'Dead' player gatecrashing own wake capped off the first and weirdest World Cup

Hosts Uruguay triumphed at inaugural tournament in 1930 amid riots, driving snow and teams literally missing the boat to take part

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Riots, thuggery, snow, berets and a team that literally missed the boat — for sheer craziness the current Qatar World Cup has nothing on the first tournament in 1930.

The host nation was Uruguay, chosen as two-time Olympic champions and with the country celebrating the centennial of its constitution.

No qualification was required, with 16 countries invited, although some of the biggest names in world football were missing.

England felt the competition was beneath them, while Denmark and Germany objected to the inclusion of professional footballers, believing only amateurs should play.

In the end, seven South American countries signed up and only four from Europe. Japan and Siam — now Thailand — sent their apologies, with the journey to South America involving several weeks on a boat in an age before regular air travel.

All the games were played in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital, using five stadiums, including the 90,000 capacity Estadio Centenario.

Journey far from plain sailing

French footballers pose after lunch for a group picture during their cruise aboard the Conte Verde in July 1930 on their way to Uruguay to participate in the first World Cup. Photo: AFP

A month before the World Cup, the European teams prepared to depart for South America and the fun began.

The Romanian squad, selected personally by the king, Carol II, were the first to board the liner Conte Verde as it set sail from the Italian port of Genoa, the players having first endured a gruelling two-day train journey.

At Viilefranche-sur-Mer, near Nice, the ship stopped to pick up the French team, three referees and the then president of Fifa, Jules Rimet, who was carrying the “Victory” trophy, later named in his honour, in a suitcase.

There was another stop in Barcelona to pick up the Belgians, and finally, on the other side of the Atlantic, in Rio do Janeiro, to collect Brazil.

The official match ball for the first Fifa World Cup in 1930 on display at the World of Football exhibition in Doha ahead of this year's tournament. AFP

Yugoslavia had left the decision to take part so late that the Conte Verde was fully booked. Instead they travelled to Marseilles to join the mail ship Florida.

Egypt had also booked the Florida but a storm in the Mediterranean delayed them by a day, and they arrived to find the ship had sailed without them, ending their World Cup campaign without a kicking a ball.

Wild weather for World Cup kick off

Over in Uruguay, preparations were chaotic. It had rained solidly for six weeks and the Estadio Centenario, then the second-biggest stadium in the world, after Wembley, had not been finished. It did not host games until five days into the tournament.

France beat Mexico in the opening match on July 13. Unlike Qatar, heat was not the problem, with the match played in the driving snow of a South American winter.

Uruguay had the honour of having the first player sent off in a World Cup and went on to lose 3-1 to Romania in front of the smallest crowd in the tournament’s history, in a stadium with a 1,000 capacity.

Argentina, meanwhile, quickly established themselves as the dirtiest team in the contest. In their opening game with France, a crippling tackle forced the French goalkeeper to leave the pitch after 20 minutes, and there was more controversy when the Brazilian referee blew the final whistle six minutes early and with Argentina leading 1-0.

Argentina then threatened to leave the tournament after a hostile reception from Uruguayan fans who pelted them with stones. With the Argentinian captain returning home to take a law exam, it took a personal intervention from the president of Uruguay to persuade the rest of the team to stay.

A fight for victory

The Estadio Centenario, pictured in 2021, was the venue for the first World Cup final on July 30, 1930. AFP

They celebrated with a massive fight in their final game with Chile, broken up by police, but qualified for the knockout stages, along with Uruguay, Yugoslavia and the USA.

These were also the semi-finals, with the Argentina-USA game a classic, at least for those who like to combine comedy with extreme violence.

Four minutes into the game, a foul on the US goalkeeper left him with a badly twisted knee. Six minutes later, a particularly brutal foul broke the leg of US defender Ralph Tracy.

The US trainer, Jack Coll, rushed on to the pitch to confront the referee, who like all officials, was wearing a suit. Coll tripped and accidentally smashed a bottle of chloroform in his pocket, collapsing unconscious from the fumes. He was stretched off the field along with Tracy.

Reduced to nine men, and with no substitutes allowed in those days, the Americans, who fielded six British-born players, succumbed 6-1 to Argentina.

In the other semi-final, the hosts also won 6-1 against tournament underdogs Yugoslavia, who had previously beaten a Bolivian team that played in berets.

A 1930 World Cup semi-final ticket stub on display at a sports auction in Beverly Hills, California. EPA

That set up a final between Uruguay and neighbours Argentina, then the most bitter rivalry in South American football. Even before the first kick, there was controversy over the ball to be used, with match officials eventually using an Argentinian ball for the first half and a Uruguayan one for the second.

Thousands of Argentinian fans crossed the River Plate border in an armada of small boats, chanting “Victoria o muerte” (victory or death). More than 90,000 spectators crammed into the Estadio Centenario in an atmosphere so intimidating the Belgian referee requested a ship be made available after the game for a quick escape.

Uruguay would win the first World Cup 4-2, sparking massive celebrations and the declaration of a public holiday. In Argentina the mood turned ugly, with an estimated 15,000 fans, who had missed the game after getting lost in fog, rioting. In Buenos Aires the Uruguayan consulate was stoned.

Lost World Cup star back from the dead

The tournament was over but there was a bizarre postscript. After three months, the Romanian team returned home, but without one of their star players, Alfred Feraru, who had been taken ill with pneumonia on the voyage over.

A rumour swept Bucharest that Feraru had died and his distraught family prepared for a funeral. Feraru, now fit and healthy after a stay in an Italian hospital, walked through the door on the day of his wake, prompting his mother to faint.

World Cup 2022 - in pictures

Updated: December 02, 2022, 9:39 AM