The story of Luis Monti, the only man to have played in World Cup finals for two different nations

The story of Luis Monti, the only man to have played in World Cup finals for two different nations

Quiz time. How many players can you name that have played in consecutive World Cup finals? Ten? Come on now. Twenty? Now you’re trying. Any more? In fairness, to play in successive World Cup finals is not as unusual as some may think. In international football, teams have tended to dominate for a period of a few years and, in such times, many of their established stars will have seen their time in the side straddle two of the four-yearly tournaments, with the best hitting repeated finals.

The Italians did it in 1934 and 1938, for example, Brazil in 1958 and 1962 – plus in 1998 and 2002 – the Dutch in 1974 and 1978, Argentina in 1986 and 1990, before the Germans went one better and contested three successive finals between 1982 and 1990.

With so many occasions of countries playing in consecutive finals, it’s really not that difficult to think of players who have also done so. Membership of that particular club may be limited, but it’s hardly exclusive. If we tweak the question a little, though, and inquire instead about players who have played in consecutive finals, but for two different counties, we’re in a totally different range of numbers. We’re talking one.

If you don’t know the answer, it’s Luis Felipe Monti, who starred for Argentina in the first ever World Cup final in 1930, and then for Italy four years later. On its own, that’s unusual enough to be worthy of looking further into the events. Add in the fact that he played both games after being issued with death threats,and there’s bound to be a good story in there somewhere.

Luis Monti was born in Buenos Aries in May 1901 and began his footballing career with local club Huracán, winning his first championship in his only season there before moving on to Boca Juniors the following year. It was a brief stay with the Azul y Oro, pausing only for three months at the club, and without ever making a first-team appearance, before moving to his different third Buenos Aries side in less than four months when he joined San Lorenzo. It was with the Azulgrana that Monti, still only 20, would develop into an outstanding footballer.

A rugged and robust player when his team didn’t have the ball, once in possession he had a technical level rare in a player of his type. His dynamism across the pitch in pursuit of his team’s aspirations saw him gifted the sobriquet Doble Ancho – meaning Double Wide – as a recognition of the space he covered for his team.

His skills meant he could be deployed either as a centre-half or defensive midfielder, with his physique, strong defending and an aptitude to read a game making him ideally suited for either role. In his time at the club, many an opposing forward was compelled to visit the treatment room after unwisely tangling with Doble Ancho.

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There was, however, more to Monti’s play than merely being a defensive rock. He also had the ability to play in front of the back line, acting as a shield for the defence, possessing skill on the ball to spark attacks for his own team. In modern parlance, it would translate as a deep-lying playmaker, perhaps edging towards the defensive side of the game. It was a talent that would be recognised and particularly exploited on the other side of the world later in his career.

His early years with the club were a glorious time for San Lorenzo. With Monti an essential part of the team, they took successive championships in 1923 and 1924 to the Gasómetro, also adding a third in 1927. At this time, the game in Argentina remained officially amateur, although there was an irreversible drift towards professionalism, with the lines between becoming increasingly blurred to the point of invisibility.

As well as being a footballer, Monti was also employed by the local municipality, but even with two salaries coming in, totalling around $200 per month, he was hardly a wealthy man, and when the opportunity came to exploit his talents for much richer rewards, it was an offer he could hardly refuse.

In his second season with San Lorenzo, his talents were recognised by Argentina manager Angel Vázquez, and he was called up to the national team in 1924. Three years later, he would be part of the team that won the South American Championship with La Albiceleste and also gained a silver medal at the Olympics the following year.

Another key player in this classic Argentine team was Raimundo Orsi. Then playing with Independiente, Orsi would be a trailblazer for Monti when he left South America for the riches being offered in Italy, joining Juventus in 1928 and becoming part of the Oriundi movement of players around this period, who switched allegiance to Italy from Argentina due to an obliging ancestry. Monti would later follow the same path, taking up the Azzurri shirt and being part of Italy’s attempt to win the World Cup on home soil in 1934. Before then, though, there was still Argentine matters to consider.

By the time the inaugural World Cup finals took place in neighbouring Uruguay in 1930, Monti was widely considered to be one of the best centre-halves in South America and a vital component in the Argentina team. They opened their tournament against France, and it was Monti who scored the only goal of the game with just 10 minutes remaining to set La Albiceleste on their way. The second game saw Argentina thrash Mexico 6-3, before completing a clean sweep by defeating Chile 3-1, sending them into a semi-final against the USA.

Both of the last four games saw overwhelming victories for South American sides. In the other game, hosts Uruguay defeated Yugoslavia 6-1, and another goal by Monti set Argentina on the road to a similarly emphatic scoreline over the Americans. There was little doubt, therefore, that the final between the hosts and Monti’s team would indeed be a match-up between the two best teams in the tournament, with the winners to be inaugurated as the first FIFA-sanctioned champions of the world.

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At the time, Uruguay had been the dominant force in world football, winning Olympic gold in both 1924 and 1928, when Monti and Argentina team lost out in the final to their rivals following a replay in Amsterdam after a 1-1 draw. Monti had brought Argentina level in that second game, equalising just before the half-hour mark, 10 minutes after Roberto Figueroa had put Uruguay ahead, but a late goal by Héctor Scarone would see the reigning champions to gold once more, and mean silver medals for Argentina. Two years later, Monti and his teammates were intent on putting the record straight.

Ahead of the final, there were rumours that Monti had sustained an injury in one of the group games and had aggravated the problem in the semi-final against the Americans. Had it been any other game, he may have been tempted to sit out, but this was the chance to be crowned the best team in the world, and for that, Argentina needed all of their best players on the pitch. As it transpired, however, he would have one of his rare mediocre games. Perhaps the injury rumours were valid after all. There may have been another reason, though.

The game took place on 30 July 1930 in the Estadio Centenario, Montevideo, in front of more than 68,000 fans, with the vast majority there hoping to see Uruguay confirm their status as the world’s premier footballing nation. Twelve minutes in, it looked like the desired result was on the cards when a shot from Pablo Dorado squirmed between the legs of Argentine goalkeeper Juan Botasso to put the hosts ahead. Argentina were made of stern stuff, though, and by the time the referee brought the first-half to a close, they had not only equalised but also gone on and taken the lead.

On 20 minutes, Carlos Peucelle converted a cross at the far post to bring the visitors level. Then, eight minutes before the break, a shot from distance by Guillermo Stábile – who would end as the tournament’s top goalscorer – flew past home ‘keeper Enrique Ballestrero to quieten the crowd and send the visitors to the dressing room with a lead to defend.

The very fact that Argentina then went on to concede three goals in the second period for Uruguay to run out winners 4-2 suggests that all may not have been well. Monti would offer a potential explanation for what some saw as a collapse in the second-half as Uruguay romped to the title.

Much later, Lorena Monti said that her grandfather had spoken many times about threats that had been received during his playing career in order to influence the outcome of games. The one regarding the 1930 World Cup final, related by her grandfather, seems the most poignant in her memory: “At half-time, when Argentina were leading 2-1, they said that if Argentina didn’t lose, they would kill my grandmother and my aunt.”

It’s easy to sit back and say players shouldn’t be influenced by such things, but a principled stance in the abstract may not be sustainable if truly placed in such a dilemma, and certainly in times when law and order may not have been so prevalent. Monti also told his granddaughter that many of the other Argentine players had received veiled threats, but nothing as specific as the one delivered to him.

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Did the threat make a difference to Monti’s performance and the outcome of the game? If it happened, it’s surely difficult to imagine that it had no effect at all on the player. Monti was key to the Argentine aspirations, and the person behind the threat knew the player to target if the result was to be influenced.

Uruguay lifted the trophy and Monti’s family was safe. He would surely have been disappointed not to be world champion, but there may also, understandably, have been a measure of relief. With the World Cup over, Monti was to return to San Lorenzo and continue his career, but a visit from two Italians was to change all that.

Although the professional game was finding its feet in South America, over in Serie A, with calcio on the rise and often seen as a tool for the glorification of the burgeoning fascist state, money was far more influential and the lure of the lira was about to snare another victim.

The story goes that Monti’s visitors advised him that he would shortly receive an offer from an Italian club and, if he accepted, his salary would climb to $5,000 per month, dwarfing his current income. Additionally, he would also receive a house, a car and other bonuses. To add to the authenticity of the upcoming offer, it was also suggested to him that the person promoting the deal was none other than Benito Mussolini.

The next World Cup would be held in Italy, and with the fascist dictator’s declared aim of raising the nation to the forefront of the world powers, a victorious campaign for Gli Azzurri would be the required outcome. Monti had Romaganol ancestry, going back to the Emilia-Romagna area in the northern half of Italy, and with the Oriundi recruitment drive already underway to take qualified foreign players to the country, he would be next piece of the jigsaw.

When the offer landed with Monti, it was from Turin club Juventus. Some may consider this a little strange if Mussolini had been the man behind the plan, as his favoured side was Lazio. The situation may be explained, though, by the fact that this was about nation and Italian prowess, rather than mere football club allegiances.

It’s unclear whether the requirement to take up Italian citizenship was part of the deal, but whatever was the case, Monti moved to Turin and became an Italian citizen, qualified now to turn out for the Azzurri. He had played 16 times for his native Argentina, scoring five times, but all future appearances on the international stage would be for his adopted country.

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Monti joined Juventus in 1932, falling under the managership of Carlo Carcano, but upon arriving in Turin, the club were disappointed to discover that their new star player was overweight and clearly unfit. He was detailed to take a month’s intensive training to get him to the required shape. Once completed, he was ready to display skills and show the Old Lady what her money had bought.

Not only did Monti become a key player of the Bianconeri when deployed in his midfield role, he was also made captain of the team as Juve won four successive Scudetti between 1932 and 1935. During a nine-year career in Turin, he would play more than 200 games, netting 20 goals from his broadly defensive position.

Just 12 months after moving to Turin, the full significance of the change in national allegiance was completed. Monti was selected to play football for Italy. Vittorio Pozzo was the man charged with delivering the desired success for the Azzurri, and he saw Monti as an ideal player for the attacking centre-half role in the Metodo system he was deploying.

Based on a 2-3-5 formation, Pozzo knew that in order for his half-backs to gain control of the midfield area, he would need to reinforce their numbers by drawing back two of his forwards into the middle, thus creating a 2-3-2-3 look to his team. Not only did this strengthen the defence, it allowed a quick transition from back to front, facilitating counter-attacks when possession was regained; in essence, moving the heart and creativity of the team into the midfield.

Pozzo saw Monti as vital to this system, providing the link between Bologna defender Eraldo Monzeglio – who would be one of the answers to the initial quiz question at the start of this article, as he played in winning Italian teams in successive World Cup finals in 1934 and 1938, and was also rumoured to have a close relationship with Mussolini – and Internazionale’s legendary forward, Giuseppe Meazza. It was a system that Monti fitted into like a hand in a glove, which was just as well for all concerned, as Il Duce would not take effort as sufficient. Success was required for his – and Italy’s – team.

On 27 June, Italy began their World Cup campaign in the now-defunct Stadio Nazionale PNF – named in honour of Mussolini’s Partito Nazionale Fascista – with a first-round match against the United States, cantering to an emphatic 7-1 victory. While Monti didn’t get on the scoresheet, his fellow Oriundo, Raimundo Orsi, netted a brace. The same day, at Bologna’s Stadio Littoriale, Argentina, bereft of their best players cherry-picked by the Italians, and without a single member of the team that had been beaten by Uruguay in the final four years earlier, were eliminated by Sweden.

In the quarter-finals, Italy faced a Spain team replete with star names. Iconic players from the Iberian Peninsula such as Bosch and Lángara were amongst their number and legendary goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora – after whom the prize for the best goalkeeper in Spain is named – was their custodian between the sticks.

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The game was robust in the extreme, with both teams perhaps fearing what the ability of their opponents could do to damage their aspirations. To say either team shirked the physical aspect would be untrue, but with huge pressure on the match officials to favour the home side, a number of reports suggest that the Italians were more the instigators than retaliators. 

That said, Fiorentina midfielder Mario Pizziolo had his leg broken by a Spanish challenge that prematurely curtailed his international career at just 24. The game ended in a 1-1 draw. Basque-born Luis Regueiro had given Spain the lead on the half-hour mark, but Monti’s Juve teammate Giovanni Ferrari equalised just ahead of the break. A replay would be required.

The fallout from the first encounter was revealed when the Spanish team was announced for the second game. Half-a-dozen of their first-choice players – including Zamora – were absent. Tempers hadn’t cooled from the first encounter, and during the game no less than three Spanish players had to leave the field after being injured. Italy eventually won in a snarling and bitter encounter thanks to a solitary goal by Meazza.

Regardless of the bumps and many bruises, Italy, together with their Oriundi, were through to the last four of the tournament. Orsi had already made his first contribution in the game against the USA, netting two goals in that first-round romp; now it was the turn of Monti and Enrique Guaita, who had followed the other two Oriundi on the road from Argentina to Italy when he joined Roma in 1933.

The Austrian team at the time had risen to prominence in Europe under the astute management of Hugo Meisl. Christened as Der Wunderteam, they played a neat passing game based on the ability of all of the players being able to follow the ethos. Some have referred to the Austrians as the pioneers of a type of play later called Total Football.

At the apex of the Austrian team, in more ways than one, was Matthias Sindelar. Centre-forward and inspirational leader, Sindelar, due to his slight frame, was known as the ‘Paper Man’, but his effect on the way the Austrians played was anything but lightweight, and if Italy were to overcome the extravagant skills of their neighbours from across the South Tyrol, a successful man-marking job on Sindelar would be required. It was a job for Luis Monti.

At this stage, the Austrians were slightly past their best, but they were still a team of high quality and it would be a game between their ability to play at their best and the rugged athleticism of the Italians. On a day when rain soaked the San Siro in Milan, the silky football of Austria was already compromised by the conditions, and it took Monti’s nullifying on Sindelar’s threat to keep the Austrians at bay. It was a task he fully succeeded at. Although Austria had plenty of possession, with Sindelar restrained by Monti’s attention, there was a lack of bite to their attacks, and the game was decided by a single, controversial, goal.

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Having been robustly challenged by both Meazza and Guaita whilst trying to deal with high balls into the Austrian box, goalkeeper Peter Platzer was again clattered by Meazza in the 19th minute. A low cross saw the ‘keeper fall onto the ball near the goal line. Meazza crashed into the fallen Platzer and jarred the ball loose from his grasp. It rolled against the post and Guaita stabbed it home for the winning goal.

After the game, Swedish referee Ivan Eklind was criticised for favouring the Italians, not least for their goal. Unsurprisingly, it did him little harm, and he was also selected to officiate in the final where Italy – together with their Oriundi – would face Czechoslovakia back at the Stadio Nazionale PNF in Rome.

The final took place on 10 June 1934, but on the day before, a telegram arrived at the team’s hotel, addressed to both Pozzo and the team. It read: “Victory or death gentlemen, if the Czechs are correct, we are correct, that first of all. But if they want to win bullying us, the Italian must hit, and the opponent must fall…Good luck tomorrow. Win. If not so, crash.”

It was a chilling reminder of how important the game on the following day would be, not only for football but for the fascist powers in Italy. The telegram was signed by Mussolini, and few doubted the implications of the word ‘crash’. In the biggest game of their lives, the pressure on the Azzurri players had been ratcheted up even further.

The following day, ahead of the match, Puccini’s Himno al Sole (Hymn to the soul) was played in front of 55,000 spectators – mainly donned in the fascist black shirts – and the song was echoed to the chorus by the crowd. It was enough to remove any lingering doubts in the minds of Monti and his teammates as to how vital victory was in the game. The consequences of the other outcome were too terrible to contemplate.

The problem was, however, that no-one had told the Czechs what their anointed role was to be in the passion play to come. They had already defeated the other half of what would become the Rome-Berlin Axis a couple of years later, when Hitler’s Germany team were defeated in the semi-final. In a parody of the latter agreement, the match was refereed by an Italian, Rinaldo Barlassina, who, a number of reports suggest, favoured the weaker Czech team to assist them on their way past Germany and offer Italy an easier opponent in the final.

When the game got underway, though, that didn’t seem to the be case. Black and white videos of the game are less than helpful, with the home team in their traditional blue shirts and white shorts and Czechoslovakia in red shirts and white shorts. Monochrome reproduction offers little aid to the analysis, but whether unsettled by the added pressure or perhaps the mere occasion itself, the Italians were energetic. As against the Austrians, it was Monti and his fellow midfielders that were key to denying the Czech thrusts. At the break, the game remained goalless.

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Back in the home dressing-room, another message was delivered to Pozzo to read out to his team. If Il Duce was endeavouring to offer encouragement, it was delivered with a less than subtle touch. “You are responsible for the success, but if you fail, may God help you.” Monti would later relate the apparent much-less-than funny irony of the threats he had received during the half-time intervals of each of his World Cup finals. “In Uruguay they would kill me if we won. In Italy they would kill me if I lost.”

When the second-half started, it seemed that the dictator’s prompting had done little to improve matters. Monti was still stretched to contain the Czechs and it was little surprise when, with just less than 20 minutes to play, Italy fell behind. In a 12-year career with the national team, Antonín Puč would score 34 goals in just 60 games, but probably none were as important as the time he turned on the edge of the Italian penalty area and fired past Gianpiero Combi to put the visitors ahead.

Mussolini would not have been pleased, and the consequences of defeat would have been brought, front and centre, to the minds of the Azzurri. Indeed, over the next few minutes, the Czechs could’ve sealed the game – and the fate of their opponents. Jiří Subotka missed an open goal and then František Svoboda struck the upright. The chances squandered would be costly.

The lead – and the increasing concern of the Italy players – lasted 10 minutes. During the last part of the game, just when it looked like defeat was inevitable, Orsi fired home to bring the crowd, and Mussolini, to their feet. Now the momentum was with the home team, and although the match went into extra-time, there was a growing feeling of inevitability about the outcome. Bologna’s Angelo Schiavio became the hero of the fascist state, driving low and across František Plánička from a narrow angle to net the winner.

At full-time, with the fascist anthem Giovinezza ringing in their ears, the Azzurri – complete with Monti and his two Argentine-born teammates – were not only presented with the Jules Rimet trophy, but also a particularly large cup that Mussolini had specially commissioned for the moment, as he had considered the FIFA award too small to reflect the glory of the winners. 

To the victors the spoils. Monti would later say that, in victory, Il Duce was as warmly generous had he had been coldly terrifying in the prospect of defeat. “After the match, by decision of Il Duce,” he recalled. “we were allowed to ask whatever we wanted: women, money, jewels, cars, house. We were the privileged human beings of Italy.”

All of those things were transient, however. Luis Felipe Monti had written his name into the record books for his unique achievement. Not only had he won the World Cup for his adopted country, he was the only footballer ever to play in World Cup finals for two different countries. Given modern day conditions, it’s difficult see how that would ever change. So, if you ever get asked that question, you now know the story of Luis Monti.

By Gary Thacker  @All_Blue_Daze

While you’re here, Gary’s new book, Cheers, Tears and Jeers: A History of England and the World Cup, chronicling the story of England’s national team and the planet’s biggest football tournament from the early days of the game right up to the present day is out now. Order a copy and look beyond the same-old media post-mortems every few years into what has truly gone on with the Three Lions over the history of the World Cup. 

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