The exact location of the first ever FIFA World Cup™ goal might have been lost for ever, had it not been for an old man’s childhood memories, the footballing passion of a Uruguayan architect – and the death of a pet dog, as FIFA World discovered.
The pace of life was slow on the corner of Charrúa and Coronel Alegre, two streets located in the Pocitos areas of Montevideo. Children went to school, women did their shopping and taxi drivers drove past without knowing that they were crossing a significant location in the history of world football.
Some may have had a vague idea – they knew perhaps that a tram terminus had been located in the area. Until 1906 the trams in Montevideo were horse-drawn and there used to be a field next to the stations for resting and grazing the animals. But when this popular mode of transport went electric, the big tract of land in Pocitos fell into disuse. The tram company offered it to sports club C.A. Peñarol as the site for a new football stadium. And so, in 1921 and without much fuss, the club inaugurated their modest ground, cleverly designed by architect Juan Antonio Scasso to take advantage of the wedge-shaped plot of land bordered by the intersection of the two streets.
The small stadium was certainly not the type of grand structure which would be considered for the opening of a FIFA World Cup™ these days and was, indeed, not even intended for such use back in 1930. A year earlier, when the FIFA Congress had met in Barcelona to award the hosting rights to the first FIFA World Cup to Uruguay, the country’s government had ordered the construction of the magnificent Centenario stadium. But by then there were just 12 months remaining until the tournament’s planned kick-off. Once the plans had been drawn up, planning permission obtained and the preparations completed, the actual construction work only began in September 1929. And although the work went on day and night, with the help of enormous floodlights, the rain that is typical of autumn in the southern hemisphere frequently brought proceedings to a halt. Time was running out.
When the Uruguayan authorities realised that it would be impossible to have the Centenario ready for 13 July 1930, they moved the opening two matches to Pocitos and Parque Central – the latter being the equally modest home of Peñarol’s city rivals, Nacional. The official inauguration of the Centenario would eventually take place five days into the tournament on 18 July, when the hosts beat Peru 1-0 on what was coincidentally the 100th anniversary of the swearing in of the Uruguayan constitution. The tournament’s remaining fixtures all took place, as originally planned, at the Centenario.
According to eye-witness accounts, the afternoon of 13 July was chilly and only just over a thousand people were present at Pocitos to watch France play Mexico. At three o’clock, the Uruguayan referee Domingo Lombardi sounded his whistle and Felipe Rosas of Mexican club Atlante took the first kick-off, simultaneously with the start of the USA’s match against Belgium over at Parque Central. None of those taking part could have known it, but they were writing the first page in the exciting history of what would become a global phenomenon over the decades to come.
Another milestone was reached in the 19th minute when France’s Lucien Laurent volleyed Ernest Liberati’s cross past Mexican keeper Oscar Bonfiglio, thus scoring the first goal in the history of the World Cup, the first of the 2,063 netted to date. France eventually won 4-1 and left the pitch singing La Marseillaise.
That first part of the story is common knowledge. But while Parque Central remains on the same site as eight decades ago, Pocitos was swallowed up as Montevideo developed, due to its location in an attractive area near the Rambla. Peñarol left Pocitos in 1933. Streets were built over the former pitch in 1937 and by the 1940s the site had been buried completely.
Uruguayans have a keen sense of their rich footballing history and there is a major football museum underneath the stands at the Centenario. Yet nobody seemed to ask about Peñarol’s old ground or about where the first ball was kicked at a FIFA World Cup. Nobody that is until Enrique Benech came along. A local architect and football fan, Benech decided to take on an onerous task more fitting of an archaeologist, namely to find, underneath the asphalt and the houses, the exact location of the pitch, its centre spot and the end where Laurent’s inaugural goal was scored. He was joined by Juan Capelán from the Estadio Centenario Football Museum and journalist Eduardo Rivas among other collaborators from various fields.
What did they have to go on? Not a lot. There were no records of plans at either the Montevideo city hall or the institute of history of the faculty of architecture. Peñarol themselves had no record of the construction of the stands. Nothing came to light at the national library either. Not even the old station at Pocitos could help him: all they had were two photos of the number 35 tram.
Benech and his team had to look for documents, find a map or a copy of the planning permission from the council or at least a reliable oral or written source. There was no GPS in the 1920s or their task would have been a lot easier. Finally, the investigators turned up an aerial photograph from 1926 on which the whole pitch could be seen with a small covered stand in one of the corners. The land distribution map by the surveyors Alberto de Artega and son from December 1941 was another source of information.
“This plan clearly defined the limits of the field, which today have been transformed into municipal boundaries,” explains Benech in his studio in Montevideo. The Aerospace Sensor Brigade of the Uruguayan Air Force then provided four enlargements of the aerial photograph from 1926. After superimposing the plan over the aerial images, the 109 x 73m pitch emerged from among the current buildings like a photograph in developing fluid. The team could now determine the approximate position of the pitch, but at which end had Laurent scored?
The results of what had been uncovered so far were presented at the Centenario stadium and visited, crucially, by Raúl Barbero, who was aged 12 in 1930 and had been at the match with his uncle. As a child, Barbero had always wanted to be a journalist and he and his friend Hugo Alfaro used to write a sports magazine by hand on school notepaper with photos cut out of other magazines and carefully pasted in. They called the magazine Centenario Sport and, at the time of the World Cup, decided to produce a “special issue” covering the whole tournament. Naturally the two boys also wanted to cover the opening two matches, which kicked off at the same time. They drew lots and fate decreed that Barbero should go to Pocitos. The magazine had a very limited circulation of one copy, which they lent to children in their local area “under oath to return it to the founders, directors, editors, administrators, publishers and distributors – in other words, the two of us,” as Barbero told El País newspaper on the 75th anniversary of the tournament.
Three quarters of a century later, Barbero’s memories are a little imprecise, but he did not forget either how cold that afternoon was or France’s first goal. He had in his possession the only remaining photograph, which meant that it could finally be established that the goal was scored at the north end, which today is covered half by the pavement and half by the house at number 1324 calle Coronel Alegre.
In this unassuming suburban setting, it took an event as mundane as the death of a family pet to finally confirm the correctness of the research team’s calculations. “A dog belonging to a couple who lived in calle Charrúa had died, and they wanted to bury it in the garden,” Benech explains. “Their spade struck an object, which turned out to be part of Peñarol’s old stadium.”
The patios of some of the houses in the same residential block also yielded remnants of the old stadium embankment, a simple slope which had served as a rather precarious stand for the spectators. The old stadium’s place in history had seemed equally precarious before Benech began his metaphorical digging. But thanks to his team’s enthusiasm, the discovery of those old photographs, an old man’s childhood memories and the passing of a family pet, the first ever goal in World Cup history finally has a physical landmark. As a result of the research, a sculpture has now been erected on the spot to commemorate the goal defended by the Mexican keeper. There is also a stone marking the centre spot where the first match kicked off, just a few metres from a launderette and close to the cars parked at the side of the road.
The pace of life is still slow on the corner of Charrúa and Coronel Alegre but now the passers-by pause to take note of the goalpost-inspired sculpture where Laurent scored his historic goal. The 1930 FIFA World Cup™ may be long gone, but Laurent’s achievement is now preserved for ever, allowing football romantics to still hear those French cheers echoing in the quiet of the afternoon in Pocitos in far-off Montevideo.