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Inter Milan's Mario Balotelli cheers after scoring the 3-2 goal, during the Italy Cup soccer match between Juventus and Inter Milan, in Turin, northern Italy, Wednesday Jan. 30, 2008. AP Photo/Massimo Pinca

Inter Milan's Mario Balotelli cheers after scoring the 3-2 goal, during the Italy Cup soccer match between Juventus and Inter Milan, in Turin, northern Italy, Wednesday Jan. 30, 2008. AP Photo/Massimo Pinca

This question occurred to me in a roundabout way. While surfing Setanta, I came across a game of European football (or soccer, or futbol, or futebol, depending where you’re from) and was struck by the number of Latinos on both teams.

I started wondering how the game arrived in South America, did some research, and saw a direct correlation between what has happened to soccer in South America and what could happen to rugby.

But to answer the first question, how did soccer travel to South America? It took the train.

From around 1865 onwards, the Latin countries wanted what Europe and America had – a railroad system. So they had British firms come out and build them.

This caused an influx of thousands of British immigrants who came for the jobs. And they brought soccer balls with them.

And they were real soccer balls because Richard Lindon, a shoemaker and leather worker in the town of Rugby, had just invented an inflatable Indian rubber bladder which he put inside a sewn-leather cover and pumped up.

He also made a rugby ball in the traditional shape which was called the Punt-About ball. It was called this for an obvious reason: you could punt it a lot further than a leather ball stuffed with rags.

And you could really kick his soccer ball, too.

Lindon enabled both types of ball to fly, so he contributed hugely to the development of both sports.

Back to football in South America.

The immigrant Brits played the game in the schools and colleges they set up, taught the locals how to play, and the locals totally embraced it.

In fact, the first leagues in Argentine and Chile were founded in 1893, earlier than some of the famous European clubs – Juventus, 1897, Barcelona, 1899 and Real Madrid, 1902.

Uruguayan students in Montevideo formed Club Nacional in 1899 followed by Estudiates de La Plata, an all-Argentine team in 1905. Brazil’s famous Flamengo club was born in 1910.

When the train system was up and running, internationals were played regularly between South American nations. And because the railroad firms also built light rail trams for the main South American cities, spectators had an easy way to get to the local games, the football craze was on, and the growth was phenomenal.

Rio’s Maracana stadium was built for the 1950 World Cup, and 210,000 people saw Uruguay beat Brazil
2-1. However, this was a sparce crowd compared to the 300,000 that shoehorned into Wembley to watch Bolton Wanderers and West Ham decide the FA Cup final in 1923.

Wembley’s official capacity was 127,000.

But here’s something about bigtime soccer that’s keeping me awake nights: poaching.

In the 1990’s, Barcelona’s football team contained seven Dutchmen and two Brazilians. In 2007, there were no less than 340 foreign players eligible to play in the English Premier League.

Indeed, after the 2006 World Cup, only three of that year’s Argentine squad were playing in Argentina.

It’s not hard to forsee a time when cash-strapped New Zealand, or league-challenged Australia, have the majority of their top rugby players returning from rich overseas clubs to play only Tri-Nations and touring sides (if they can get a release).

And here’s something else I’m mulling: the population of the main Latin cities the Brits did business with in the 19th century – Buenos Aires, Lima, Rio, Santiago and Sao Paulo – today totals around 50 million.

What if all those railroad workers had played rugby instead of soccer?

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The Crowd Says (40)

  • July 14th 2009 @ 8:51am
    Brett McKay said | July 14th 2009 @ 8:51am | ! Report

    Sherry, you may well have just asked the hypothetical to end all hypothetcials….

  • July 14th 2009 @ 8:56am
    craig said | July 14th 2009 @ 8:56am | ! Report

    They would have been finished in half the time and there would be no beer left!

  • July 14th 2009 @ 9:19am
    Towser said | July 14th 2009 @ 9:19am | ! Report

    So to twist your argument around Sherry what sort of Brits came here then as opposed to South America. Because clearly from the sport of choice of the earlier settlements they came with Rugby balls not footballs. In fact in the southern states they scratched their own balls choosing neither British sports as the main choice. Post war migration changed the dynamics of Australian ball sports ,leaving an evolving landscape. However that doesnt change the fact that the British were all over the world in the 1800’s spreading the empire & industrial expertise. So I dont buy the argument deduced from your last line that if the British had brought rugby balls rather than footballs that South Americans would be playing predominantly Rugby.
    It doesnt explain the different take up by different countries of British sports at that time. Too simplistic to say the Rajah came to India with cricket bats first rather than football or Rugby balls,so cricket prevails in India. Perhaps there was an element of “cricket in the water of India”at that time in history that caused their leaning towards cricket. Similarly in South America for football & in this country Rugby in the Northern states & Australian Rules in the Southern states. No matter what balls you took to the USA from outside at that time they were determined to create sports in their image,simply because thats what they did with everything,particularly taps in hotels.

  • July 14th 2009 @ 9:21am
    True Tah said | July 14th 2009 @ 9:21am | ! Report


    in answer to your question, yes some of those British railway workers did play rugby, hence the presence of rugby in Argentina today. I understand that the Christian Brothers also favoured rugby as a form of muscular Christianity, whereas the Jesuits preferred futbol.

    Generally speaking, those British immigrants who went to Australia/NZ/South Africa/Canada (i.e. British colonies) tended to be more rugby orientated, which is why rugby or sports orientated with rugby are prominent. On the other side, the sport of the merchant marine sailors was futbol, and they tended to deal with countries not part of the British Empire and they, along with railway workers, were responsible for introducing the game to Latin America and Turkey.

  • July 14th 2009 @ 9:33am
    Art Sapphire said | July 14th 2009 @ 9:33am | ! Report

    Sherry – I don’t want to be mean but, seriously man, this is one of the biggest pieces of football envy ever written by a rubgy follower on this website.

    If the number of foreign football players plying their trade in the big leagues is keeping you awake at night, I suggest you start taking some sleeping pills and try going back to sleep.

    In answer to your question.

    Q. What if all those railroad workers had played rugby instead of soccer?

    A. They would have played amongst themselves as there were Brits playing a much more enjoyable game of football down at the docks and the locals were going mad for it 🙂

  • July 14th 2009 @ 9:45am
    Mike said | July 14th 2009 @ 9:45am | ! Report

    “In fact in the southern states they scratched their own balls choosing neither British sports as the main choice.”

    Towser, AFL is just as much a “British sport” as Rugby or Association Football. I know some romantics like to speculate about aboriginal influence or Gaelic football, but the rules of AFL when first written down in 1857 simply combined various elements that were all present in British football at the time – running with the ball, marking in general play followed by a free kick, tackling, striking the ball with the hand. grounding the ball whilst carrying it, etc.

    The codification of various forms of football in the mid-19th century (which led in turn to all our modern codes) was not a process of invention, but of collation – there were a myriad different styles or codes of football in Britain, and each group of codifiers chose a combination of the particular rules that they believed would be most acceptable to their founding member clubs.

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