José Leandro Andrade: Uruguay’s ‘Black Pearl’

Footage of the first World Cup final in 1930
is scarce. The clips on YouTube are grainy, brief and hard to follow, so it is impossible
to tell what part José Leandro Andrade played in Uruguay’s 4-2 victory over Argentina.
According to accounts from those who were there his form, speed and influence had started
to wane; yet his name still appears in the Fifa team of the tournament. That final would
be his last appearance for Uruguay, the best team in the world in the 1920s.
There is a little more footage of him in the Olympic Games of 1924 and 1928, in Paris and
Amsterdam, both won by Uruguay. As Andrade stylishly controls a pass and tricks his way
past a Swiss defender in the Paris final he is described by the commentator as “the
Black Pearl, the first global star of international football”.
Uruguay were the first South American team to play in Europe and Andrade was the first
black international player seen by Europeans, who were so impressed that a quarter of a
million people applied for tickets for the 1928 Olympic final.
Andrade played in the final of all three of Uruguay’s great triumphs from 1924-1930,
but Andrade was much more than just an exotic footballer.
He was born in Salto in the north of Uruguay, also the home town of Luis Suárez and Edinson
Cavani, in 1901. His mother was Argentinian but there is no record of his father, so he
was registered illegitimate. He would move to Montevideo to live with an aunt, growing
up in the Palermo district of the city. Money was scarce but the black population was integrated,
so Andrade would have played football with boys from all social classes in the parks,
and by the time he was a teenager would have been welcome at the city’s clubs, which,
unlike those in other parts of South America, welcomed players of all races.
Two questions, both subjective, constantly arise when considering his life. First, how
good a player was he? Second, how popular or unpopular, famous or infamous, might he
have been if television and social media had existed when he was supposedly the central
figure in the world’s best football team? Given that the Olympic football tournament
was the nearest thing to a World Cup before Uruguay hosted the first one in 1930, Andrade’s
achievements put him at the pinnacle of the game. In the pre-television world he was football’s
first international superstar. He was also its first black superstar and its first rags-to-riches-to-rags
player whose life story would make a good film. He was the best-known player in Uruguay’s
era of dominance, but whether he was the most influential is harder to say. Some have called
him ‘the first Pelé’. Others see him more as ‘the first David Beckham’, a sporting
sex symbol with a touch more style than substance. Andrade was an accomplished musician, an expert
tango dancer, a womaniser, a drinker, a party- lover. He dressed like a dandy, he was elegant,
arrogant, aloof and, off the pitch, ill-disciplined. He upset a lot of people, causing great offence
on one occasion when he failed to attend a homecoming party arranged in his honour. When
his playing career finished he could not hold down a job: he began a descent into a syphilitic
hell of poverty, alcoholism, blindness and early death. He was 56 when he died in an
asylum in Montevideo on 4 October 1957. The Stanford University academic Hans Ulrich
Gumbrecht, a respected multilingual philosopher and expert in the history of literature and
culture, believes Andrade was “responsible more than anybody else in the first third
of the twentieth century for putting football on the map of international sports”.
Gumbrecht tentatively describes Andrade as a 1920s version of Zinedine Zidane, though
in looks and bearing the 6ft half-back perhaps more reminiscent of Frank Rijkaard. Gabriel
Hanot, the former international player who edited L’Équipe, said Uruguay’s 1924
players were “like thoroughbreds next to farm horses” in comparison with north European
players. Andrade played mostly at half-back, from where
he dominated games, busy in both halves of the pitch. Gumbrecht wrote in ‘In Praise
of Athletic Beauty’ in 2006: “All eyewitnesses were
enchanted with the effortless elegance in his movements.” There was a “sensational
athletic energy” about Andrade’s performances, which “awakened strong waves of an almost
erotic desire.” One of Latin America’s great writers, the
Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano, delved into sport when he wrote Football in Sun and Shadow in
the 1990s, the decade when France Football magazine named Andrade as one of the top 10
most influential players in World Cup history. In Galeano’s words, “Europe had never
seen a black man play football. In the 1924 Olympics Andrade dazzled everyone… this
rubber-bodied giant would sweep the ball downfield without ever touching an adversary.”
He dazzled them off the pitch too. Andrade enjoyed the Paris night life, at times during
the tournament and with vigour afterwards. He met Colette, the great writer who wondered
at his athleticism. He danced a tango with Josephine Baker, the popular US entertainer
who, like her partner, was known as ‘The Black Pearl’. Whether the tango finished
in the bedroom is, like so much about Andrade, unclear.
On one occasion, his close friend and teammate Ángel Romano went to find him in the city.
At an address Andrade had given him, a swanky apartment, Romano found him surrounded by
a group of semi-naked women. There were reports that Andrade was later “abducted” by a
wealthy French woman, who kept him in luxury for weeks.
Andrade returned to Uruguay many weeks later a changed man, disembarking from the boat
home in yellow gloves, an expensive coat, leather boots, a silk cravat and a top hat.
That was impressive, given that not so much earlier he had been a street-corner newspaper
vendor, shoeshine boy and, some said, gigolo. Less impressive was his refusal to attend
a party organised for him by Montevideo’s black community. He never explained why. Teammates
were not surprised, describing Andrade as aloof and uncommunicative.
During the Paris Games, Uruguay, with Andrade performing what might nowadays be called a
roaming creative midfield role, were such an attraction their players were invited back
to Europe a year later. Nacional, for whom he played between 1925 and 1930, made a nine-country
tour of the continent. More than 800,000 people watched them. By the time of the 1928 Olympic
Games, Uruguay were the must-see team, and the previously amateur players would no doubt
have been on very good expenses. It was at these Games that Fifa decided to move away
from amateurism and start a World Cup. Andrade played only half of Nacional’s 1925
tour. He visited a doctor in Brussels and, said a teammate, was told he had syphilis.
For a while he disappeared to Paris, returning to Montevideo two months later. On arrival,
he told a reporter he was feeling “somewhat ill” and would undergo a course of treatment.
He played on having lost a little pace but none of his skill. He declined to travel to
Amsterdam as Uruguay sought to defend their Olympic title, but when he waved the team
farewell at the dockside, he changed his mind. He took the next boat to Rio de Janeiro and
joined the team. Uruguay won again, defeating their perennial rivals and 1930 World Cup
final victims, Argentina, in a replayed final. In an earlier match Andrade ran into a goalpost
and, some said, the injury was so serious he was later blinded in one eye. The more
likely explanation is that his blindness, like other health problems, was caused by
syphilis. Dutch journalists were as impressed by Andrade
as the French had been four years earlier. “Andrade was such a great player and his
colleagues were such aces that you felt sorry to leave the stadium,” one of them wrote.
Richard Hofmann, a Germany international who played in Amsterdam, said of Andrade, “He
was a football artist who could simply do anything with the ball. He was always ahead
with his thoughts by several moves.” Andrade held his form long enough for that
first World Cup two years later, starting all the hosts’ games. After playing on for
a couple of seasons at lesser clubs he slipped into financial trouble in the 1930s but, as
he had never endeared himself to the public, attempts to raise money from a testimonial
match failed. In 1950, when the World Cup returned to South
America, Andrade was invited to Brazil as a guest of honour. His nephew, Victor Rodriguez
Andrade, who added the second family name in honour of his illustrious uncle, became
the second Andrade to earn a World Cup winner’s medal. The younger Andrade was also Uruguay’s
best player in the 1954 World Cup, at which they lost an extra-time semi-final against
Hungary. Aldo Mazzucchelli, a Uruguayan professor of
Hispanic Culture at Brown University in Rhode Island, believes racial integration in Uruguay
was a significant factor in Andrade’s rise to fame. Mazzucchelli has spent more time
than most looking into the story of Andrade. “He invented a particular manoeuvre called
la tijera [the scissors], going to ground with the left leg fully extended forward,
and kicking the ball with his right foot,” said Mazzucchelli. “It was apparently spectacular
and elegant, and is mentioned obsessively when it comes to him.
“He had very good control with both legs, even though he was right-footed, and was great
at heading too. He never celebrated a goal. Even though he was precise and efficient,
he seemed as though he couldn’t care less about anything.
The German journalist and author Fritz Hack, who featured Andrade in his 1972 book Kings
of Football, went looking for this giant of global football’s early years. For six days
he trailed around Montevideo before finally he found “the footballer with golden feet”.
“Friends helped me,” Hack wrote. “But what I found was horrible.” Andrade was
living in a dilapidated basement flat, with barely any furniture. He was alcoholic, blind
in one eye, and unable to understand Hack’s questions. That was in the autumn of 1956:
just over a year later Andrade was dead, his last days spent as a penniless drunk in an
asylum. Hack’s account of that last meeting between
the player and a journalist records that Andrade’s only possession appeared to be a shoebox full
of medals.

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