A continuation of Football Paradise’s Evolution of the Dribble series. For Part 1, The Search for Football’s Missing Link, click here. For Part 2, Salvador Dali’s Favourite Footballer, click here.
This is a story about three gods from an old continent. Two tricked into slavery, one still roaming free. This story is as much about a King who sold his son to the devil, as it is about football, its black syncopation and upheaval. This is a story about José Leandro Andrade‘s unbelievable life and death.
We do not really mean,
we do not really mean
that what we are about to say is true.
A story, is a story;
let it come, let it go.
– A rhyme of the Ashanti tribe, recited at beginning of all tales
Stories often form like pearls. A painful gravel in the mouth of the oyster: layered, smoothed and shined until it becomes easy to bear and for others to barter.
Upon the surface was a heavy ship. Its wood smelled of shit, vomit and seawater. The passengers on the lower deck wondered if they would know the difference whether they died and went to hell. Packed in like sardines, their lives were not theirs to take or keep.
They didn’t know they were black yet. They thought they were people.
There was a man among them who tried to starve himself to death. His shoulders branched out like a Baobab tree, and he had limbs as muscular as a Leopard’s. He had strong jaws and pride, and he would fetch the white devils a lot of money.
It took seven slavers to hold him down while they broke a chisel through his front teeth. Food was then poured down; he was forced to swallow his pride or choke.
When the slavers came to Africa in 1699, they tricked her men and their gods. Broken-tooth Osebo was one of them.
That night when everybody slept, Osebo prayed for Legba, the keeper of doors and safe passage, but it was another who barged in, with a grin through where there was no door before.
“Mighty big hole you’re in again, brother,” Anansi, the trickster god teased.
Osebo, the Leopard God, felt some sense of deja vu make him sweat in the damp-cold of the Atlantic.
“Pressure pushing down on me, pressing down on you, no man ask for, this pressure that brings a building down, splits a family in two,” Anansi, the god-of-all-rhymes rhymed. “I’m not here for you, brother.”
Mind and throat both parched now, Osebo said nothing.
Anansi went on breathlessly: “They don’t worship Leopards in the new world, not anymore. We have to cut our losses, you see? Orders from higher up, sorry. Recession, damage limitation, you know the drill. You, however…” Anansi’s gaze shot across the low deck to a slick, slender man in shackles and it arrested him.
Anansi, the weaver-of-all-stories, spoke through his teeth: “You, Shango, God king of the Yoruba people. Usher of dance, drums, debauchery and thunder, you have potential…In exchange for this freedom, in time I’ll come for my price: a black pearl and one of its eyes. You understand?”
And like a flash of spider-silk in the dark, Anansi, the god of escape, smiled.
There was a sudden clink of chains falling on wood muffled by a distant rolling-thunder. No one seemed to notice the escape except Osebo – a grieving godforsaken god of the Ashanti tribe.
The Voodoo Child
José Leandro Andrade was born in the month of Shango, in the year 1901. Within 23 years he had become world football’s first best.
Before Pele there was Andrade. Before Andrade came, the regional capital in the north of Uruguay, Salto, was an unremarkable place noted only for its cattle and citrus fruit.
He was borne by an Argentine mother, a Voodoo Queen, who dabbled in the dark arts. But who his father was, no one would know. The Salto municipality birth certificate informs us that his father was 98 at the time of his birth. Rumour was that he was a runaway African slave and a God-man. José Leandro Andrade never saw him but once, and never in life.
He would often ask his mother about his father. In reply, she would say, “En el aire (in the air).”
Hair with the gloss of black gold, his skin was the colour of ore. His eyes were deep like the tar pits of La Brea; when he became a man, he led women to them with his torch-light smile.
Yet, even that sort of magic needed practice.
Before football and fame entered the fray, he was already infamous. Andrade led the drums for carnival comparsa Libertadores de Africa. In nightclubs, he strummed hearts and his tambourine. In ballrooms, he played the violin.
He whetted his tongue sharp, first as a shoeshine, then as a salesman, and on middays honed his marking chasing chickens back to their coops. At midnight, as a young gigolo, he sold his feints for a living.
When he finally laid bare his strengths onto the grandest stage of all, 1,000, then 10,000 and finally 41,0000 Parisians poured into the Stade Olympique in Colombes for the Olympic Gold final with their finest wines. The city was abuzz with talk of a man who made football feel like a cabaret.
There was no misstep – dancer and musician both, he always kept his verve. Héctor Scarone, the Gardel of Football, used to swear he used to hear him snap his fingers or click his tongue in training. While Scarone was the frontman of the band, Andrade’s game was the metronome to Uruguay’s musical phrasing.
José Leandro Andrade‘s hips would swing like the hinges of a door: one movement would open up the pitch for his friends, and another would shut out his foes. When he heard the beats of the Calinda in his head, opponents could barely step on his shadow. When they did manage to come shoulder to shoulder with the rubber-bodied robber of balls, they used to bounce off of him like mad men off walls.
Defensive-midfielder, 5’11”, his interceptions were divine intervention for La Celeste (Uruguay, nicknamed the Sky Blues) from footballing heaven. He often displayed some kind of electric-elasticity before he would launch the balls downfield like a slingshot – qualities that ultimately made him a 3-time World Champion (1 World Cups and 2 Olympic golds) and football’s first unofficial brand ambassador.
Andrade was a thoroughbred. Chest out, head steadfast in full-stride – he ran with the ball as the Mustangs of Mojave were meant to gallop. Come in front of either and you would risk being trampled.
When he came for the ball, you could hear him coming, like a nicely syncopated rolling of thunder and Bata drums getting louder. They tried to hack him down to stop him, but were as successful as they would have been at catching greased lightning with a butterfly net.
‘Cabio Sile Shango!’ the Nigerians in the stands would call out in a salutation of familiarity and fear. The besotted French press called José Leandro Andrade ‘la Perle Noire’, the Black Pearl, football’s first black bastion.
Not far away Compe Anansi laughed in French. Then, folding the sports page of his paper, dusted off his purple jacket with it, and walked out a door twirling his silver-knobbed cane, with the quiet confidence of a businessman who closed all his deals.
(To be continued in next issue: The Cost of Pearls – Compe Anansi was there at the start of all stories, and he will be at the end of yours.)