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May 28, 2017

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The mustachioed Englishman behind the scenes of Brazilian soccer history

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- The World Cup unfolding on your screens owes a debt of gratitude to a man with a mighty handlebar mustache.

Charles Miller stepped off a boat from England 120 years ago carrying two soccer balls, a pump to fill them, his soccer boots and a rulebook. From such unassuming beginnings, a nation-changing passion for futebol was planted.

Understandably, the great soccer history Brazil has since written for itself is celebrated and remembered far more than the British-educated pioneer whose Scottish expatriate father married a Brazilian.

But Miller isn't totally forgotten. A square bears his name in Sao Paulo, which hosted the inaugural game of this World Cup. A hawker selling buttercup-yellow Brazil jerseys from the trunk of his car there didn't hesitate when asked who Miller was.

"The guy who brought football to Brazil," he responded without interrupting his brisk trade.

The largest megacity in the southern hemisphere was a more unassuming place of some 300,000 people, many of them immigrants from Italy, when Miller knew it.

Popular sports were cricket, gymnastics, cycling, rowing and a form of squash. English sailors who docked in Rio de Janeiro, pupils schooled by Jesuit priests, and British laborers who came to Brazil for factory and railway work also kicked around balls before Miller returned to Sao Paulo, his birthplace in 1874, from schooling in England.

But Miller is hailed as the forefather of Brazilian soccer because he is credited for organizing the first proper match using the common set of rules first drawn up in a London tavern in 1863.

That game on April 14, 1895, was played between teams formed of railway and gas company workers. Having first shooed oxen off the field, Miller's Sao Paulo Railway team beat the Gas Company 4-2.

Initially, some Brazilians were stupefied.

In his biography of Miller, British author John Mills dug up a letter from a Sao Paulo journalist recounting to a Rio colleague that "mad as hatters" British sportsmen were getting together on weekends "to kick something around that looked like an oxen's bladder, which gave them great satisfaction and displeasure when this kind of yellowish bladder got into a rectangle formed by posts."

But it caught like wildfire.

Within a decade, Miller was telling friends back in England that Sao Paulo alone already had at least 60 clubs and crowds of several thousand for games in the city's first league, which he helped found in 1901.

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