A century ago, Uruguay shocked the Olympics and changed soccer forever

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Soccer went global 100 years ago this week. Fans watching the 1924 Paris Olympics tournament must have felt the shift as they witnessed players from tiny Uruguay appear to be running circles around confounded opponents from the sport’s traditional European powers.

In the early 20th century, soccer’s power was centered in Europe, and aside from the United States, Canada and Egypt, only European teams had played in the Olympics, then the game’s world championship. Few in Paris had seen a South American team play. Uruguay, then with a population of just around 1.6 million, seemed to have no chance against the traditional European powers.

But dressed in brilliant sky-blue jerseys, Uruguay stunned everyone. With players nicknamed “El Mago,” “Artillery” and “The Black Marvel,” it played with a kind of graceful freedom the other teams had never seen, winning its five matches by a combined score of 20-2, culminating in a 3-0 upset of mighty Switzerland in the gold medal game.

“It was a major surprise and a major game changer,” says Philip Barker, a British journalist and sports historian who edits the International Society of Olympic Historians’ Journal of Olympic History.

A century later, the Olympics will again be in Paris, but it’s impossible to imagine soccer without South America. The continent’s brilliance has long been established, with its countries combining to win 10 World Cups and produce many of the game’s greatest players, including Pelé, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.

Yet all that felt unimaginable when a team that included grocers, meatpackers and marble cutters boldly insisted on making an impossible 6,000-mile journey to prove itself against the world’s best.

In the early 1900s, Uruguay was probably South America’s strongest soccer power, winning three of the first six Copa Américas, considered the continent’s championship. But the players wanted more. Before the start of the 1923 Copa América, they asked their national federation to send them to the Olympics if they won again.

It was not a simple request. Travel was expensive, the team would be away for months, and as famous Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano points out in his book “Soccer in Sun and Shadow,” many of the players worked conventional jobs and couldn’t afford to sail to France. Eventually, Atilio Narancio, one of the founders of the country’s soccer federation, promised to find the money. When Uruguay beat Argentina, 2-0, in the Copa América final, a local merchant donated the funds. Narancio mortgaged his house as collateral.

The team left for Europe on the steamer Desirade in mid-March, arriving six weeks later at the Spanish sea town of Vigo, just north of Portugal’s border. To raise money for the rest of their trip to Paris, the Uruguayans played nine matches against local Spanish teams along the way, winning them all. They arrived at the Olympics on May 17, only to be disappointed by the small huts that served as the Athletes’ Village, says Hector Henry, a Uruguayan journalist and Olympic historian. Through contacts, team officials found a nearby castle owned by a widow where the team could stay and practice in luxury.

Though Uruguay easily won all of its matches in Spain, word of its victories had not reached the teams at the Olympics, which included Spain. Alone at their castle, the Uruguayans practiced without anyone else at the Games knowing much about what they were doing. When a reporter from a Paris newspaper came to a practice before their May 26 opening match against Yugoslavia, the players intentionally looked ragged — fumbling passes and kicking wildly, making it appear as if they weren’t any good.

The ruse worked. Henry says the French reporter was so convinced Uruguay was about to be embarrassed in the single-elimination Olympic tournament that he wrote, “It’s a shame they came so far to lose so soon.”

The French reporter wasn’t the only one with low expectations. Just 3,025 showed up at 45,000-seat Stade Olympique in the Paris suburb of Colombes to watch the Yugoslavia match. Inside the stadium, the Uruguayan flag carried onto the field before the match was hung upside down.

Once the match began, it was immediately clear Yugoslavia would be the team soon heading home. Uruguay’s quick-passing style left the Yugoslavians dumbfounded. After taking an early 2-0 lead, Uruguay scored five second-half goals to win, 7-0. Four days later, it beat the United States, 3-0

“Our team did our best, but the all-round ability of the Uruguay players, their wonderful combination and control of the ball and play at all times clearly demonstrated that they were past masters of the art of soccer football,” U.S. Coach George Collins wrote in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s report from the 1924 Games.

On June 1, more than 30,000 came to the Stade Olympique for Uruguay’s quarterfinal against host France. But the throng was silenced when Uruguay forward Héctor “El Mago” Scarone scored two minutes into the match, and Uruguay again won easily, 5-1. In the semifinal five days later, Scarone scored on a late penalty kick, and Uruguay beat the Netherlands, 2-1, to go to the final.

By that point, Uruguay was impossible to ignore.

“If you look at film that’s on YouTube, the skill that Uruguay has is strong and their footwork is very good,” Barker says. “They were way at ease with the ball. You see the goals they scored: It’s like the other team didn’t see it coming. The goalkeeper just stands there, never diving for the ball.”

Scarone and 19-year-old striker Pedro “ArtilleroPetrone scored most of Uruguay’s goals in the Olympics, but it was the play of someone who didn’t score at all that dazzled the most. José Leandro Andrade, the team’s 22-year-old halfback, was Uruguay’s only Black player. He stood 6 feet and had an amazing mix of grace and power, pushing through defenders yet also dancing effortlessly away, the ball almost attached to his foot.

“You can see on the old films he is always caressing the ball, not belting it,” Barker says.

“He was tall [and] athletic, with great agility,” Henry adds.

Wrote Galeano: “In one match he crossed half the field with the ball sitting on his head. The crowds loved him. The French media called him ‘The Black Marvel.’ ”

More than 40,000 filled Stade Olympique for the final against Switzerland. Barker says many of the fans carried both French and Uruguayan flags, to celebrate the team that had captivated the Games. As in many of the other matches, Uruguay scored early on a goal by Petrone in the seventh minute before adding two more late in the match.

After they had won, the Uruguayan players marched around the field before stopping in front of the stadium’s main grandstand, covered by a huge awning. Photos show the players clapping and holding their hands up to the fans. Henry says that Manolo de Castro, a writer from the Faro de Vigo newspaper in Spain who had seen the Uruguay team play in one of the early exhibitions before Paris and followed it to the Olympics, wrote in his paper, “The crowd goes wild with enthusiasm, waving flags, scarves and hats that fall among flowers over the Olympic champions.”

Back in Montevideo, word of Uruguay’s great victory arrived in newspaper offices to telegraph operators who shouted the result to crowds waiting on the city’s streets. Traffic stopped. A huge roar filled the air. All of Uruguay, Henry says, had the “euphoria of the triumph.”

“It must have had a tremendously galvanizing impact for this small country,” Barker says. “There had always been this feeling in South America that Europeans undervalued South American football, and then Uruguay had won.”

The Uruguayan players were now stars, none more than Andrade. Stories spilled out about him spending nights in Paris’s nightclubs. At various points during the Games, he was linked to dancer/singer Josephine Baker and French novelist Colette. He would come back to the team in elegant clothes, though no one seemed to know where he got them.

“Patent leather shoes replaced his whiskery hemp sandals from Montevideo and a top hat took the place of his worn cap,” Galeano writes.

Andrade “stood out as a tango dancer, which was all the rage in Paris nights,” Henry says, adding that after the gold medal match, Andrade was “kidnapped” by the wife of a well-to-do perfume maker who was in the United States.

“He only returned a few hours before returning to Uruguay,” Henry says.

With an Olympic gold and South America’s first true superstar, Uruguay’s team was suddenly one of the most renowned on the planet. It wasn’t long before other South American teams became famous, too. Argentina joined Uruguay at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, and the teams met in the final, playing to 1-1 draw. Because in those days a tie in a medal match had to be replayed, they met again three days later, with Uruguay winning its second straight Olympic gold, 2-1, after Scarone broke a tie late in the match.

Even before the Amsterdam Olympics were finished, FIFA decided there should be a championship outside of the Olympics. Uruguay, as the now two-time Olympic winner, was chosen to be the host of the inaugural World Cup when the first tournament was played in 1930. Uruguay won this as well with another victory over Argentina in the final.

Uruguay soon would be eclipsed by Argentina and Brazil and won only one other World Cup, in 1950, finishing fourth three other times, most recently in 2010. Andrade starred for Uruguay in the first World Cup, but his health declined after that. He wound up blind in one eye. Several accounts say he had syphilis. When Andrade died of tuberculosis at 55, Galeano writes, he was “penniless.”

But Andrade and Uruguay had made the soccer world a smaller place, so much so that many still consider June 9 “South American Football Day.” For two weeks in Paris, they had shown a style of the game that much of the world didn’t know existed. Had the Uruguayans not gone to the Olympics, it might have been years before South America’s soccer greatness was more widely known.

“I think, eventually, it would have been noticed,” Barker says. “Peru and Brazil were getting good. It might have slowed them down, and it’s likely the first World Cup would have been in Europe.”

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