URUGUAY has long struggled to live up to its football heritage, but then any country of just three and a half million people battles against huge odds to win major competitions, especially with far noisier and more acclaimed neighbours on their doorstep. Yet two Olympic titles and two World Cups, along with 15 Copa America titles, make Uruguay football’s most successful country in terms of the number of major honours.
But in the 1920s and 1930s, Uruguay was a progressive football nation and envied by many of their peers. Right up until the 1970 World Cup, they were considered to be serious contenders, reaching the semi-final in Mexico and losing to the canonised Brazilian team of Pelé, Carlos Alberto and Jairzinho. Uruguay won the first two World Cups held in South America, in 1930 and 1950 and satisfyingly, they beat their two main continental rivals in the process.
In the Olympic Games of 1924 in Paris, Uruguay had demonstrated a brand of football that was quite alien to European audiences. It was fast, skilful, precise and intelligent. Much of Europe was still devoted to long-passing and a more fundamental style based on commitment, blood and thunder and directness. Uruguay were, in some ways, ahead of their time. Four years later, they won Olympic gold again and it was this team that really formed the spine of the team that won the inaugural World Cup.
Of course, prior to their two Olympic victories in France and the Netherlands, Uruguay were an unknown quantity, but their succes prompted a number of European clubs to visit South America.
The first World Cup in 1930 was awarded to Uruguay in recognition of their Olympic achievements, although there were another four nations interested in staging the competition: Italy, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands. Uruguay, who were also celebrating their 100thanniversary as an independent nation, were the de facto world champions, although they were not South American champions, however, after finishing behind Argentina in 1927 and 1929. In between, though, they had won the Olympics again, beating their close neighbours in Amsterdam. The assumption was that the teams on either side of the Rio de la Plata, collectively known as the Rioplatense, were the best in the world. It is not always recognised, but Uruguayan had its European influences, with Ferencvaros visiting the country in the late 1920s and two Bulgarian brothers establishing Danubio FC in 1932 in Montevideo. Moreover, Uruguay’s oldest club, Albion FC, was formed by students of the English High School.
There is another important aspect to Uruguay’s development as a football nation. It was the first country to include black players in their team, fielding Isabelino Grádin and Juan Delgado in the 1916 South American Championship. Both were descendants of African slaves, which upset some of Uruguay’s more sensitive opponents. When they were Olympic champions in 1924, one of the stars was another black player, José Leandro Andrade, a technically gifted individual who was also the son of an African slave. He was known as “maravilla negra” – the black marvel – and became the first black player to appear in the Olympics. Sadly, in the 1928 games, he collided with a goalpost and eventually went blind in one eye.
Uruguay retained their Olympic gold medal in 1928 after beating the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy on the way to the final. Argentina, who had refused to believe their neighbours could be so successful in 1924, were considered to be the best team in 1928 with a more measured approach, but after a 1-1 draw, they were beaten 2-1 by Uruguay. The official Olympic report noted that, “Football is a team sport and only the Uruguayans demonstrated this.”
There was a school of thought that Uruguay’s Olympic team was past its best by 1930. Certainly, the results were a little indifferent, but in the 1920s and 1930s, national teams didn’t play as many games and consistency was often a problem.
The Uruguayan government, led by president Juan Campisteguy, invested heavily in the first World Cup. A new stadium, the Estadio Centenario, was planned, a statement arena that could hold 95,000 people and became the biggest football ground outside Britain at the time. But the competition was largely ignored by European nations, the time and cost of travelling across the world by sea proving to be a deterrent, despite the fact that Uruguay had agreed to cover the travel and accommodation costs. The only Europeans who disembarked in Montevideo were Belgium, France, Romania, who all travelled together on the SS Conte Verde, and Yugoslavia.
Uruguay didn’t kick the competition off as the new stadium wasn’t quite ready. By the time Uruguay beat Peru 1-0 on July 18 1930, thanks to a goal from Nacional’s Héctor Castro, every contender had already started their campaign. Castro’s inclusion underlined his remarkable story. When he was just 13, he lost an arm following an accident with an electric saw. This earned him the nickname, “El Manco” – the one-armed. His disability didn’t hamper his football career as he scored 149 goals in 231 games for Nacional between 1933 and 1936.He won 23 caps for Uruguay, scoring 16 goals.
Uruguay secured their place in the semi-finals by beating Romania 4-0. The experienced and much-travelled Héctor Scarone, who made his first appearances for his country during the first world war, was on the scoresheet. Scarone scored 200 goals in 277 games for Nacional in his long career and went on to manage Real Madrid later in life. He was also something of a pioneer in the 1920s, playing for Barcelona and Inter Milan.
Yugoslavia, the only team from Europe to get past the group stage, provided the opposition in the semi-finals for Uruguay, but they were swept aside. The 6-1 win saw 29 year-old Pedro Cea, another Nacional player, score a hat-trick. Peregrino Anselmo of Peñarol scored twice, a player who was one of the first “false number nines” in world football. Argentina won by the same scoreline against the United States setting up a predictable final between the two Rioplatense teams.
Uruguay had reached the final without the celebrated Pedro Petrone in their line-up. He had appeared in their first group game but was now sidelined. Petrone was a member of the two Olympic gold teams and had spent time in Italy with Fiorentina where he topped the Serie A goalscoring list in 1932. He was renowned for his powerful shooting ability, earning him the nickname in Italy of “El Artillero”, replacing “El Perucho” which he earned in Uruguay. Petrone had to change his first name in Italy as Mussolini decreed all non-Italian names were forbidden. Pedro became Pietro. There was no place for Petrone in the first FIFA World Cup final.
The game captured the imagination of fans on both sides of the River Plate. Montevideo was invaded by 30,000 fans from Argentina and back in Buenos Aires, life came to a standstill. While Uruguay had the home advantage, Argentina were barely playing away. It was too close to call the outcome, but the general consensus was that Argentina had the more sophisticated team. They certainly had the tournament’s outstanding forward in Guillermo Stábile of Huracán, whose performances earned him a move to Italy with Genoa.
At the same time, Uruguay had the best defender in José Nasazzi, one of football’s first sweepers. Nasazzi could be an uncompromising opponent and was known as “El Gran Mariscal”, the Great Marshal, due to his organisational skills as Uruguay’s skipper. Throughout the final, Nasazzi teased and tussled with the Argentina players, prompting Jules Rimet to admit after the game that it had been a tough final.
It was played before a hostile, partisan crowd that unnerved the Argentinian team, who had also received death threats and abuse before the game. “We were afraid they would kill us,” said Varallo. Intimidation wasn’t restricted to Argentina, though, for there was an attempt to bribe Héctor Castro to throw the game, with the threat of death if he did not comply.
Uruguay opened the scoring on 12 minutes, Pablo Dorado receiving the ball from Castro and shooting past Juan Botasso. Argentina were level eight minutes later through winger Carlos Peucelle. Stábille scored his eighth goal of the competition in the 37th minute to give Argentina a half-time lead. Uruguay’s second half display turned the game on its head. “Uruguay beat us because they were more alive and courageous,” said Argentina’s Pancho Varallo some years later. “We should have won.”
Uruguay levelled in the 57th minute through Pedro Cea and nine minutes later, Santos Iriarte put the hosts ahead once more. The cup was secured with a fourth goal right at the end from Castro. Argentina’s players couldn’t bear to watch as Uruguay celebrated, kissing their light blue shirts. In Uruguay, a national holiday was declared as the country went wild with excitement. Argentina’s supporters turned nasty, throwing missiles at anything Uruguayan.
By the time the next World Cup came along, Uruguay had embraced p[rofessionalism and the country had endured a Coup D’etat (1933) and was heading for financial turmoil. La Celeste did not travel to Italy to defend their title, partly because they could not afford to travel. But they had already left their mark on world football and presented an innovative approach to the game that was missed by many insular Europeans. Uruguay’s 1930 victory was one of the first signals that the game was now well and truly global.