When Chelsea went to Rio

Ahead of tomorrow’s showpiece final the official Chelsea website tells the story of a close-season tour we undertook in South America, including in Brazil, 85 years ago…

The 1928/29 season was far from a memorable one for Chelsea, with our ninth-place finish the lowest of five successive years in the old Second Division. However, while that campaign bordered on average, the close-season tour the players and management undertook was anything but.

It was decided, most likely by chairman William Claude Kirby or prominent director Colonel C.D.Crisp, to venture to South America to take on the cream of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil’s crop. In total the tour would last three months, two of which would be spent travelling to and from the Latin continent. The story was first uncovered by club historian Rick Glanvill in Chelsea FC: The Official Biography.

The Stamford Bridge hierarchy hoped to market their team in a land where British football garnered plenty of positive attention: a number of English and Scottish clubs had already embarked on tours in that part of the world. The appearance fees were also generous, while the lengthy trip would prove to help keep the players fit and, perhaps more crucially, bond the squad.

Manager David Calderhead did not travel so Jacks Whitley and Harrow shared coaching duties, though it is likely that Kirby and Crisp would also have been heavily involved in selection decisions. The ship carrying the Chelsea crew, RMS Asturias (below), arrived into Rio’s stunning harbour on 16 May 1929. On top of Corcovado Mountain the statue of Christ the Redeemer was nearing completion.

On arrival the squad headed south to Argentina, where they played 10 games in total, many of them feisty affairs on and off the pitch. They then travelled east to Montevideo, Uruguay. The country had won the gold medal at the 1928 Olympics, while the capital city was to host the inaugural World Cup a year later.

The final leg of the journey was in Brazil. Our first match there, against a team of Carioca (Rio natives) all-stars, took place at the Rua Guanabara stadium, then the home of Fluminense. The 10pm kick-off meant, for the first time ever, Chelsea played under floodlights. The Pensioners from London took an early lead through William Jackson but, despite dominating for large spells, our hosts equalised with 10 minutes to play.

‘Chelsea drew 1-1 after a brilliantly contested game,’ one member of the travelling party told Athletic News, a London-based weekly newspaper covering every sport in detail.

‘Can your readers picture a cloudless sky all day, with the thermometer at 90 degrees in the shade, then darkness at 6pm, and this wonderful city illuminated with millions of lights. We were all entranced.’

No wonder they played another game there, two days later, against the same opposition. This time Chelsea lost 2-1.

Their next stop was Sao Paulo, reached by overnight train. In taking on that city’s most famous side, Corinthians, at Palmeiras’s stadium, we became the first British club to play there.

And what a game it was! Chelsea raced into a three-goal lead but the hosts produced an astonishing comeback to lead 4-3. However, the game’s outstanding player, Sid Elliot, levelled for the travellers and a ferocious encounter ended all square at four apiece.

There was time for one more game in Brazil - a 3-1 loss to a Sao Paulo all-star team – before the Chelsea party set sail back to England. Sixteen matches in 44 days in South America yielded five victories, three draws and eight losses. They had also earned Chelsea perhaps our most exotic nickname, ‘Los Numerados’, in recognition of the numbered shirts the players wore. It was to be 10 years before they were introduced in England.

The gruelling trip was met with mixed reactions from the Chelsea hierarchy. Chairman Kirby described the South Americans as ‘true masters in tactical play’. He marvelled too at the style and ball control on offer, perhaps a consequence of the outstanding sporting facilities many of the amateur teams possessed.

However, director Crisp was altogether less complimentary. He complained to the FA about ‘very bad refereeing’, ‘badly-controlled crowds’ and ‘Latin temperament’. This applied especially to games played in Buenos Aires, where Chelsea players had come under attack from opposition supporters, players and, in one instance, the referee himself.

A few months later, all British football associations formally rejected an offer to compete at the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay (the opening ceremony is pictured below). It would be 20 years before England competed on the global stage.

For Chelsea, history would suggest the trip was a triumph. After six successive years in England’s second tier, the Pensioners won promotion to the top-flight at the conclusion of the 1929/30 season. The three month close-season voyage to South America helped forge team spirit. It also broadened the travellers’ horizons: they were able to witness a slicker, more technical and less physical side to the game.

Football is now a global sport - it is likely over a billion people will watch tomorrow's World Cup final – but in the late 1920s the experience of travelling to a foreign land far away was relatively novel. And so it was Chelsea returned with increased football wisdom, on and off the pitch, and a sense of new beginning that would serve the club well in the pre-war years.

By Rupert Cane