World Cup 1930: “the So-Called World’s Association Football Championship”
On July 30, 1930, Uruguay played Argentina in one of the most significant matches in the whole of soccer history. It was the final match of the inaugural Campeonato Mundial de Fútbol or Football World Championship. It was the first World Cup final. Up to 100,000 fans watched the match at the newly-built Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, and much of South America was gripped by a remarkable football frenzy.
Yet in Britain, the first World Cup passed virtually unnoticed, and few British football fans were even aware of its existence. No British newspaper covered the tournament’s earlier rounds, and only a handful published a short Press Association report of the final that dismissively referred to the tournament as “the so-called World’s Association Football Championship”. The Times of London, regarded as Britain’s newspaper of record, ignored the first World Cup entirely. The reasoning was simple: No British teams were involved, so it could hardly be considered a legitimate World Championship, could it?
Britain had invented association football and was keen to send its Laws of the Game rulebook around the world. During the Victorian era, British emigrants spread the association game throughout Europe and across South America. Football was introduced to Uruguay by English teacher Henry Castle Ayre, and to Argentina by Scottish teacher Alexander Watson Hutton. Britain was happy to share its game but was less happy to cede control of it.
The four British nations were not members of FIFA, the Paris-based international football governing body, having withdrawn following a disagreement over rules regarding the participation and payment of amateur players. And Britain, the Press Association reported, “would not consider entering a competition the games in which are travested by the loose interpretation put on many of the rules”. So none of the British nations crossed the Atlantic for the first FIFA World Cup.
The host nation, Uruguay, was the winner of the previous two Olympic football tournaments, in 1924 and 1928, and was the nearest the sport had to a reigning world champion. Uruguay had beaten Argentina in the 1928 Olympic final in Amsterdam, in front of a capacity crowd and “amid amazing scenes”, so Europe had a hint of what South American football and its fans could offer. At the World Cup, Uruguay would compete with 12 other teams — four from Europe, six from South America, and two from North America (Mexico and the USA).
The participation of the US national team meant that the 1930 World Cup, “the world’s open soccer championship tourney”, did receive coverage in American newspapers. The New York Times reported that the US team was considered the most likely winner of the tournament, in an article headlined: “US Favorite to Win World’s Soccer Title”. (In the end, the US reached the semi-finals, and lost to Argentina. The third-place finish remains the best of all ten World Cup finals at which the US has participated.)
According to the most detailed accounts that exist — many of them published in Spanish in Uruguay and Argentina — the 1930 World Cup was a competitive and entertaining tournament that was particularly notable for the manner in which it grabbed the attention of the watching public. When further details eventually trickled through from Uruguay, the British press seemed surprised by the evident popularity of football on far-flung shores. As noted in one brief British newspaper report, published a full month after the final had been played, “The enthusiasm of football crowds in this country is mild in comparison with that of South American spectators.”
Britain had been offered a glimpse of the South American football fan in the previous year when Chelsea toured Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. While the South American players were said to be “masters of the game”, the fans were regarded as being rather unsporting. As Chelsea full-back Leslie Odell wrote in a letter home, “The spectators here are separated from us by a fence of barbed wire, so you can tell what sort of people they are.” Opposition teams were likely to be pelted with orange peel, and worse, and it seemed “a commonplace thing” to throw bottles or other missiles at the referee if he gave a decision that did not suit the opinion of the crowd.
When Chelsea beat an Argentina XI 1–0 in front of 60,000 fans in Buenos Aires, the final whistle triggered a “barrage of hooting and booing”. In a second match in Buenos Aires, after Chelsea captain George Rodger shoulder-charged an opponent (a fair challenge in England, but frowned upon in Argentina), a spectator ran from the stands and slapped Rodger in the face. Then Argentina captain and notorious hard man Luis Monti kicked Rodger “in the groin” with such force that the big Scottish half-back fainted and had to be carried from the field to the unanimous cheers of the crowd. “It is unpleasant to record that the Argentine footballing public are lacking in the sportsmanship to be found amongst the crowds in other countries,” noted the English-language Buenos Aires Standard.
So British footballers might not have been keen to make the long sea journey to Uruguay, and in any case, they were left at home, most likely oblivious, as the World Cup finals got underway and progressed through a four-group stage, then semi-finals, to the hugely-anticipated final at the Estadio Centenario. Described by FIFA president Jules Rimet as a “temple to football”, the 90,000-capacity Centenario was — and remains — a broad, uncovered concrete bowl, with a distinctive 100-meter tower reaching up into the sky above the main Olympic Tribune stand. It was the biggest football stadium outside of Britain.
A remarkable aerial photograph taken on the day of the final showed ant-like swarms of fans congregating on the stadium, lining up at the turnstiles, climbing staircases, and filling the stands. Another photo, taken in the surrounding streets, showed groups of fans in fedoras, wide-lapelled jackets, open-necked shirts, and high-waisted slacks, bustling their way past motor cars towards the stadium.
The turnstiles opened at 8 am, some six hours before kick-off. Fleets of special trains and planes brought fans from all over Uruguay to Montevideo. Newspaper reports said some fans had set out three days earlier in order to get there on time. The city came to a standstill, with shops and offices closed. The Press Association reported that among the first fans to arrive were 50 members of the Uruguayan parliament. Ships carried fans from Argentina over the River Plate. One ship, packed with 1,800 fans, never arrived due to fog. On landing, fans were searched and made to surrender their weapons. Conflicting reports said the Uruguayan authorities confiscated somewhere between 1,500 and 5,000 revolvers. “They take great care of the referee in that part of the world,” remarked one newspaper.
The first World Cup final was played amid “scenes exceeding in enthusiasm even those of an English cup final”, according to the Press Association report. That report omitted any details of the actual match, other than the final score — which some newspapers got wrong. For the record, Uruguay scored first through Pablo Dorado, and newsreel footage showed banks of cheering fans waving their hands in the air. But Argentina equalized, then took the lead before half time. The second half, though, belonged to Uruguay, who scored a second goal to equalize, then a third to lead 3–2. Fans around the stadium waved newspapers and handkerchiefs, and those near the pitch bounded up and down in joy. Several fans ran onto the pitch to celebrate with the players. Uruguay scored again, through an 89th-minute header from Hector Castro, to win 4–2.
The victorious Uruguayan team paraded around the pitch, trailed by enthusiastic supporters, while fans in the stands waved their fedoras in the air. The players were hoisted onto shoulders and carried from the field. Uruguay was so proud of its team’s achievement that it would declare a national holiday. Alongside these celebratory scenes were some rather unsavory ones. After the match, according to one report, thousands of aggrieved Argentinians began throwing “bombs and things” at “every Uruguayan in sight”.
Over in Argentina, there were several “minor riots”. Crowds of cheering Uruguayan fans paraded through the streets of Buenos Aires and gathered at the offices of the La Critica newspaper, where the match result was posted on a sign for all to see. Amid the celebrations, several gunshots were heard, and police were called on to disperse the crowd. No casualties were reported. Then a group of Argentinian fans responded by marching on the Uruguayan consulate and pelting it with stones. “It seems that people in South America get fairly excited over football,” commented one British newspaper. “If all this happens over football, goodness knows what their military maneuvers are like.”
The Press Association’s World Cup final report gave the attendance as 100,000. The official attendance was subsequently recorded as 68,346 but, with reports claiming that many thousands were turned away from a 90,000 capacity stadium, the 100,000 figure might be more accurate. In any case, the attendance for the biggest football match that had ever been played was not quite as big as had been seen at cup finals and home internationals in Britain. And those attendances continued to grow through the 1930s, reaching unprecedented sizes.
Numerically, at least, Britain could still claim to be the hotbed of football fandom. But the success of the first World Cup tournament helped propagate the game’s growing popularity around the globe. Football might have been Britain’s invention, but it now belonged to everyone. By ignoring the first World Cup, Britain missed football’s glorious arrival as the world’s game. ♦
This is the first in a series of World Cup stories based on extracts from the book Savage Enthusiasm: A History of Football Fans by Paul Brown.
“An excellent read, rich in anecdotes and explanation” — Game of the People
“A very decent, impeccably sourced, primer on what has happened to fans down the ages” — When Saturday Comes