The South American Championship Christmas Day decider

Buenos Aires 1925 © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The picture postcard of snowy landscapes and snowmen may define a northern hemisphere view of the Christmas idyll, but for those in the tropics and the southern hemisphere, Christmas has always been a very different experience.

In South America it heralds long balmy days and short nights and is a period where football traditionally shuts up shop for a summer recess as the population at large heads off to the coast and the beach.

For a taste of Christmas past in sunnier climes we turn the clocks back to 1920s South America where, as the league seasons drew to a close, fans could also look forward to the annual staging of the South American Championship. In 1925, Argentina was set to host the tournament and the football association decided to delay the staging until the league season had concluded. That threw up a curiosity which had not been seen before, or since… the final match of a major national team tournament played on Christmas Day.

Plans were thrown into chaos before the tournament kicked off when Olympic champions Uruguay withdrew. Since 1922 the traditional powers Nacional and Peñarol competed in different leagues. Neither had managed to organise a championship in 1925, an opportunity seized upon by Nacional to embark on a major tour abroad. Chile also pulled out before the start, blaming poor showings at previous tournaments leaving just three nations – the hosts Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil.

Due to the lack of numbers, it was decided to play a double round-robin tournament with the Argentina – Brazil game scheduled as the final match to be staged on Christmas Day. The prediction was that this would be the deciding game, and so it turned out to be. Paraguay lost all four of their games, but they did feature in their ranks Fleitas Solich, who as a coach in the 1950s would go on to have a far-reaching effect on global football. He introduced a revolutionary new tactical 4-2-4 formation which Brazil then copied, leading to their triumph at the 1958 World Cup.

Artur Friedenreich (3. f.t.l.) at the first game of the Brasilian National Team in 1914 © Grecian Archive/Exeter University

Brazil arrived in Argentina with the famous Artur Friedenreich still spearheading their attack, as he had done since Brazil’s first game back in 1914. The defence, however, was more suspect and although comfortably beating the Paraguayans, Brazil lost 4-1 in the first of the two matches against Argentina. The defeat might also have had something to do with the Buenos Aires nightlife given that since arriving in the Argentine capital the Brazilian players were reported as disappearing from their hotel at night to experience the famous charms of the city of Gardel and tango. That meant Brazil needed to win the Christmas Day encounter with Argentina to force a play-off. Argentina, on the other hand just needed a draw to secure their second continental crown.

In the summer sunshine, a capacity Christmas crowd of 18,000 turned up at the Estadio Sportivo Barracas to witness the drama unfold. When Argentina had first hosted the South American Championship in 1916, a riot had broken out in the deciding match. Gun shots were fired and the stand at Gimnasia y Esgrima’s ground was burnt to the ground. Though not experiencing the same level of violence, this match, too, left its mark on football in South America for the rest of the decade.

Brazil raced into a two-goal lead thanks to first half goals by Friedenreich and Nilo and looked like making it 3-0 when Friedenreich was fouled by Argentina defender Muttis. A fight broke out between the two which prompted a pitch invasion, with fans rounding on the Brazilian players. Clearly intimidated, Brazil let Argentina back into the game, Antonio Cerroti pulling one back just before half-time before the tournament’s top goal scorer Manuel Seoane scored the equaliser that clinched the title.

Christmas cheer, however, seemed to be in short supply on both sides. The Argentine press criticised Seoane for being overweight and didn’t spare criticism of goalkeeper Américo Tesorieri, who had equalled Calomino’s record of 38 caps in the game, but never got to beat it as a result. The team was criticised for being too physical and that’s how Brazil saw it. They were furious at their treatment and the match prompted protests back in Rio. The decision was taken that the Brazilian team would withdraw from playing matches, and they didn’t take to the field for nearly five years. The next game they played was against Yugoslavia at the 1930 World Cup!