Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A History of World Football in 100 Games - Part 8

Uruguay 7-0 Yugoslavia (25 May 1924) Colombes, Paris
The position of football in the early years of the modern Olympics was far from prominent. In the Olympiads of Paris in 1900 and St Louis in 1904 the tournament organised was at best haphazard. Both competitions saw only three teams participate and in neither of them did all teams face each other. As such the victories of Upton Park (Great Britain) in 1900 and Galt FC (Canada) in 1904 were far from marking the coronation of genuine world champions. The first Olympic tournament to have a sliver of credibility was the 1908 London Olympiad which saw the England amateur team prevail, and they retained their title in Stockholm 4 years later.

However, it was at the 1924 Olympics in Paris that the competition of football became a genuinely global affair. The addition of Uruguay and, to a lesser extent, the USA to the list of those competing added some much needed colour to the tournament. The Uruguayans had retained the Copa America in 1924, having won it the previous year, but despite that they remained something of an unknown quantity. The trip itself came about due to the belief of Dr Attilio Narancio that the Uruguayans were a match for the rest of the world. So confident was the good doctor that he mortgaged his house to fund the passage to Europe. In their long international history Uruguay had never before faced European international opposition but their pedigree in South America marked them out as a real force, having already won four of the first seven Copa Americas.

In the years since the first South American international of 1902 significant advances had also been made in tactics. After the first international of 1872 had demonstrated the differences between the play of England and Scotland, the English had soon embraced the formation (2-2-6) used by their neighbours, if not the style of play. By the 1880s teams had gone further, withdrawing an additional forward into the half-back line to a form a system known as the pyramid (the 2-3-5 when set out on the pitch looks like an inverted pyramid).

When the game broke through in South America this formation had already established itself as pre-eminent within British football. Naturally then this was the style adopted in deference to the footballing motherland. While the South Americans might have been conservative when it came to formations (the pyramid would remain the most popular system within Uruguay until the 1950s), they were willing to be more adventurous when it came to the manner in which they played the game.

Formations for Uruguay (below) v. Yugoslavia

The Celestes had built on the classical Scottish style of passing and added significant invention to what had already been such an effective system. In anticipation of Arthur Rowe’s famous “push and run” Spurs side of the 1950s, Uruguay had added considerable movement to the previously static style. Uruguay’s style was increasingly fluid, and relied on players making themselves available to receive a pass at all times. By running off the ball and constantly moving into space the Uruguayans were extremely hard to defend against, and forced the opposing half-backs to focus almost entirely on defence or risk the consequences.

Uruguay’s tactical dominance was vital to their early success in South America, as their movement appeared to provide them with a numerical advantage. Undeniably they relied on an excellent group of players, but what Uruguay demonstrated was the (perhaps obvious) natural supremacy of sides that played as a team rather than a group of individuals. The nature of Uruguay’s tactical advantage over their great South American rivals, Argentina, was later expressed by the Italian journalist, Gianni Brera, who commented “Argentina play football with a lot of imagination and elegance, but technical superiority cannot compensate for the abandonment of tactics. Between the two rioplatense national teams, the ants are the Uruguayans, the cicadas are the Argentinians.”

When the Uruguayans arrived in France they were not overly feared. Their isolation from the European game had made them an unknown quantity and so their first opponents at the Olympics, Yugoslavia, dispatched their scouts to watch them practice. In order to lull the Yugoslavs into a false sense of security the Uruguayans performed deliberately badly in training, leaving the scouts to conclude “It makes you feel sorry, these boys came from so far away…”

It was the Yugoslavs who would be sorry after the game. Such was the lack of knowledge about the tiny country in South America that the Uruguayan flag was flown upside down before the game while the organisers played a Brazilian march rather than the Uruguayan national anthem. Neither of these slights perturbed the Uruguayans.

The Uruguayans raced into a three goal lead at half-time and ran out convincing 7-0 victors at the full-time whistle. The crowd were astonished by the ability of the Uruguayans who were, as Eduardo Galeano would say, “slippery like squirrels, who played chess with a ball”. In particular, Jose Leandro Andrade, the Uruguayan right-half, stood out. By the climax of the tournament he would come to be known as the “black marvel” on account of his skin and his wonderful technical ability. A combination of ball juggling and physical strength, he was unlike any midfielder seen in Europe at the time. Indeed, his 75 yard dribble against France in which he beat 7 players before assisting in the fourth goal was as good a piece of individual ability as the French had ever seen. Having beaten Yugoslavia, the Uruguayans swept past the USA, France, Holland and finally Switzerland to claim their Olympic title.

Jose Leandro Andrade

Uruguay’s success made Europe sit up and take notice of the previously unheralded, brilliance of South America. With so little prior contact between the two continents from a footballing perspective, the tournament served as a reminder that the game had blossomed beyond European borders. The European powers could no longer claim pre-eminence, now there would be at least two continents vying for supremacy. Uruguay, as Dr Narancio would say, was “no longer just a tiny spot on the map of the world.”

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