When Uruguay winger Pedro Cea arrived at the Estadio Centenario on 18 July 1930 for his country’s opening match against Peru at the first FIFA World Cup™, he could barely believe his eyes.
“Boys, we simply have to win this tournament, no matter what it takes,” the two-time Olympic football champion told his team-mates. “At the very least, they deserve for us to give them the World Cup for all the effort they’ve put into building this.”
Twelve days later, La Celeste lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy, a feat that has gone down in the history of the country, Uruguayan football and that of the stadium itself, which has since become an icon of the global game.
The story behind the stadium
Though it was built to host the inaugural World Cup, the Centenario also reflected the process of modernisation that Uruguay was undergoing at the time, with football playing a key role in the creation of a national identity, not least in the capital, Montevideo.
Built by the Uruguayan architect Juan Sacasso, the bowl-shaped stadium has four separate grandstands and marks a departure from the typical square English grounds built at the time.
The first stone was laid on 21 July 1929, two months after Uruguay was named tournament host. To save time and money, one of the stands was supported on a slope, while the pitch lies below street level.
Work on the concrete structure began on 1 February 1930, five months before the tournament began, with a total of 1,100 labourers working in three separate shifts a day in a bid to deliver it by the deadline of 13 July. Heavy rain prevented them from doing so, however, with six of the tournament’s 18 matches having to be played at two other stadiums.
The stadium eventually opened on 18 July 1930, the centenary of the adoption of the Uruguayan constitution, with a crowd of 57,735 watching Uruguay play their first ever World Cup match.
The stands behind the goals were named Colombes and Amsterdam, in respective tribute to the Parisian suburb where the Uruguayans won their first Olympic football gold in 1924 and the city where they claimed their second in 1928. Those achievements are also honoured by the Torre de los Homenajes, a tower overlooking the Olimpica stand, beneath which can be found the Uruguayan Museum of Football.
The tower, which offers a vantage point over the city, was built to resemble the rudder on a ship, the means by which most of Uruguay’s immigrants reached the country, while its nine balconies represent the nine stripes on the national flag.
The other stand was named America, which would prove fitting given the success that Uruguay would later enjoy in the Copa America.
In 1983, FIFA declared the stadium a Historical Monument of World Football, an honour it has not bestowed since.
Uruguay’s home from home
Hector Manco Castro’s solitary goal gave Uruguay a 1-0 win over Peru in that World Cup opener, the first of many victories La Celeste have enjoyed at the Centenario, where they boast some remarkable win percentages.
100 per cent – The Uruguayans played all four of their matches at the 1930 World Cup at the stadium and won the lot. The most important of those victories came in the Final against Argentina, when they came from 2-1 down to win 4-2 and become the first world champions.
94.70 – The percentage of points Uruguay have won in the Copa America matches they have played at the Centenario: 69 wins, six draws and, amazingly, no defeats in 75 games. Thanks to that unbeaten record at the stadium, La Celeste have won the competition on all four occasions they have hosted it since the Centenario was built, in 1942, 1956, 1967 and 1995.
72.37 – The percentage of points La Celeste have won there in World Cup qualifying matches: 49 wins, 18 draws and nine defeats in 76 games.
Did you know?
The Centenario has hosted 409 Copa Libertadores matches, more than any other stadium. Twenty of those 409 games were finals, ten of them featuring Penarol and six Nacional.