Jan 27, 2010

Ranking the world's soccer meccas: No. 4, Estadio Centenario, Montevideo, Uruguay

For ranking methodology and other information about the series, see the original post. To read the about the No. 5-rated stadium, the Hampden Park in Glasgow, click here. To see all "soccer mecca" entries click here.

No. 4 Estadio Centenario, Montevideo, Uruguay
Open since: 1930
Capacity: 100,000
Tenant: Uruguay national team
World Cup hosts: 1930

After our three stadium sojourn in Europe for spots 5 through 7 it's back to South America with No. 4. The Estadio Centenario was of course the host of the original World Cup in 1930. Unlike every other rendition of the tournament, in 1930 all games from group stage to final were played in Montevideo, with a majority at this one ground. It's therefore probably safe to say the Centenario hosted more World Cup matches (10) than any other stadium in the world--with the possible exception of the San Siro, the No. 10 soccer mecca in the world.

As host of the first World Cup final (and semifinal), the Centenario's status as a true "soccer mecca" is beyond reproach. But its ethereal qualities transcend this one event, important though it is to the modern history of the game.

A few words, then, about the ground itself. Not from us, because we've never been anywhere near there and anyway don't know the next thing about architecture or things of that nature. But a Princeton University-educated architect, Shona Black, wrote about the stadium for a Uruguay travel Web site. We took the liberty to reprint them here, because they give you a far better picture than we (or really anybody) could provide:

Work on the Estadio Centenario, so named to celebrate the nation’s centenary, was begun in central Montevideo’s Parque de los Aliados (also known as Parque Batlle) in 1929. Designed as a monumental football temple, Estadio Centenario is an early example of the classic concrete bowl-shaped stadium with up to a 100,000 capacity, a template replicated from Rio’s Maracana to Turin’s Stadio delle Alpi and from China to Africa in the spread of the global game.

Art Deco detailing and striking modernist touches, however, set Estadio Centenario apart from some of the more brutalist styles typical of the genre. Designed by architect Juan Scasso, the stadium’s most distinctive feature is a tower thrusting 100 metres into the sky from the Tribuna Olimpica stand. The Torre de los Homenajes rises in tribute to the independent nation, echoing the nine stripes of the Uruguayan flag in its nine moulded windows.

The stands are named to reflect the early Uruguayan team’s glories: America for their Copa America (South American championship) successes in 1923 and 1926, and the Olimpica, Colombes and Amsterdam marking their Olympic victories.

In a move perhaps not entirely a-typical for Latin America, different work sections were contracted out to various construction companies, according to FIFA.com's page on the Centenario. Three shifts were organized so construction could continue 24 hours a day.

Still, the ground would not be finished in time for the start of the tourney. The first World Cup match in history would take place July 13, 1930 in front of just 1,000 spectators at the Estadio Pocitos across town. By the time the home side took the field, July 18 versus Peru, the Centenario was at least ready for 70,000 spectators.

Why did FIFA choose Uruguay to host what would become the most popular sporting event on the planet? Two reasons: 1. It won the gold medal at the 1928 Olympics, which to that point had been recognized as the de-facto world championships and 2. The year 1930 was the 100 year anniversary of its independence. (Actually Uruguay won the 1924 Olympic tournament as well, which will give you an idea of how dominant they were at the time). Still, if the sport's governing body had any idea how popular (and lucrative) the quadrennial tournament would become they likely would have kept the maiden edition in Europe.

As it was, the choice of Uruguay did not sit well with European teams, who initially refused to enter the tournament. FIFA managed to force four of them--Belgium, France, Yugoslavia and Romania--to embark on the three-week journey and participate.

The 1930 World Cup was the U.S.' best finish ever--fourth. There has been some talk that the team was reinforced with British nationals, but this has now been largely discredited. Of the six supposed English and Scottish players on the USMNT, "in fact four of those players had moved to the States as teenagers and only one had played professionally in Britain (George Moorehouse), and that was two games at the 3rd division seven years earlier," according to the American Soccer History Archives.

To this day the stadium remains the home base and of the Uruguayan national team, los Charruas. The team boasts an impressive record at the Centenario; Brazil have recorded just two official victories there in 20 attempts and even mighty England have a negative record at Uruguay's national stadium--surely the only ground in the world with this distinction because as we all know England invented the sport and win every game they play, anywhere.

Uruguay has hosted the Copa America, the South American championships seven times, four since the construction of El Centenario. In all four they went undefeated at the ground.

Not all memories are good, however. It was here in 2004 that the Charrua were humiliated 3-0 by Venezuela in a World Cup qualifier, an event its then-coach Juan Ramon Carrasco called "a stain on the history of Uruguayan football." The game cost him his job and Uruguay would not qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Still, it is hard to understate Uruguay's impact on association football in the sport's (relatively) early days. The smallest country to ever win a World Cup very much put South American soccer on the map by triumphing in the Olympic Games of 1924 and 1928 and doing it in a way that dazzled. They were very much the original "Brazilians" as we know them, doing things with the ball hitherto thought impossible. Without Uruguay in the 1920s, who knows if Brazil of the postwar era would have even happened. One more reason to give its national ground the respect it deserves.

As much as Uruguay did for the sport, soccer arguably did even more for the nation's identity. At the time of the first World Cup, "Uruguay, a country of not even three million people, whose creation was the bizarre outcome of great power politics, had hitherto made no impact on the wider world," Daniel Goldblatt wrote in The ball is round: A global history of soccer. "It is difficult to underestimate the degree to which national identity and pride became tied to the fate of the national team" after the 1930 World Cup.

This legacy would be cemented 20 years later as we shall see in a future edition of the "soccer meccas" series.

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