The first black player to play international football in South America, Gradin was the leading goalscorer and best player at that inaugural Copa in 1916, inspiring Uruguay to the title. Overcoming prejudice and discrimination, the proud striker showed the way for other black players and went down in history as one of the greats of those early days.
The young Gradin was blessed with both power and speed, and had so much of both that even though he went on to play football for his country and win trophies, he also devoted his considerable energies to athletics.
He began his playing career as an 18-year-old with Penarol, and travelled one year later to Buenos Aires for the first South American Championships. Much was happening on the fast-growing continental football scene, with the increasing number of international friendlies and the need to organise competitive matches to continue expanding the game resulting in the creation of the South American Football Confederation (CSF) in the Argentinian capital.
The continental tournament, which was held to mark the 100th anniversary of Argentinian independence, was contested by the host nation, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil. The four teams played each other once, with the trophy going to the side amassing most points.
A much-remembered matchwinner
The opening match was played out by Uruguay and Chile on 2 July at the home ground of Gimnasia y Esgrima in Buenos Aires, before a crowd of 3,000. La Celeste won 4-0, with Gradin scoring twice, though what made the game truly notable was the fact that it was the first time two black players (Gradin and his team-mate Juan Delgado) featured for a national team in an official competition.
The Chilean delegation later appealed to the newly formed CSF, demanding that they should be awarded the points on account of the fact that Uruguay had fielded two "Africans” in their team. The appeal was rejected. Los Charrúas went on to beat Brazil, a game in which Gradin was again on the scoresheet, and draw with the hosts to win the first of their 15 Copa America crowns.
Gradin made an indelible mark on the competition. The leading marksman with three goals, he was also named the player of the tournament. Uruguay retained their title the following year, though Gradin did not feature in any of the games.
He also wrote his name in the history books at Penarol, helping the club win league titles in 1918 and 1921, and scoring 101 goals in 212 matches for them. One of the greatest all-time heroes of El Mirasol, he was described thus in the club’s Libro de Oro del Centenario ('Golden Centenary Book'): “A shooting star, Isabelino Gradin was granted his three wishes: that he would excel on pitch and track, have the poets sing about him and be remembered forever.”
A fast and gifted athlete, Gradin divided his time between football and track and field, and joined the athletics club Olimpia in 1922, going on to win three South American 400m titles and two continental 200m and 4x400m relay titles.
So talented was he that the writers and poets of that pre-television age were moved to immortalise him, while in later years, the award-winning Eduardo Galeano recalled his feats at the 1916 Copa America in his book Fútbol a Sol y Sombra (Football in Sun and Shadow): “People rose to their feet whenever he set off on one of his amazingly fast runs, controlling the ball as someone else could only manage at walking pace, weaving his way past opponents at top speed and shooting on the gallop. He had the most wholesome of faces, and was one of those people that no one could ever believe would step out of line.”
After watching him play, the Peruvian poet Juan Parra del Riego penned this glowing tribute to Gradin: “An arrow! A viper! A bell! A banner! Gradin: a blue and green bullet! Gradin: an elusive balloon! A billiard player right behind the ball as it rebounds from head to head and flies off... and a soaring Discobolus... you leave one, two, three, seven players trailing in your wake.”
One hundred years on from the first Copa America, the great Isabelino Gradin remains a key figure in South American football, a player who defined an age and who, albeit unwittingly, changed the face of the game forever.