Exeter City’s 1914 South American Tour & its Legacy Today

By R. I. Ngah

If one heads to St James’ Park on a Saturday afternoon, it soon becomes clear that the songs emanating from the Big Bank are more of an expression of identity rather than an attempt to enlighten the neutral about the club’s history. For instance, in spite of what the fans might have you believe, Exeter’s Roman walls were not in fact built to keep hordes of green-clad Argyle fans out of the city. However, one notable exception occurs when the Grecian faithful appropriate the glorious Cwm Rhondda to ask their opponents if they have ever played Brazil. Although such an assertion appears to be rooted in fantasy, this chant in fact refers to the club’s 1914 tour of South America, during which they became the first team to play the Seleção, considered today as a golden moment in the club’s history.[1]

At the turn of the twentieth century, exotic pre-season tours were unsurprisingly a novelty, with City representing just the fifth professional English club to travel to South America. The Grecians, however, were not the original targets, with the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino[2] initially offering Tottenham the chance to tour the country. However, when Spurs declined, the Football Association stepped in proposing the Grecians, then a mid-table team in the Southern League, as ‘a truly representative side’.[3] With the promise of First-Class return tickets and all hotel and travel expenses paid, City readily accepted the offer believing that such a tour would enable them to turn a handsome profit whilst also keeping their talented squad together.[4][5]

The squad of fifteen players boarded the SS Andes in Southampton on 22 May, spending eighteen monotonous days at sea before making land in Rio de Janeiro.[6] During this brief stopover, Exeter’s then-chairman, Michael McGahey, met with officials from Fluminense Football Club, who had spent the last decade desperately trying to attract a professional team to tour the country. An agreement was made for City to stop in Rio for five days on their way home, playing three fixtures.[7]

In spite of this, the Grecians’ first visit to Brazil was not an entirely positive affair. During their next landfall in Santos the team, having turned their noses up at the facilities of a local club, opted to hold a training session at a local beach. Used to the more temperate climes of Devon, they stripped down for a short frolic in the sea –much to the chagrin of the locals, who complained to the police. This led to the rather hilarious, but sadly familiar, sight of fifteen scantily-clad English males being led into foreign custody.[8] Nevertheless, McGahey took a bright view of the event, reflecting in his despatch to the Express & Echo that ‘it was the first time that I have been under arrest… and we all enjoyed the experience’.[9] In spite of their high opinion of their Brazilian jailors, common sense thankfully prevailed and the team were released in time to make the next leg of their voyage.

The team finally arrived in Argentina on Friday 12 June, a full three weeks after their departure from Southampton.[10] Their first fixture came against Norte just two days later, which resulted in a shock 1-0 defeat. The Argentine press however, generously put this showing down to the team’s lengthy voyage and insisted that Exeter’s players, and forward William Hunter in particular, had acquitted themselves admirably.[11] Following this initial shock, City’s next seven matches passed without much incident, leaving their final scorecard at an impressive six wins, one draw and one defeat for the concession of just three goals.[12]

More controversial perhaps was the way in which the Grecians felt that they had been treated by the AFA during their stay. Aside from a visit to a ‘cattle killing and cold storage factory’, which McGahey noted cheerfully that the players had very much enjoyed, there was little else arranged for them. In fact, as Director George Middleweek suggested, ‘the only regular amusement they [the players] have had has been cards at the hotel.’[13] This frustration culminated in the publication of an article in the Buenos Aries Herald on the day before the players’ departure, outlining their gripes with the AFA’s hospitality. The Spanish speaking press was quick to respond, publishing articles attacking the City players, questioning both their skill and their collective style of play.[14] It would appear, therefore, that the initial part of the tour had neither lived up to the Grecians’ nor the Argentines’ expectations.

The demonised Exeter squad returned to Rio aboard the SS Drina on 17 July, defeating a team of English expatriates, the Rio English, 3-0 just a day later.[15] The next day City were back in action, coming from behind to defeat a Rio Representative XI 5-3.[16] The squad were now given the day off to recuperate before they took on the newly formed Seleção, or Brazilian national XI, in what was to become one of the biggest games in the club’s history.

The formation of the Brazilian squad in the summer of 1914 was rooted in three key developments. The first was propagated by the Brazilian press while the Grecians were still at sea, with the O Imparcial publishing a series of articles demanding that selection in representative XIs should be limited to Brazilian nationals.[17] This call was given substance by the ever sociable AFA’s request for the Brazilians, to participate in an international tournament to be held late in 1914, for which the formation of a team would be required.[18] The tourists, although perhaps unintentionally, provided the final impetus. Initially, the Grecians had been due to play matches in both of Brazil’s fledgling football strongholds, Rio and Sao Paulo. However, as a result of time constraints, their visit to Sao Paulo had to be cancelled.[19] The two cities therefore decided that a new Brasilieros XI, comprised of seven players from Rio and four from Sao Paulo, should contest the final match.[20]

Played at Fluminense’s Estádio Laranjeiras, the fixture excited a huge interest in Rio, drawing an estimated 10,000 spectators, nearly doubling the stadium’s stated capacity.[21] From the outset Brazil played stylishly, seemingly developing the samba style that would both win them a quintuplet of World Cups and the adoration of millions of fans around the world. In return, the Grecians attempted to stifle the Brazilians’ creativity through the use of brute force, notably bludgeoning star striker Artur Friedenreich with such vigour that he lost two teeth and, if pictorial evidence is to be believed, a substantial amount of blood.[22] City’s impressive show of brawn was, however, to no avail as the home team took the tie 2-0, with goals from Oswaldo and Osman.[23]

As the players boarded the SS Alcantara for their trip home, they were most likely unaware of the importance of the game in which they had just participated, and the legacy it would have.[24] Although some may see it as pure conjecture, or even heresy, it could be suggested that Exeter City FC played a fundamental role in the development of a collective Brazilian identity. When the match took place, Brazil was but a fledgling Republic, just 25 years of age and divided to its core by an enormous gap between the rich and poor.[25] However, McGahey’s despatches suggest that, by 1914, football was beginning to bridge these two polarised communities. The game was no longer the preserve of the rich exclusive clubs, but it was also the pastime of barefoot dockworkers, who played during the lulls between shipments.[26] Although the victory did not signify immediate equality, one might suggest that in beating Exeter, both football-loving communities wereable to briefly unite, throwing their support behind a national force. Football historian Alessandro Pereira corroborates this, referencing the patriotic fervour that surrounded Brazil’s victory in his belief that ‘the game was seen as the victory of a nation.’[27]

It could even be suggested that the game’s significance travelled beyond class lines, traversing racial boundaries too. Whilst Aiden Hamilton disputes this, rigorously outlining the ways in which black players were disadvantaged, it is possible to see an indication that the lot Afro-Brazilians were due improved.[28] Although it is important not to overstate this, Brazil’s star player, Friedenreich, was black. Although he resented his heritage, his inclusion in the Seleção was symbolically significant to Brazil’s black community. Not only did it provide physical evidence that a black player could represent his country, it also illustrated that he could outperform his white peers and reach the top of his profession.[29]

Although the two sides have had contrasting fortunes since, with Brazil yet to claim a single Blue Square Premier playoff win, the match has undoubtedly left a legacy of friendship. Over the last decade and a half, there have been conscious efforts to strengthen the bonds between the two parties and keep the tie’s memory alive. Whilst these endeavours have taken many forms, this has been most successful through the organisation of regular fixtures. The first of these was played in 2004, when Exeter were defeated by a Brazilian Masters XI containing the likes of World Cup winners Dunga, Branco and Jorginho.[30] Over the last two years hostilities have once again been renewed, with City sending another squad out to Rio to play a commemorative centenary match against the Fluminense U-23s, which ended 0-0.[31] The return fixture, in the summer of 2015, saw the Fluminense U-19s run out 2-0 winners at St James’ park.[32] Though they still wait for a first win against their Brazilian friends, every City fan continues to hope that one day, with a small reversal of fortunes, the Brazilian fans may taunt their opposition asking “Have you ever? Have you ever? Have you ever played the Grecians?!”


[1] Alex Bellos, ‘Grecians paved way despite kick in the teeth’, Guardian, 31 May. 2004. http://www.theguardian.com/football/2004/may/31/sport.comment1 (Last Accessed 7 March 2016)

[2] Hereafter referred to as AFA

[3] Bellos, ‘City paved the way’

[4] Aiden Hamilton, Have You Ever Played Brazil? The Story of Exeter City’s 1914 Tour to South America (Exeter, 2014), p. 18.

[5] Aiden Hamilton, An Entirely Different Game: The British Influence on Brazilian Football (Edinburgh, 1998), p. 107.

[6] Bellos, ‘Grecians paved the way’

[7] Hamilton, Have You Ever Played Brazil?, pp. 55-56.

[8] Ibid., 56.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 69.

[11] Ibid., 70.

[12] Ibid.,, 128-9.

[13] Ibid., 63.

[14] Ibid., 64.

[15] Ibid., 90.

[16] Ibid., 91.

[17] Ibid., 89.

[18] Bellos ‘Grecians paved the way’.

[19] Hamilton, Have you Ever Played Brazil?, p. 89.

[20] ‘A Century of the Seleção: The Remarkable Story of Brazilian Football: Chapter One: Exeter City?’, Guardian, 10 June. 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/jun/09/-sp-a-century-of-the-selecao-the-remarkable-story-of-brazilian-football (Last Accessed 8 March 2016)

[21] Bellos ‘Grecians paved the way’

[22] ‘A Century of the Seleção’

[23] Bellos ‘Grecians paved the way’

[24] Hamilton, Have you Ever Played Brazil?, p. 97.

[25] Bellos ‘Grecians paved the way’

[26] Hamilton, Have you Ever Played Brazil?, p. 55.

[27] Ibid., 94.

[28] ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Alex Bellos, Exeter Return for the Boys from Brazil, Guardian, 31 May. 2004. http://www.theguardian.com/football/2004/may/31/sport.comment (Last Accessed 8 March 2016)

[31] Kalika Metha, ‘Exeter City Return to Brazil One Hundred Years after Special Trip’, BBC, 18 July. 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/28326462 (Last Accessed 8 March 2016)

[32] ‘Report: Exeter City 0 – 2 Fluminense U19’ http://www.exetercityfc.co.uk/news/article/report-exeter-city-0-2-fluminense-u19-2559942.aspx (Last Accessed 8 March 2016)


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