With the possibility that the World Baseball Classic may be an international sporting event that never gets off the ground, it may be interesting to look back to check for parallels to the biggest international sporting event in the world, soccer's World Cup. For all the hubbub surrounding that event, the first World Cup, in 1930, was lucky to ever get started.
The World Cup was started mainly because the Olympic soccer tournament wasn't popular with many countries for a variety of reasons, but having a strictly amateur tournament wasn't going to be popular when the sport's best players were professionals. Uruguay had won the gold medal in 1924 in Paris and 1928 in Amsterdam and when FIFA (the international soccer federation) decided to hold its own international championship outside of the Olympics, Uruguay was given the nod to be the host for the first tournament in 1930. The announcement of this tournament in 1929 was not covered in the NY Times.
Now it may seem strange that a sport that was widely popular in Europe would hold its first signature event in a small country that was not easy to get to, but Uruguay in the 1920s was no banana republic. The country had a stable government and a large middle class, boosted by a large influx of immigrants from Europe. 1930 would also be the centennial of Uruguay's independence and the country promised to build a new stadium to host the event. (Exhibit A for the case of "Things are the Same All Over".)
Uruguay was awarded the World Cup in May of 1929. As most students of history know, the world changed drastically between May of 1929 and July of 1930 (when the World Cup was to start).
It was hard to find countries that wanted to come to Uruguay during the throes of the Great Depression. Suddenly, a voyage to Uruguay became a very expensive endeavor. Over all, 13 nations would send teams to Uruguay to compete. There was no qualifying. Nations were invited. They were: Argentina, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, France, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Romania, United States, Yugoslavia, and host Uruguay. The four European teams didn't commit until two months before the tournament started when they worked out a deal to share a steamer to take them to Uruguay. So the first tournament featured seven South American teams, four European teams, and two North American teams.
One problem the teams faced was that the brand new stadium in Montevideo, Centenario, wasn't quite brand new. It wasn't finished. So for the first match of the World Cup on July 13, 1930, France and Mexico played at a club stadium called Pocitos. Before an estimated crowd of 1,000, France prevailed 4-1. A little later in the day at Parque Central before a crowd of 10,000, the United States surprised Belgium, 3-0 behind two goals by Bart McGhee. The U.S. would beat Paraguay 3-0 in its other game and win a spot in the semifinals for the first and last time in its history. Against Paraguay, Fall River's Bert Patenaude may or may not have scored the first hat trick in World Cup play. Officially, Patenaude is credited with two goals and Thomas Florie is credited with the third, but most soccer historians credit Patenaude with all three goals. However, there were just 800 spectators and no one was filming the game, so the truth will never be known.
Centenario would finally be ready to go on July 18 and Uruguay satisfied 70,000 of its home fans with a 1-0 win over Peru. Uruguay would win its group with a 4-0 win over Romania before 80,000 fans three days later. Argentina and Yugoslavia would win the other two groups.
The semifinals were held at Centenario and the first one matched up the U.S. and Argentina. The Argentines led 1-0 at halftime, but after the break the floodgates opened and Argentina routed the Americans 6-1. The next day, Uruguay beat Yugoslavia by an identical score. In the final on July 30, Uruguay fought back from a 2-1 halftime deficit to win the championship 4-2.
With the sketchy coverage of the tournament (American papers ran 2-3 paragraph summaries of games from the AP), there is still a debate if the U.S. and Yugoslavia played a consolation game. For those who believe there was one, Yugoslavia won it 3-1, but according to FIFA, the game didn't occur or count.
One would think that a world championship that involved very little of the world (England didn't play in the World Cup until 1950 because, well, they were England and it just wasn't done) participated. But four years later, the World Cup wisely moved to Europe and Italy won on its home soil and repeated in 1938 in France. Then World War II came and international soccer went into hibernation. But the World Cup returned in 1950 and it went back to Brazil where the home team was a huge favorite, but in the final before over 150,000 fans at Maracana Stadium, Brazil, which just needed a tie to win the championship, lost 2-1 to Uruguay.
So can you draw parallels between the hiccups in the development of the World Cup and the hiccups in the development of the World Baseball Classic, or was this just an attempt by me to get people to read about soccer. Well, it's a little of both. Clearly, the world of 2006 is not like the world in 1930. Communications is the big difference. In 1930 hardly anyone outside of Uruguay had any chance to follow the matches. In 2006, baseball fans in America will be able to watch games from Asia and Puerto Rico with ease. But soccer has had a long history, dating back before 1930, of international play. And international play is a constant presence in the sport of soccer. In baseball, international play for most people means having to stand for two anthems when the Toronto Blue Jays are playing.
No baseball player in North America (with the possible exception of some Cubans) has grown up thinking "I want to play baseball for the U.S.A.!" But in soccer, that has often been the way to consider the game. Also soccer's tournament is run by FIFA, which, despite its incredible levels of corruption, is still an acknowledged international sports authority. The WBC is being run by MLB along with the pro leagues in Japan and Korea and the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) has enough trouble keeping its website up to date and has gotten its sport booted out of the Olympics.
What are the chances for the WBC to become a highly regarded international sporting event? I don't think they're great. The soccer World Cup succeeds because the greatest players in the sport are going all out for their country. And the country that wins really cares (multiply that by about 10,000 to get the appropriate level of caring). If the U.S. goes on to win the WBC, it will likely mean nothing to most Americans. The WBC would likely benefit more if the Dominican Republic or Venezuela won. Americans seem to care about such events only after they lose (see Olympic basketball or the Ryder Cup.) But let's wait and see if the event even takes place. But it's more likely that the WBC will end up being an afterthought rather than something people talk about 76 years later.