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A 1958 Hungarian stamp commemorating the final of the 1930 Fifa World Cup. Not pictured: the depraved violence. (Image: Getty Images)
A 1958 Hungarian stamp commemorating the final of the 1930 Fifa World Cup. Not pictured: the depraved violence. (Image: Getty Images)

SportsOctober 27, 2023

Broken legs, all-in brawls and chloroform: The most violent World Cup of all time?

A 1958 Hungarian stamp commemorating the final of the 1930 Fifa World Cup. Not pictured: the depraved violence. (Image: Getty Images)
A 1958 Hungarian stamp commemorating the final of the 1930 Fifa World Cup. Not pictured: the depraved violence. (Image: Getty Images)

The Rugby World Cup final is destined to be a war of attrition, a battle royale and other sporting cliches. But there’s no way it’ll even come close to matching the brutality of the first Fifa World Cup, writes Matt Suddain.

It’s the final of the final of the Rugby World Cup this Sunday (or was, depending when you read this). The hundred-plus year rivalry between the All Blacks and South Africa comes to a head at Stade de France, with pundits already throwing around terms like “torrid encounter” and “brutal war of attrition”. And it will be those things: raw, brutal, confrontational, uncompromising – some other manly words, even. But for sheer violence, this match won’t even come close to the 1930 Fifa World Cup semi final between Argentina and the USA. 

You’ll be cocking a brow at the idea that any soccer match from history could match any randomly selected rugby game for physicality and intensity (there’s some other words that Rugby pundits love to throw around). Let me ask you this, then: is this weekend’s final likely to feature a player getting his leg shattered in several places, followed by an all-in brawl during which another player has four of his teeth kicked out? Will one of the team assistants invade the pitch to confront the ref and accidentally knock himself out with chloroform?

Probably not, eh.

The Battle of Nantes: French forward Pascal Ondarts takes a kick at the All Blacks’ Steve McDowell. (Photo: Mark Leech/Getty Images)

You have to go way back to find a really unhinged rugby match. Maybe the Battle of Nantes, in 1986. A French side comprehensively beaten by the All Blacks in the first test in Toulouse decided to look deep within themselves, gavage a heavy amount of amphetamines (according to French team doctor of the time, Jacques Mombet) and turn the match into a streetfight. The ref and his officials seemed to be constantly trying to spot people they knew in the crowd. This was the match during which Wayne “Buck” Shelford, who’d made his test debut in Toulouse, lost four teeth and had a testicle rucked out of his scrotum. 

The first Fifa World Cup in Uruguay had been (on the surface anyway) a more gentile affair. The balls were spherical (and stayed mostly unrucked). The refs officiated in suits and ties, the Bolivian team played in berets. The European teams had crossed the Atlantic on a Scottish steamer, kindly stopping to pick up the Brazilian team along the way. Romania’s team had been selected by their king (Carol II) who travelled with them and took part in their daily training sessions. 

But that’s where the civility ended. Romania’s first pool match against Peru would mark the first time a player at a World Cup was sent from the field – though midfielder Plácido Galindo had to work for the honour. He had to get into at least three brawls, then break a player’s leg. 

The officiating at the tournament kept things hot. Brazil’s Gilberto de Almeida Rêgo awarded Argentina a dubious free-kick in the 81st minute of their match against France with the score 0-0, then let them take it while France was still lining up their wall, then tried to blow for full-time six minutes early while France were on attack with an open goal. He begrudgingly agreed to restart the game, but could only do so once the police had escorted enraged fans off the pitch at gunpoint. The final score remained 1-0 to Argentina.

The police had to be called in again during Argentina’s next match against Chile after a vicious foul by Argentine striker Luis Monti caused another all-in brawl.

But Argentina’s semi-final against the USA was the real barnstormer. It took only 10 minutes for things to descend into violence after US midfielder Raphael Tracy got his leg broken by a brutal Argentine challenge. There was a brawl during which another US player had four of his teeth kicked out, and yet another was taken to hospital with abdominal injuries.

The Americans found themselves three players down by half-time – including their keeper – and there were no subs in those days. After Belgian referee John Langenus whistled a foul against the Americans (maybe even with a straight face) things really kicked off. English journalist Brian Glanville described the incident in his book The Story of the World Cup: “At this the team’s medical attendant raced, bellicose, on to the field, to berate Langenus … he flung his box of medicines to the ground, the box burst open, various bottles smashed, including one full of chloroform, and its fumes rose to overpower the American. He was helped from the field.”

The 1930 Fifa World Cup winning Uruguay team (Photo: Getty Images)

Argentina’s take-no-prisoners-unless-their-femurs-are-shattered-and/or-they’ve-lost-some-teeth playing style took them all the way to the final where they squared off against their neighbours and bitter rivals, Uruguay. It was, predictably, as volatile as a French flanker on meth. Argentine supporters crossed the river with the war cry Victoria o muerte (“Victory or death”). The gates were opened eight hours early so fans could be searched for weapons. A reinforcement ship with another 15,000 Argentine fans was charging into Montevideo, but got lost in heavy fog, and when they ran out of food they had to start eating each other. 

… Fine, that last thing didn’t happen, but I know for a moment you thought, “… Maybe?”

When the ship arrived a whole day late for the final and the passengers learned their team had lost the match they thought, “Well we’re here now, the weather’s nice. Let’s have a bit of a riot.”

And the rest writes itself.

Anyway, that’s the 1930 Fifa World Cup – the answer to the question, “Can something have a painful number of rules but still be lawless?”

I searched for pictures of the chloroform incident, but couldn’t find any. The Independent accompanied their story on the incident, weirdly, with a picture from a Sheffield Wednesday match from 1949. Desperate, I turned to AI and asked it to generate an image of an assistant being stretchered from an international football match, across a pitch strewn with medical equipment, after accidentally gassing himself. It gave me this:

Image: Matt Suddain / AI

It looks like they’ve decided to toboggan the guy off, and one of the officials seems to be a human centipede (or possibly in some kind of scrum). But the stethoscope is a nice touch.

Keep going!