At a time when boxing and horse racing had emerged as the biggest spectator sports of the Roaring ’20s, soccer would forever change that thanks largely to the World Cup.
The choice of Uruguay—and in the case of the inaugural World Cup, limited to the city of Montevideo in a style similar to the Olympics—as host was ultimately an easy one.
Uruguay had won the gold medal at the 1924 Summer Games in Paris and again four years later at the Amsterdam Games and were the best team in the world at the time.
The team was led by José Leandro Andrade, a defensive midfielder known as la maravilla negra (“The Black Marvel” in Spanish). Behind Andrade on the right was José Nasazzi, a center back who also served as team captain, while Lorenzo Fernández, who had been born in Spain but represented Uruguay at the international level, was the team’s midfield lynchpin.
La Celeste employed a 2–3–5 formation—a tactic widely used at the time — with striker Pedro Cea as a key cog in attack.
Following Uruguay’s success in 1924, Enrique Buero, who was an Uruguayan diplomat, persuaded Rimet that the very first World Cup should be held in the small South American nation.
Like Rimet, he had witnessed the crowd’s delight at the sight of Uruguay winning the gold medal, and he wanted to replicate that enthusiasm back in Montevideo. The first World Cup had no qualification process, meaning the tournament was open to all of Fifa’s members. European nations refused to embark on the long trip and boycotted the tournament.
In response, Uruguay offered to cover the travel and lodging costs of all the participants. Nonetheless, European nations refused to commit by the February 1 deadline. Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and the United States all entered.
“Despite the host country’s financial provisions and an extension of the registration deadlines, the European football nations were putting forward various pretexts not to go to Montevideo,” noted Lorenzo Jalabert D’Amado in his research article “Montevideo 1930: Reassessing the Selection of the First World Cup Host.”
“It was only when the South American nations, led by Argentina, decided to take the European absence as a personal insult and threatened that if no European teams showed up in Montevideo, they would break off from Fifa and create an independent Pan American football federation.
The World Cup project was ultimately saved by the last-minute registrations of Belgium, France, Romania, and Yugoslavia.”
Rimet knew that the competition — underwritten by the Uruguayan government — needed European representation in order to truly be considered a global event. When Rimet intervened, four European teams eventually agreed to the trip. The French decided to take the trip as a favor to Rimet.
Fifa’s vice president at the time, a Belgian named Rodolphe Seeldrayers, insisted that his country participate. The Romanians entered the competition after newly crowned King Carol II was persuaded to send a team, and he leveraged his relationship with the Yugoslavs to convince them to also send a team.
“The restrained enthusiasm that manifested itself on the European continent disappointed the Cup’s organizers and was criticized both by Fifa officials and South Americans alike,” Homburg said.
Carol II was one soccer-mad king. Just 37 years old when he was crowned king, Carol II joined the team on Romania’s trip to Uruguay and even took part in daily training sessions.
Rimet’s vision, meanwhile, had finally come together.
In the end, only 13 teams decided to make the trip. Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, and Hungary had all previously been interested in hosting the competition. All of them decided to boycott once Uruguay had been chosen as host nation.
All the games would be played in three stadiums—the Estadio Centenario, Estadio Pocitos, and Estadio Gran Parque Central—all of them in Montevideo. All these venues, with the exception of Estadio Pocitos, exist to this day.
The Centenario, with a capacity of 95,000 (but limited to 80,000 for the World Cup), had been built both for the tournament and as a celebration of the centenary of the country’s first constitution.
Designed by the noted architect and urban planner Juan Scasso, Rimet called the stadium the “temple of football,” and it would host 10 of the tournament’s 18 matches, including both semifinals and the final.
The Centenario, whose construction was funded by the government, was built in the neighborhood of Parque Batlle, an area known for its green space.
In a letter to Brazil’s soccer federation, Rimet reiterated the promise made to all participating nations: The Uruguayan Association will give to each Federation, before the match against the respective team, 17 train tickets, from the player’s reunion spot to the boarding point, with seats when traveling during the day, and beds for trips at night.
The Association (Uruguayan) will give in Montevideo, before the match, the necessary number of train tickets to the return trip. The Association (Uruguayan) will also give round trip first-class train tickets to the participant teams. Only luxurious train rides will be considered.
To cover the expenses during the stay in Montevideo, the Uruguayan Association will give to each Federation a daily amount of 75 American dollars.
Also, the amount of $0.50 a day to each player during their traveling time. The Uruguayan Association will pay all the teams’ transportation expenses, from their hotel to the match location, until the end of the championship.
Money wasn’t an issue for Montevideo at the time. It was a bustling port with goods coming and going out of the city.
The 1929 stock market crash had yet to have its reverberations in Uruguay. While the effects would be felt a year later, the country had become a major American economic center.
Uruguay had also not suffered the fallout of World War I, which had ravaged much of Europe.
On the contrary, Montevideo was a bustling city and saw an increase in exports and capital investments. The tournament’s official poster was designed by Uruguayan painter and sculptor Guillermo Laborde.
While Laborde’s black-and-white design was plastered across Montevideo once the tournament got underway, Scasso’s work encountered some problems. A rainy year meant construction on the venue had to endure some delays, and its completion took place a few days into the tournament.
Nonetheless, the project took a total of just nine months to complete. The stadium had four grandstands, a press box, and a VIP section that could hold Rimet and nearly 2,000 spectators. The inaugural World Cup would be the only one in history without a qualifying tournament.
The teams, all invited to participate, were drawn into four groups. Group 1 contained four teams, while the remaining three groups were made up of just three apiece.
The opening round featured a round-robin format. The winners of each group would progress to the semifinals. Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and the United States were seeded, meaning they could not meet in the group stage. Group 1: Argentina, Chile, France, and Mexico Group 2: Brazil, Bolivia, and Yugoslavia Group 3: Uruguay, Peru, and Romania Group 4: United States, Paraguay, and Belgium.
The very first World Cup remains the stuff of sepia-toned photography.
While it would only feature 18 matches, it was the start of a tournament that would eventually go on to surpass the Olympics in terms of global popularity.
The construction delay at the Centenario forced the schedule to be hastily rearranged, and Uruguay would not open the tournament.
The World Cup instead began with France taking on Mexico on July 13 at the Estadio Pocitos.
Saturday: Uruguay’s controversial victory in the first ever Fifa World Cup