​The Myth and Magic of Jose Leandro Andrade, Soccer's First Black Icon

At times, the story of Jose Leandro Andrade sounds semi-fictional – and aspects of it probably are. But, rather than diminish his incredible legacy, this uncertainty strengthens the intrigue surrounding one of football's first truly global icons.
February 1, 2017, 2:50pm
PA Images

This article originally appeared in Issue 15 of The Football Pink. You can purchase it in print or digitally via their website.

At times, the story of Jose Leandro Andrade sounds semi-fictional, and there is a good chance that aspects of it are. Far from diminishing his incredible legacy, however, the uncertainty over what did and did not take place serves to strengthen the intrigue surrounding one of football's first truly global stars.

The son of a former slave, Andrade was born in Salto, a city in north-west Uruguay that would later produce Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani. Though he grew up in poverty, Andrade's incredible footballing ability transformed him into an international celebrity, complete with all the trappings of fame. But, when his time on the pitch came to a close, Andrade's life became mired in tragedy. He died an impoverished alcoholic, blind in one eye and a faint shadow of the man who had once ruled the world with the all-conquering Uruguay national team.

Today, Andrade is a relative unknown in the English-speaking world. Scan through a few lists claiming to chronicle the greatest footballers of all time, and in some cases his name is absent altogether. Yet this was a man who earned three world titles with his country, can correctly be called football's first black icon, and who was once among the most famous sportsmen on the planet.

The mystery and myth that surround Andrade stretch back to his arrival in this world. It is widely recorded that his father, a former slave named José Ignacio Andrade, was 98 years old at the time of his birth. It has also been written that the elder Andrade possessed magical powers, which seems about the only explanation for a man of his vintage fathering a child, or indeed living to such an age in turn-of-the-century Uruguay. As a teenager, Andrade Jr. lived in Montevideo and worked as a carnival musician, a bootblack, and – according to popular legend – as a gigolo. At least one of those skills would serve him well when he became the toast of inter-war Paris.

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A brilliant footballer from a young age, he began his playing career at Montevideo side Bella Vista. Andrade first appeared for the national team in 1923, and was part of the squad which won that year's South American Championship (now the Copa America). This secured Uruguay a place in Paris for the summer of 1924, where they would be their continent's representatives at the Olympic Games. Here they would take on the best sides that Europe had to offer – 18 in total – with the United States, Turkey and Egypt completing a very Eurocentric entry list.

Andrade's ethnicity was noteworthy at the 1924 Games, and his place in the squad made him the first black international footballer to play the sport at Olympic level. That said, he was not a first for La Celeste: Uruguay had fielded black players for several years, a progressive policy that had drawn the ire of their continental rivals in the early 20th century (Chile went so far as to call it cheating, only backing down when Uruguay threatened to make it a diplomatic matter).

In Football in Sun and Shadow, the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano described the 1924 squad as "workers and wanderers who got nothing from football but the pleasure of playing." Along with the shoeshiner and carnival performer Andrade, their number included a meat packer, a marble cutter, and an ice salesman.

Despite being South American champions, Uruguay did not travel to Europe in style, instead sailing in third-class accommodation. Ahead of the Games they travelled in second-class carriages, slept on wooden benches, and undertook a tour of Spain to pay for their meals.

The Europeans gave them little chance, though their initial opponents, Yugoslavia, did pay them one backhanded compliment. Ahead of the opening-round game, the Yugoslavs are said to have sent spies along to watch the Uruguayan players train. They left with reports of misplaced passes and a poor eye for goal. A few days later, Uruguay routed them 7-0. They had been aware of the Yugoslav spies and purposely trained poorly to throw their opponents off the scent. Then as now, Uruguayan football was bolstered by a healthy dose of cunning.

The Uruguay players at the 1924 Games. Andrade stands back from his teammates, second from left // PA Images

Perhaps they were also spurred on by the lack of respect they were shown before the match started, when their flag was hung the wrong way up and a Brazilian march was played instead of their national anthem. Affronted or not, Uruguay were a vastly superior side.

Next they beat the United States, who escaped with a comparatively respectful 3-0 defeat. In the quarter-final they played hosts France in front of 30,000 supporters at the Stade Olympique, where Uruguay ran out 5-1 winners. By now, Europe was certainly taking notice.

The semi-final was their sternest test – they required an 81st-minute penalty to beat an excellent Dutch side 2-1 – before a comfortable 3-0 win over Switzerland in the final secured the gold medal. Gushing praise ensued: the editor of France's L'Equipe described the Uruguayans as being "like thoroughbreds next to farm horses". The newspaper added that they possessed "a marvellous virtuosity in receiving the ball, controlling it and using it." The limited footage of their players in action shows the Uruguayans to be a considerable distance ahead of their rivals, always moving, always finding space, against a predominantly stationary opposition.

Andrade did not get among the goalscorers in Paris that summer, with Pedro Petrone (seven) and Héctor Scarone (five) providing the bulk of their firepower.

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Yet it was Andrade who stood out as the star performer for La Celeste. Though just 22 at the time, he orchestrated play with a cool head that belied his years. He was physically strong, but played with elegance in the half-back position, performing a role comparable with the modern holding midfielder. Richard Hofmann, a German international who appeared at the 1928 Games, called Andrade: "A football artist who could simply do anything with the ball...a tall guy with elastic movements, who always preferred the direct, elegant game without physical contact and was always ahead with his thoughts by several moves." Contemporary comparisons have been made with Zinedine Zidane, a player who is regularly found among the top-10 of those 'greatest of all time' lists. During the 1924 Games, the French dubbed Andrade La Merveille Noire – the Black Marvel.

As one might expect, Andrade enjoyed his new-found fame in Paris. He regularly disappeared from the team hotel and, when a teammate was sent out to find him, it was reported that the star player was "in a luxury apartment in one of the most exclusive areas of the city, surrounded by beautiful women, like a sultan in his harem." He caught the eye of the celebrated author and journalist Colette – she called the Uruguayans "a strange combination of civilisation and barbarism...better than the best gigolo" – and he danced with Josephine Baker, who as the first black woman to star in a major motion picture was something of a kindred spirit.

But this indulgence in his new status came at a cost. For Andrade's homecoming, the local black community in Montevideo arranged a welcome party in his honour. He did not attend. It is quite possible that he possessed this kind of arrogance long before finding fame, of course, just as it is possible that dancing with a burgeoning movie starlet changed him.

In 1924 Andrade joined Nacional, winning Uruguay's Primera Division the same year. He would remain at the club until 1931, albeit without adding another domestic title, before becoming champion twice more with Penarol, for whom he played between 1931 and '35.

Andrade (back row, second from left) with his Nacional teammates in 1925 // PA Images

Yet that seems largely insignificant given the international successes he would add to the 1924 gold medal. Four years later, at the Amsterdam Games, Uruguay retained their Olympic title. Andrade was now less influential as a player (he had reportedly contracted syphilis by this stage), but even more of a star attraction, with huge crowds turning out to see La Merveille Noire. Uruguay defeated the hosts (2-0), Germany (4-1), and Italy (3-2) to set up a final against their fierce continental rivals Argentina.

The superiority of South American football was confirmed by a 1-1 draw, making Argentina the only side in nine Olympic matches to hold Uruguay over 90 minutes. The replay was tight too, but the holders retained their gold medal with a 2-1 victory.

Two years later Uruguay hosted the inaugural World Cup. Despite his dwindling influence Andrade remained part of a team that won their group and destroyed Yugoslavia 6-1 in the semi-finals to set up another deciding match with Argentina. A 4-2 win at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo saw La Celeste crowned champions. Andrade had yet another medal to add to his collection.

With the 1924 and '28 Olympics officially recognised by FIFA as world championships, Uruguay could now lay claim to a hat-trick of world titles, and today wear four stars above their badge (the fourth for their 1950 World Cup triumph). Andrade, along with three of his long-time teammates, has a trio of world titles to his name; only Pele can match their haul.

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But while the great Brazilian has lived long into retirement, Andrade's post-football life is a sorry tale. He would eventually lose the sight in one eye, though whether this was caused by a collision with a goalpost or the syphilis is unclear; it is possible that the former was exacerbated by the latter.

Either way, it contributed to his downfall. He was in attendance at the 1950 tournament, when his nephew was among the players who won Uruguay's second World Cup, but as the fifties progressed he slipped deeper into alcoholism and ill health. In 1956 a German journalist, the aptly named Fritz Hack, sought Andrade out in Montevideo. "What I found was horrible", Hack later said, reporting that Andrade was holed up in a dirty basement. "In a spartanly furnished room I found Andrade, a total alcoholic and blind in one eye, a consequence of the injury. He could no longer follow my questions, which were answered by his beautiful wife, the sister of one of the former Olympic champions."

One year later Andrade was dead. He owned almost nothing, though some of the medals he won as a globally renowned footballer remained in a shoebox. It is tempting to think that amid the little he had left were a pair of Olympic golds and a winner's medal from the inaugural World Cup.

But we do not know for certain. Like so much of Andrade's life, we are given enough information to formulate ideas, then left to decide for ourselves what might be true.

* * *

More than half a century on from his death, Andrade remains a hugely relevant figure. At a time when ideas of white racial supremacy were rife across Europe, he was the Paris Games' star player. What's more, he had the courage to ignore white notions about how a black man should behave, treating Paris as his own personal and professional playground. In this respect, there are parallels to be drawn with boxers Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali. Yet his importance is not limited to race: academic Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht believes Andrade was "responsible more than anybody else in the first third of the 20th century for putting football on the map of international sports."

Despite his former fame, Andrade's life now seems somewhat obscured, shrouded in myth and mystery. All that feels entirely real is the football, though even this is an incomplete body of work, with only brief and fuzzy glimpses of his genius on the pitch surviving.

A sense of mystery was important in 1924, when Uruguay arrived in Europe as complete unknowns. The players were simply names on a sheet of paper and their incredible ability thus had the capacity to shock those who saw it in the flesh. Andrade exemplified this perhaps better than anyone else.

His footballing ability quickly became evident that summer, yet much remains unclear. The stories of what he got up to off the pitch and the manner in which he lived his final years are still open to interpretation. Did he have an affair with Baker when they met in Paris? What drove him to such self-destructive drinking? It is more interesting not to know. The uncertainty around Andrade allows us to fill in the gaps ourselves, to believe some of the more outlandish stories and fit them to our own understanding of the world.

@TheFootballPink // @Jim_Weeks