JUST OVER 3.3 MILLION – that’s the total population of Uruguay, the second smallest nation on the South American continent. Formed as a buffer state between Brazil and Argentina in the 19th century, Uruguay has spent most of her time as an independent nation in the shadow of her larger bordering nations. Yet, in one very important part of South American life, Uruguay has excelled from the very beginning: football.
With a record 15 Copa América title to add to their two World Cup triumphs, Uruguay has enjoyed far more success than any other nation of comparable size. However, with Brazil and Argentina’s successes coming in more recent times, Uruguay’s golden era has been consigned to the past in the eyes of many outside of South America. It is a story that is as fascinating as it is impressive.
In 1921 Jules Rimet, the French president of football’s still relatively new global governing body FIFA, first voiced his opinion that there should be a global international football tournament. Despite facing fierce opposition from the Football Association, who were still angry about being replaced by FIFA as world football’s primary governing body, Rimet continued to insist that his idea would be beneficial for the continued growth of the world’s most popular sport.
Seven years later, on 26 May 1928, Rimet finally received the necessary levels of internal support for the tournament to go ahead. The next big decision was who should host it. After much toing and froing, FIFA came to the surprise decision of Uruguay. Having won gold at the previous two Olympic Games – which had acted as the closest thing to a World Cup up until that point – Uruguay certainly had the footballing pedigree. Moreover, in the tournament’s year of 1930, they would be celebrating 100 years as an independent state. Both were major factors, but perhaps the real reason was that they offered to pay the travel expenses of the competing nations.
This did little to appease the European nations, though, as many opted out of the inaugural tournament. With air travel still in its infancy, it would be necessary to travel by boat, a process that would take several days. The British nations refused to recognise it as a World Cup, the FA continuing with their insistence that FIFA was not a legitimate global governing body.
By the time the tournament came around, 13 nations had decided to enter, with over half of them coming from South America. With three teams in each group, Uruguay were drawn with Peru and one of the four European nations, Romania. Although they had retained most of their impressive squad that had been victorious in the Olympic Games two years previously, Uruguay were by no means the favourites heading into the tournament.
Neighbouring countries Argentina and Brazil both had better leagues, and their players were of superior fitness as a result. Staged exactly 100 years to the day after their first constitution as an independent nation was promulgated, it was vital that Uruguay got off to a winning start against fellow South American side Peru.
Coming out to the deafening roars of the crowd in the impressive 90,000-capacity Estadio Centenario, in the first match of the tournament to be held there, Uruguay looked intimidated in the first half. Although football fever had long since swept the nation and the team contained several players who had experienced incredible atmospheres before, they knew they had the weight of the nation on their shoulders. To add to this, the underdogs Peru had set up to frustrate, playing an intelligent yet negative brand of football. When Uruguay eventually made the breakthrough, it was evident that one goal would be enough for them to win the game.
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With striking similarities to England’s uninspiring start to the 1966 World Cup, which began with a 0-0 draw against, of all teams, Uruguay, and was lambasted in the press, few in the Uruguayan media or general population were predicting glory for their team on the back of this opening performance. The press and spectators alike demanded a more comprehensively attacking performance from their team in their other group game against Romania.
They duly delivered. This time the raucous crowd appeared to influence the team positively, and they raced into a four-goal lead in the first half, with four different goalscorers. Goals from Pablo Dorado, Juan Anselmo and Pedro Cea came either side of a brilliant 24th-minute effort from the legendary Héctor Scarone.
Born in 1898, Scarone had three spells with one of Uruguay’s big two, Nacional. Despite representing three other clubs during his illustrious career, Scarone won eight championships with Nacional, scoring an incredible 301 goals. He is, however, equally notable for his time abroad. In 1926, Scarone became one of the first South American players to sign for Barcelona, a club now represented by the man who eventually broke his longstanding national team goals record, Luis Suárez.
Scarone found it hard to adapt to life in Spain and returned to Nacional after just one season with Barça. Four years later, he felt ready for another go in Europe, signing for Internazionale before moving onto Palermo a year later. Still considered one of Nacional and Uruguay’s greatest ever players, Scarone went on to be a successful manager with Real Madrid, Millonarios and his beloved Nacional.
Scarone had not been available to play in the group’s opening game against Peru and his attacking potency had been sorely missed. Having vastly improved with the Nacional man back in the side against Romania, Uruguay were ready for the knockout rounds. Due to there only being 13 teams in the entire tournament, only the winners of each group progressed, with the knockout stages starting with the semi-finals. Uruguay’s opponents were to be Yugoslavia, who had surprised many to top a group that included Brazil, as well as another South American nation in Bolivia.
Uruguay were not going to allow themselves to make the same mistakes they had made against Peru in their opening game, so they took Yugoslavia seriously. Between their second group game against Romania on 21 of July and their semi-final six days later, the Uruguay players were put through their paces in a strict training regime with little contact with the outside world.
Although Yugoslavia did not have the same team chemistry as Uruguay – they had far fewer combined caps and played for a variety of different clubs – they had been seriously impressive in winning their group and had lethal Serbian striker Blagoje Marjanović in their ranks. Marjanović scored an incredible 575 goals for his club BSK Beograd, also representing five other Yugoslav clubs in an extraordinary career. Not content with merely an illustrious playing career, he went on to enjoy a successful managerial career in Italy with Torino and Catania.
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What followed was a footballing massacre. In front of 93,000 fans packed into the Centenario to watch the most important match ever to be played in Uruguay, La Celeste tore Yugoslavia to shreds. With superior movement to their Eastern European counterparts, Uruguay took the lead in the 18th minute. Pedro Cea, who would go on to manage the national team, scored a hat-trick, Peñarol legend Juan Anselmo added two more and Santos Iriarte completed the rout. Yugoslavia were to make the long journey home having been well and truly taken apart.
Uruguay were lauded by the press after such an impressive semi-final victory, but they had not finished the job yet. Incredibly, the other semi-final had also finished 6-1, with Argentina having demolished the USA a day earlier. South American superiority had well and truly been established, leaving the small matter of which team from either side of the Rio de la Plata would establish themselves as the greatest in the world.
In the three days between Uruguay’s semi-final demolition of Yugoslavia and the final, interest in the match reached a fever pitch bordering on hysteria. While the press in Argentina were smugly confident of a victory from their side, Uruguay saw this as an opportunity to get one over on their larger neighbour and move out its shadow. With tensions building on the day of the final, extra police had to be deployed outside the Centenario.
As the fans packed into the national stadium once more for football’s biggest match, Uruguay’s Alberto Suppici decided to deploy a more defensive formation in the hope of being able to soak up some of Argentina’s undoubted attacking threat. Suppici, who was just 31 at the time and remains the youngest manager to win the World Cup, told his players before going out that he was confident they would win the trophy “for Uruguay”.
With this message ringing in their ears, Uruguay’s players ran out to the deafening roars of the Centenario crowd. Belgian referee John Langenus blew his whistle and, 12 minutes later, Uruguay were ahead through Pablo Dorado. The crowd went wild, but it wasn’t long until they were silenced as Argentina hit back with two goals to go into half-time with the lead.
Now it was time for Suppici to inspire his players again – and that he did. Uruguay came roaring back in the second half, dominating their tired-looking Argentine opponents. Goals came from Cea, Iriarte and Castro to secure the first ever World Cup for Uruguay.
While the Argentine press despaired of their side’s collapse in the second half, the whole of Uruguay was ecstatic with their victory and a national holiday was declared. The players were heroes and were treated as such. Jules Rimet and FIFA declared their tournament a resounding success and promised that more World Cups were to follow.
For Uruguay, a precedent had been set, and they followed their victory by winning the fourth edition of the tournament 20 years later in 1950 – beating Brazil in the final to cause an even bigger upset