Uruguay’s feted footballing history encompasses two World Cup wins and two Olympic gold medal successes, but there’s also a lesser-known international title the small South American nation can lay claim to: a one-off tournament to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of its hosting of the inaugural World Cup in 1930. This minor title is an achievement lauded still in Montevideo, even if the rest of the world has largely forgotten it.
The mysterious competition in question is the Copa de Oro de Campeones Mundialies (the World Champions’ Gold Cup) – but more commonly known as El Mundialito (the Little World Cup) – and it was contested in the southern hemisphere summer as 1980 ticked over into 1981. The Uruguayan authorities invited all past World Cup winners and Argentina, Brazil, Italy and West Germany all consented, so ensuring a dazzling array of talent including Maradona, Rummenigge, Socrates, Tardelli, Junior, Kaltz and Kempes would be participating.
The one nation missing was the 1966 champions England who eventually demurred because of the number and the importance of League fixtures that would be affected over the traditionally frantic holiday period. The FA was keen but the clubs were not, and even a bizarre idea to select players from just four clubs – among them Terry Venables’ Crystal Palace – wasn’t taken up. By contrast, none of the other nations found the timing an issue and sent strong teams. The reality was that England were barely missed anyway, mired as they were at the time in an international slump that had seen them fail to qualify for either the 1974 nor 1978 World Cups.
The Dutch were invited to replace the English on account of having being runners-up in the previous two Mundials, but their attendance was hit and miss as the Dutch federation wasn’t keen on playing in a tournament hosted by a country run by one of the cruellest regimes in the world at the time (although that hadn’t stopped them going to Argentina two years earlier). Eventually the Dutch parliament intervened to order the federation to send a squad.
Two-times winners Italy’s participation was also a contentious issue as a document condemning fascist rule in Uruguay had been signed by 41 Serie A players, including two internationalists. Appearance money of US$150,000 and additional prize money based upon success acted as a considerable motivator for those nations to make their decision.
With Argentina (Videla), Chile (Pinochet) and Paraguay (Stroessner), Latin America was riven by military-backed right-wing dictators in that era, and Uruguay was no exception. Human rights groups believed that Uruguay had the highest number per capita of political prisoners in the world at the time, and almost 20 percent of the population was arrested at some point during the 12-year long dictatorship which ran until 1985. Like Argentina in 1978, the Uruguayan junta wanted a successful, media-friendly tournament with a home victory to show that all was well in Montevideo. FIFA’s president Joao Havelange didn’t ever mind which government was in power and was happy for the tournament to go ahead.
The Uruguayans certainly did their utmost to raise the profile of the competition and make the most of the event by creating a mascot, a series of tie-in stamps and even a jaunty disco-tinged theme song that went by the name of ‘Uruguay te queremos ver Campeonato’
All the matches were played at the Estadio Centario de Montevideo, the venue of the 1930 World Cup. The stadium naturally hosted a glamorous and colourful opening ceremony which featured a giant replica of the trophy in the centre of the field. Security was tight with the government claiming that the urban guerrilla faction Grupo Tupamaro would target matches. But the only violence that would occur during Mundialito would be cowardly attacks on visiting Argentinian supporters.
Having trained for several weeks specifically for this event and recorded a series of warm-up wins, albeit against modest opposition like Finland, Bolivia and Switzerland, the home nation was fully geared up for El Mundialito. The backbone of the squad mainly comprised players from Montevideo’s big two of Peñarol and Nacional.
Uruguay opened the tournament against a Netherlands team which was missing Cruyff, Krol and many other stalwarts under new coach Jan Zwartkruis. It was a team in disarray which arrived after losing to the Republic of Ireland and Belgium in the 1982 World Cup qualifiers, defeats which would ultimately doom their qualification campaign.
Not entirely surprisingly Uruguay dominated with Rubén Paz tormenting the Dutch defence with his darting runs. First half goals from Venancio Ramos and Waldemar Victorino were enough for a 2-0 victory. They followed it up with another 2-0 win, against Italy, thanks to goals from Julio Morales – who had played in the team that reached the semi-finals of the 1970 World Cup – and Victorino. Morales’ goal was a contentious and hotly disputed penalty. It was a feisty encounter – Uruguay’s Jose Moreira and Italy’s Antonio Cabrini were ordered off for fighting, and Marco Tardelli was later dismissed for a poor tackle on Paz.
“An affront to the game” was how Italian manager Enzo Bearzot described it, adding that Uruguay were out to win the trophy by any means necessary. He would also lambast the Spanish referee for the red cards and other decisions. That result decided the group and saw Uruguay through to the final, meanwhile Italy and the Netherlands played out a 1-1 dead rubber of a draw in a mostly empty stadium. On their return to Europe, the Dutch coach Zwartkruis promptly resigned.
The other group would be somewhat tighter and qualification would go down to the wire. The opening game, held on New Year’s Day, was an enthralling match-up between world champions Argentina and the 1980 European champions West Germany, by then unbeaten in their last 23 games. The Argentinean line-up included nine players that had defeated the Netherlands in that memorable 1978 Final, the only changes being the electrifying new talent Diego Maradona and his striking colleague from the 1979 World Youth Cup winning team, Ramon Diaz. And it was the lesser of those two bright young things who was the hero, scoring in the 88th minute to secure a 2-1 win.
It was a typical Maradona goal that carved out a lead for Argentina against Brazil in the next game. In the 30th minute he received the ball on the right touchline, danced around several defenders, powered his way towards the goal and struck a shot from a tight angle that sailed past Carlos. Brazil’s number one keeper was injured in the second half and replaced by Joao Leite who played the rest of the tournament.
Edevaldo equalised after the interval and the match ended all square. Again there were fisticuffs as a row between Maradona and Paulo Isidoro escalated into an all-out brawl that needed armed police to quell. The result left the Argentines in a precarious spot going into the final game needing West Germany to defeat or draw with their South American rivals in order to go through. A Brazilian win by more than one goal would see them progress instead.
With the advantage of knowing what they needed to achieve, Brazil started forcefully and went on to hammer the West German with an emphatic 4-1 victory, this after the Europeans took the lead through Klaus Allofs in the 54th minute. Junior’s stunning strike set the comeback in motion just two minutes later and Cerezo added a second shortly after.
With the score poised at 2-1 there was a distinct possibility of the group being decided by the toss of a coin. A further quarter of an hour passed before Serginho made that prospect redundant and Ze Sergio completed the Selecao’s rout. The Argentinians were left disgruntled at the German’s poor performance and a heaviest defeat in 22 years. And while coach Menotti was careful not to blame the West Germans directly, he added that “Argentina has a clear conscience, I don’t know if the Germans can say the same.”
There were reports of partying and bickering in the German camp, including one group breaking a curfew to go out on the town and the players reportedly downing 1,200 bottles of beer during their short stay.
The final was a repeat of the 1950 World Cup Final which had been famously won 2-1 by Uruguay. It was something of a success for Brazil to get this far having overcome two nations in far better shape at that point. With two disappointing World Cups behind them, Brazil was a side in rebuild mode under Tele Santana.
Uruguay were also a fading force, finishing bottom of their group in West Germany in 1974 after mustering a solitary point in a draw against Bulgaria, then failing to even qualify in 1978 when they were outsmarted by Bolivia, the continent’s second weakest team in qualifying. Their 1979 Copa America campaign had brought no cause for optimism either.
The line-ups for the final play-off on January 10th 1981 were:
Uruguay: Rodolfo Rodriguez, Victor Diogo, Walter Olivera, Hugo De Leon, Daniel Martinez, Ariel Krasouski, Eduardo de la Pena, Ruben Paz, Venancio Ramos, Waldemar Victorino and Julio Morales.
Brazil: Joao Leite, Edevaldo, Oscar, Luizinho, Junior, Batista, Toninho Cerezo, Paulo Isidoro, Tita, Socrates and Ze Sergio.
It was the same Brazilian selection that defeated West Germany, but Uruguay were forced into making one change from their game against Italy due to Moreira’s hot-headedness. Victor Diogo replaced him.
In front of a crowd of 71,250 the match began nervously with Uruguay defensive and Brazil lacking the spark they had shown in the second half against West Germany. It was little surprise the teams went into the dressing rooms at half-time goalless. Jorge Barrios came on to replace the injured Eduardo de la Pena and created the decisive moment on 50 minutes, bundling the ball home after Leite managed to get a hand to Paz’s shot. Brazil were awarded a penalty 12 minutes later when Olivera fouled Socrates and the midfielder himself took and scored it.
In that 1950 final Alcides Ghiggia scored in the 79th minute to seal that famous victory for Uruguay. Three decades later Victorino scored in the 80th minute, heading in a pinpoint free-kick by Ramos, for another 2-1 final victory over their bigger neighbours. When the Austrian referee blew the whistle the winning Uruguayan players jumped into the moat surrounding the pitch to celebrate.
With that winning goal Victorino had the additional honour of being the tournament’s highest scorer with three goals from three matches. While several Uruguayan players were picked out for their outstanding efforts, Brazil’s Toninho Cerezo was voted the player of the tournament.
Being crowned champions of all champions wasn’t the kickstart for Uruguayan football that the nation might have hoped for. Peru upset them in the 1982 qualifying campaign and while they would participate in the 1986 finals, they made no positive impact on the tournament.
The Mundialito trophy itself appeared to have been mislaid for many years, but decades later journalist Eduardo Rivas made it his personal mission to find it and have captain Rodriguez lift it once more. He came across a strangely disinterested national federation and enrolled Rodriguez, a playing legend in Uruguay, to help uncover the trophy. When he finally did lift it again the former Nacional man became emotional as the memories of one of his greatest achievements flooded back.
There was apparently a provisional plan for a repeat of the tournament in 2030 on what would be the centenary of the first ever World Cup. The problem with that idea is that the World Cup itself will be held in that year and FIFA themselves will undoubtedly herald the long (and profitable) history of the world’s greatest footballing extravaganza.