Handlebar moustache, out-of-control quiff, white shirt, black shorts and football clamped between his hands: the photos from times past, those where a puff of magnesium was used as a flash, provide us with an image of Charles William Miller.
Charlie, son of John, a Scottish engineer who like 3,000 other Brits ended up in South America to help build the railways, and Carlota Fox, a Brazilian with English ancestors, was born in São Paulo, in the Brás district, on 24 November 1874. When he was nine years old, he was sent to Europe to study, as was customary in high society. He arrived in Southampton and started out at Banister Court School before going on to a secondary school in Hampshire.
Banister was a small private school founded by Reverend George Ellaby as a place where captains of the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company could send their sons. The headmaster during Miller’s time was Christopher Ellaby, son of Reverend Ellaby. Christopher Ellaby was a passionate follower of football.
In England, the beautiful game already had its official rulebook, with the Football Association having been founded in London on 26 October 1863. This was the first national football federation which brought together the rules of the game. Ellaby, during his Oxford years, was captain of the college team. He passed on his enthusiasm for the game to his students.
Charles Miller was a competent athlete and soon became the captain of the school team. They gave him the nickname ‘Nipper’ because of his smooth baby face and stick insect body. Despite his build, he became an excellent centre forward and on occasions he played left wing. ‘He is our best striker. He is fast, his dribbling is excellent and he has a shot on him like a thunderbolt. He scores goals with great ease,’ was how the school paper reported on him. Forty-one goals in 34 matches with Banister Court and three goals in thirteen matches with St Mary’s Church of England Young Men’s Association, who would become Southampton Football Club, now a Premier League team, attest to this. Miller’s style of play was light-footed and a bit on the cheeky side. He had great imagination, superb ball control and a passion for the dummy which left his opponents baffled. So much so that at seventeen he was invited to play for Corinthian Football Club in London, a club set up with players from British schools and universities to match the then superiority of the Scottish teams – Corinthian, a name which, years later, with Miller’s advice, would become one of the most famous clubs in São Paulo (albeit it would be called ‘Corinthians’).
1894. After Charlie finished his studies, he went back to Brazil. In his luggage he put two Shoot footballs, made in Liverpool, a present from a teammate; an air pump to blow them up, a pair of football boots, two football tops (one from Banister and one from St Mary’s) and a hefty tome containing the rules and regulations of the Football Association. The story goes that during this trip home Charlie did not stop training, dribbling round passengers and obstacles from one end of the ship to the other. On 18 February Charlie docked in Santos and John, his father, asked him what he had brought back from England. Charlie replied, ‘My degree. Your son has graduated with distinction in football.’
The twenty-year-old Anglo-Brazilian began to work, like his father, at the São Paulo Railway Company. He registered with the São Paulo Athletic Club, which had been founded in May 1888 by British communities. There, members played cricket, not football. They knew how to play but no one was interested in it – until Charles Miller started to lay the foundations.
At the club, he explained the rules, and also terminology such as ‘half-time’, ‘corner’, ‘ground’ and ‘penalty’ to his friends, workmates, and top officials at the Gas Company, the Bank of London and the railways. Eventually he pulled together a group of followers. He convinced them to train on a ground at Várzea do Carmo, between Luz and Bom Retiro, nowadays known as Rua do Gasometro. There were plenty of people who were curious to see what was going on at the ground. Not long after, Celso de Araújo wrote in a letter to his friend, journalist Alcino Guanabara of Rio de Janeiro: ‘Near Bom Retiro, there is a group of Englishmen, maniacs as only the English can be, who are kicking around what only can be described as something which looks like a cow’s bladder. It would appear that this thing gives them great joy but also great pain when this sort of yellowish bladder enters a rectangle made of wooden poles.’
Sceptics aside, football between gentlemen in the British community was beginning to gain a foothold, and Miller finally managed to organise a match on 14 April 1895. In Várzea do Carmo, two teams made up of Brazilians and Englishmen came together: São Paulo Railway and Companhia de Gás. The ‘Railwaymen’ won 4–2, captained by Miller, who scored two goals. There were few spectators: friends, managers and employees plu