The Centenario – A Historical Monument
By the 1920s, football was already enormously popular in Uruguay, with the country winning the Olympic Football Tournament in 1924 and 1928. When the FIFA Congress in Barcelona in 1929 awarded the small South American country the right to host the first World Cup, it was left with little time to realise its long-mooted project of building a large stadium in the capital, Montevideo. With only 14 months to go, the stadium’s construction was carried out at a dizzying speed. A site in the Parque de los Aliados was allocated and within a few weeks the architect, Juan Scasso, had designed a revolutionary stadium with a circular shape rather than the rectangular one favoured by the majority of European stadiums. Work began on 1 February 1930 and continued 24 hours a day in order to finish the stadium on time. At night, gigantic floodlights were used to provide illumination for the builders. However, as autumn set in, the temperature began to drop and downpours lasting entire weeks forced the work to be put on hold.
On 18 July 1930, Uruguay celebrated the centenary of its constitution as well as the country’s tournament debut against Peru at the newly opened Centenario. The tournament had actually kicked off on 13 July, but because the bad weather had prevented the Centenario from being completed, the opening match of the first ever “World Cup had been contested by France and Mexico at Penarol’s modest arena of wooden stands. At the same time, a newspaper caused alarm among the public regarding the haste at which the work was being completed: “The cement will still be wet and there is a danger that it will collapse.”
Indeed, heaters were used to dry the playing surface throughout the night of the 17th so that it would be ready in time. When the 18th finally came around, 80,000 fans swept aside open-mouthed stewards, who had no experience of events of this type, and piled into the stands, which had been christened Colombes, Amsterdam (after the two Olympic victories), America and Olimpica, the latter of which was crowned by the majestic Homenajes tower. At 2.30pm, Uruguay and Peru set the ball rolling where only eight months previously a large park had stood. Twenty minutes into the second half, Hector Castro took a shot from outside the area that beat the Peruvian goalkeeper Jorge Pardon, thus notching up the first goal in the history of the Centenario and giving Uruguay a 1 -0 victory.
The tournament then unfolded with the same intensity that had surrounded the building process. Twelve days after the Centenario’s inauguration, it was the scene of the final, in which Uruguay beat Argentina 4-2 to lift the World Cup in front of the stadium’s colossal, 100-metre high tower. Just like in 1924 and 1928, Uruguay, a country with a population of fewer than two million, could once again boast to the world that they were the best at football.