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Last Updated: Monday, 2 January 2006, 10:52 GMT
Tim Vickery column
Copa America
It is 90 years since the first Copa America in Buenos Aires
There was an extra reason for the champagne corks to pop in South America as the new year came in - the world's oldest continental championship celebrates its 90th birthday in 2006.

The European Championship only got underway in 1960 - a full 44 years after the Copa America had been launched.

In fact, there had been earlier pioneer attempts to play a South American Championship, but is the 1916 version, held in Buenos Aires, that goes down in the history books as the first one.

That is because the South American Federation was founded while the competition was taking place.

Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay were the competing teams, and their delegates got together in Buenos Aires to work out a structure for the continent's football.

But the 1916 tournament was not only important for organisational reasons. It is fair to say that it is one of the key landmarks in football's growth into the undisputed global game.

Uruguay were the winners back in 1916, and they also provided the tournament top scorer, Isabelino Gradin.

Lightning fast - he was also a champion sprinter - with elusive dribbling skills and a rocket shot, Gradin scored half of the six goals Uruguay managed in their three games.

It was not to everyone's liking. Two of his goals came in the opening game against Chile and the Chileans protested Uruguay were picking Africans.

Both Gradin and his team-mate Juan Delgado were black but it was quickly proved that the pair were Uruguayan and thus had every right to represent their national team.

Consequently, an important victory had been won for the democratisation of the sport. Uruguay had the most advanced social legislation of the time. But it also had a relatively small black population.

Brazil was the opposite. It had imported millions of black slaves, whose descendents were finding it very difficult to rise socially, including on the football field.

For this reason Gradin's performance in the 1919 Copa America was so significant.

The tournament was held in Brazil, and this time Uruguay came second, and Gradin was not top scorer, though he added two more goals to his account.

But just his dynamic presence on the field of Fluminense, Brazil's most aristocratic club, gave a huge boost to the local black population.

True, Brazil's star was Friedenreich, son of a German father and a black mother. But he was green-eyed and middle class.

Gradin was different. Brazil's blacks could see themselves in him and, while the country's elite worked overtime to try to promote the idea that football was their activity. Gradin showed they were wrong.

Football belonged to the people. And the rest is history.

The onset of professionalism in the 1930s finally secured the place of the black player in Brazilian football.

The achievements of Pele and many others were followed avidly in Africa and football grew into a truly worldwide phenomenon.

It was a process that was given a hefty push by Isabelino Gradin.

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12 Jul 05 |  World Football


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