When Uruguay dominated the world of football

Paris 1924 OG, Football - The team from Uruguay 1st.
Paris 1924 OG, Football - The team from Uruguay 1st.

Over the history of the Olympic Games a number of teams have reached such heights that they can only be described as incredible. Tokyo 2020 revisits the stories of these unforgettable teams and the star players that helped them light up the Olympic Games. In the latest part of our series, we look back at Uruguay’s men's football team who dominated football in the 1920s.

How it started

In the early 1920s, football was just beginning to grow in global popularity, with the 1924 Olympic football tournament being the first competition to be organised by FIFA. It was also the first international tournament that teams from South America would compete in.

Some of the strongest European teams - including England, Denmark and Austria - were absent from the tournament. But those that did compete, such as Czechoslovakia, Italy, Hungary, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and France, ensured there would still be an impressive lineup.

The first challenge Uruguay faced was funding the trip to the competition’s host country, France. Casto Martínez Laguarda, an association official, was sent to Vigo in Spain to find a solution, which he did by organising a series of friendly matches. The rest of the money was made up of personal contributions from other officials.

After a long trip on a ship named Desirade - during which the Uruguayan goalkeeper Andrés Mazali organised training sessions on the deck - Uruguay arrived in Vigo on 7 April 1924.

Upon their arrival in Spain, Uruguay went on to win all nine friendly matches that had been organised, impressing the local media including the famous El Mundo Deportivo who wrote: “Without any doubt these South American champions are the best footballers we have seen here.”

Now it was time to go to France and demonstrate those skills to the world.

The biggest win

In France, the Uruguayan team dominated many of their opponents, beginning with a 7-0 win against a Yugoslavian outfit that had made the mistake of underestimating the South Americans. It seemed as if the rest of the tournament would be simple to navigate.

But the path to glory is never easy and the semi-final against the Netherlands proved to be much harder than anticipated. The Dutch team took the lead in the 32nd minute and the Celeste (the nickname of the Uruguay football team) seemed slightly lost. But after the break, the comeback began, as Uruguay scored two highly disputed goals - the first after an alleged offside and the second following a controversial penalty.

The Netherlands team went on to file a complaint, which was duly rejected, and Uruguay marched on into the final. In the gold medal match, Uruguay took on Switzerland. After dominating from the first whistle, the Celeste ran out 3-0 winners in front of a crowd of over 40,000. The legend of Uruguay was born. 

“The Uruguayans are supple disciples of the spirit of fitness rather than geometry. They have pushed towards perfection the art of the feint and swerve and the dodge, but they know also how to play directly and quickly. They are not only ball jugglers. They created a beautiful football, elegant but at the same time varied, rapid, powerful, effective,” wrote Gabriel Hanot in l’Auto, the forerunner of L’Équipe.

Uruguay live up to star football billing
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Uruguay justify their reputation as one of the best football teams in the world by taking the gold medal at the 1924 Summer Olympic Games.

The key players

The basis of the Uruguayan team remained the same throughout 1924, 1928 and the very first FIFA World Cup that took place in 1930. Firstly, there was the captain, Jose Nasazzi. El Mariscal (The Marshal), as he was nicknamed, was an extraordinary leader who created what would come to be known as “la garra charrua” (the fighting spirit), a tenet of Uruguayan football that is still evident today.

But there were two other players who personified the Uruguayan spirit. Pedro Cea and Pedro Petrone had an incredible capacity to combine and score goals. In 1924, Cea scored four goals, while the then 19-year-old Petrone finished top scorer with seven. Both of them were also part of the team that won the Amsterdam 1928 Olympic title and the 1930 World Cup that took place on home soil.

However, the indisputable star of the team was José Andrade. The wing-half was the first player of colour to become well-known in Europe and was an extraordinary dribbler and playmaker. The famous poet Eduardo Galeano never had the chance to see him play, but may have summed up his talents better than anyone:

“Uruguayan José Leandro Andrade dazzled everyone with his exquisite moves. A midfielder, this rubber-bodied giant would sweep the ball downfield without ever touching an adversary, and when he launched the attack he would brandish his body and send them all scattering. In one match he crossed half the field with the ball sitting on his head.”

What happened next?

This incredible generation of footballers continued its relentless march forward, winning the inaugural FIFA World Cup at home in Montevideo. In the final, they beat their regional arch-rivals: the Argentina of Luis Monti, another emerging star of international football. But with the world moving into a dark period of history, Uruguay did not participate in another international competition until the 1950 FIFA World Cup.

That year, with arguably a less impressive array of players, Uruguay managed what remains one of the biggest upsets in football history. They beat Brazil in the final of ‘their’ World Cup, in Rio’s mythical Macarana stadium.

Following their defeat, Brazilians invented a word to describe the catastrophe of the occasion, ‘Maracanazo’. Alcides Ghiggia, who scored the winning goal that day, once said: “Only three people have silenced the Maracana. The Pope, Frank Sinatra, and me.” Even today, everyone in Brazil knows what the Maracanazo is.

Following this performance, the Uruguayan team struggled to shine again at international level, until the 2010 FIFA World Cup when 4.5 million people watched them reach the semi-final in South Africa, led by a new generation of talented footballers such as Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez.