Evacuation routes to ships, escape plans, protection protocols, people being searched for concealed weapons, a one-armed man as a major character, a clash between a military dictatorship and a democratic coalition, a death threat and a moat to protect the main protagonists. At first glance it seems a fine plot of an Alistair MacLean or a John le Carre thriller; however the subject in discussion is the first final of the World Cup held on July 30, 1930.
Eighty one years on, the game and the tournament have both grown in epic proportions. So much so that the phenomenon was nearly nominated for the Nobel Peace prize a couple of years back. To understand the game and its huge impact on the world and its people, we need to travel back in history. Not as much the study of numbers and statistics, which apparently constitute a mechanical approach, let’s rather take a sneak peek into the major events, the people associated and other related aspects significant to the game, that help transcend football from being merely a sport to a passionate way of life.
The first World Cup was conceived as a competition independent of the Olympics, which was then the main competition in the early part of the 20th century. The idea was primarily driven by Jules Rimet, the then President of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Countries like Uruguay, Italy, Sweden, Hungary, Spain and the Netherlands exhibited a keen interest to host it. FIFA did not have any voting system in place in those days so Rimet after much deliberation, named Uruguay as the host country of the inaugural World Cup tournament as they were the champions of the last two Olympic Games and also to commemorate their centenary of independence. The other idea was to spread the game beyond Europe.
Even before the tournament started there were a lot of obstacles. For one, air travel was absent. Secondly, many European teams refused to undertake the long tedious journey aboard a ship. Rimet, however, managed to persuade four teams viz. Belgium, France, Romania and Yugoslavia to participate. The Uruguayan organisers agreed that all expenditures shall be borne by them. The Romanians managed to participate due to the intervention of their new monarch Carol II, who personally selected the team and persuaded the employers of the players to ensure that their jobs were safe. The French team joined owing to the efforts of Rimet. Their star striker Manuel Anatol and regular coach Gaston Barreau could not make the trip though. The Belgians were similarly persuaded by the then FIFA Vice President Rudolf Seedrayers who was from the same country. The Yugoslavs were possibly the only European team to participate without any persuasion apart from all the expenses being paid. The ship SS Conte Verde served as the mode of travel for all the teams but Yugoslavia, who made the journey by a mail steamship named Florida. The Conte Verde also carried the trophy, then known as ‘Lady of Victory’, along with Jules Rimet and the three designated European referees. The ship made a stop at Rio where the Brazilian squad boarded. Another brief stop was at Santos where the teams bought plenty of fruits like bananas, oranges and pineapples. The ship eventually reached Montevideo on July 4, 1930, just nine days prior to the commencement of the tournament, with ten thousand residents of the city welcoming them.
The tournament proper started on July 13, 1930 with simultaneous matches featuring France versus Mexico and United States versus Belgium. Four groups had been made where Uruguay, Brazil, USA and Argentina were seeded. The seeding was more to ensure large crowds for knockout matches than actual strength of the teams. Surprisingly, all the seeded teams with the exception of Brazil made it to the semi finals. Yugoslavia was the only European team to make it to the semis. The South American teams were better equipped as they understood the concept of conditioning camps, training and tactics since they had been playing the Copa America, their continental championships, since 1916. Eventually the final came down to a match between the neighbours, Uruguay and Argentina, the original ‘El Clasico’. There are a few of interesting bits of trivia associated with this tournament. Penalties were difficult to score as they were taken from 16 yards out. The referees were dressed immaculately in coats and ties with golf plus fours and thigh length stockings. In fact, in many matches it was complained that the referees missed out on important events, as they were busy combing their hair or straightening their tie.
The Argentina captain Manuel Farreira actually left the team before the last group match against Chile in order to appear for his Law examinations in Buenos Aires and returned just in time for the semi finals.
One of the biggest stars was the Argentinean mid-fielder cum defender Luis Monti. He had the quintessential build of a centre half but had a sublime range of long passes. He was also the original strong man who used a lot of thug-like tactics while undertaking his defensive duties. For instance, while at a group match against France, Monti managed to get his elbow on the opposition goalkeeper Alex Thépot’s face following which Thépot was unable to continue. Then Lucien Laurent was subjected to a fierce kick to the ankle which left him limping for the rest of the match. It is believed that Monti was much subdued in his performance in the final match owing to the death threats received earlier. This explanation is, however, offered by the Argentine media. Monti went on to play the next final match four years later representing Italy where he performed much better without any death threats hanging over his head.
The final match of the World Cup can alone form a subject for a gripping novel with several sub-plots. The two capitals of the finalists were across the Rio de La Plata – imagine a match between Manhattan and Queens of New York, each located in a different country. The game was held on a Wednesday, a working day, yet that did not in any way reduce the enthusiasm. The match started at 3:30 in the afternoon but the gates were opened at 9:30 in the morning and within two hours the Estadio Centenario was filled to the rafters. The early opening of the gates was to accommodate a thorough security check of every spectator for concealed weapons. This saw a considerable reduction in the ground capacity – from 90,000 enthusiasts to the final attendance figure of 68,346. About thirty thousand Argentine supporters were delayed by fog over the river and could not make it to the stadium. Some political rivalry was evident as Argentina was a military dictatorship while Uruguay had a democratically elected coalition government. The referee John Langenus, a Belgian was quite worried about the safety of his life and demanded a safe evacuation route to the ship. He even demanded protective policemen as bodyguards during half time. A ten feet deep moat had been constructed around the field to prevent pitch invasion. There was a drawbridge to connect to the VIP box from the pitch. These are the small examples of the passion that the sport brings out in people, which is still evident today.
Even before the kick off, there was a major problem. Both sides wanted to have the match played with a ball manufactured in their respective countries. Langenus suggested that a different ball be used in each half. A toss decided that the one manufactured in Argentina was to be used in the first half whilst the one made in Uruguay for the lsecond. Such an episode may sound like a matter of disbelief during the age of the ‘Teamgeist’ or the ‘Fevernova’, but this was more than a match; it was a clash that ‘mattered’.
The pitch was dry and dusty, and the Celeste and the Albiceleste fought the battle which would change the history of the game. Both teams started with a 2-3-4-1 formation with Héctor Castro and Guillermo Stábile playing as the lone forwards and Lorenzo Fernández and Monti playing in the centre of the three-man midfield for each side respectively. The hosts drew first blood in the 12th minute when the inside right, Héctor Scarone’s shot was blocked by the Argentine left back Fernando Paternoster, the rebound was picked by the centre forward Castro, who pushed the ball wide right. The outside right, Pablo Dorado charged in like a locomotive and shot underneath the goalkeeper Juan Botasso’s body and past Juan Evaristo who was on the line(1-0). Incidentally Juan’s brother Mario Evaristo was playing as the right out in forward line. Argentina replied eight minutes later with a picture perfect goal. Juan Evaristo, their right half, very recognisable because of his pale beret, took a return pass from Monti and found Farreira, the Argentine captain and inside left, who released Carlos Peucelle, their outside left. Peucelle the predecessor of the present day left wingers beat the opposition left half Álvaro Gestido with a burst of speed and took a fierce shot which left the goalkeeper Enrique Ballestrero standing, high inside his left-hand post(1-1). Gestido was trying to cover for his right half José Andrade who was absent in the left wing. Argentina then went on to dominate the game with their skillful passing and crisp movements with the ball. To add to this they had a world class forward in Stábile. It was now a question of not how Argentina would score but when? The answer came in the 37th minute. Monti hit a hopeful long ball which drifted over the Uruguayan captain and right centre back José Nasazzi to fall to Stábile who scored from close range with Andrade stranded on the line(1-2). Andrés Mazali, Uruguay’s star goalkeeper from the two Olympic Games triumphs had been dropped for breaking curfew. He was caught sneaking home for a conjugal visit. Those were not the days of the WAGs. His replacement Ballestrero who played for this tournament was not of the same class. Andrés Mazali might have saved this goal as Ballestrero was hopelessly out of position. Nasazzi led the claims for offside but the ball was in the air for a long time. Argentina’s flair and skill was proving its superiority over the hosts’ organisation and industrial style of play. Then came the half time interval and everything changed!
In the second half the hosts started to impose themselves physically. The Uruguayans believed that they were much stronger in constitution than their neighbours and it began to show. The inside right of Argentina, Francisco Varallo re-injured his knee and was sent out to the right wing where he was completely neutralised by Ernesto Mascheroni. At this time Monti seemed to take the death threat to heart and did not play in his usual manner. What put the final nail in the coffin was the highest goal scorer of the tournament; Stábile missed a golden opportunity to put them two goals to the good in the 49th minute. The wind came out of their sails. Now Gestido and Fernandez, the halves of Uruguay were linking up in attack and Argentina were under pressure. In the 57th minute, a free kick by Fernandez reached Scarone in the right hand channel and he passed the ball to Castro, the forward who had one hand. Castro who was a carpenter by profession had lost his left hand from the wrist working on an electric saw. He received the ball with his back to the goal, chipped a clever overhead lob from that position which took both the opposition defenders José della Torre and Paternoster out of the equation and reached José Pedro Cea, the inside right who hit a ground shot past the goalkeeper Botasso(2-2). The equaliser had arrived and now Uruguay pressed forward for the winner. Ten minutes later Mascheroni dispossessed Varallo and ran forward on the left side and passed to the outside left “El Canario” (The Canary) aka Victoriano Santos Iriarte who ran inside and took a snap shot from outside the area which flummoxed Botasso who dived late (3-2). The stadium erupted with joy as the hosts had their noses in front. Argentina had a few chances when Stábile hit the top of the bar with a shot from ten yards out on the 72nd minute. In the 80th minute, the limping Varallo managed to beat Ballestrero who characteristically was out of position. The goal was averted when Andrade, the right half cleared the ball off the line by means of an acrobatic volley with his entire body off the ground. Uruguay made the game safe in the last minute when Dorado received the ball around the centre line in the right side and ran ahead and crossed for Castro who leapt above Della Torre and sent a looping header above Botasso’s flailing fingertips (4-2). It was game set and match. Langenus blew the final whistle and made it to his ship safely. Strangely Nasazzi, the captain fantastic of the winning team did not receive the trophy as Rimet presented it to Dr. Raúl Jude, the Uruguayan FA President.
A few more facts about the finalists which make for an interesting read: Eight of the Argentinian players were never capped again. Stábile, one of the stars of the tournament only played those four matches in his entire international career. Alberto Suppici, the Uruguayan coach similarly managed the team for only the four matches in this tournament and till date, at 31 years is the youngest manager to win the World Cup. José Nasazzi was captain of the Uruguayan national team for all his 41 international matches. The day following the final match was declared a national holiday in Uruguay. On the flip side, the Uruguayan embassy in Buenos Aires was stoned by a mob. The two football associations broke off relations, the major reason why no further Copa America was organised till 1935. It was hailed as win by Uruguayan democracy over Argentine dictatorship; the triumph of Uruguayan organisation and industrial team game of commoners over the skill, finesse and individualism of the Argentinean elite class. All this was more of media hype than reality, but has added to the mystique of this great tournament.
It was the beginning of a new era in power football where FIFA elevated the game to a higher pedestal. The cup would soon come to Europe and become a tool in the hands of dictators and governments who were racing towards war. But for the moment it was football which was basking in its success and reveling in its glory.