense prevailing, Friedenreich hit the ground running with a hat-trick in a 6-0 win over Chile. Brazil made the final this year and their opponents came in the form of an Uruguay side that they had drawn 2-2 with in the previous fixture.
With the sides poised at 0-0 at full time, the game went into extra time and it was here where Friedenreich would score what would be the decisive winner, to take his country to Copa America glory and finish top scorer of the tournament.
A hero’s welcome
Success at the biggest tournament in South America saw the Brazilian press nickname Friedenreich ‘Pé Ouro‘ – Golden Foot. The respect did not stop there as Friedenreich was also bestowed with the nickname ‘El Tigre‘ – The Tiger, by the Uruguayan and Argentinian players due to his tenacious way of playing the game. This success meant a lot to Friedenreich and his fellow teammates of African descent in particular, as it was just a couple of years previously that they had been omitted from partaking just because of the colour of their skin.
After the final whistle had sounded, Friedenreich was carried on the shoulders of the adoring Brazil fans through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, where flagpoles were raised with signs stating ‘The Glorious Foot of Friedenreich’ accompanied by the boot he scored the winning goal in.
The side returned to their native São Paulo to a hero’s welcome, one worthy of any celebrity. The fanfare was to such a degree that a song had been written for Friedenreich and his teammates by popular jazz musician at the time, Pixinguinha, called Um a Zero – One Nil.
A week after the Copa America success, a tour was arranged for Friedenreich’s boot that scored the winning goal to be toured around Rio de Janeiro. Fans came far and wide to pay homage to this piece of football history before it made its way to a local jeweller’s shop, where it remained in the window as the centre piece.
The decision for the boot’s final destination was made by none other than Friedenreich himself, who gifted the boot to the owner of the jewellery shop. The reasoning behind this decision was that the local owner was a loyal supporter of Friedenreich’s beloved club at the time, Paulistano.
Paulistano and the Copa America of 1921
Following his new found fame, Friedenreich and his fellow Paulistano teammates would be invited to partake in a series of friendly matches all over South America. This was an opportunity for fans to see the first star of Brazilian football in the flesh and for him to dazzle the crowds at a club level outside of Brazil.
By 1921, Friedenreich was believed by many to be the best player in the world. So, it came as a surprise to many when he, along with his teammates of African descent, were again overlooked for selection for the 1921 Copa America.
The reasoning behind this omission was again a racial one as the tournament was to be held once more in Argentina. With the events of the previous time on the minds of those at the Brazilian Football Federation, the decision was made by none other than the President of Brazil, Epitácio Pessoa, to omit any players of African heritage. This time, it was met with more hostility by the Brazilian fans who felt the decision was cowardly, and rightly so.
Again, comments made by the Argentine press in headlines reading ‘The Monkeys are coming’ sparked outrage amongst those back in Brazil, who were behind those players that helped bring success to the young nation. This moment was seen as a watershed moment as it planted the seeds for discrimination to end in the football community of Brazil.
International Retirement and the tour of 1925 – Europe awaits
1922 saw the Copa America come to Brazil once again, this time as part of the celebrations for Brazil’s 100th year of independence. Again, the decision was made to include players of African descent as a way to show how more inclusive Brazil had become. However, it would not be one to remember for Friedenreich who, now 30 years old, only featured in two of the five games, scoring no goals. Despite this, Brazil went on to win their second Copa America.
Three years later saw Friedenreich bow out of international football with his final tournament coming in the 1925 Copa America, held in Buenos Aires of all places. Brazil would go on to finish runners-up to the eventual winners and hosts, with Friedenreich scoring only one goal.
In the same year that he bowed out of international duty for his beloved Brazil, Friedenreich was invited as part of his club, Paulistano, to be the first Brazilian club to partake in a series of friendly matches over in Europe.
These series of matches were seen as Paulistano testing themselves against the Old Continent’s finest and to show their unique Jogo Bonito style that had won them three titles since Friedenreich had joined.
At the age of thirty-three, The Tiger now had the opportunity to showcase his amazing talent on European soil and this he did. In the game against the French national team, Friedenreich scored a hat-trick as Paulistano went on to win 7-1 in Paris. This performance saw the French press at the time crown Friedenreich ‘Le Roi du Football‘ – The King of Football, a title that would also later be bestowed upon the late, great Pelé.
Return from Europe and São Paulo
On their tour of Europe Paulistano would go on to win 9 of the 10 games played, with an aggregate score of 30-8. Of the thirty goals scored, Friedenreich scored twelve on his way to cementing himself as a footballing star both at home and abroad.
Upon their return to São Paulo, the team received a hero’s welcome from their beloved fans, and even the President of Brazil himself greeted the returning players. This honour has since only been exclusively reserved for the national team’s return from a World Cup.
Due to the Wall Street crash of 1929, Paulistano could no longer be funded by Antônio da Silva Prado Junior, whose family made their money from the coffee boom, so were disbanded. Now without a team, Friedenreich and several of his teammates joined with players from another disbanded side, AA das Palmeiras, to form their own club.
The club formed was called São Paulo de Floresta, later shortened to São Paulo, one of the most successful clubs in Brazilian football history. Despite being 37 by this point, Friedenreich showed no signs of letting up for his new club, as in his first season his goals would help elevate São Paulo to 2nd in the league. In the following season, Friedenreich and his teammates went one better and led this newly formed club to its first championship.
A failed revolution in 1932 against Brazil’s new President, Getúlo Vargas, halted football within the country for a year. When the domestic game returned, there was pressure for football to turn professional and depart from amateurism completely. Football in Brazil had been amateur until 1918, yet still, players earned only a mediocre wage.
Despite not having the luxuries of today’s players, Friedenreich’s celebrity status saw him develop a taste for the high life. It is said that Friedenreich owned 120 suits and imported French brandy as he enjoyed the party scene within Rio de Janeiro, a trait that would be inherited by his successor in Brazilian football, Garrincha, who looked up to Friedenreich as a kid.
The first game of the newly ‘professional’ era of Brazilian football saw São Paulo play Santos in a friendly, a game that saw Friedenreich score the first goal as his side went on to win 5-1. Friedenreich would go on to have two more seasons with São Paulo, followed by a brief spell with Flamengo, before eventually hanging up his boots and walking away from football in 1935, at the age of 43.
After leaving the game he loved, Friedenreich would go on to work for a local liquor company in one of their off-licenses until he eventually retired from work completely. Unfortunately, shortly after retiring, Friedenreich went on to develop Alzheimer’s, which drained all his savings in an attempt to try and treat the disease.
Death and legacy
Despite his and his family’s efforts, the disease would not stabilise, resulting in Friedenreich suffering from severe memory loss and deterioration. This deterioration came at an unfortunate time for many researchers, who had learned of his story but could not verify any details from the man himself, due to the Alzheimer’s taking away his speech and his own knowledge of his name.
Friedenreich would see out his final days in a house paid for by São Paulo FC before his eventual death in 1969, at the age of 77. He would leave behind a wife and his son Oscar, named after his father, without any money due to it all going towards his treatment.
It is a shame that political rivalry between the Rio and São Paulo football federations in 1930 would prevent Brazil from approaching Friedenreich to represent the nation in one last tournament, the World Cup. As a result of this rivalry, Brazil ended up selecting players from Rio instead of São Paulo in what would have been the perfect swansong for Friedenreich to bow out of his international career to.
Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguayan journalist known as global football’s pre-eminent man of letters, summed Friedenreich’s legacy up perfectly:
“From Friedenreich onward, Brazilian football that is truly Brazilian does not have right angles, like the mountains of Rio de Janeiro and the buildings of Oscar Niemeyer.”
As a tribute to the great man, there is a street in São Paulo named after Friedenreich as well as a school in Rio located within the sports complex of the famous Maracanã in honour of his legacy. Though football fans today will not know of the man who first broke down the racial walls in Brazilian football, his legacy can be seen in the greats that have followed him. Arthur Friedenreich’s story is one that you won’t hear or read about in many places, but his position at the table of football’s greats is one that should not be ignored.