La Celeste: First Kings of the World Game
South American football expert Tim Vickery pays tribute to the first World Cup winners and explains how the tournament has played an important role in the formation of Uruguayan national identity.
Inside Montevideo’s Centenario stadium, scene of the first World Cup final in 1930, there is a small museum devoted to football and, specifically, to Uruguay’s conquests. And inside the museum there is a small cinema.
The last time I was there my visit coincided with that of a group of special needs children from a local school. They watched film of their predecessors and compatriots inventing the modern age of football — because that is what Uruguay’s gold medal in the 1924 Paris Olympics effectively did. No one knew much about the team from a small South American country when they turned up for the tournament. But they beat all comers with a style of play, artistic and balletic, that the Europeans had never seen before. Those who watched the games were hypnotised — and enthused. There had to be a football tournament open to all, amateurs and professionals alike, to find out whether these South Americans really were better than the English.
The point was rammed home in the next Olympics, four years later in Amsterdam. This time Argentina came as well — and went all the way to the final, where they were beaten by Uruguay. And so, two years later, the World Cup was born — staged and won by Uruguay, once again beating Argentina in the final. The film in the little cinema showed the rapid construction of the Centenario stadium, and the children were transfixed. They could see familiar places, familiar streets, the familiar sky-blue shirt of the national team, alive in jerky black and white lm from many decades ago, so old but so contemporary, so far away but close enough to touch, to feel part of a tradition that continues to inspire.
Had Uruguay’s coach Óscar Washington Tabárez been there, he would surely have appreciated the scene. A qualified teacher nicknamed El Maestro, he would have immediately identified the civic and educational value in the history of Uruguayan football. One of his proudest moments was returning to the country after the 2010 World Cup, where Uruguay had reached the semi- finals for the first time in 40 years, a feat that many of his compatriots had feared would never happen again.
He was struck by how many children were wandering round, not in the shirts of big clubs from the other side of the Atlantic, but in the sky blue — proclaiming themselves as members of a small but fascinating society. “Other countries have their history,” said coach Ondino Viera when he brought the national team to the 1966 World Cup, “but Uruguay has its football.”
Much the same applies to Brazil and Argentina — giant countries, especially the former, but lands which make their biggest impact on international consciousness once every four years, when a World Cup comes round.
We take this for granted. But go back just a few decades before that inaugural World Cup – go back to 1890, for example, and all of this would have been very hard to predict. Indeed, as late as 1922 Graciliano Ramos, one of Brazil’s foremost writers, declared that this football business would never catch on, that Brazilians had their own activities and were in no need of importing foreign fads. He was a brilliant man. So how could he have been so unbelievably wrong? Almost certainly because he was writing from a vantage point of Brazil’s North East — and football was gaining strength at the other end of the continent, in the south cone, in the port cities of Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro – plus São Paulo, which is a Roberto Carlos free kick away from a port.
That port is Santos. And the road that winds its way up to what is now the continent’s largest city goes by an interesting name — a Rodovia dos Imigrantes. A key part of the story is that of immigration.
There are three basic building blocks to understanding the way that football became so important in this part of the world; it was introduced by the British and came full of First World prestige; it was reinterpreted by the locals; and this reinterpretation brought about a rapid rise in playing standards that led to international triumphs and global recognition for a region starved of such things.
Stage one is clear enough — the south cone was an informal part of the British Empire. British sailors, railway workers and factory owners all played a part in the development of the game.
Stage two has to do with both the characteristics of the game and those of the locals. Football, of course, is a simple game — simple to understand and easy to participate, with no expensive barriers to entry. It is also a game where for many positions, size does not matter. Indeed, in a game played on the floor, it can be a positive advantage to have a low centre of gravity. And it just so happened that many of the South Americans had that build. But who were they? This was a time of massive urban expansion. The big capital cities of the south cone doubled, trebled, quadrupled in size. Immigrants poured in — both internally, from the poor and backward countryside, and in fleets of boats from Europe and the Middle East, with Italy, especially, sending millions across the Atlantic. This melting pot formed a new urban population, open-minded and hungry for the kind of common language that football could supply.
There is no secret in the early predominance of Uruguay. True, it is much smaller than Brazil or Argentina. Then again, at this point the game was basically Montevideo versus Buenos Aires versus Rio and São Paulo — terms that were much more favourable to Uruguay than today, when a game against Brazil pits a nation of three million against one of 200 million.
Moreover, Uruguay were quickest to call on talent from all backgrounds. The game slid down the social scale — from grandees to street kids — with extraordinary speed. But this happened faster in Uruguay than elsewhere as a result of social democracy. Uruguay had an embryonic welfare state and enlightened social attitudes. They were calling up black players from poor backgrounds as early as the first Copa América in 1916, something that would have been unthinkable in semi-feudal Brazil, where slavery had only been abolished in 1888. These battles in Brazilian football would be fought in the 1920s and 30s, with the introduction of professionalism starting to open up the possibility of a career to talent.
That date of the first Copa — 1916 — is significant. Europe, of course, had its mind on weightier matters at the time, with its youth being mowed down in droves during the First World War. South America — or at least the south cone — was already beginning to see football as a possible affair of state. In subsequent decades the example of Mussolini in Italy was to prove hugely influential, and this tendency would increase.
In the early years — especially until the Wall Street crash of 1929 set off a depression that would shake up the region — the Copa América was held frequently, at times annually. It was behind the rise in standards that in turn underpinned the global dominance of the Uruguayans in the 1920s. It is little remarked upon, perhaps even little known and appreciated, but a direct line can be drawn from the birth of the Copa América in 1916 to the birth of the World Cup fourteen years later.
Uruguay, then, were the first kings. Argentina came through to emerge as the strongest force on the continent. And then Brazil went one better, collecting World Cup wins as if they were stickers for an album. These triumphs had — still have — massive resonance in a region that can suffer from fragile self-esteem, for being and feeling a long way from the centre of the world. Popular forms of music such as tango and samba needed to win European approval to be validated at home by polite society. And these sporting victories — as seen, recognised and revered by the world — were of huge importance in the formation of a national culture.
They helped to answer a deep and troubling question — who are we? The population of the south cone were in their majority displaced Europeans. Even in Brazil, modern DNA analysis is revealing a country much more European than its self-image. In reference to their football, the Uruguayans still talk of the garra charrúa — the supposed inner drive of the Charrúa tribe who used to inhabit the land. Used to. Disease and conquest wiped them out. There is very little indigenous influence in Uruguayan culture. So who are the current inhabitants? They would see themselves as victims of colonisation, but they are clearly the descendants of colonisers. Getting their hands on football trophies helped them dodge the question. Identity solved. They were winners. And, like the Argentines and the Brazilians, they have sent a team to Russia in the hope that they can be winners once more.