The universe will have gone cold before we see another team like them. Leading the line, a one-armed centre-forward known for jutting his stump into opposition defenders’ backs when they dared to challenge him in the air. In goal, a famous Lothario, pro basketballer and continental champion in 400m hurdles. The jewel in the crown? The playmaker – a syphilitic, partially blind, rumoured gigolo born to an escaped voodoo-practising West African slave two years shy of his 100th birthday.
It was a line-up that read like a roll call for an early draft of the Mos Eisley Cantina scene. A rough-cut hodgepodge of odds and sods representing a country whose population at the time barely exceeded Glasgow’s. It’s hard to believe that this was an international side who had three stars stitched above their crest before any other team on the planet had even begun to think about threading a needle.
Uruguay’s early footballing success is practically dripping with the syrupy elements of the classic underdog narrative. It’s a characterisation beefed up considered alongside one of the core elements of their national identity: Garra Charrúa, that ferocious spirit lying dormant in every Uruguayan which rears its head every time they are backed into a corner.
But the tale of the first of La Celeste’s four world titles isn’t that kind of underdog story. This wasn’t a case of a plucky South American team shuffling out of their place in the breadline and having the temerity to challenge the European elite. This was the elite making themselves known to those who didn’t recognise them. It could never happen anymore. No team that good could ever fly under the radar.
Between 1924 and 1930, Uruguay became the first and only team to win three consecutive world championships. The lattermost, the first edition of the World Cup, is the most renowned. But the two Olympic triumphs in 1924 and 1928, the first tournaments to be recognised by FIFA as official World Championships, are much less talked about – outside of Uruguay at least.
The early history of football at the Olympics was myriad in its absurdity. The first Games to include football in its arrangement was the 1900 event in Paris – the first truly international tournament after the British Home Championship. Only two matches were played and, as was the case for the first three iterations of football at the Olympics, nations were represented by elected club sides rather than national teams.
In the embryonic stage of global football, ludicrous scorelines were the norm. In the 1906 Intercalated Games (which have since had their Olympic status revoked by the IOC), Denmark put nine past an Athens XI in the gold medal match before the Greeks stormed off at half-time.
The Danes would record another 9-0 victory two years later in London, this time against a France B team. Sweden balanced the scales of Scandinavian pride when they lost 12-1 to Great Britain in a match which, remarkably, was not the highest-scoring of the tournament. Denmark took that honour when they put eight more goals past France’s first team than they had against the B team, winning 17-1 in a match which saw Sophus Nielsen score ten goals. Germany’s Gottfried Fuchs matched Nielsen’s tally in Germany’s 16-0 victory over Russia four years later.
Great Britain beat Denmark 2-0 in the London final. On the scoresheet that day was the great Vivian Woodward, an England legend; on the opposing side, Harald Bohr, an esteemed mathematician and brother of Nobel Prize-winning physicist and philosopher Niels Bohr. Professionals could not compete at the Olympics until 1984, a format which brought about many of these charming juxtapositions.
Things got a bit more sensible in 1920, the first Olympic football tournament to feature a non-European team in the form of Egypt. The final, however, remained on-brand as 72-year-old referee John Lewis awarded Belgium an early penalty and dismissed Czechoslovakia’s Karel Steiner, causing the Czechs to flounce off before half-time. It remains the only international final to have ever been abandoned.
To be taken seriously, football at the Olympics needed a revolution both on and off the pitch. The latter materialised when Jules Rimet was elected FIFA president in 1921 and decided the football tournament at the 1924 Games would be recognised as the first FIFA World Championship. Suddenly, after two decades of 17-1, 72-year-old refs and general lunacy, the event had real prestige.
As its reputation soared, so did the quality of the football. The 1924 tournament was contested by 22 teams from four confederations. Representing South America was Uruguay. Despite having won four of the first seven South American Championships, La Celeste arrived in Europe as almost complete unknowns.
The president of the Uruguayan FA, Atilio Narancio, had to remortgage his house before they could even think about setting off across the Atlantic. Their journey from Montevideo mirrored their status. Third class steerage on an ocean liner, sweat dripping from the walls, packed in like cattle. Lambs to the slaughter, one might have presumed. In the end, they were anything but.
Uruguay disembarked not in France, but Spain. In order to finance the near 7,000-mile transatlantic expedition, a whistle-stop exhibition match-packed tour of Spain had been arranged. Nine games were played, two against Celta, Athletic Club and Deportivo respectively, as well as single matches against Real Sociedad, Atlético Madrid and Racing de Madrid. They won all nine, scoring 25 goals and conceding eight. The press began to take notice, as did Uruguay’s upcoming competitors.
Almost a century before Marcelo Bielsa dispatched a grown man to the undergrowth in Derby, Yugoslavia’s manager Todor Sekulić did the same in Paris. His spy reported back from Uruguay’s training camp: the South Americans were unremarkable at best, inept at worst.
It was a ruse. The snooper had been spotted and deceived.
In their first match, Uruguay beat the Yugoslavs 7-0. News of their brilliance clearly had not reached the matchday coordinator, however. The Brazilian national anthem was played before kick-off, and their flag was displayed the wrong way around – apt considering Uruguay were about to turn global football upside down.
Among the scorers was Ángel Romano, one of the most decorated footballers in the history of the game with 50 titles to his name. Héctor Scarone, Uruguay’s top goalscorer for more than 80 years and future Barcelona and Inter player, also got one. Pedro Petrone meanwhile, the 18-year-old dubbed “Artillero” for his ability to blast a ball like a canon, scored twice having already netted eight times on the tour of Spain.
Though you won’t find his name on any of the scoresheets from the 1924 tournament, Uruguay and indeed the world’s leading player was the man the French press christened the “Black Marvel”. By all accounts, José Leandro Andrade should be mentioned in the same breath as fellow South American luminaries Pelé and Maradona.
Read | José Leandro Andrade: the troubled magic of a legend like no other
A half-back with elastic limbs and cosmic ability with a size five at his feet, Andrade’s scarcely believable backstory has been cast and recast in Chinese whispers for nearly a century. Was he really a male prostitute? Did he really bed two of the most desirable members of the Parisian glitterati? Was his father an escaped slave, his mother a witch doctor? Was he a violinist, a shoeshiner, a dancer, a newspaper salesman? The lines between the truth and the legend are blurred. We do know that he was a very, very good footballer.
The Mozart effect is the theory that listening to classical music enhances intelligence, and perhaps there was something of that in the influence of Andrade’s highbrow football had on his teammates. One of his would-be lovers, the French author and Nobel Prize nominee Collette, described the men of the Uruguay squad as “a strange combination of civilisation and barbarism.”
Racial overtones aside, her assessment was about the best compliment a football team can receive. Uruguay were as Baroque as they were Brutalist. “They created a beautiful football, elegant but at the same time varied, rapid, powerful, effective,” said Gabriel Hanot of L’Equipe.
Up next on Uruguay’s hitlist were the USA. In Uruguay’s first match, their coach-cum-masseuse-cum-kinesiologist-cum-barber-cum-cook Ernesto Fígoli had been bitterly disappointed with a turnout of just 3,000. In the second round, a sell-out crowd of nearly four times that watched Uruguay put three past the United States without reply. It was 3-0 going-on 10-0. The New York Times wrote that “there is no stopping these small but sturdy bronzed men.”
France were next. The hosts had scored seven against Latvia in the previous round, but their resistance to the sky-blue machine was even feebler than the US’s. Uruguay won 5-1, the 18-year-old Petrone scoring his third brace in as many games. Andrade was magisterial, providing three assists in the second half. It was celestial football from La Celeste. Thirty-thousand watched this time. Paris had fallen in love with Uruguay, and Uruguay had fallen in love with Paris.
The semi-finals were the only time they really had to duck a punch or two. The Netherlands, who had received a bye in the first round before beating Romania 6-0 and Ireland 2-1, entered the Stade Olympique changing rooms at half-time with a one-goal lead. They had set up defensively, to stifle, frustrate and upset the odds. For two-thirds of the game, it worked.
But Pedro Cea scored with half an hour remaining, and 20 minutes later, Héctor Scarone converted a dubious penalty. A million miles from home, Uruguay had made the final of the first world championship.
There they would face Switzerland, a proud footballing nation who, after beating Lithuania 9-0 in the opening round, had knocked out Czechoslovakia, Italy and, most impressively, Sweden; the Scandinavians had humiliated reigning champions Belgium 8-1 just a few days earlier. When 50,000 tried to push their way through the turnstiles of a 40,000-capacity stadium in Colombes, however, it was not the Swiss they were there to see.
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Within ten minutes of the final, the French crowd got what they turned up for. The South Americans went 1-0 up courtesy of Petrone’s seventh goal of the tournament, his 15th since Uruguay’s first match in Spain. With a little under half an hour remaining, his namesake Pedro Cea made it two. Along with Andrade, the two Pedros were the only players to be part of the 1924, 1928 and 1930 world-conquering teams.
Remarkably clear footage available on YouTube of the 1924 final shows goalkeeper Andrés Mazali – clearly bored with nothing to do – swinging from the inside of the side netting mid-game, fixing the camera with a boyish grin as he looks straight down the lens. Mazali was used to international glory after representing Uruguay as a hurdle runner and basketballer at various South American championships.
He would have been the fourth Uruguayan to play a part in the 1924, 1928 and 1930 world championships had he not been banned for breaking curfew on the eve of the tournament to go on a date with a mystery blonde. He remains a national hero.
With Mazali still untroubled and the game drawing to a close, Ángel Romano added a third. Uruguay were the first champions of the world. After the final whistle, they invented – or at least popularised – the lap of honour. Their flag was hoisted up the pole; it was the right way up this time. Uruguay had established themselves as the ultimate power in global football.
Luca Caioli writes, “Uruguay had not suffered the fallout of the First World War which had ravaged Europe. On the contrary, they saw a net increase in exports, capital investment and currency exchange, [but that it was] Uruguay’s football in particular which made its mark on the Old Continent.”
The day of the final has become known as Día del Fútbol Sudamericano (South American Football Day) on the continent. Celebrations were rapturous north of the Río de la Plata: a national holiday was declared, a homecoming dockside celebration organised, commemorative stamps printed and financial reward dished out to the players. They were a mobile embassy for all of South America.
Argentina, however, weren’t happy. They were convinced that had they entered a team into the Olympics, they would have won gold and the foreign adulation that came with it. Happy to dispute this, Uruguay agreed to a two-game series with their rivals.
The first game in Montevideo finished 1-1. The second in Buenos Aires didn’t finish at all. At the first attempt, the match was abandoned after five minutes as a volatile home crowd, drunk on the prospect of glory and probably a fair bit booze, began to spill onto the pitch. When they reconvened for a second go, a wire fence had been erected between them and the players. The second attempt was halted with a few minutes remaining.
David Goldblatt tells of the events of that day: “The Argentine crowd stoned the Uruguayan defender Andrade who, true to form, threw the stones back at the crowd and the rest of the Uruguayans joined in. As the police approached the Uruguayan forward Scarone, he kicked a police officer and was arrested. With the crowd baying and flinging anything to hand through and over the fence, the Uruguayans walked off. The Argentinians stayed on the field for the last six minutes and were awarded the game. The fences have still not come down in Latin America.”
Read | Alcides Ghiggia: the life and times of Uruguay’s 1950 World Cup hero
By the time of the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Argentina and Uruguay were no longer unknown quantities – they were the favourites. Together they would contest the finals of the next to world championships, including the first World Cup in 1930.
There were some changes in the makeup of the group that travelled to Amsterdam. Though he maintained many of his backroom duties, manager Ernesto Fígoli was replaced by the younger Primo Gianotti. In the squad, the most notable addition was Héctor Castro, the 23-year-old Nacional striker who unwittingly amputated his right arm with an electric saw when he was a boy. Castro would go on to score the decisive goal in the 1930 World Cup final.
Uruguay overcame some of the most prominent footballing nations en route to the final; within eight days the Netherlands, Germany and Italy all fell to the South Americans’ bewildering passing combinations and supreme athleticism.
Argentina were the favourites going into the final, however. They had been handed an easier draw but could not be accused of leaving weapons unfired – they scored 23 goals in three games against the United States, Belgium and Egypt. The only two South American sides would face each other in the final.
Though Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium could hold less than 30,000, a quarter of a million applied for tickets. Pedro Petrone gave the reigning champions the lead in the first half. Five minutes after the break, Argentina equalised through Manuel Ferreira. Extra-time. The scores remained level. The dream final would go to a replay.
Three days later, Uruguay again took the lead. Again, they were pegged back. But this time, Héctor Scarone – who was a Barcelona player by this point – hit an edge of the area volley which won the game for Uruguay with 15 minutes remaining. Uruguay were world champions again, and this time Argentina could not dispute the title.
Back home, public address systems and loudspeakers had been set up in squares all across Uruguay to detail the match’s every event when news came in via telegraph. Accounts describe gathered crowds oscillating between rapturous noise and complete silence when a new update came in. One can only imagine the pandemonium that greeted Scarone’s goal.
Because of their triumph, Uruguay were given the right to hold the first World Cup two years later. Argentina and Uruguay faced off in the final in 1930. Hector Castro – nicknamed El Divino Manco (The One-Armed God) – made it 4-2 with a minute to go. Uruguay became world champions for the third time in succession – a feat which has never been repeated.
Uruguay are often cited as the biggest overachievers in the history of international football – and that’s before their Olympic triumphs are even considered. With them taken into account, there really can be no debate.