Footage of the first World Cup final in 1930 is scarce, and whatever there is has deteriorated in quality. The clips on YouTube are grainy, brief and hard to follow, so it is impossible to tell what part José Leandro Andrade played in Uruguay’s 4-2 victory over Argentina.

According to accounts from those who were there his form, speed and influence had started to wane; yet his name still appears in the Fifa team of the tournament. That final would be his last appearance for Uruguay, the best team in the world in the 1920s.

There is a little more footage of him in the Olympic Games of 1924 and 1928, in Paris and Amsterdam, both won by Uruguay. As Andrade stylishly controls a pass and tricks his way past a Swiss defender in the Paris final he is described by the commentator as “the Black Pearl, the first global star of international football”.

Uruguay were the first South American team to play in Europe, Andrade the first black international player seen by Europeans who were so impressed that a quarter of a million people applied for tickets for the 1928 Olympic final. The stadium in Amsterdam held 28,000.

Andrade, like his captain José Nasazzi, and the forwards Pedro Cea and Héctor Scarone, played in the final of all three of Uruguay’s great triumphs from 1924-1930 (the goalkeeper Andrés Mazali would have joined them had he not been dropped for breaking World Cup curfew to go on a date with a girlfriend). But Andrade was so much more than an exotic footballer.

Two questions, both subjective, constantly arise when considering the life of José Leandro Andrade. First, how good a player was he? Second, how popular or unpopular, famous or infamous, might he have been if television and social media had existed when he was supposedly the central figure in the world’s best football team?

Given that the Olympic football tournament was the nearest thing to a World Cup before Uruguay hosted the first one in 1930, Andrade’s achievements put him at the pinnacle of the game.

In the pre-television world he was, as that commentator pointed out,  football’s first international superstar. He was also its first black superstar and its first rags-to-riches-to-rags player whose life story would make a good film. He was the best-known player in Uruguay’s era of dominance, but whether he was the most influential is harder to say. Some have called him ‘the first Pelé’. If you listen to others you might see him more as ‘the first David Beckham’, a sporting sex symbol with a touch more style than substance. Not that Beckham could have matched Andrade’s off-field exploits.

Andrade was an accomplished musician, an expert tango dancer, a womaniser, a drinker, a party-lover. He dressed like a dandy, he was elegant, arrogant, aloof and, off the pitch, ill-disciplined. He upset a lot of people, causing great offence on one occasion when he failed to attend a homecoming party arranged in his honour. When his playing career finished he could not hold down a job: he began a descent into a syphilitic hell of poverty, alcoholism, blindness and early death. He was 56 when he died in an asylum in Montevideo on 4 October 1957.

Some very wise men are among those who have assessed his significance as a footballer. The Stanford University academic Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a respected multilingual philosopher and expert in the history of literature and culture, believes Andrade was “responsible more than anybody else in the first third of the twentieth century for putting football on the map of international sports”.

Gumbrecht tentatively describes Andrade as a 1920s version of Zinedine Zidane, though in looks and bearing the 6ft half-back perhaps more resembled Frank Rijkaard.

Gabriel Hanot, the former international player who edited L’Équipe, said Uruguay’s 1924 players were “like thoroughbreds next to farm horses” in comparison with north European players. “This is a revelation!” he wrote of their fluent passing game .

Andrade played mostly at half-back, from where he dominated games, busy in both halves of the pitch. Gumbrecht wrote in In Praise of Athletic Beauty in 2006: “All eyewitnesses were enchanted with the effortless elegance in his movements.” There was a “sensational athletic energy” about Andrade’s performances, which “awakened strong waves of an almost erotic desire.”

One of Latin America’s great writers, the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano, delved into football when he wrote Football in Sun and Shadow in the 1990s, the decade when France Football magazine named Andrade as one of the top 10 most influential players in World Cup history.

In Galeano’s words, “Europe had never seen a black man play football. In the 1924 Olympics Andrade dazzled everyone…  this rubber-bodied giant would sweep the ball downfield without ever touching an adversary.”

He dazzled them off the pitch too. Andrade enjoyed the Paris night life, at times during the tournament and with vigour afterwards. He met Colette, the great writer who wondered at his athleticism. He danced a tango with Josephine Baker, the popular US entertainer who, like her partner, was known as ‘The Black Pearl’. Whether the tango finished in the bedroom is, like so much about Andrade, unclear.

On one occasion, his close friend and teammate Ángel Romano went to find him in the city. At an address Andrade had given him, a swanky apartment, Romano found him surrounded by a group of semi-naked women. There were reports that Andrade was later “abducted” by a wealthy French woman, who kept him in luxury for weeks.

Andrade returned to Uruguay many weeks later a changed man. He was a dandy, disembarking from the boat home in yellow gloves, an expensive coat, leather boots, a silk cravat and a top hat. That was impressive, given that not so much earlier he had been a street-corner newspaper vendor, shoeshine boy and, some said, gigolo.

Less impressive was his refusal to attend a party organised for him by Montevideo’s black community. He never explained why. Teammates were not surprised, describing Andrade as aloof and uncommunicative.

During the Paris Games, Uruguay, with Andrade performing what might nowadays be called a roaming creative midfield role, were such an attraction their players were invited back to Europe a year later. Nacional, for whom Andrade played from 1925-30, made a nine-country tour of the continent.  More than 800,000 people watched them. By the time of the 1928 Olympic Games, Uruguay were the must-see team, and the previously amateur players would no doubt have been on very good expenses, or more. It was at these Games that Fifa decided to move away from amateurism and start a World Cup.

Andrade played only half of Nacional’s 1925 tour. He visited a doctor in Brussels and, said a teammate, was told he had syphilis. For a while he disappeared to Paris, returning to Montevideo two months later. On arrival, he told a reporter he was feeling “somewhat ill” and would undergo a course of treatment.

He played on having lost a little pace but none of his skill. He declined to travel to Amsterdam as Uruguay sought to defend their Olympic title, but when he waved the team farewell at the dockside, he changed his mind. He took the next boat to Rio de Janeiro and joined the team. Uruguay won again, defeating their perennial rivals and 1930 World Cup final victims, Argentina, in a replayed final. In an earlier match Andrade ran into a goalpost and, some said, the injury was so serious he was later blinded in one eye. The more likely explanation is that his blindness, like other health problems, was caused by syphilis.

Dutch journalists were as impressed by Andrade – who had a reputation for never celebrating a goal – as the French had been four years earlier. “Andrade was such a great player and his colleagues were such aces that you felt sorry to leave the stadium,” one of them wrote.

Richard Hofmann, a Germany international who played in Amsterdam, said of Andrade, “He was a football artist who could simply do anything with the ball. He was always ahead with his thoughts by several moves.”

Andrade held his form long enough for that first World Cup two years later, starting all the hosts’ games. After playing on for a couple of seasons at lesser clubs he slipped into financial trouble in the 1930s but, as he had never endeared himself to the public, attempts to raise money from a testimonial match failed.

In 1950, when the World Cup returned to South America, Andrade was invited to Brazil as a guest of honour. His nephew, Victor Rodriguez Andrade, who added the second family name in honour of his illustrious uncle, became the second Andrade to earn a World Cup winner’s medal.  The younger Andrade was also Uruguay’s best player in the 1954 World Cup, when they lost an extra-time semi-final against Hungary.

A few years later the German journalist and author Fritz Hack, who featured Andrade in his 1972 book Kings of Football, went looking for this giant of global football’s early years. For six days he trailed around Montevideo before finally he found “the footballer with golden feet”.

“Friends helped me,” Hack wrote. “But what I found was horrible.”  Andrade was living in a dilapidated basement flat, with barely any furniture. He was alcoholic, blind in one eye, and unable to understand Hack’s questions. That was in the autumn of 1956: just over a year later Andrade was dead, his last days spent as a penniless drunk in an asylum.

Hack’s account of that last meeting between the player and a journalist records that Andrade’s only possession appeared to be a shoebox full of medals. Besides the World Cup and Olympic titles he won three Copas America and three Uruguayan league titles with Peñarol (twice) and Nacional.

Andrade was born in Salto in the north of Uruguay, also the home town of Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, in 1901. His mother was Argentinian but there is no record of his father, so he was registered illegitimate. A 98-year-old Brazilian, said to have emigrated to Uruguay after being freed from slavery, perhaps in the 1870s, signed as a witness of the birth. Some have said the ex-slave had magical powers and that he was the father, which seems unlikely.

He moved to Montevideo to live with an aunt, growing up in the Palermo district of the city. Money was scarce but the black population was integrated, so Andrade would have played football with boys from all social classes in the parks, and by the time he was a teenager would have been welcome at the city’s clubs, which, unlike those in other parts of South America, welcomed players of all races.

Aldo Mazzucchelli, a Uruguayan professor of Hispanic Culture at Brown University in Rhode Island, believes racial integration in Uruguay was a significant factor in Andrade’s rise to fame.

Mazzucchelli, who is close to finishing a history of early Uruguayan football, to be published by Mondadori-Random House, and has recently written a three-part television series, The Origins of Uruguayan Football, has spent more time than most looking into the story of Andrade.

As a busy right-half “he was apparently excellent at picking the ball from a rival without touching him”. He was involved in much of the play, working from both sides of the pitch and frequently attacking.

“He invented a particular manoeuvre called la tijera [the scissors], going to ground with the left leg fully extended forward, and kicking the ball with his right foot,” said Mazzucchelli. “It was apparently spectacular and elegant, and is mentioned obsessively when it comes to him.

“He had very good control with both legs, even though he was right-footed, and was great at heading too. He never celebrated a goal. Even though he was precise and efficient, he seemed as though he couldn’t care less about anything.

“For the 1930 World Cup, Andrade was not really the same player he used to be. Sickness had taken a toll already. Serious sources insist he didn’t play well at all in the final, even though there is a nice clip of him intercepting an almost certain Argentine goal when they were charging to equalise at the very end of the match.

“In that final Andrade is the only Uruguayan player wearing white shorts while the rest of the team wears the usual black ones. I have never found any explanation for this – maybe he was the eccentric who was allowed to do whatever he pleased; maybe he was trying to distinguish himself even more on the pitch. Who knows?

“From all my recent research, I came to the conclusion that, for all the football merits of Andrade, he was not the key figure back in the 20s. Héctor Scarone can claim a much more relevant part in the formation and success of that football generation.”

The free-scoring Scarone played for Barcelona, Inter and Palermo as well as for Uruguay and Nacional. He was considered the best player in the world by Giuseppe Meazza, a double World Cup winner with Italy.

“But Andrade was black,” says Mazzucchelli. He was used by the French “to reinforce some stereotypes present back in the 20s in Paris regarding South Americans, but especially regarding the symbolic role of Africa and blacks in the context of the avant-garde art and entertainment scene.

“He was a social and imaginary confirmation even more than a footballing phenomenon.”

Social media, you suspect, would have loved him.