Hell for leather: mystery surrounds the first ever World Cup final ball

Embed from Getty Images

Eighty-eight years on, people are still confused about which football was used in the first ever World Cup final after an argument erupted between Argentina and Uruguay

18 June ~ The 2018 World Cup final will be played with the Adidas Telstar 18 football, the latest official tournament ball, and the first to be embedded with an NFC chip – allowing fans to interact with it via their smartphones. We’ve come a long way since the first final in 1930, when there was no official tournament ball, nor even a regulation size and weight, and hosts Uruguay and opponents Argentina couldn’t agree on which one to use. Today, 88 years on, there remains some confusion over which ball was used in the 1930 World Cup final.

The match was played on July 30, 1930, and there were more than 90,000 fans inside Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario. The atmosphere was extremely tense, and a ring of armed guards with rifles and fixed bayonets surrounded the field. The simmering animosity between Uruguay and Argentina had been heated to boiling point during the tournament by provocative articles in the press. There had been rumours of death threats against the players, and reports of travelling fans carrying pistols and other weapons. The stand-off over the ball only heightened the tension. It had been agreed before the tournament that both Uruguay and Argentina could play their matches with their own ball, but that agreement went out of the window when the two sides faced each other.

Both balls were laced brown leather casers. The Uruguayan ball was a distinctive T-model, with 11 interlocking T-shaped panels. Although tournament rules meant it could not be visibly branded, it is thought to have been an imported English “Wembley” brand, manufactured by J Salter & Son of Aldershot. The Argentinian ball, the smaller and lighter of the two, was a more traditional model, with 12 rectangular-shaped panels. It was known in Argentina as the Tiento (Touch) ball, but was actually an imported Players brand made in Scotland – meaning that both England and Scotland were represented at the first World Cup.

The referee was John Langenus, a tall, 39-year-old Belgian, who officiated in a shirt and tie and plus-fours. He was self-taught in the Laws of the Game and had failed his first refereeing exam, but he had proved his mettle in previous matches, dealing with a chaotic pitch invasion during Uruguay’s opening win over Peru, and then a mass brawl during Argentina’s quarter-final win over Chile. When he strode out into the maelstrom of the Centenario ahead of the final, he carried both the Argentinian ball and the Uruguayan ball.

“The extraordinary enmity between the two countries was revealed when the time came to choose a ball for the match,” recalled Langenus in his written memoir. “Both teams brought their own ball and demanded to play with it. That’s why I found myself carrying a ball under each arm. The match ball was chosen by the toss of a coin.” Argentina won the toss, and the 1930 World Cup final kicked off with their ball – the Tiento.

Langenus had settled that argument, but had not entirely diffused the tension. His decision to allow Argentina’s second goal, which the Uruguayans claimed was offside, was particularly contentious. But Uruguay’s second-half comeback and eventual victory more than appeased the ecstatic home crowd. Langenus reflected that the safety concerns had been “a storm in a teacup”. “From time to time we heard a sharp crack, like the sound of a revolver being fired,” he wrote, “but it was just firecrackers.” Langenus was rushed away by police escort after blowing the final whistle to catch the next boat to Europe. But, long after the whistle, another argument continued to simmer.

Many modern sources state that the Argentinian ball was used in the first half, and the Uruguayan ball was used in the second half. It’s a neat story – Argentina took a 2-1 lead with their ball in the first half, and Uruguay came back to win 4-2 with their ball in the second half. But no known contemporary source, including those from Uruguay and Argentina, mentions it, and nor does Langenus. Photographic evidence appears to show that the Argentinian Tiento was used for the full match.

When the Argentinian ball was auctioned by Bonhams in 2003, the provenance stated that it had been presented following the final whistle by his team-mates to Juan Peregrino Anselmo, who scored twice for Uruguay in the semi-final but missed the final through injury. This ball – likely the only ball used in the first World Cup final – is currently on display at the National Football Museum in Manchester. Paul Brown


This article first appeared in WSC 376, June 2018. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details