In April 1923 a new boat sailed out of the shipyards of William Beardmore & Co in Dalmuir, near Glasgow, destined for history. “Italian craftsmen and artists were brought specifically from Florence to carry out the decoration of the first-class saloons,” reported the Times. “The wall of the main staircase bears a huge painting by Cavalieri; the library is in the Tuscan renaissance style, with stained-glass windows and ceiling paintings; and the other public rooms are equally ornate. The wealth of artistic detail everywhere recalls the old-time splendour of an Italian palace.” The boat was built for the Genoese Lloyd Sabaudo line and named the Conte Verde, after Amadeus VI, a 14th-century Count of Savoy.
The Conte Verde was destined to shuttle between Europe and either South America or Asia, carrying the Chinese Olympic team to Berlin in 1936 and thousands of refugees from Nazi persecution in the opposite direction over the following years, and played a small but noteworthy role in the second world war. It was moored in Shanghai when in September 1943 news broke of Italy’s surrender to Allied forces, and its crew were ordered to destroy it rather than risk it falling into Japanese hands. It was sunk in the most inconvenient location possible, blocking all traffic from entering or leaving the naval yard where the Japanese were busy repairing various war craft. It took three months to move it, and on the day it was finally raised an Allied bomber turned up and sank it again. It was another six months before it was back afloat, whereupon the Japanese salvaged it, renamed it Kotobuki Maru and used it to move troops until it was bombed, definitively this time, in July 1945.
The Conte Verde made one other particularly noteworthy journey. On June 21st, 1930, shortly before the first World Cup in Uruguay, it set sail from Genoa heading for South America, with the Romania national team on board. The boat stopped off at Villefranche-sur-Mer, where they picked up the French squad, three referees – there were 15 referees in all at the tournament, 11 of them Uruguayan – and a group of officials including Jules Rimet himself, who packed the trophy in his suitcase. In Barcelona they were joined by the Belgians, and finally they picked up the Brazilian delegation in Rio do Janeiro before arriving in Montevideo on July 4th. In all the journey lasted a little over a fortnight, although for some it was even longer. “We lost two nights on the train to Genoa,” said Romania’s captain, Rudolph Wetzer. “The seats were very bad – our bones were killing us – but it was worth it.”
“There was no talk of tactics or anything like that, no coaching,” France’s Lucien Laurent said of life on the Conte Verde. “It was just running about the boat on the deck. Running, running all the time. Down below we would do exercise – stretching, jumping, running up stairs, lifting weights. There was also a swimming pool there, which we all used until the weather got cooler. And we would be entertained by a comedy act or a string quartet. It was like a holiday camp. We didn’t really realise the full enormity of why we were going to Uruguay. Not until years later did we appreciate our place in history. It was just adventure. We were young men having fun. The journey on the Conte Verde took 15 days. It was 15 very happy days.”
“It was a really tough trip because in those days the only way you could get there was by boat,” remembered his team-mate Edmond Delfour. “Raoul Caudron, who was the coach back then, said to me: ‘You’ve got to keep the players busy on the boat, keep them in shape.’ And so I became their fitness coach on the trip. It was a superb voyage.”
Only Yugoslavia travelled from Europe by any other method, because by the time they decided to come to the World Cup the Conte Verde was fully booked. Instead they set sail from Marseille, after a three-day train journey, on the pleasure cruiser Florida. The only African representatives, Egypt, were due to join them only for their boat from Africa to get slowed down by a storm, and the Florida left without them. They cabled their apologies and the tournament continued with an awkward 13 teams. The Mexico squad, meanwhile, sailed from Veracruz via Havana to New York in order to join the Americans on the SS Munargo. The USA coach, the former Celtic player Robert Millar, forced his charges to train on board “despite the conditions”, labelling the Munargo “a steamer not only too small and without an open deck for exercising, but also with very poor bathrooms”.
There had been no process of qualification, these were simply the only teams interested in turning up. Sweden, Spain, Italy and Holland had been sufficiently enthused about the idea of a World Cup to volunteer to host the first one, but less keen on it when someone else was given the honour. Rimet had badgered the French into attending but even then their coach, Gaston Barreau, and their best striker, Manuel Anatol, opted to stay at home. Fifa’s Belgian vice-president, Rudolf Seedrayers, had stamped his feet until his nation was represented, but their best player, Raymond Braine, had been suspended for the unlikely offence of opening a cafe (he instead spent that summer trying to join Clapton Orient, but failed to get a work permit). Romania were forced to play by their enthusiastic new king, Carol II, who picked the squad himself and convinced their employers to keep their jobs open despite an absence that would stretch to three months. Carol also convinced the Yugoslavian football association to send a team.
It did not much matter who came, as Uruguay, twice Olympic champions in the 1920s, would have been strong favourites to win anyway. Not only were they at home, they were the great footballing power of the age, having won gold at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics. Of the five seeded teams, four were South American and the other was the USA – even though their participation in the 1928 Olympic football tournament had ended with an 11-2 defeat by the eventual silver medallists, Argentina, in the first round. “In my opinion the absence of European football players will not undermine this tournament,” the American goalkeeper James Douglas said. “The Olympic Games showed that the supreme soccer nations of the world are those on either side of the River Plate.”
The tournament featured an inevitable stream of curiosity and controversy, many concerning the refereeing – at one stage a local paper wrote: “The truth about the referees is that there has not been a single good performance. Not one.” Kits were rather undeveloped, with the man who refereed the final, Belgium’s John Langenus, sporting shirt, tie and knickerbockers for all his matches, and one game between Brazil and Bolivia starting with both sides sporting white shirts (half of the Bolivians, who were eventually to change into a red kit, also wore berets).
The Argentinians were the event’s great controversy magnets. On the night of July 14th their players were kept awake for half the night by members of Montevideo’s large French population, celebrating Bastille Day. On the 15th they played France, and took out their annoyance in physical style: in the opening exchanges Luis Monti – the first and only man to play in two World Cup finals for two different nations, also turning out for Italy in 1934 – fouled Lucien Laurent, who spent the rest of the match hobbling around to little purpose. Then the French goalkeeper, Alex Thépot, was taken ill. France clung on with nine fit men until the 81st minute, when Monti scored direct from a free-kick. But the most controversial incident of all came towards the end of the match when the France winger Marcel Langiller ran clear on goal, apparently certain to score, and the referee blew the final whistle. It was controversial because only 84 minutes had been played. The official – who one watching member of the Uruguay team said “didn’t know much about football” – later brought the sides back out to complete the match, but France’s momentum had faded.
Argentina’s win was so unpopular that local fans carried off some members of the France team shoulder-high and pelted the victors with stones as they left the ground, behaviour that one official from their FA suggested could “gravely affect our nation’s fraternal feelings with the nation of Uruguay”. But their progress remained beset by scandal. Their second match, a 6-3 win against Mexico, was refereed by Ulises Saucedo, the Bolivian team coach, who awarded five penalties. Guillermo Stábile, playing only because Argentina’s first-choice striker and captain, Manuel Ferreira, had gone home to sit a law exam, scored a hat-trick on his international debut (he would be the tournament’s top scorer, but never played for his country again). Argentina’s third group game, against Chile, featured an ugly mass brawl prompted, inevitably, by Monti, and eventually broken up by the police. Stábile scored twice in a 3-1 win but, by the time they qualified for the semi-finals, Argentina were so unpopular their team’s hotel required round-the-clock police protection.
In their semi-final against the USA, Alejandro Scopelli broke the leg of Raphael Tracey with a horrible challenge after 10 minutes. Tracey played on, as best he could, until half-time, when Argentina led 1-0. The South Americans scored five more times in the second half, and won 6-1. The USA’s other casualties that day included Andy Auld, who lost four teeth and, according to their manager, Wilfred Cummings, “had his lip ripped wide open”; Bert Patenaude, who was taken to hospital with a stomach injury; and Jimmy Douglas, who was left limping after a blow to the knee. “The Americans demonstrated true sportsmanship,” El Dario reported, “refusing to lose their temper in spite of the continued fouls of the Argentina players.”
The other semi-final also ended 6-1, Yugoslavia – exceeding all expectations by getting so far, with the average age of their young squad just 21.7 years – scored in the fourth minute before being outclassed by the hosts, one of whose goals came after the ball had gone out of play and been hoofed straight back in by a helpful policeman without any of the officials noticing.
And so the tournament got the final the world demanded but the police most feared, between Uruguay and Argentina. Such was the pre-match excitement an entire fleet of boats set off across the River Plate from Buenos Aires, leaving a quayside crowd screaming “Argentina si! Uruguay no! Victory or death!”. They got lost in fog and most of them never made it. Fans were advised to arrive several hours before kick-off, as they were all to be searched at the gates in an effort to keep out firearms and assorted weaponry. Langelus was named as referee but agreed to do the job only on the condition that he and the linesmen – one of whom was Costel Radulescu, the manager of Romania – were escorted safely away from the ground after the match by mounted policemen. The teams could not agree on a match ball, so played the first half with Argentina’s choice and the second with Uruguay’s.
Not only were Uruguay without their first-choice goalkeeper, Andrés Mazali – dropped after being caught sneaking back into the team’s hotel after an illicit conjugal visit – their best forward was also absent. Peregrino Anselmo’s illness forced them to recall Héctor Castro, a striker remarkable predominantly for having lost most of an arm in a childhood carpentry accident. Argentina’s players might not have previously suffered such significant physical injury but they certainly feared they might: at half-time, with Argentina 2-1 up, the defender José Della Torre told his team-mates: “If we win this the crowd will tear us apart.”
“That game was a disaster for us,” said Argentina’s Francisco Varallo, who died in 2010, aged 100, the last of the finalists. “Monti and others played poorly from the very beginning – I later found out that he had received a letter threatening to kill him and his daughters if we won. José Nassazzi, the Uruguay captain, insulted me and hit me all the time. When we were winning 2-1 I received the ball and tried one of my trademark shots [he was nicknamed Canoncito, little canon], it hit the bar, and I did my knee in.
“At 2-1 I thought we’d done it, that there was no way we could lose. But after my injury I had to go off. I couldn’t walk. Uruguay started to put pressure on us then, and with the greatest respect to my team-mates, I reckon we lacked a little bit of steel. In the end they won 4-2. I still remember it so well and it makes me so angry. I still wonder how we let it slip, and I am convinced that if I had stayed on the pitch we would have won. In my whole life I’ve never felt such a bitter pain as losing that final.”
Rimet insisted he “liked the final game because it was a tough one, as I believe football should be – a game for strong and healthy men”, and it inspired the first mention of the tournament in the Guardian, a single paragraph describing “scenes exceeding in enthusiasm even those of an English Cup final”, that got the score wrong.
The final whistle prompted a pitch invasion. Langenus, worried about violent reprisals from the losing team or their fans, saw the sudden arrival on the pitch of thousands of strangers as perfect cover, and made good his escape. He fled straight to the port and onto the SS Duilio, the Italian ocean liner that was due to take him home. Its departure was delayed by a day due to the fog, but he remained hidden on board.
In Uruguay a national holiday was declared, and each team member was given a house. In Argentina a nation felt the pain described by Varallo, just with added fury. Agency reports detailed “several minor riots, in which shots were fired, in Buenos Aires”, while “late at night about 100 demonstrators assembled in front of the Uruguayan Consulate and threw stones”. The two nations’ football associations officially ended relations. “The Argentine press calls attention to the condition of the players when they returned home,” the Guardian later reported. “They were injured and badly bruised, it says, and the violent game played by the Uruguayans was criticised severely.” Which is all a bit rum, given the state that Argentina’s extremely robust approach to the games against France, Chile and America.
For the Europeans, another marathon journey awaited, one that did not pass without drama. One of the Romanians, Alfred Eisenbeisser Feraru, was taken ill during the transatlantic voyage, and diagnosed with pneumonia. When the boat reached Genoa, he was left in Italy to recuperate. A huge crowd gathered at Bucharest’s Gara de Nord to welcome the team, and when his absence was noted a rumour spread that he had died in South America. The squad dispersed around the country and returned to work, and a distraught Mrs Feraru organised a wake to mark the passing of her beloved son. Right on cue, on the morning of his own wake, he returned home. His mother took one look at him and feinted. Not only was Feraru not dead, he was healthy enough to compete as a figure skater in the 1934 and 1938 European Championships – in the first of them he was also in the bobsleigh team – and the 1936 Winter Olympics, where he came 13th in the pairs.
The reputation of the World Cup had been made. Four years later only the British were still refusing to participate, while the rest of Europe forgot their earlier indifference. Uruguay, on the other hand, did not – the holders refused to defend their title in Italy in belated protest at the lack of European representation in Montevideo. The Uruguayans ended the first World Cup burdened with both greatness and grudges, and the tournament had set a standard for excitement, scandal and intrigue that it has been seeking to live up to ever since. – Guardian service