Bringing rugby out of football’s shadow

A PIONEER: Charles Miller could unintentionally be the cause of  Brazil having a vibrant rugby team at the next Olympic Games.

Charles Miller and his wonderful moustache have become familiar sights during the World Cup, but the man who brought football to Brazil could unintentionally ensure the country has a vibrant rugby team at the next Olympic Games.

Miller’s story is a fascinating one, and one best told in the oak-panelled rooms of Sao Paulo Athletic Club (SPAC).

Located in the heart of the teeming metropolis that is Sao Paulo, this was the gentleman’s club Miller’s father founded 126 years ago. His son had been sent to Southampton to study, and when he returned to Brazil he brought with him two footballs and a book of the game’s rules.

It was to have a transformative effect on his adopted country, and on his father’s club. SPAC unsurprisingly excelled at the game they had invented, and won the first three Campeonato Paulistas, being crowned Brazilian champions on each occasion.

Yet the game has changed since those halcyon days in the early 1900s. Football is professional now, and clubs such as SPAC are unable to compete.

When the sport went professional, SPAC and contemporaries such as Paulisternum decided to rescind their membership and remain solely amateur. After all, they were social clubs rather than sporting entities.

But in the last few years that has begun to change. We all know that every Brazilian child grows up dreaming of becoming the next Pelé, Neymar or Ronaldinho, but there is a new game in town – rugby.

Miller also brought an oval ball with him when he sailed back to Brazil from Southampton and SPAC’s persistence is finally bearing fruit.

The fact that rugby is now an Olympic sport has certainly had an impact, but interest and the number of players participating in the sport has gone through the roof in recent years. Still an amateur sport, SPAC are now Brazilian national champions.

For the moment it is all about Ronaldo and Rivaldo, but perhaps in the future the country will want to emulate Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara.

“We have discovered that rugby is a sport which really appeals to Brazilians,” says John McDonnell, SPAC’s president after 35 years of living in Brazil.

“The kids who want to play don’t have any money so we do a deal with them so that they can frequent the club. They are almost all from a working-class or lower-working-class background, and they train and work incredibly hard.

“Each of them knows that rugby doesn’t promise them much prosperity. Football does that. Most of the kids here have always dreamt of following someone like Neymar, and to be transferred abroad for a vast sum of money.

“For them it is about repeating the story of Ronaldinho, Pelé, Cafu or Kaka. But rugby is proving a great draw for kids of all backgrounds due to its values and that is very warming to see in a place where everything is really about money.

“The fact that it is a new Olympic sport has certainly helped.”

Recent statistics show that 10,000 people have taken up rugby in the last five years and the league is becoming an ever more serious proposition.

SPAC, whose women’s team are also highly successful, play their home games at their sports ground to the west of the city, near the Interlagos Grand Prix circuit. Having had no official role at the World Cup, they have been asked if their facilities might be available for teams wishing to prepare for the Olympics in two years’ time.

And Brazil may well have a fine team by then. Aidy Gardner, the England and Great Britain rugby league star, announced last week that he was looking to represent Brazil at the Olympics as his mother hails from the north of the country.

Brazil’s men are the third best team in South America, but the women are stronger, having been crowned continental champions on seven previous occasions without losing a match. It is no coincidence that SPAC supply five of that side.

Yet still they face an unequal fight with football.

“Miller was a member of the Brazilian elite,” says McDonnell. “Football was an upper middle-class game when he played, and today it’s not, it’s played by everyone. You just have to drive around Brazil to see that they are all football crazy.

“We are proud of the role that Charles Miller played in that. There is a lot of interest in him, and what he did is very important for both me and our members. Institutions are about history and tradition, and you have to keep that up.”

Looking around the Sao Paulo Athletic Club, it is hard to disagree with that. Tennis courts and a lawn bowls green are perfectly maintained, while pictures of the royal family are dotted around the place.

The memorial to Miller – they would have to pay a hefty levy to call it a museum, a wonderful example of Brazil’s illogicity – is in pristine condition.

This is a place with a lofty history, and now they are trying to create an unexpected future with the oval ball rather than the round one.

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