Friedenreich was born in São Paulo to Oscar Friedenreich, a German businessman whose father immigrated to Brazil, and Mathilde, an African Brazilian washerwoman and the daughter of freed slaves. Friedenreich was the first professional football player of Afro-Brazilian origin, because at that time football was dominated by Whites and Blacks were not accepted. He faced many barriers because of racism, and he could not attend the same places where white players were, such as swimming pools, tennis courts and parties.
He started his career influenced by his father, playing for SC Germânia, a Brazilian football team composed of German immigrants. After playing with a succession of São Paulo club sides from 1910 onwards, Friedenreich made his debut with the national team in 1914. He played twenty-two internationals, including wins in the 1919 and 1922 editions of the Copa América, scoring ten goals. On Brazil's 1925 tour of Europe, he was feted as the King of Football.
He was not picked by Brazil for the 1930 FIFA World Cup because there was a serious misunderstanding between the football Leagues of the States of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo; only players from Rio travelled. São Paulo stars, like him (who was 38 years old), Filó (who would be 1934 FIFA World Cup champion with Italy) and Feitiço, did not go to Uruguay.
Friedenreich retired while playing for Flamengo in 1935 at the age of 43. He died on September 6, 1969 at the age of 77. His exact number of games and goals is not known. Friedenreich is reported to have scored 1329 goals in 1239 games. However, Pelé fans argue he scored 1239 in 1329 games.