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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?