Back in 1930, commercial transatlantic flights were made by airships and cost serious money. To play in the first FIFA World Cup™, players had to reach Uruguay by train and ship. And only four European teams could face the prospect. Three of them saved money by travelling together.
Yugoslavia went on their own, taking the SS Florida from Marseille. They should have had company, but the Egyptians were delayed by bad weather and missed this historic voyage.
Meanwhile Belgium, France and Romania shared the Conte Verde, a passenger liner built in Scotland. When it left Genoa on 20 June, only the Romanians were on board. In the next couple of days, it picked up the French from Villefranche-sur-Mer and the Belgians in Barcelona.
All the teams had already made long journeys by train (Yugoslavia took three days), and now the Conte Verde stopped in Lisbon, Madeira, and the Canary Islands before heading into the open ocean. Also on board was some distinguished cargo: three World Cup referees, FIFA President Jules Rimet, and the World Cup Trophy itself.
After a leisurely week or so, the Conte Verde arrived in Rio de Janeiro, where it picked up the Brazilian team and officials. On 4 July, after 15 days at sea, it reached Montevideo. There it was joined by the Yugoslavs as well as the Americans and Mexicans, who had travelled together. Mexico endured a long trip themselves. They began by going in the wrong direction! They sailed from Veracruz to Havana and then up to New York to join the Americans on the SS Munargo.
Although it was impossible to do any football training on the ships, the European teams didn't suffer too much. They reached Montevideo nine days before the tournament, and three of them won their opening matches: France, Romania and Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs reached the semi-finals - but for the other three, and Mexico, the tournament lasted eight days or less. Still, they’d played their parts in a great adventure.
An even longer journey was made in 1938, when the Dutch East Indies became the first Asian country to play in the World Cup finals. On 27 April, they boarded the Baloeran at Tandjong Priok. On the way to France, they stopped at several places, including Singapore and Belawan (where they played a practice match), before eventually passing through the Suez Canal. They docked in Marseille, then took a train to Paris and another to the Netherlands, arriving in The Hague on 18 May, after travelling for 22 days.
The Indies stayed in the Netherlands, where they knew the language, popping in to France just to play their one World Cup match. After their 6-0 defeat by Hungary, most of the group returned home on the Christiaan Huygens, which departed from Genoa, where the Conte Verde had begun its voyage four years earlier. The round trip took six weeks.
Twelve years later, the world champions also travelled by sea. They didn't have to – but in 1949 the Superga air crash had wiped out the entire Grande Torino squad, including several national-team regulars. So in 1950, Italy went to the World Cup finals by ship – all the way to Brazil, almost as long a trip as in 1930.
The decision to sail was understandable – but it had dire consequences for the Italian players’ fitness. One of them, Egisto Pandolfini, said he put on three kilos. “We took 50 footballs with us,” he added. "They all ended up in the sea!" His team-mate Amedeo Amadei disagreed (“Tutto falso”). There were no footballs, he said, just heavy medicine balls for the players to throw to each other. The team stopped off for a practice match in Las Palmas, where they did so badly that their best outfield player was Lucidio Sentimenti, a goalkeeper!
After more than two weeks on the Sises, Italy arrived in São Paulo, where they lost to the energetic Swedes. They won their second game, against Paraguay (Pandolfini scored on his international debut) – but they were already out by then, the only reigning champions to be eliminated after playing just a single match.
Ironically, most of the squad returned to Italy by air. But their high-octane striker Benito Lorenzi felt safer with another sea voyage. It took him a month and he got back just in time for pre-season training.
A short break between long flights
Even when air travel was more common, it wasn’t always fast and comfortable. In 1954, Korea Republic began their journey only six days before the finals in Switzerland. They barely made it.
On 10 June, they took a long train ride from Seoul to Busan, where they boarded a ship for Japan. In Tokyo, they found that the plane wasn’t big enough – so 12 players and the coach flew to Zurich via Calcutta (where there was a delay for propeller repairs) and Italy. The other nine members went to Bangkok to catch a fight to Europe on 13 June. That aircraft was also too small, and the story goes that two players would have been left behind if an English couple hadn’t given up their seats.
Altogether, the Koreans spent approximately 65 hours on airplanes alone. They arrived in Switzerland the night before their opening match. Exhausted and outclassed, they lost to the tournament favourites, the mighty Hungarians, who were visibly merciful in winning 9-0. South Korea lost their second match 7-0 only three days later—a short break between long flights.
Even when plane trips became shorter and quicker, not everyone made them. Luckily for the Netherlands, the 1998 finals were played almost next door – because Dennis Bergkamp had stopped flying a few years earlier. He made his way over land to France, where his wonderful goal won the quarter-final against Argentina. In 2002, the finals were held in the Far East – and there was no chance of Bergkamp making the 1954 Koreans’ journey in reverse.
Spare a thought for those tireless travellers, the New Zealanders of 1982. To reach the World Cup finals, they had to fly all over Asia. They began with a short 2,160km hop to Fiji, finished with a play-off in Singapore, and covered more than 60,000km. After that, the trip to Spain for the finals might have been more relaxing by boat!