It should come as no great surprise to any seasoned FIFA watchers that the entire history of the organisation has been about its politicking, and still less that this has frequently extended itself into the hosting of its showpiece tournament, the World Cup. When we go back as far as to look at the formation of the organisation, we see one that was at its very formation unilateralist and was riven from its very early days with divisions between nations from different parts of the world. So, how did FIFA and the World Cup come to be, and how was it that an organisation that was largely based in Europe came to hold the first major tournament under its own complete control in a country of just three million people in South America?
FIFA first came together in May 1904, with representatives from France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland (the Football Association joined in 1905, but the lack of British involvement in FIFA’s set-up is in itself telling) signing an accord that they – and only they – would hold the right to host international football competitions. After an unsuccessful attempt at holding a tournament in Switzerland in 1906, football appeared as an full event for the first time at the 1908 Olympic Games under the watchful eye of the FA, but even before the outbreak of war in 1914 its membership had swollen to include South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Canada and the United States of America.
It was after the end of the first World War that the nascent popularity of football propery bloomed, and talk of a major international competition resurfaced at a meeting held in Antwerp during the 1920 Olympic Games, at which FIFA were organising the football competition. By this time, the Olympic football event was officially described as the world championship for amateur players, but football had rapidly become a professional sport. In addition to this, FIFA officials at the tournament must have been aware of how popular the football event was becoming. Why should they be organising a tournament for someone else’s competition when they could be holding one themselves?
It was appropriate that the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris were the backdrop for the first serious discussions of how to organise the tournament. French had been the lingua franca of FIFA since its inauguration, and the two prime movers behind the commencement of the competition, Henri Delaunay and Jules Rimet (both of whom had major trophies named for them – Rimet, of course, the first World Cup trophy and Delaunay the trophy awarded for the European Championships) were respectively the secretary and president of the French Football Federation. Two years later, at the FIFA’s annual congress, Delaunay stated that:
International football can no longer be held within the confines of the Olympic Games. Many countries where professionalism is now recognised and organised can no longer be represented by their best players.
This embracement of professionalism was the start of a schism that led to the withdrawal of the Home Nations from FIFA (and subsequently meant that none of them would appear in a World Cup finals until 1950) over a dispute regarding payments to amateur players. By the time of the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, however, it was time for FIFA to make the official announcement and so it was that, on the 26th of May 1928, Jules Rimet confirmed that the first world football championship would be held in 1930 (a date doubtlessly selected so as not to clash with the Olympic Games), and that applications to host the tournament would be welcomed. The tournament would be open to all FIFA members and, most significantly of all, professionalism would be permitted.
The 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games had already showed significant signs of the impending globalisation of the game. When Uruguay’s amateurs turned up to the 1924 Olympic Games, the Yugoslavians, who were to play them, sent a spy to watch them train. Having got wind of this, the Uruguay team deliberately made themselves look incompetent during their training session by misplacing passes and kicking at thin air. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth with regard to their ability, though, and they beat Yugoslavia 7-0 on the way to winning the gold medal. Four years later, they retained the trophy in Amsterdam with a win in the final against Argentina. It was already clear to anyone watching that the South American nations had already more than caught up with those from Europe, at least at amateur level.
Five nations expressed an interest in hosting the 1930 World Cup: Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay. It was, however, the Uruguayan bid that clearly stood out from the rest. Not only was their team the favourite to win the inaugural tournament, but they had also pledged to build a 100,000 capacity stadium in Montevideo and pay the travel and boarding expenses of every nation that travelled to their country to play in the tournament. In addition to this, 1930 was the centenary of the foundation of Uruguay as a nation. The other bidders withdrew their applications, and Uruguay was formally awarded the tournament at FIFA’s 1929 congress in Barcelona.
This, however, was the start of a major headache for FIFA. The four other applicants to host the tournament didn’t just withdraw their applications to host it – they withdrew their interest in entering the tournament at all. There had been considerable interest in the tournament in the Americas, but for a few worrying weeks, it looked as if there may not be any competitors from Europe in the first World Cup and the sense of anger in South America was such that the South American nations threatened to withdraw from FIFA altogether. At one stage the situation was severe enough for FIFA to send a letter to the Football Association inviting England, who were not even members of FIFA at the time, to travel. Unsurprisingly, the FA considered the request and then declined it. In the end, however, Delaunay and Rimet’s influence was enough for France to agree to travel, Rudolphe William Seeldrayers, a Belgian FIFA vice-president, persuaded his team to travel, and Romania and Yugoslavia completed a feeble European turnout of four nations.
Petulant though it may have seemed to the South American nations, there were sound reasons why European nations were reluctant to travel to Uruguay. The travel time by boat from European teams was around weeks, hardly the ideal environment to keep themseleves in shape, although obviously the South American teams that had travelled to the Olympic Games of 1924 and 1928 had undergone the same ordeal in reverse. Once they arrived in Uruguay, players found themselves in the middle of winter, with snow and heavy rain making conditions difficult. With just thirteen nations taking part, the original plans to hold a straight knockout tournament had to be replaced with the mini-groups that we are now familiar with, and the tournament organisers were given another headache when bad weather ensured that the promised new stadium, the Estadio Centenario, wouldn’t quite be ready for the start of the tournament, meaning that the opening matches had to be played at the homes of Montevideo’s biggest clubs, Penarol and Nacional. All four of the grounds used for the tournament were in Montevideo.
With so few previous meetings between some of the teams involved, it is difficult to say much about what may have constituted the surprises of the group stages of the competition. We know that Argentina were surprised at how much of a game they were given by France and that they considered themselves somewhat fortunate to come out of the match with a 1-0 win from contempory reports. Elsewhere, Yugoslavia, who were at the time considered only a moderate team by European standards, knocked out Brazil and Bolivia to reach the semi-finals. Once there, however, their luck ran out and they were thrashed 6-1 by Uruguay (although they did take an early lead through a goal from Branislav Sekulić), while Argentina beat the United States of America by the same score to set up a final that was a repeat of the 1928 Olympic Games final.
The day of the first World Cup final was fraught with high excitement, nervousness and, it seemed, a sense of barely-contained aggression. Around 15,000 Argentine supporters made (or attempted to make) the trip across the Rio De La Plata from Buenos Aires and La Plata to Montevideo, but the number of boats laid on was hopelessly inadequate and many never made it. Those that did, meanwhile, were searched for weapons as they entered the ground and soldiers with bayonets kept guard outside after one of the Argentinian players, Luis Monti, received death threats before the match. The Estadio Centenario was already full to its 93,000 capacity two hours before kick-off.
Meanwhile, the referee, John Langenus from Belgium, was also concerned with his personal safety, and his presence was only confirmed after a number of safety issues (including a boat being available within an hour of the end of the match, in case he needed to make a quick getaway) had been answered. Even the match ball came in for intense scrutiny. FIFA’s regulations for the tournament hadn’t covered the type of ball used, and both teams wanted to play the match with the one that their team was used to. It was eventually confirmed, after a toss of the coin, that Argentina would provide the ball for the first half, and Uruguay for the second.
Perhaps surprisingly, the match itself is reported as having been very good tempered. Uruguay took an early lead through Pablo Dorado, but Argentina came back with goals from Carlos Peucelle and Guillermo Stabile gave Argentina a 2-1 half-time lead. The match was flipped upon its head with to goals in eleven minutes in the second half. First, twelve minutes into the second half, Pedro Cea dribbled and shot to bring Uruguay level, and then, midway through the second half, Santos Iriarte gave them the lead. With the momentum now back with Uruguay, Argentina effectively reduced to ten men by an injury to inside-right Francisco Varallo and some reports stating that the recipient of the pre-match death threats, Luis Monti, was so scared that he was barely capable of playing as he might have, there was no way back for them and in the final minute, Hector Blanco, who played twenty-five times for Uruguay despite having lost his right forearm in an accident with an electric saw whilst a teenager, added a fourth goal to wrap the game up. As Montevideo celebrated, the Uruguayan consulate in Buenos Aires was pelted with stones by angry Argentinians until shots were fired to break the crowd up.
The next two World Cup tournaments were held in Europe, and the tournament wouldn’t return to South America for another twenty years. The 1934 World Cup was awarded to Italy at FIFA’s congress in 1932, and two years later Uruguay became the only nation not to defend their trophy when they refused to travel to Europe for the finals. Italy, after all, had been one of the nations that had put in a bid for the 1930 finals and then refused to travel to South America when Uruguay were awarded it. Still, however, the performances of Uruguay and Argentina in 1930, on top of Uruguay’s Olympic wins in 1924 and 1928, had confirmed a seismic shift in the power balance of football. The South Americans were now every inch the match of the Europeans – a power struggle that exists to this day. And no matter how much enthusiasm there is for the nineteenth World Cup this summer, the South African hosts will struggle to match the levels of fanaticism displayed on the 30th of July 1930, the day of the very first FIFA World Cup final of all. You can see brief highlights of it here: