The World Cup is now the world’s greatest sporting show piece, played every four years an astounding 517 million people watching the 2018 Final. It wasn’t always like that, as the first World Cup was a small experimental affair but it lit the fuse for global football.
The World Cup was largely the brainchild of Jules Rimet. A founder member of ‘Fédération Internationale de Football Association’ or FIFA, Rimet had floated the idea of a global tournament from FIFA’s fledgling days in 1904, but ultimately FIFA ended up running an amateur tournament within the 1908 Olympics. The outbreak of World War I put the idea on the shelf, but in 1928, FIFA finally announced the inaugural World Cup to take place two years hence.
Enthusiasm for the idea was limited, particularly with Uruguay announced as host nation. The initial expectation had been for the tournament to be held in Europe with Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Hungary and Sweden all applying to host the event. Uruguay was chosen as host largely because they agreed to pay the travel costs, but notably none of the five rejected applicants made the arduous journey to Uruguay, along with England, who were in dispute with FIFA. Rimet arm-twisted his home nation of France along with Belgium to make the trip. Some were excited by the idea, notably King Carol II of Romania, who not only entered his nation, but picked the squad himself. A total of 14 teams, mostly from South America, signed up. The final tournament was reduced to 13 teams when Egypt withdrew after a storm at sea delayed their journey to Uruguay.
Today, World Cup hosts spend fortunes on infrastructure, stadium and hospitality in order to host a World Cup with the tournament used as a global showcase for the host nation. In 1930, the entire tournament was played in the city of Montevideo in three stadiums. The Estadio Centenario referred to by Rimet as the ‘temple of football’ was the principle venue. However, when the tournament opened the temple wasn’t ready for the pilgrims. Construction delays and the rainy season struck, delaying the opening of the stadium by five days and causing the first matches to be played in two other stadiums in Montevideo; the much smaller Estadio Gran Parque Central and the Estadio Pocitos. Still, for all the problems on July 13th of 1930, the two smaller venues simultaneously hosted the first ever World Cup matches with France taking on Mexico and the USA playing Belgium.
The first ever World Cup goal was scored after 19 minutes in the Estadio Pocitos by France’s Lucien Laurent, who pipped the USA’s Bart McGhee by four minutes. France beat Mexico 4-1 and the USA defeated Belgium 3-0 to start the tournament. France played their second game just two days later and lost to Argentina as the French challenge quickly fizzled out.
For the Americans, 1930 remains their best ever World Cup. The US were never considered amongst the favorites, but made the best of a favorable draw in a three-team group. Their second game provided one of the first moments of World Cup controversy. US striker Bert Patenaude gave his team a tenth-minute lead over Paraguay and scored again five minutes later. Early in the second half, Patenaude grabbed the third to complete the first ever World Cup hattrick in a 3-0 win. However, FIFA did not credit Patenaude with the second goal, as it was claimed at the time it was an own goal by Aurelio Gonzalez. It took FIFA an astonishing 76 years to correct the record and give Patenaude the posthumous honor.
On July 18th, the 90,000 capacity at Estadio Centenario finally opened its gates and the host nation got their campaign underway. Uruguay struggled to live up to the occasion, but Hector Castro’s late goal earned them a 1-0 win. It was in the group decider against Romania where Uruguay found their range, blitzing their guests in 35 minutes to secure a 4-0 win and semifinal place. Uruguay featured their greatest ever player in defender Jose Nasazzi. There was also controversial midfielder Jose Andrade and goal-poacher Pedro Cea.
Argentina had also begun their campaign with a narrow win, with Luis Monti’s late goal enough for a 1-0 win over France. They too had stars with electric winger Carlos Peucelle as the main man and a goal machine up front in Guillermo Stabile, who won the Golden Boot and earned himself a club move to Italy along with Monti. Argentina fired out a message in their second match with a Stabile hattrick grabbing the headlines in a 6-3 victory. A quickfire double from Stabile then took down Chile 3-1 to book Argentina’s semifinal place.
In the semifinals, Argentina took on USA with Uruguay taking on Yugoslavia the next day, however, neither semifinal ended up being close. Argentina were early favorites to win, but the US kept them in touching distance in the first half with another big goal from Monti giving Argentina a 1-0 lead. In the second half, the floodgates opened with both Peucelle and Stabile both claiming a brace in a 6-1 win.
Yugoslavia had eliminated Brazil in the group phase and against Uruguay took a shocking lead. In front of almost 80,000 fans, Uruguay stormed back with Cea drawing them level and a quickfire double from Peregrino Anselmo put Uruguay out of sight midway through the first half. The second half saw Cea complete a hattrick as Uruguay booked their place in the final with a thumping 6-1 win.
South American Showdown
On July 30th, Argentina and Uruguay stepped out at the Estadio Centenario to play the first World Cup Final. In a bizarre turn of events, it was decided the final would have a different ball in each half; one from each of the finalist nations.
Uruguay took the early lead with Pablo Dorado blasting a low shot through the legs of Argentina goalkeeper Juan Botasso after 12 minutes. Argentina soon fought back and eight minutes later they were level thanks to a brilliant shot across goal from Peucelle.
Argentina went on the offensive and Stabile was on hand to grab his eighth goal of the tournament to give Argentina a 1-2 half time lead. Not to be outdone, Cea equalized at the 57th minute as Uruguay wrestled back the initiative. Then came a moment of brilliance in the 68th minute, as Santos Iriarte picked up the ball and fired in a vicious long-range strike to put Uruguay back in front. Argentina pushed to pull level, but as the minutes ticked down, Castro rose for a close range header to add Uruguay’s fourth, sending the stadium into delirium as Uruguay were crowned World Champions.
The aftermath of the Final brought out the best and worst in fans. In Montevideo, harbor ships proudly tooted their horns as the city savored Uruguay’s triumph. However in Buenos Aires, the Uruguayan embassy was ransacked by angry locals, meanwhile talk of halftime death threats against the Argentina players circulated.
For all the footballing politics, no-shows and logistical difficulties, FIFA’s gamble had paid off. Grainy black and white film of the World Cup played in cinemas around the globe, as the world was captivated by the idea of a global football tournament. From this point, we are still playing in World Cups 92 years on. The centenary World Cup is just eight years away, and for the 2030 tournament, Uruguay are part of a combined South American bid to host the tournament. There could be no greater venue for the centenary final than a return to Rimet’s Temple of Football.