Music meets football in South America
Coming back from a game in the Maracana stadium on Saturday, the Rio underground was even more packed than usual. In addition to the football fans there was the carnival crowd, revellers who had spent the afternoon with one of the street parties, some dressed as florescent green monsters, off to take part in the night's parade. I was on a train dedicated to the twin pillars of popular culture, music and sport.
In Brazil samba and futebol help define the national identity. In Argentina and Uruguay it is tango and futbol. In all three countries the two elements took opposite routes into the national soul. The music came from the bottom and worked its way up. The sport began with the elites and made its way down.
In their early days samba and tango were low class, low prestige rhythms, frowned upon by polite society. Football, on the other hand, was introduced by the British, who had huge trading interests in the region. Along with their industrial products and their railway lines, they brought football, which, with its first world seal of approval, was initially seen as an activity for the sons of moneyed families.
The story of the early years of South American football is one of the game moving socially downwards, being taken up and re-interpreted by the masses, who replaced the straight line running, muscular British style with something much more artistic - and successful.
It didn't happen without a fight. The local elites were reluctant to lose control, and the battle raged into the 1930s, when professionalism was introduced and meritocracy established as the basis for team selection.
This downward movement of the game was especially swift in Uruguay, and helps explain their early prominence in world football.
Earlier this month I wrote a column that touched on the decline of the Uruguayan game. But with a population little over three million staying at the top is all but impossible. Perhaps a more interesting theme is how such a tiny country ever became so dominant in the first place.
Nowadays the word 'Brazil' sets off an instant association with stylish and successful football. There was a time when 'Uruguay' brought a similar reaction.
Between 1916 and 26 the Sky Blues won six of the first 10 Copa Americas. They astonished Europe by slaughtering all comers on the way to winning gold at the Paris Olympics in 1924 - to my mind the event that marks the birth of the modern game. Four years later they repeated the dose in Amsterdam, then organised and won the first World Cup in 1930, won the next they entered 20 years later and lost their first World Cup match in 1954, a semi final against the great Hungarians that went to extra- time - after earlier in the tournament beating England 4-2 and Scotland 7-1.
The reputation for violence came later, when the rest of the world had caught up and they could no longer win, but national pride demanded that they went down fighting. For decades, though, their name attracted no negative headlines.
Part of this is a tribute to South American football - to the way the game had caught on in the rapidly expanding cities of the continent's southern cone. But specifically in Uruguay, it shows the effect of enlightened social policies.
In the early years of the last century Uruguay brought in the world's first welfare state and invested massively in education. This made it much easier for football to move downwards from the elites to the immigrants pouring in from Italy and Spain - and to the descendants of Africans, whose ancestors had been shipped across the Atlantic to toil as slaves.
Brazil only abolished slavery in 1888, and some would argue that its legacy remains strong. Not until the 1930s were black Brazilian footballers properly established, and the country's football continued to have a racial hang up until the 1958 World Cup, and longer in the case of goalkeepers.
The Uruguayan game was far quicker to draw on the potential of all of its citizens. A potent symbol of this is Isabelino Gradin, top scorer of the first Copa America in 1916.
He and team-mate Juan Delgado were black - which caused Chile to launch a protest on the basis that Uruguay were fielding Africans.
Gradin deserves to be ranked among the most influential players in the history of the game. His performances in Brazil in the 1919 Copa America did much to inspire the local black population.
In 1924 when Uruguay came to the Paris Olympics the star turn was Jose Leandro Andrade, the first black player most Europeans had ever seen. Andrade was also a carnival musician. He was a physical embodiment of popular culture, of the music from the streets and the sport which had come down from the elites. He would surely have felt totally at home on the Rio underground on Saturday night.
Comments on this piece in the space below. Any other questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
There have been reports linking Liverpool to the Palmeiras striker Keirrison. I know he is Brazilian, and 20-years old. I don't really care if there is any truth to the rumours, I'd just like to know - is he any good? What would he cost? Too early for him to move? Is he a support-striker, able to support a striker like Torres? Or is he like Torres?
No, he's no support striker - he's an out and out goalscorer. He's very promising - well built and finishes really well on his right foot, where can blast the ball but knows that he doesn't always have to. He's only just joined Palmeiras (from Coritiba) and I think he's made an excellent move - a step up without being too much, because I don't think he's quite ready for a big European club. He's not confident about shooting with his left - every time I've seen him he's run round a chance to take it with his right and given a defender time to get a block in. His involvement in the build up also needs a lot of improvement.
What is your take on Cristian Fabbiani, aka The Ogre, River Plate's larger than life super sub from last week? He says himself that he is a few pounds overweight, an underestimate in anyone's book!
An inspiration to fat park footballers everywhere. There was a moment in one of his first River Plate games when his tiny team-mate Buonanotte was cutting in on the diagonal and then realised he would have to go round Fabbiani - it was quite a detour!
He was huge last year playing for Newells. A month or so of inactivity has sent him off the scale - but he does have class. He's terrific with his back to goal, turns very well and is an excellent combinations player. This could be the making of River's other main striker, Radamel Falcao Garcia. I just watched Fabbiani set a goal up for him against Banfield.
The River fans really seem to have taken to Fabbiani - there were several dressed as ogres in the stands.