How football conquered Brazil
I've always had a soft spot for the military figure who, when advised to take cover, declined with the famous last words: "They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist..." Thankfully, making predictions about football is not usually so hazardous, although it can make fools of the mighty.
One of Brazil's all-time great writers, Graciliano Ramos, distinguished himself with the forecast that in his country "football will not catch on, you can be sure of it."
He saw the game in Brazil as "a temporary enthusiasm capable of lasting a whole month. We have lots of our own sports," he continued. "Why should we want to go poking our nose into foreign things?"
Ramos was writing in 1921. Two years earlier Fluminense in Rio had opened by some way the biggest and most impressive stadium yet built in Brazil for the practice of football.
The Laranjeiras Stadium, which celebrated its 90th birthday last week, is still standing, though smaller that it once was and is used these days as a training ground. Back on 11 May 1919 when it was inaugurated, the stadium stood for everything that Graciliano Ramos repudiated.
Fluminense were an aristocratic club, formed by sons of the elite who had come into contact with football while studying in Europe. The players were mostly well-bred students of law and medicine. The very architecture of the stadium, with its English-style cricket pavilion, set the tone for the social milieu in which early Brazilian football was played.
The stadium was constructed in time to stage the 1919 South American Championships, nowadays known as the Copa America. Brazil won their first title, in the decisive game beating Uruguay 1-0 after extra time, with a goal from Artur Friedenreich.
The goalscorer was a nod to the future, and to a dynamic that Graciliano Ramos was unable to understand. "There is no worth in the argument that football is gaining ground in the major cities," he wrote. "Let's not get confused."
For him the cities were coastal and thus cosmopolitan and not really Brazilian. The real Brazil was in the harsh interior of the country, especially the impoverished north east.
But Brazil - and South America generally - was entering the age of the city.
Artur Friedenreich was the son of a German businessman and a local woman, the foreign and the Brazilian forming a new synthesis in an urban environment.
The emergence of Vasco da Gama forced home the point. The club of Rio's sizeable Portuguese community, Vasco won the city's championship with a team which included black and poor white players.
The elite clubs fought back, trying to maintain the game as their preserve. They formed a breakaway league, without Vasco. Then they let Vasco in but obliged the players to fill in forms before taking the field - a task beyond the majority of the Brazilian poor at that time - and then they excluded Vasco on the grounds that the club lacked its own stadium.
So the Portuguese community, with all its small businesses, clubbed together and Vasco were soon the proud owners of what at the time was the biggest stadium in the country.
It is still their home today - just a few miles across town from Laranjeiras, but in a very different neighbourhood.
These days Sao Januario is a crumbling and dangerous part of Rio. Back then it was the heartland of working class life. In the 1930s, Brazil's Mussolini-inspired government sponsored the writing of the song 'The Sao Januario Tram', a celebration of the virtuous worker happy with his lot in life - an image that the regime was spectacularly successful in divulging (this same regime also imprisoned Ramos for his Communist sympathies).
Vasco's Sao Januario stadium - with all that it represented as an affirmation of football as a sport open to the Brazilian working class - was inaugurated in 1927, just eight years after Fluminense opened their aristocratic palace.
This is a process which took place with astonishing speed - of football being introduced by the elite and then taken up by the mass of the population and transformed into a genuinely local cultural manifestation.
It also happened across the south of the continent - this internal colonisation took place even earlier in Argentina and Uruguay - and helps explain why South America established itself as one of football's spiritual homes.
It happened as the cities were expanding with immigrants pouring in from inside and out, from Europe and the Middle East as well as the countryside. And it happened as radio was coming into its own, broadcasting the sounds and the events of the city to the far-flung provinces.
Graciliano Ramos is best known for 'Vidas Secas' (Dry Lives), a tale of the hardships in Brazil's arid North East. The giant country is currently governed by a man who came from this very region. President Lula grew up poor in the north east, was one of the millions who moved south in search of a better life, and in the process became a fanatical supporter of Corinthians in Sao Paulo.
Organising football championships inside his trade union was an important part of his early political career. Try telling him that the game is nothing but a fad for foreigners!
Comments on today's piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;
Q) How does the two leagues per season system work in Argentina? By that I mean, when does relegation and promotion issues matter? How are the positions calculated when deciding qualification for Copa Libertadores? What happens at the end of the first league, are there any issues decided?
A) The two separate championships follow the European season, so the first one, the Apertura (Opening) runs August-December, and the Clausura (Closing) is February-June. Promotion and relegation takes place at the end of the Clausura.
Relegation is worked out on an average of points over three years - six campaigns. The bottom two are straight down, the next two are in play offs with teams from the second division.
Qualification for the Libertadores has just been changed to end the absurd situation of the club winning the Apertura in, say, 2005 not playing the Libertadores until 2007, by which time the coach and most of the players will have changed.
Now it's done over the calendar year. The qualifying clubs for 2010, for example, will be this year's two champions, plus the next three teams with most points accumulated in the two campaigns.
Q) What's happened to Lulinha? There was apparent interest from Chelsea and he was supposed to be the next big thing from the Brazilian football factory. He's only 17, so do you think the man from Corinthians will be the next big player to reach the heights of Kaka and Ronaldinho?
A) Well he's 19 now and still no nearer the breakthrough. I'm just back from Corinthians match with Botafogo, and he couldn't even get on the bench.
For me, it's a classic case of too much too soon. He looked great at under-17 level, so back in 2007 he was thrown into a poor Corinthians side and billed as the saviour who would stop them getting relegated. Really unfair.
The link with Chelsea - I don't know how much truth was in it and I don't think it did him any good. There's still time for him to come again, but taking things one step at a time.