Jose Andrade: From Shoeshiner to the World’s Best Player


Jamie Vardy’s meteoric rise from non-league football to Premier League top scorer and record breaker is currently making a lot of headlines in England, but the best part of a century earlier a far more extraordinary tale of rags to riches was made by one Jose Andrade in South America. An imposing Uruguayan defensive midfielder, Andrade worked as a shoeshiner, carnival musician and according to some reports, a gigolo, before going on to become the finest player of his era and one of the most important men in the history of the game. All football fans ought to know of Jose Andrade’s life, career and his profound contribution to the sport of football, yet in Britain at least, his name would mean nothing to most.

Many great South American footballers come from humble backgrounds, but few can compare to that of Andrade’s. A descendant of African-born slaves, the man believed to be Andrade’s father escaped from Brazil as a slave, and it is claimed that he was 98 years old at the time of Jose Leandro Andrade’s birth in 1901. His father, Jose Ignacio Andrade, who had originally arrived in South America from West Africa was an expert in African magic. Young Jose Leandro grew up in extreme poverty, the illegitimate child was born in Salto, but moved 300 miles south to Montevideo at a young age, where he lived with his aunt.

Andrade resided in the poor Palermo barrio of Montevideo, although he was incredibly gifted as a footballer from a young age, this was little solace for a deprived and impoverished teenager in an era before football turned professional in Uruguay. As a teenager Andrade played for local side Miramar Misiones, joining fellow Montivideo-based Bella Vista at the age of 20. Despite already being noticed as an outstanding talent, the money provided by football was scarce. A talented musician as well as a sportsman, Andrade supplemented his income by working as a carnival musician, where he was proficient playing the drums, violin and the tambourine.

All of these jobs brought in minimal income though, with Andrade also working briefly as both a shoeshiner, newspaper and according to unconfirmed sources, a gigolo. Whether or not the latter was true, Andrade certainly had quite the appetite for women, and was considered a serial womaniser. Whilst in his native Uruguay Andrade’s sex life was not considered to be of great interest or importance to the wider public, that was not the case in Europe, when Andrade became a world superstar in Paris, during the 1924 Olympic Games.

Prior to the creation of the World Cup, the Olympic Games was the closest thing to a world championships in football. What’s more, 1924 was the first Olympic’s to include a South American national team, and having won the 1923 South American Championship’s it was Uruguay who flew the flag for the region in Paris. La Celeste were very highly rated in South America and known for their skill and desire, but in Europe, little was known of them. Uruguay had never played a game outside of South America, and rarely ventured beyond Buenos Aires, so many doubted their credentials against European heavyweights such as Italy or Hungary.

Prior to Uruguay’s opening game against Yugoslavia, the opposition sent spies to watch Uruguay train, in the hope of learning a little more about this unknown quantity in international football. Having been alerted of this fact, the Uruguayan’s deliberately trained poorly, misplacing passes and slicing shots. The Yugoslavia camp became very confident, and even apologised in advance of the game for sending Uruguay home so early. The match was considered the least appealing of all the First Round ties, drawing by far the smallest crowd of only a few thousand people.

Uruguay won the game 7-0. By their second game, three days later, 10,000 people came to watch Uruguay defeat the United States 3-0 and another three days later 45,000 people witnessed them dump out the hosts France in emphatic style, winning 5-1. By now it was clear that Uruguay were genuine superstars and the best team at the championships by some distance. They were the talk of the continent. More than the victories, it was the manner of the victories, with the country playing a vibrant style of play and blowing European countries away.

One Spanish correspondent wrote back to home, “I have been watching football for 20 years and have never seen any team play with the mastery of this Uruguay team. I did not suspect football could be brought to this degree of virtuosity, this artistic limit. They were playing chess with their feet.” Italy’s Gazetta dello Sport described their play as “stylistic perfection.” English journalist and former England international Bernard Joy was particularly impressed with the way in which the South Americans were regimented, he wrote “A doctor and a physical expert were as important elements of the staff as the coach himself. They saw to it that their charges reached perfect physical condition. They were kept that way by staying away from the attractions of Paris at a villa in the quiet village of Argenteuil.” After Uruguay defeated France 5-1, the editor of L’Equipe described their players as being “like thoroughbreds next to farm horses”.

Victory over the Netherlands and Switzerland in the semi-final and final respectively saw Uruguay comfortably crowned Olympic gold medalists. The Uruguay team had looked so superior to every other team at the tournament it was quite remarkable, but even in a team of super stars, one man stood out. The man who had become known as ‘La Merveille Noire’, or ‘The Black Wonder’, was the talk of Paris. His intelligence was what stood out most, Andrade seemed capable of seeing and reading everything, acting as a puppet master in the Uruguay midfield, snuffing out opposition chances and sparking attack for his country.

Whilst he wasn’t the biggest, Andrade was fast and technically excellent, attributes not prioritised by the Europeans for defensive players at that time. He was only 23 years of age at the 1924 Olympics, but the tournament had seen his reputation go from relative unknown outside of South America to being widely considered the best player in the world. Thrust into superstardom in his summer in Paris, there was no shortage of female attention for the Black Wonder, most notably captivating the Nobel Prize winning novelist Colette and the first African-American movie star Josephine Baker.

Andrade had very little in common with Colette in terms of their backgrounds. Colette had been born into a well-off family and extensively educated, whilst Andrade slept on the floor as a child, receiving next to no education and was unable to read or write. Nonetheless, Andrade was no stranger to being a sex symbol. His sporting abilities and accomplishments had made him one of football’s first superstars, and certainly one of the first black superstars, with only Arthur Friedenreich as competition, and the Brazilian forward never exported his fame to Europe in the way Andrade did.

Not only is Andrade considered a pivotal figure within the game for those of colour, but also that of the game as a whole. Stanford University professor Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht described Andrade as being “responsible more than anybody else in the first third of the 20th century for putting football on the map of international sports”. There is certainly strong evidence for this, and by the time of the 1928 Olympic Games, there was no doubt who most fans wanted to see in action, and that was Uruguay and specifically Andrade. Their opening game drew a crowd 10,000 higher than any other First Round tie.

Uruguay won the Olympics once more in 1928, after victories over the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Argentina, the last of which – the final – had to be replayed following the first game ending in a draw. Football at the 1928 Olympic Games is largely considered the precursor to the inaugural FIFA World Cup in 1930. Uruguay’s Olympic victories were classed as making them world champions, and when it came to picking a host for the first World Cup, the fact that Uruguay were celebrating the centenary of their independence in 1930 made FIFA’s decision even easier.

Prior to his international stardom, Andrade had to make it at club level just like anyone else. Having joined Bella Vista at the age of 20, he made his Uruguay debut two years later, during his last season with the club and a year before the 1924 Olympic success. His next club was Nacional, the most successful club in Uruguay in terms of league titles at the time, and a sign that Andrade was already marked for greatness. Nacional would be the dominant club of Andrade’s career, spending 6 years there, playing 105 league games and scoring 29 goals, rather prolific for a holding midfielder.

He won the league title in his first season in 1924 and finished as a runner-up in 1929 before transferring to the other titan of Uruguayan football, Penarol. He made the move at the age of 30, and with his pace beginning to decline, Andrade played even deeper with Penarol, where he played for four years, playing 88 league games. In four years at the club, the lowest Andrade and Penarol finished was second, winning two league titles and finishing as runners-up twice. Whilst on the books at Penarol, Andrade made his first club appearances outside Uruguay, playing once for Atlanta and twice for Lanus, both Buenos Aires based teams in the Argentine Primera Division. After leaving Penarol, Andrade had a brief stint with Wanderers FC, playing 17 games before ending his career having won three league titles.

Andrade was known as a player with remarkable honesty and exceptional temperament; he was even known not to celebrate when his team scored a goal at club or international level. However, there was one instance in Andrade’s career when he let his cool demeanour slip, although rather understandably so. Following Uruguay’s convincing win at the 1924 Olympic Games, bitter rivals Argentina were unhappy with La Celeste being crowned world champions without playing any other South American opposition. As such, Argentina challenged Uruguay to a two match series with one game in Montevideo and the other in Buenos Aires.

In the second leg, in Buenos Aires, stones were thrown onto the field, mostly aimed towards Andrade as the star of the Uruguayan team. The Uruguayans replied by throwing the stones back into the crowd, and the result was a riot, causing the game to be abandoned and one Uruguay player to be arrested. La Celeste had the last laugh once more though, winning the 1925 South American Championship’s, drawing 0-0 with Argentina in their last game being enough to top the group.

By the time of the 1930 World Cup on home soil, Andrade, whilst only 29, was already past his best thanks to a number of health problems. Despite this, he still played, and he was still magnificent, winning the Bronze Ball as the third best player at the tournament as Uruguay lifted the inaugural World Cup, winning every game they played in. They topped their group after 1-0 and 4-0 wins over Peru and Romania, before a 6-1 win over Yugoslavia in the semi-final and a 4-2 win over rivals Argentina in the final.

The tournament marked the end of Andrade’s international career, which ended in fitting style. His international accomplishments mounted to 3 South American Championships, 2 Olympic Gold Medals and one World Cup. FIFA recognised Uruguay’s Olympic victories as being essentially the precursor to the World Cup, hence why the Uruguayan football shirt of today proudly displays four gold stars; two indicating their World Cup wins in 1930 and 1950, and the other two their Olympic successes in 1924 and 1928. By this token, Andrade won 3 world titles as a player, an achievement matched only by two of his teammates and Pele.

Andrade’s achievements were made all the more remarkable by the health problems he had to overcome throughout his career. Whilst on a European tour in the summer of 1925, which saw Nacional travel to nine European countries, Andrade began feeling unwell. When he visited a doctor in Brussel’s he was informed that he had syphilis. He disappeared, failing to make another appearance on the tour, and it later emerged he had travelled to Paris. He spent two months there before returning to Uruguay, where friends, family and coaches noted that he appeared noticeably thinner and rather depressed.

This was not the only health scare Andrade had to contend with. In the semi-final of the 1928 Olympics, he clashed with a goal post causing serious injury and possibly blindness in one eye. It didn’t rule him out from playing in the final, nor did either problem prevent him from playing at the highest level domestically until the age of 34 and being the finest player in the world for the best part of a decade. Loved as a sportsman, he was not always loved as a person. His teammates often found him to be a closed character, who was arrogant, very full of himself and reluctant to let people into his life. Many felt the 1924 Olympics in Paris changed him. In the space of three weeks he had gone from pauper to prince, and he was enjoying it. From the poor young man off the streets of Montevideo that he arrived in Paris as, he returned to Uruguay wearing gloves, leather boots and a top hat, as well as an expensive coat and a silk cravat. He was described as a “dandy” and seemed a changed man to those who knew him.

Following Uruguay’s 1924 Olympic Gold the black community of Montevideo arranged a party to celebrate Andrade’s homecoming, as the only black player in the Uruguay team. Andrade did not attend, causing great offence to many people. It is perhaps for these reasons that Andrade has not been as warmly remembered in Uruguay as his achievements and ability warranted. In Britain, it is little surprise Andrade is unknown. As a country we paid little attention to football outside our shores until the 1950’s, and before the days of televised matches, only journalists and correspondents such as the aforementioned Bernard Joy were aware of the genius of Andrade.

Those who saw the Black Marvel play ran out of superlatives for him. He was described as the most technically gifted player of his day, yet he was better known to glide past opponents than use a piece of trickery, drawing comparisons to Zinedine Zidane. In 1990, France Football’s World Cup Top 100 named Andrade the tenth greatest player in World Cup history, whilst in IFFHS’ Football Player of the Century, Andrade came 29th, ahead of Josef Bican and Franco Baresi. He was, as far as almost anyone who saw him in his prime is concerned, the finest player of his day. Andrade was the linchpin and vital component that made Uruguay the best team in the world throughout the 1920’s.

Following retirement from the game, Andrade’s health problems grew worse. He survived long enough to be a guest at the 1950 World Cup which returned to Uruguay, and was able to watch his nephew Victor Rodriguez Andrade win the World Cup at the Estadio Centenario 20 years after he had. Despite being a celebrity and hero in Uruguay and having become accustomed to that level of fame, Andrade was far from wealthy. By the age of 50 he was living in relative poverty once more in a small flat in Montevideo. He had become an alcoholic. He contracted tuberculosis and died in 1957 in a nursing home at the age of 55. Andrade’s achievements were honoured with a plaque at the Estadio Centenario, little recognition for a man who shook Europe, inspired Uruguay to three of their four greatest footballing accomplishments and is undoubtedly one of the nation’s greatest sons.


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