Forty years ago this week, six of the leading sides in the world headed to the Uruguayan capital Montevideo for an international football tournament that has been all but forgotten everywhere but the host nation.
The 1980 “Copa de Oro” more popularly known as the “Mundialito”, featured all but one of the previous winners of the World Cup, but was held in a time of political unrest and repression.
Uruguay had won Olympic gold in 1924 and 1928, which helped persuade FIFA to grant them the first World Cup in 1930.
They won to become the first world champions and repeated their success in 1950.
A FIFA bulletin recorded that Uruguayan referee Roman Charquero had suggested: “The best way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first World Cup would be to organise a tournament between the national teams of all the countries having won it.”
FIFA President and International Olympic Committee member Joao Havelange gave his blessing whilst in Montevideo for the 1979 IOC Session.
“It’s a good opportunity, perhaps the only one for this kind of competition,” but he warned: “It would not be easy because we needed to convince the Europeans to come with their best teams.”
This was because the tournament was scheduled for December 1980 – the midway point in the European season.
There was an incentive of $150,000 (£110,000/€123,000) appearance money per team and a further $70,000 (£52,000/€57,500) for the winners.
Every match was to be played in the Estadio Centenario, which had staged the 1930 World Cup and was to be declared a world football heritage site.
But Uruguay was then in the grip of an authoritarian Government.
It was said that the country had the highest ratio of political prisoners to population. In 1980, the “Council of Hemispheric Affairs” in Washington denounced the regime for human rights abuses.
Many compared the regime to General Pinochet’s Chile and also drew similarities with Argentina.
In 1978, the FIFA World Cup took place in Argentina under a military junta.
General Jorge Videla, the state President had been a highly visible presence at the matches.
Havelange and other sporting leaders stood alongside him and critics felt this lent legitimacy to the regime.
Havelange himself had swum at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and had been impressed by the Nazi organisation in Berlin.
Much later, as FIFA President, he said: “For me, there was never a problem because I don’t do politics, I do sport.
“It is necessary to respect whoever is in the Government. Whether good or bad is not my decision.”
Washington Cataldi, a Uruguayan politician and Peñarol club President who had supported Havelange’s election to the FIFA Presidency six years earlier, was appointed “Mundialito” tournament director with a budget of $2.2 million (£1.6 million/€1.8 million).
In a 2010 documentary by Uruguayan filmmakers Sebastián Bednarik and Andrés Varela, Havelange recalled “Cataldi was an exceptional man of culture, a politician, and was a key man in ensuring that we could stage this great competition in Uruguay.”
A shadowy entrepreneur called Angelis Voulgaris was put in charge of operations and television distribution was handled by an emerging Italian television tycoon named Silvio Berlusconi.
The 37 television companies which broadcast the tournament demanded colour pictures. The latest technical hardware was therefore installed, but in a further echo of 1978, Uruguayan viewers were left to watch in black and white.
Seven-year-old Diego Schaeffer was chosen to represent the mascot on television and in magazines.
This was a stylistic representation of an indigenous boy named “Charrúa” and bore more than a passing resemblance to Argentina ‘78 mascot “Gauchito.”
The song “Uruguay! te queremos ver Campeón” by Roberto da Silva and Alberto “Beto” Triunfo proved a hit.
Away from the football, the Government announced a “plebiscite” in which a “yes” vote would give the military a permanent share of power and empower them to remove Government officials for “ethical, moral or civic reasons.”
Their campaign song “Si Por Uruguay” was like a football song – the Government and they were confident of victory.
Opposition posters suggested voting “Yes” would be “scoring a goal for the dictatorship” and even depicted mascot Charrúa to emphasise the point.
When polling day came, voters rejected their “reforms” by a margin of 58 per cent to 42 per cent.
After the plebiscite the regime once again prohibited political activity.
The press published pictures of the urban guerrilla faction “Grupo Tupamaro” and reported that they intended to disrupt the tournament. The regime claimed to have seized caches of weapons at universities.
In fact dissidents knew better than to disrupt the matches, especially in Uruguay where it was said “other nations have their history, we have our football.”
The papers proudly announced that American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was to attend the matches. They reported hotels were full and streets full of traffic but did not mention that Argentinian tourists had been attacked and cars with Argentinian number plates overturned after a media campaign stoked up old rivalries.
“The world looks to Uruguay” said headlines but the national team had a footballing reputation to restore.
At the 1974 World Cup they had been criticised for brutal play. In 1978 they had failed to qualify altogether.
The squad went to a training camp at the coastal resort of La Paloma for two months and were coached by Roque Gastón Maspoli, Uruguay’s 1950 World Cup winning goalkeeper.
In early December, they beat Finland 6-0, won 5-0 against Bolivia and 4-0 against Switzerland.
Meanwhile the tournament opposition began arriving in Montevideo, but one team was missing.
1966 winners England had not qualified for the World Cup finals in 1974 or 1978.
Team manager Ron Greenwood had insisted: “I would like England to take part if at all possible.
“There are many problems but the league and the Football Association (FA) have been working to see if we can find a way around them.”
They planned to select a squad from league champions Liverpool and European Cup holders Nottingham Forest, Manchester United and Crystal Palace.
Coached by Terry Venables, Palace were dubbed “the team of the eighties” and thought to have great potential.
Unfortunately, no agreement could be reached and FA secretary Ted Croker announced: “It is absolutely impractical for us.”
The organisers turned to the Dutch, beaten finalists in 1974 and 1978. Perhaps the finest team never to win the World Cup.
By 1980 though, key stars from the golden “Orange” years were missing.
Ruud Krol told Argentinian football magazine “El Grafico” that the team had no chance.
Coach Jan Zwartkruis complained: “Our soccer continues to deteriorate because of the exodus of experienced players.
“Our younger players earn too much money, they think they know it all and will not play as a team.”
At the Opening Ceremony, a giant replica of the “Copa de Oro” was placed in the centre of the field.
The real thing stood 28cm high and was valued at $65,000 (£48,000/€53,000).
It was designed by Uruguayan artist Lincoln Presno and realised by goldsmith Walter Pagella who was said to have worked on it in secret.
Uruguay faced the Dutch in the opening match.
After 31 minutes, Venancio Ramos flicked home inside the box to score the first goal and Waldemir Victorino flung himself full length to head in from very close range to seal Uruguay’s 2-0 victory.
In the second match they beat Italy by the same margin, but three were sent off in an ill-tempered encounter which Italian coach Enzo Bearzot described as “an affront to the game.”
He said: “If Uruguay’s intention is to win the trophy by any means they could have told us and saved us the journey.”
The Italians had established internationals Claudio Gentile, Gaetano Scirea, Marco Tardelli, Giancarlo Antognoni, and Sandro Altobelli but the late Paolo Rossi, considered their star striker, was serving a ban after a bribery scandal.
There was also a tragic episode when Italian team general manager Gigi Peronace suffered a fatal heart attack in the team hotel.
Only 15,000 saw their 1-1 draw with the Netherlands but the Italian goal came from 21-year-old debutant Carlo Ancelotti.
At Argentina’s training camp in Mar de Plata, midfielder Osvaldo Ardiles claimed: “This team is better than the one which won the World Cup in 1978.”
Coach César Luis Menotti had supplemented the squad with youngsters from the 1979 World Youth Cup winning team.
Even so, on New Year’s Day 1981, they only beat European champions West Germany with two late goals.
Three days later they faced Brazil and though Diego Maradona scored a superb goal, it finished 1-1.
The match ended with a brawl following a clash between Brazil’s Paulo Isidoro and Jose Daniel Valencia.
Brazil then beat Germany 4-1 to qualify for the final on goal difference.
The match renewed a historic rivalry. Uruguay led through Jorge Barrios but Socrates levelled with a penalty. Victorino restored the advantage eight minutes from time.
When the final whistle sounded, Uruguay’s players celebrated by leaping into the moat surrounding the pitch.
Goalkeeper Rodolfo Rodriguez lifted the trophy, which later went missing before it was rediscovered in a Montevideo bank vault.
Sepp Blatter, then FIFA’s technical director described the tournament as an “immense success and triumph.”
For Uruguayan journalist Atilio Garrido they were “days laden with emotion and joy.”
It wasn’t a new dawn for Uruguayan football.
They failed to qualify for the 1982 World Cup though they did win the Copa America in 1983 and 1987 and by this time, the country had also returned to democratic Government.