World Cup Archives—Part I: From Launching one of the World’s Greatest Sporting Dynasties to the Brink of War (Uruguay 1930 to France 1938)

As the 2014 World Cup draws increasingly closer to kick-off, Melosport will round-up the best of the archives across a seven-part series. This will commence with the inaugural 1930 World Cup, covering 80 years of rich tournament history culminating with South Africa 2010


Which is better—the Olympics or the World Cup? It’s an arduous debate. Both events have their reverent supporters and their obstinate critics but the common opinion as that both events unite the world like no other.

Football's Holy Grail—to be crowned a World Champion

The pursuit of football’s Holy Grail—to be crowned a World Champion

World Cup Inauguration

When FIFA was founded in 1904, its committee devised a mission statement that one day, they would be responsible for hosting an international football event. Over a century later, it is widely acknowledged that their avid objective laid the foundations for a sporting dynasty of epic proportions.

On the eve of the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, it was confirmed that the inaugural football World Cup would be held two years later and with that football’s governing body manifested an innovative global sporting event.

Various European nations expressed a show of interest to become hosts but it was South America’s lone contenders Uruguay who prevailed as the most feasible candidate.

Los Charrúas were the de-facto reigning World Champions (having won the 1928 Olympics) and with 1930 coinciding with the country’s centenary year, they were the only vying nation willing to commit to the necessary and significant financial outlay—the construction of a new stadium plus a pledge to cover competing teams’ travel and accommodation expenses.


1930 Uruguay World Cup

Official 1930 World Cup poster

Official 1930 World Cup poster

Given its location, the 1930 World Cup received substantial interest from the rest of the Americas. For Europeans however, the prospect of footballers being away from both their day-to-day jobs and families, for up to two months, was an unappealing one.

After persuasion four European nations agreed to compete and three squads (France, Belgium and Romania) all boarded the ocean liner SS Conte Verde, leaving Genoa, to make the lengthy trip across the Atlantic Ocean. Yugoslavia were late entrants and as such travelled via the mail steamship Florida from Marseille.

The SS Conte Verde was also joined by the all-important World Cup merchandise—the Goddess of Victory trophy, escorted by FIFA President Jules Rimet. During the 15-day voyage, the teams trained on the deck and performed their exercises down below. Once across the Atlantic, the ship’s first port of call was Rio de Janeiro to pick up the Brazilian squad before it ventured to its final destination of Montevideo, where it was greeted by 10,000 Uruguayans.

Players training on the SS Conte Verde

Players training on the SS Conte Verde

In total 13 teams entered the competition, resulting in a round-robin format of three groups of three plus one group of four teams.

France’s Lucien Laurent scored the first goal of the tournament (first ever goal in World Cup history):

“Everyone was pleased [after a goal] but we didn’t roll around on the ground—nobody realised history was being made. A quick handshake and we got on with the game.”

The winners of each group progressed into the semi-finals. Hosts Uruguay tackled Europe’s only remaining representatives, Yugoslavia, in the final four and dished out a 6-1 drubbing. Argentina replicated this exact same feat against USA, ensuring the inaugural World Cup Final was an all-Latin America affair.

Uruguay - the inaugural World Cup winners

Uruguay – the inaugural World Cup winners

Having lost the Olympic Final to Uruguay two years earlier, La Albiceleste was determined to level the score against their neighbours. An estimated 30,000 Argentines voyaged across the River Plate to support their country and they were rewarded with a strong first-half performance, which resulted in a 2-1 interval lead.

Uruguay turned the final on its head in the second period with three unanswered goals (Hector Castro scoring the fourth). They prevailed 4-2 and captain José Nasazzi became the first man to lift the World Cup.

Key Facts

  • Teams: 13
  • Winner: Uruguay
  • Runner-up: Argentina
  • Goals: 70  in 18 games (average 3.9 per match)
  • Golden Boot: Guillero Stabile (Argentina)—8 goals (from 4 matches)


1934 Italy World Cup


Original 1934 World Cup poster

FIFA’s executive committee met on eight different occasions to determine who would host the 1934 Finals, with Italy eventually chosen ahead of Sweden. The Italian government allocated the organisers a budget of 3.5m Lira (the equivalent to £1,500 today).

Following the success of the previous tournament, 32 teams expressed a desire to play in 1934, resulting in a qualification process—which included hosts Italy (the only occasion hosts have been required to qualify for the World Cup Finals).

The unique circumstances didn’t end there.Uruguay declined to defend their trophy as an act of defiance, in response to numerous European rejections four years earlier.

Furthermore, the Home Nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland prolonged their dispute with FIFA, declaring their own internal tournament as a superior championship.

Following the completion of the qualification phase, 16 teams kicked-off the Finals, which had a straight knockout format and no group games. The perceived eight strongest teams were seeded, effectively giving the favourites the best chance of progressing into the quarter-finals.

As per the later 1936 Olympics, the World Cup became a powerful propaganda tool

As per the later 1936 Olympics, the 1934 World Cup became a powerful propaganda tool

Eight venues hosted the tournament, which enabled Italy’s facist Prime Minister Benito Mussolini to showcase his country, much like Adolf Hitler did during the 1936 Summer Olympics.

Austria were among the favourites in 1934 after having largely revolutionised world football in the early 1930s. Their playing style was known as the Danubian Whirl, following the team’s rare passing style—emphasised by having a withdrawn centre-forward. This approach allowed a team to retain possession through ball distribution and retention, as opposed to solely dribbling.

Matthias Sindelar was the playmaker behind the Wunderteam

Matthias Sindelar was the playmaker behind the Wunderteam

The ideology behind Austria’s Wunderteam stemmed from Englishman Jimmy Hogan, who toured and educated various European nations for the best part of 25 years on the virtues of technical skills. Debatably the roots of Tiki-Taka can be traced all the way back to this point, with Matthias Sindelar being considered as the 1930s’ Lionel Messi.

According to Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid:

“He would play football like a grandmaster plays chess: with a broad mental conception, calculating moves and countermoves in advance, always choosing the most promising of all possibilities” 

Hosts Italy fashioned a successful formula which established the perfect middle ground between Austria’s artistry and the brutish force of British nations. Renowned for their physical play, Italy’s mindset was to focus on the excellent physical condition of their players. This was evident in their quarter-final against Spain as they incapacitated their opponents—La Roja ended the match with only eight players due to injuries.

The hosts then met the favourites in the semi-final. Austria were in confident mood having beaten the Azzurri 4-2 in Florence during an earlier encounter that year but on this occasion the uncompromising Luis Monti (who represented Argentina in the 1930 tournament) man-marked the influential Sindelar, stifling his threat to ensure the home nation would contest the 1934 Final.

Italy beat Czechoslovakia 2-1, after extra-time, and once again, the tournament hosts became World Champions.

Key Facts

  • Teams: 16
  • Winner: Italy
  • Runner-up: Czechoslovakia
  • Goals: 70  in 17 games (average 4.1 per match)
  • Golden Boot: Oldrich Nejedly (Czechoslovakia)—5 goals (from 4 matches)


1938 World Cup

Official 1938 World Cup poster

Official 1938 World Cup poster

Before a ball had even been kicked, the 1938 competition was cloaked in controversy. South American nations assumed that hosting rights would be passed back across the Atlantic, given Italy had held the World Cup four years earlier. Disappointment followed as Argentina lost out to France, with FIFA sanctioning that the association’s home territory should host the 1938 World Cup.

Having lost in their hosting bid Argentina refused to enter the 1938 tournament. Meanwhile, Uruguay and the Home Nations continued their self-imposed exile.

The format of the Finals was consistent with Italy ’34 but two precedents were also set: both hosts and holders of the World Cup qualified automatically for the Finals and; teams wore numbered shirts.

Due to civil war, Spain was excluded from competing whilst Austria, who had already qualified, could not participate following its annexation by Germany but five members of the Wunderteam did join forces with the Germans.

In theory this should have strengthened Die Mannschaft but they were eliminated in the first round by Switzerland— the earliest stage they have ever exited a World Cup—with the Austrian players made scapegoats.

Catenaccio's origins can be traced back to Switzerland in 1938

Catenaccio’s origins can be traced back to Switzerland in 1938

The Swiss, similar to Austria four years previously, displayed purposeful traits which can be connected to modern day tactics. In this instance, Karl Rappan the Switzerland coach planted the seeds for the Catenaccio methodology, through his use of a sweeping defender in the “Verrou” system—also known as the Swiss Bolt.

Elsewhere in the first round, Polish marksman Ernest Wilimowski scored four goals but still ended up on the losing side as Brazil beat Poland 6-5, after extra-time.

Both Cuba and the Dutch East Indies made their first and only World Cup appearances—the former shocked Romania 2-1 before being thumped 8-0 by the Swedes in the quarter-finals.

Brazil and Czechoslovakia created history in the last eight by contesting the last replay in World Cup history. Back then, if games were a draw after extra-time, teams would replay rather than endure a penalty shoot-out. Brazil won the replay and met defending champions Italy in the semi-final.

The Seleção inexplicably dropped their star player Leonidas for the match and the Italians, keen to dispel the notion that only home advantage saw them crowned World Champions in ’34, took advantage and narrowly edged out the South Americans 2-1.

Vincere o morire

Before the final, Italy’s players were famously sent a telegram from Il Duce, which contained a straight-forward message—“Win or Die”.

The phrase Vincere o morire is a generally considered a battle-cry but given the Mediterranean nation was under Mussolini’s dictatorship, the translation was worryingly ambiguous.

Certainly, Hungary’s goalkeeper took news of the telegram quite literally and at the end of the game, after Italy had prevailed 4-2, it was reported that his actions (of conceding four goals) had spared the lives of the Italians.

At the heart of Italy’s success was the head honcho, Vittorio Pozzo (holding the trophy below), who remains the only coach to have won two World Cups. He also masterminded Italy’s gold medal at the 1936 Olympics—a truly dominant era for Italy.

Italy—1938 World Cup Winners

Italy—1938 World Cup Winners

Key Facts

  • Teams: 15
  • Winner: Italy
  • Runner-up: Hungary
  • Goals: 84 in 18 games (average 4.7 per match)
  • Golden Boot: Leonidas (Brazil)—7 goals (from 4 matches)


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