Jose Leandro Andrade: The Original Black Pearl

Brazilian legend Pele, often regarded as the greatest player of all time, was bestowed with the nickname ‘The Black Pearl’ by many in his home country.

While the now 76-year-old is without doubt deserving of this title, there was a man before Pele who was given the ‘Black Pearl’ nickname.

Jose Leandro Andrade was the star of the great Uruguayan team of the 1920’s and 30’s and earned the moniker of ‘The Black Pearl’.

However, while Andrade’s talent and career were the stuff of legend, his entire life is a tale worthy of being told, but yet, it very rarely is.

We often hear of the brilliance, antics and eventually tragic downfall of the like of George Best and Robin Friday, with both regarded as legendary cult figures.

Andrade is often overshadowed and forgotten because of the time that has passed since his career and life, but, I am going to tell you his story.

Andrade’s Beginnings

Born in the city of Salto in northwest Uruguay in 1901 to an Argentine mother, the mystery, myth, and legend surrounding Jose Leandro Andrade began from the very moment he arrived in the world.

Jose Ignacio Andrade is believed to have been his father, with his name recorded on the birth certificate. However, Ignacio Andrade was 98-years-old at the time.

It is believed that Leandro Andrade’s elderly father was born an African slave but had managed to escape to Brazil and that he possessed magical powers, picked up from his time in Africa.

Although this seems highly unlikely, it may explain how he lived to the age he did, when life expectancy in 1900 Uruguay was just 49-years-old, and how he somehow managed to conceive a child at 98-years-old.

At an early age, Leandro Andrade moved to the capital city of Montevideo, where he lived with his aunt.

Although he was a brilliant footballer from a young age, playing for Misiones as a teenager, he had many jobs before becoming a professional footballer.

These included a shoe shiner, newspaper salesman and a carnival musician, being able to play the drums, violin, and tambourine. Although hard to prove, popular legend would have you believe that he also worked as a gigolo.

Skills from at least one of these professions would become useful for Andrade in Paris during later life.

The Paris Olympic Games, 1924

The defensive midfielder joined his first pro team in 1921, signing for Montevideo-based side Bella Vista. He would spend two years at the club, making 71 appearances, scoring seven goals and earning himself a call up to the Uruguayan national team in 1923.

That year, La Celeste won the South American Championship – now known as the Copa America – with Andrade playing a key role. This success saw the team qualify for the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, where they represent the entire continent of South American against 18 other teams.

Andrade was named in the squad for the 1924 Games, making him the first black footballer to play at Olympic level.

Despite being South American champions, Uruguay were not afforded luxury travel to Paris, sailing to Europe in third-class accommodation. Upon arriving on the continent, they travelled in second-class train carriages, slept on benches and paid for their meals with a tour of Spain.

This was not an issue for the Uruguayan team though, as many lived in poverty, both in childhood and adult life, including Andrade himself.

They were given little chance in Paris, although Yugoslavia, their first opponents in the tournament, gave them the respect of sending spies to watch them train. The spies left with a report that claimed the team misplaced passes and had a poor eye for goal.

Uruguay beat Yugoslavia 7-0.

Having caught wind of the spies, Andrade and his team trained poorly as a ruse, and it clearly worked.

An apparent lack of respect for La Celeste may have also been the driving force behind their success, with their flag raised the wrong way up prior to kick-off and a Brazilian march was played instead of their national anthem.

The USA were the next team to face Uruguay, escaping relatively unscathed with a 3-0 defeat.

Andrade and his team then beat host nation France 5-1 in the quarter-final, in front of no less than 30,000 supporters.

European fans were finally taking notice of the Uruguayan team, but they faced a difficult test in the semi-final, coming up against a strong Dutch side.

An 81st-minute penalty was required to separate the two teams, with Uruguay emerging as eventual 2-1 winners.

This was followed by a slightly more comfortable 3-0 win over Switzerland in the final and Uruguay were gold medal winners.

French newspaper L’Equipe described the Uruguayans as being “like thoroughbreds next to farm horses” and that the South Americans had “a marvellous virtuosity in receiving the ball, controlling it and using it.”

Although little footage of the 1924 team exists, the few rolls of film that do, truly highlight how superior the Uruguayan team were to their opponents.

While Andrade did not score in Paris, he was the standout performer. Although just 22-years-old at the time, he controlled and dominated games with his composed and physical style. He also played with an elegance, seemingly gliding over the pitch rather than running.

He has often drawn contemporary comparisons with French legend Zinedine Zidane because of this. Zidane himself would go on to achieve success in Paris, 74 years after Andrade had done so.

Richard Hofmann, a German international who would later play against Andrade in 1928, described the Uruguayan as “A football artist who could simply do anything with the ball…a tall guy with elastic movements, who always preferred the direct, elegant game without physical contact and was always ahead with his thoughts by several moves.”

Although Andrade may not have scored on the pitch in Paris, he definitely scored off it.

He enjoyed his now found fame in Paris, often disappearing from the team hotel, only for his teammates to find him in luxury apartments in exclusive areas of the French capital, surrounded by beautiful women.

Two women who are known to have taken a keen interest in Andrade were Colette and Josephine Baker.

Colette was a novelist and performer who caused a riot in the Moulin Rouge in 1907 for simulating sex on stage with another woman. She was one of the most famous and desirable women in Europe at the time, and she was captivated by Andrade.

Baker was a film star and stage performer, described by Ernest Hemingway as “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”. She also took a keen interest in Andrade and spent a lot of time with him while he was in Paris.

However, it would appear that his new star status went to his head, with Andrade failing to attend a welcome home party held by the Black community of Montevideo, causing outrage.

The Beginning Of The End

Upon his return to Uruguay in 1924, Andrade joined Nacional, one of the biggest teams in the country. He would remain with the team until 1930, winning the Uruguayan Primera Division four times as well as three national cups.

However, a number of events in this six year period saw Andrade achieve greatness but also saw his life begin to spiral out of control.

In 1925, Nacional toured nine European countries, attracting more than 800,000 total spectators to watch them. However, Andrade only completed half of this tour.

While in Brussels, Belgium, he began to feel ill and visited a doctor. Andrade was told he had contracted syphilis, disappearing to Paris – the site of his greatest moment – upon hearing the news.

Two months passed and no one in Uruguay had seen or heard from Andrade. Upon his return to Montevideo, a reporter who welcomed ‘The Black Pearl’ home said that he had lost weight and appeared depressed. Andrade himself said he was still feeling ill and underwent a course of treatment.

Remarkably, he continued playing despite his syphilis diagnosis. The infection had caused him to lose some of his pace, but none of his remarkable skill.

He won his third South American Championship in 1926, adding to his 1923 and 1924 triumphs, also finishing as a runner-up in 1927.

Uruguay played in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, with Andrade being picked for the squad. Although his influence on the team was not as great as it once was, his popularity had not waned.

Huge crowds turned out to watch Andrade and La Celeste, with the 1924 gold medallists defeating hosts Holland 2-0, Germany 4-1 and Italy 3-2 in the semi-final.

However, during the semi-final against Italy, Andrade had run at full speed into a goal post. He suffered a serious eye injury that would later see him go blind in the injured eye, although some claim that the blindness was caused by his syphilis.

Uruguay faced South American rivals Argentina in the final, for which 250,000 people – 10 times the capacity of the stadium – applied for tickets, such as the popularity of Andrade and his teammates.

The game finished 1-1, making Argentina the only side to have not been beaten by Uruguay in nine Olympic football matches. However, the holders retained their gold medal, winning the replay 2-1.

By 1930, Andrade’s impact was becoming less and less because of his syphilis, and he was now beginning to go blind. However, he was still selected for the Uruguay squad as the country hosted the inaugural FIFA World Cup.

The team won the tournament on home soil, beating Argentina once again in the final, with Andrade playing in every game, being named in the tournament’s all-star team and winning the bronze ball for the third best player.

Andrade was again a national hero and the star of Uruguay’s seemingly unbeatable team.

However, the final win over Argentina would be his last ever international appearance.

With FIFA now officially recognising the ’24 and ’28 Olympics as world championships, Andrade and three of his teammates have an international trophy haul that can only be matched by Pele, the man who was given Andrade’s nickname, ‘The Black Pearl’.

Andrade finished his Uruguay career with 34 caps and five trophies, giving him a truly remarkable record of an international championship success every 6.8 games.

He may never have played for Uruguay again, but Andrade continued his club career, moving to Penoral in 1931. He left Nacional having scored 29 goals in 105 appearances.

Spending four years at Penoral, Andrade played 88 games, scored three goals and won a further two Primera Division titles.

He left the club in 1935, spending time in Argentina with Atlanta and Lanus-Talleres, returning to Uruguay for a brief stint with Wanderers before hanging up his boots.

Tragic End

Following the conclusion of his football career, Andrade needed to find work. Unlike modern football, back in the 1930’s, players either had to stay in the game in some form, or adapt to normal life.

Andrade did neither.

He drank heavily due to a failing marriage, leading to poor health, depression, and alcoholism, fading from the public eye.

He reemerged in 1950, having been invited to the FIFA World Cup in Brazil as a guest of honour. His nephew, Victor Rodriguez Andrade, played in the tournament for Uruguay, adopting the Andrade name as a tribute to his legendary uncle.

Somewhat fittingly, Uruguay won the tournament, becoming World Champions for the second time.

Following the tournament, Andrade fell further into alcoholism, ill health, and depression.

He had not been seen for many years and he may well have passed away without anyone knowing, had it not been for the work and commitment of German journalist Fritz Hack.

In 1956, Hack decided to search Montevideo for the once great Andrade. Five days of searching the Uruguayan capital turned up nothing. On the sixth day, however, Hack searched the basement of a flat.

This is where he found Andrade.

“What I found was horrible. In a spartanly furnished room, I found Andrade, a total alcoholic and blind in one eye, a consequence of the injury. He could no longer follow my questions, which were answered by his beautiful wife, the sister of one of the former Olympic champions.”

Those are the words of Fritz Hack, describing how he found Andrade.

A three-time world champion, a national and global footballing hero, one of the greatest players to ever grace a football pitch, found like that. A tragic tale.

Andrade was moved to an asylum in Montevideo but just a year later, he was dead. ‘The Black Pearl’ died penniless, with very little to his name. However, he had kept some of his medals in a shoe box. Whether his Olympic golds or World Cup medal were among them is unknown.

How Should He Be Remembered?

Much of Andrade’s life was shrouded in mystery, with the tales of his life and exploits giving us just enough information to build a picture of the man that may or may not be accurate. It is up to each individual to decide what is true.

With many figures throughout history, it is the legendary ones whose lives could be true or exaggerated, and Andrade is no different.

One of the first worldwide football stars, and the first black star of the beautiful game, he did more than just make an impact on the pitch.

Living in a time when black people were oppressed, Andrade grasped his fame with both hands, treating Paris as if he owned the city. While this fame may have been the trigger that led to his downfall and eventual death, we should remember ‘The Black Pearl’ for the brilliance he showed in his prime.

Academic Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht once said of Andrade.

“He was responsible more than anybody else in the first third of the 20th century for putting football on the map of international sports”

I believe this is the premise on which is life should be remembered.

He was named 29th in the Federation of Football History and Statistics Player of the Century list, while he ranked 10th in France Football’s World Cup Top-100 1930–1990, but bar this acknowledgement, he has received very little since his death.

Although I have highlighted his life both on and off the pitch, we are not certain of what was true of it, but, the grainy footage of 1924, 1928 and 1930 give us proof of what he was like on it. A true great.

We may not speak of Jose Leandro Andrade often because of the time that has passed since he graced a football pitch, and the apparent far-flung nature of his exploits but, it would appear that he is not remembered in Uruguay either.

In 2014, German Coutinho, the mayor of Salto, Andrade’s birthplace, named Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani as outstanding citizens of the city.

Like Andrade, the pair were born in Salto and are two of Uruguay’s greatest ever footballers. While they are arguably deserving of the award, Andrade, twice Olympic gold medallist and one-time FIFA World Cup winner, has received no such award or recognition.

Jose Leandro Andrade, a life lived to the fullest both on and off the pitch. He may have met a sad and tragic end, but, he is truly one of football’s forgotten greatest.

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