Reimagining the FIFA World Cup (Part I: 1930–1962)
Alternative trajectories that the World Cup could’ve taken
This is the first of a 3-part series, where I look at every World Cup edition and Final played, and imagine if it could’ve followed an alternative trajectory, a different direction and or a divergent destiny.
Given the difference in World Cup formats, and football rules, a comparison is not always exact. To maintain consistency, I look at each competition from the semi-final (equivalent). This allows for a decent sample size and keeps the post to a readable length.
We start the journey by winding back the clock 92 years, to Uruguay.
Same Final, Same Winner
The inaugural World Cup. The fact that it went ahead is a feat in itself. 13 teams contested this edition in Uruguay — capital Montevideo to be precise. The format was simple: a group stage followed by semi-finals and the Final. All 4 semi-finalists qualified from the group stage with a perfect record. The semi-final saw Argentina and Uruguay beat USA and Yugoslavia respectively with 6–1 score lines, to set up the inaugural World Cup Final, which was a repeat of the 1928 Olympic Gold medal match.
The 1928 Olympic Final finished 1–1 and required a replay which Uruguay won 2–1. The World Cup Final had the similar outcome — hosts Uruguay beating rivals and neighbours, 4–2. While the score line seems convincing, there were allegations of harassment of Argentinian players. Interestingly, there was an argument over who would start the game and which ball would be used. In the absence of an official ball, both sides brought their own ball. The conflict was resolved by having Argentina start the first half with their ball, and Uruguay start the second half with their ball. With a 1–2 half-time deficit overturned by Uruguay by full-time, both teams therefore won the half they started, and played, with their respective ball.
Could it have been any different? On balance of probability, with home advantage and two (successive) Olympic gold medals in their cabinet, the odds were always going to favour Uruguay, and justifiably so.
Same Final*, Same Winner* 🎲🏆😶
1934 and 1938 were the only two tournaments to ever feature a pure knockout format. Luck and circumstance play a big(ger) role in pure knockouts compared to mixed formats. Then there were withdrawals to contend with. Uruguay declined to defend their title. The Home Nations had resigned from FIFA and despite some strong performances, would not make their World Cup debut until 1950. Bizarrely, hosts Italy had to qualify — the first and last time this was required. On the whole, a rather strangely assembled field contested the World Cup in Italy.
The all-European semi-final was contested between two sets of neighbours. A hat-trick by Golden Boot Oldrich Nedejly saw Czechoslovakia reach the Final at the expense of Imperial Germany.
The Austrian Wunderteam had arrived in the tournament as one of the favourites. Regarded as the best pre-WW2 European team and acclaimed for their well-drilled, technical style and flair, Hugo Meisl’s team had burnished their credentials by winning the Central European International Cup (precursor to the European Championship) in 1932. They prevailed over touch French and Hungarian sides to set up a semi-final with hosts Italy. This was an ill-tempered game. There are accusations of dodgy refereeing, which generally scarred the entire tournament, particularly when Italy was playing. Horvath, the dynamic Austrian forward was ruled out of the game. Playmaker Sindelar, the Mozart of Football, came in for some particularly harsh tackling, rendering him virtually ineffective. The heavy rain also did not favour the Austrians. The Italians held on to win 1–0; Guiseppe Meazza, setting up the winning goal, in the Milan stadium that would later be named after him. The themes of flair v physicality, rain, and playmakers being reduced to spectators would make an uncanny reappearance 20 years later in 1954, denying the Magical Magyars, who are spoken of in the same vein as the Wunderteam.
Italy would beat Czechoslovakia in the Final, giving legendary manager Vittorio Pozzo the first of his two World Cups.
Could we have seen anything different? The 1934 World Cup was a showcase for Mussolini. Add home advantage to that and it would be naive to think that the playing field was truly even. While the physical Italian side, organized in Pozzo’s metodo system, was a good team, there will always be an asterisk against their victory here. Austria had a huge chance of making the Final. Against a stylistically similar Czechoslovak team, they would’ve had a great chance of winning it even.
Same Final, Same Winner
Like 1934, the participation for this edition was also hampered by withdrawals, for various reasons. Of the 16 teams that qualified, 13 were from Europe. The others were Brazil, Cuba and Dutch East Indies, the latter two making their first and only World Cup appearance to date. Annexation by Germany caused Austria to withdraw leaving 15 teams to contest the pure knockout format.
Defending champions from 1934 — Italy, who in 1936 also won the Olympic Gold medal, beat Brazil to set up the Final with Hungary, who had breezed past Sweden in the semi-finals, having overcome Karl Rappan’s Switzerland in the quarter-finals.
Lining up in 2–3–5 or 2–3–2–3 (WW) formation, Italy won the Final 4–2, courtesy of two goals from their top scorer Piola, and two assists from the legendary Meazza, regarded as the greatest Italian football player of all-time. Any asterisks clouding their 1934 victory were removed in this edition. Italy became the first team to win the World Cup on foreign soil and the first one to defend their title. Pozzo’s metodo was also vindicated.
Same Final, Same Winner
While the Maracanazo suffered by hosts Brazil is the defining story of this World Cup there are a couple of interesting trivia points here. This was the first time the newly christened Jules Rimet trophy was awarded. The tournament, was the first and only, to not have a traditional knockout Final. The best teams from 4 groups qualified for the Final Round, which was a round-robin contest.
Uruguay qualified for the Final round, from a bizarre 2-team group, beating its only opponent, Bolivia, 8–0. In the Final round, they drew against Spain (2–2) and beat Sweden (3–2) to make their final game against Brazil, the “effective” Final. In stark contrast, Brazil, powered by tournament top-scorer Ademir, had gotten out of a 4-team First round, and put 7 and 6 goals past Spain and Sweden in the Final Round.
In the “effective” Final, played to a world record crowd of 200000+ at the Maracana, in their (then) capital Rio de Janiero, Brazil only needed a draw to secure the trophy. There was an air of premature celebration. Indeed, 22 gold medals were made in advance for the highly anticipated home nation victory. Uruguay on the other hand, had to win to secure the trophy. Schiaffino and Ghiggia ensured they did.
The psychological scar of defeat inscribed deep into Brazilian psyche. They ditched their white jerseys after that defeat. Indeed, the defeat haunted them right up to their semi-final in Mexico 1970, especially when Uruguay had taken the early lead.
It was a strange World Cup in terms of structure but a fair result in the end. In hindsight, it was perhaps the most consequential Final in World Cup history. Had Brazil not lost here, we wouldn’t have had a young boy Pele promise his father to win the World Cup, we wouldn’t have seen their iconic canary yellow jerseys take shape, and probably wouldn’t have seen the innovations and improvements Brazil brought to football in their determined resolve to win the World Cup.
Uruguay made history by winning the first Jules Rimet trophy. Brazil though would use Rio to redeem themselves and script a bigger victory. Winning 3 of the next 5 World Cups, their third victory would entitle them to keep the Jules Rimet trophy forever.
Same Final, Different Winner? 🏆
When a Final is dubbed the Miracle of Bern, that immediately conveys how unexpected the final result was. This World Cup was really only about one team, known in legend as the Magnificent Magyars. Their record of 27 goals in a tournament (in 5 games) still stands, as do memories of their players like Puskas, Kocsis, Czibor et.al. What endures longer is their fluid and interchangeable style of play which influenced the Total Football that the Dutch would showcase at the highest stage 20 years later.
The Final was a replay of the final group stage game between Hungary and Germany, which the Hungarians won 8–3. It would prove to be a pyrrhic victory as star player Puskas ended up with a hairline fracture of his ankle from a German challenge, and missed the quarter and semi-final games. Hungary blasted through to the Final regardless where they met a West German side fresh from hammering Austria 6–1.
Despite not being fit, Puskas was selected for the Final and indeed even opened the scoring. His inclusion came at a cost. Some of his finishing was compromised, as was the team balance, the latter exacerbated due to a team reshuffle caused by Puskas’ return to the side. The heavy rain favoured the Germans, as their influential captain Fritz Walter, who struggled with heat and humidity, played better in rain (an effect which is today called “Fritz’s weather”). Technology also played a role: Germany’s screw-in studded Adidas boots offered better all-weather performance. There were some refereeing controversies. Allegations of doping by the West German team have also gathered steam. The Hungarians were 2 goals up by the 8th minute. The West Germans scored thrice to win 3–2.
West German performance regardless, the perfect storm came together, in more ways than one, to cause this upset. While their name might not be on the 1954 World Cup, the exploits, innovations and stature of this Hungarian side places them de-facto in the same category as winners.
Same Final, Same Winner
June 29 1958. The Rasunda Stadium (Solna) witnessed arguably the most defining Final in the history of football. It marked the rise of Pele, in more ways than one, to the world stage, and to unparalleled greatness.
The well-prepared Brazilians had reached the Final unbeaten, a group stage draw with England the only game where they dropped points. Pele kick-started his World Cup account by securing a 1–0 win over a solid Welsh side in the quarterfinal, following up with a 23-minute hat-trick against France in the semis, making him the youngest ever hat-trick scorer in the World Cup. Hosts Sweden got through the group stages with an identical record to Brazil and overcame defending champions West Germany to reach the Final, Juskowiak’s sending off no doubt helping their cause.
These two played out an iconic Final, the highest scoring one to date. Pele became the youngest player to score in a World Cup Final while Liedholm, of the Gre-No-Li fame, who opened the scoring, became the oldest player to achieve that feat. Pele’s rising header in the 90th minute sealed the game for Brazil, while also making him the youngest ever player to score twice in a Final. Brazil’s 5–2 triumph started their golden run which would reach its crescendo in 1970, anchored on both ends by Pele.
Same Final, Same Winner
A World Cup tarnished by incidents of on-field violence redeemed itself by giving a Final between two deserving sides. Defending champions Brazil arrived in the Final unbeaten. Pele’s early exit (due to injury) allowed Amarildo, and more scintillatingly, Garrincha to shine; the latter’s goals helping A Selecao sail past the quarter and semi-finals.
In the Final, they found themselves face-to-face (again) with Czechoslovakia; a side that was unfancied at the start of the tournament, but had progressed through a resilient and pragmatic playing style to reach their second Final. The two had played out a 0–0 draw in the Group stage. In the Final, the Masopust opened the scoring for Czechoslovakia. Brazil though hit back almost immediately through Amarildo, and, aided by a couple of keeper errors, ran out 3–1 winners.
In the end there was something for everyone. Brazil defended their title, becoming the last side to do so successfully. Garrincha’s silky skills, which also made him a tournament top-scorer, were displayed the highest level. Josef Masopust would win the Ballon d’Or that year.