Giving the sport its identity

Uruguay, in 1930, was commemorating its 100 years of independence, and what better way to celebrate the occasion than showcase "ITS FOOTBALL".

A competition that has to be different from being merely an event in the Olympics; a competition that will provide football an identity of its own, and boost professionalism in the sport. These formed the essence of the collective thinking that finally inspired Frenchmen Jules Rimet, former FIFA President, and Henri Delaunay, the architect of French football, to pitch for the World Cup.

At the end of the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics the deck was cleared for the launch of the World Cup in 1930. Uruguay, which won the football gold medal at the Olympics, got the nod to host the event ahead of four other aspirants — Italy, Holland, Spain and Sweden — for one key reason: it was prepared to meet the travel and hotel expenses of the participating teams!

Uruguay, in 1930, was commemorating its 100 years of independence, and what better way to celebrate the occasion than showcase "its football" (as its Coach Vierra would say). But there was a hitch. At a time when economic depression was sweeping Europe, sending a team overseas was a difficult proposition, considering the length of travel (three weeks minimum by sea). Besides the clubs would have to be without its key players for over two months. So, until two months before the kick-off, there were no European entrants and that piqued the Uruguayans, who threatened to pull out of FIFA. Finally Belgium and Romania relented.

There is an interesting story of how the Romanian king, a sports lover, passed a decree which allowed the country's players three months off from their jobs and an assurance of re-employment on return. In addition, Jules Rimet's personal intervention ensured the participation of France and Yugoslavia.

In all 13 teams took part in the inaugural World Cup. Where a South American domination was expected, France kept alive Europe's hopes, even if briefly, with a 4-1 win over Mexico (France's Lucien Laurent earned the honour of scoring the first goal in a World Cup competition). But a 0-1 defeat to Argentina in a controversial match, when Referee Senhor Rego sounded the whistle six minutes before full-time, ended France's run. Worse, the whistle had come when France's Marcel Langiller had run the length of the field and seemed set to slot the equaliser.

The referee admitted his mistake and the players, some already in the showers, were called back to complete the lost time. Fortunes did not change and Argentina made the title round. Another European team, Yugoslavia beat Brazil en route to the semifinal before losing to the eventual Cup winner, Uruguay. In front of 90,000 spectators, Uruguay did a repeat of the 1928 Olympic final by defeating Argentina to bag the Cup, designed by the French sculptor, Abel Lafleur, and worth 50,000 Francs.

ITALY 1934

It was Italy's turn to host the event in 1934. The Azurris, under the fascist regime of Mussolini, had a clear agenda — that Italy must win. If the European teams were disinterested in travelling to Uruguay in 1930, the response from the South American teams to the tournament in Italy was lukewarm. In fact, Uruguay boycotted the event. On the bright side was the fact that there were 32 entrants for the tournament, which necessitated a preliminary phase. Expectedly, the European domination was complete at the quarterfinal stage itself.

In a key match in this phase, Italy's mighty attack came up against Spain's dogged defence. It was a no-holds-barred contest.

After drawing the first time, the two teams met again, bringing in an army of substitutes. In this game, Giuseppe Meazza became an instant Italian hero. He was to enhance his reputation later by earning the match-winner against Austria in the semifinal that was another test of stamina and adaptability on a rain-soaked field. Czechoslovakia downed a mighty Germany to ensure a place in the final that would have everything — the resourcefulness of the Czechs and the tenacity of the Italians.

The title clash was also a test of ability of two of the world's best goalkeepers — Gianpiero Combi (Italy) and Frantisek Planicka (Czech). The two were captains as well. A 1-1 score at full-time became 2-1 in Italy's favour in extra time. And true to his word, Combi, who decided to retire after the match, did so on a high note.

FRANCE 1938

Italy, after winning its first Cup, consolidated its position in the football world with back-to-back titles by emerging victor in the next edition in France in 1938. But the World Cup itself was overshadowed initially by the war cries that engulfed Europe. Germany had annexed Austria and Spain was in the grip of a civil war. FIFA, nonetheless, went ahead and allotted the tournament to France. Significantly, this would be the last edition before the World War II, which brought a 12-year hiatus to the championship.

The South American representation in the tournament remained thin, but Brazil more than made amends with a display that was to mesmerise football fans the world over in the years to follow.

Leonidas da Silva, the `Black Diamond' was the pick of the Brazilians and had it not been for the coach's wrong judgement in keeping this skilful player out in the semifinal, Brazil's dominance in world football would have begun then. Brazil edged Poland 6-5 and sneaked past Czechoslovakia 2-1 to set off its campaign. Defending champion Italy needed an extra-time goal by Piola to get past Norway, which had six players who had played the Olympics. Switzerland put out Germany in a re-match where the latter used Austrian players as well. Host France started well but met its waterloo against Italy in the quarterfinals. Sweden moved into the semifinals beating newcomer Cuba before bowing out 5-1 to Hungary.

Brazil minus Leonidas helped Italy in the other semifinal. Ironically Peracio, who had replaced Leonidas (who had been rested for the final by an overconfident coach), missed two clear chances and Brazil was out. Meazza and Piola helped Italy beat Hungary 4-2 in the final, an effort that gave the nation a special place in world football.

BRAZIL 1950

When World Cup returned in 1950, Brazil was the host. But withdrawals by teams continued to dog the tournament. However, England returned to the FIFA fold while India was also billed to take part but had to withdraw because rules did not permit barefoot play. In all 13 countries took part. Brazil started tentatively; England came and went, losing to a team of amateurs from the US, while Uruguay sizzled. Brazil signalled its intentions by beating Sweden 7-1, with Ademir scoring four goals. Spain was its next victim. Uruguay in comparison struggled against both Spain and Sweden. The settings at the 200,000-capacity Marcana Stadium beckoned Brazil. It needed only a draw against Uruguay but suffered a shock 2-1 defeat. Uruguay thus won the Cup for the second time.

SWITZERLAND 1954

Players wore jersey numbers, television came into play and there were representations from Asian Football Confederation (South Korea) and Africa (Egypt) to give the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland a global touch. Standards too rose. In all 16 teams were in the fray in the final round. Many thought Brazil was ready for the crown. Its stupendous form since 1950 pointed to that, while Hungary, after its Olympic title (1952 Helsinki Games) and a run of 31 unbeaten games since May 1950, looked sharp. With stars such as Ferenc Puskas, Jozsef Bozsik, Hidegkuti and Sandor Kocsis, the `Magical Magyars', as the Hungarian players came to be known, were ready too.

But at the end of a sensational final, Hungary, which had beaten Germany 8-3 in the first round, lost 3-2 after leading 2-0 at one stage. In hindsight, Hungary's downfall began in the quarterfinal in the famous `Battle of Berne' against Brazil when players, managers and everyone got into a fight that stretched into the dressing room.

S. R. SURYANARAYAN