Sunday 10 July 2016, 13:58

Rubens Salles, the first Brazilian leader

When English club Corinthian toured Brazil in 1910, in a bid to expand the game, they came across a player of such promise that they invited him to return home with them. The talented individual in question was a young CA Paulistano midfielder called Rubens de Moraes Salles, or, to give him his shortened name, Rubens Salles.

Taking up the story in its obituary of Salles, O Estado de S.Paulo wrote: “The head of the British delegation was so excited about Rubens that he made him a very attractive offer to play for a professional team back in his country.” Though flattered by the proposal, Salles, who was 20 at the time, promptly turned it down. Local football fans would have cause to celebrate that decision, for it led to him becoming one of the most prominent figures in a sport still in its infancy in Brazil, which, within a few decades, would nevertheless become recognised as the home of the game.

As pioneers go, Salles was as good as they come. Not only was he one of the first Brazilian players to receive an offer from a foreign club, he also had the honour of being his country’s first national-team captain, hence his place in’s special series on the first skippers of the world’s great international sides. That privilege came his way in 1914, in a friendly against another English outfit, Exeter City. Aside from skippering the team, Salles was also its joint coach, along with the defender Sylvio Lagrecca – all this at the age of only 23. Just for good measure, that same season he scored the only goal as A Seleção won their first ever international match and title – against Argentina no less – in the Copa Roca.

That victory came in Buenos Aires on 27 September, two months after the debut outing against Exeter, with Salles’ looping 13th-minute strike from outside the box catching goalkeeper Juan Jose Rithner unawares. Not without good reason, his team-mates dubbed him Patada Atômica (“The Atomic Kick”), the very same nickname that would be bestowed many years later on another iconic figure of the Brazilian game: Roberto Rivelino, a FIFA World Cup™ winner in 1970.

Salles’ international career proved to be short, however. After making three more appearances for his country, he retired from the game in 1917. His influence in what was an amateur sport would remain undiminished, however, not least because of his decision to go into coaching. In 1931, for example, he guided the mighty Sao Paulo FC to the state championship, the first title of their illustrious history. Sadly, that success was the last of his career, and he died three years later, at the age of 53.

Born in the city of Sao Manuel, some 270 kilometres from Sao Paulo, Salles began playing football at the age of 11, in playground kickabouts with his friends. He was largely untrained as a player, and it is hard to say which was his stronger suit on the pitch: his obvious ability on the ball or his leadership skills.

The author of his O Estado de S.Paulo obituary acknowledged both those assets: “Following his retirement from the game, a number of strong young players came through and made names for themselves, though none of them did so with quite the same unique and elegant way of playing what was a strange sport. He had an unshakeable view of what team spirit should be. There were many occasions on which Rubens Salles, in those fleeting hours of triumph, demanded that no mention be made of his name, so that the rest of the gang should receive the same measure of applause and praise.”