Before the World Cup: Who were football’s earliest world champions?
Who were football’s world champions in the 60 years before the first World Cup?
FIFA president Jules Rimet’s dream of organizing an international football world championship — a standalone competition for men’s national association soccer teams — was realized when Uruguay hosted and won the inaugural World Cup tournament in 1930. But international football was already 60 years old by 1930, and there had been several previous competitions, won by several previous champions. Working backwards from 1930, these are football’s world champions Before The World Cup (BTWC):
1924 & 1928: Uruguay
The 1924 Olympic football competition in Paris and the 1928 competition in Amsterdam — both organized by FIFA — were the most comprehensive football tournaments that had ever been played in the era before the creation of the World Cup. Uruguay won both Olympic tournaments, staking an unrivalled claim as football world champions, and securing the right to host the first World Cup. Uruguay beat Switzerland 3–0 in the 1924 Olympic final, and then beat Argentina 2–1, in a replay after a 1–1 draw, in 1928. Captain Jose Nasazzi led his team to victory at both Olympics, and then at the World Cup. As the 1924 and 1928 Olympic football tournaments were both considered official FIFA world championships, Uruguay are entitled to display four stars next to the crest on their jerseys to commemorate four world championships — in 1924, 1928, 1930 and 1950.
The 1920 Olympic football competition was the first to be designated by Jules Rimet as a FIFA world championship. It took place in Antwerp, and was won by hosts Belgium, who can claim to be the first FIFA world champions. The 1920 final ended in bizarre circumstances. After English referee John Lewis awarded Belgium an early penalty — which was scored — then allowed a disputed second Belgian goal, and then sent off Czechoslovakia defender Karel Steiner, the Czech players walked off the field in protest. The match was abandoned after 39 minutes and with Belgium winning 2–0, and the game and the gold medals were awarded to Belgium. The Belgians did travel to Uruguay in 1930 for the first World Cup, but they lost both group stage matches and were eliminated.
1908 & 1912: Great Britain
The English Football Association took charge of the first official Olympic football competition at the 1908 London Olympics, and selected an all-English Great Britain team. Britain thrashed Sweden 12–1 while Denmark thrashed France 17–1 on the way to the final, which the Brits won 2–0. Britain and Denmark met again in the final at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, with another all-English Great Britain team winning 4–2 to become BTWC champions. No British team competed at the first World Cup.
The Intercalated Games were intended to be held every four years in the gap between the Olympics, but only the inaugural event went ahead, in Athens in 1906. The football competition involved four teams from three nations: Greece, represented by an Athens XI; Denmark, represented by a Copenhagen (København) XI; and the Ottoman Empire, represented by teams from Smyrna (now known as Izmir in present-day Turkey) and Selanik (now known as Thessaloniki in present-day Greece). If that wasn’t complicated enough, the Smyrna team included American, English and French players, and the Selanik team was all-Greek. Denmark thrashed Smyrna 5–1 in the semi-finals, and were 9–0 up against Athens by half-time in the final, at which point the Greek side refused to play on, the match was abandoned, and Denmark were the BTWC champions.
The 1904 Olympics took place in November 1904 in St Louis, Missouri, and the football competition was played at Francis Field. FIFA had only been formed in May of that year, and had no involvement in this tournament, which featured just three teams — two representing the US, and one for Canada. American teams Christian Brothers College and St Rose Parish were both thrashed by Canada’s Galt FC, from Ontario, in a round-robin final as Canada became BTWC champions. The Canadian team was full of British expats, including Scottish forward Alex Hall, who scored a hat-trick in a 7–0 win over Christian Brothers. In the following year, Galt played influential English touring side the Pilgrims in a match billed as “the Championship of the World”. The game finished as a 3–3 draw.
1900: Great Britain
The second modern Olympic Games is the first games recognized as having included football by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). There is some evidence that football was played at the inaugural 1896 games, but precise details have been lost. Football appeared as an exhibition sport in 1900 with just three participating teams: Great Britain, represented by Upton Park FC from east London; France, represented by a Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA) XI; and Belgium, represented by a Université Libre de Bruxelles XI. British amateurs Upton Park won the Olympic title and became Before the World Cup champs with a decisive 4–0 win over the French team. No medals were awarded, but IOC records do credit Great Britain as the gold-winning champions.
1883–1899: England and Scotland
The British Home Championship (BHC) was the world’s first and, until 1900, only international football tournament. Contested by England, Scotland, Wales and a pre-separation Ireland, it was played annually in a round-robin format. Scotland won the first BHC, in the 1883–84 season, and could therefore claim to be BHC and BTWC champions. England first won the BHC in 1887–88. Overall, between 1888 and 1899 there were 16 BHC tournaments, with seven won by Scotland, seven by England, and two shared by Scotland and England. (Wales and Ireland didn’t win any of the early tournaments.) So both England and Scotland can claim to have been world football champions during this period. The BHC continued for a hundred years, until the 1983–84 season, but had ceased to be a “world championship” from 1900 with the arrival of Olympic football.
1872–1883: Scotland and England
The first official international football match was played between England and Scotland in November 1872. The result was 0–0. A return match played in March 1873 ended in a 4–2 win for England. As England and Scotland were the only active international football teams, England could claim to be the international football champions. In the following year, 1874, Scotland won 2–1. Overall, between 1872 and 1883 England and Scotland played 12 matches. England won two, Scotland won eight, and there were two draws. So both England and Scotland were world champions, but Scotland were the dominant BTWC champs during this period.
Between 1870 and 1872, England and Scotland played a series of five football matches known as the Alcock Internationals. Thee matches were initiated by Charles William (“CW”) Alcock, the secretary of the English Football Association. Although the first meeting was billed as a “great International Football Match”, the fact that Scotland relied upon London-based players means the side was not regarded as being truly representative, and the matches are not considered official international matches. However, all all of the “London Scottish” players had roots that would have qualified them to play for Scotland under modern rules, so it can be argued that these games were football’s first international matches. The first Alcock international was a 1–1 draw, with England equalizing in the last minute. England won three of the five games, and there were two draws, so it is England who have the best claim to have been football’s first ever world champions and the original Before the World Cup champs. ♦
Read my four-part history of football fans at the World Cup here.
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