There are countless stadiums with more visual appeal than the vast expanses of bare concrete that constitute Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario. Plenty, too, which offer a more intimate atmosphere than the monolith. But in terms of sheer historical impact, it is difficult to find a sporting arena that packs more legend per square foot than the site of the very first World Cup final, a living homage to the moment when the game started to go global. The very construction itself, untouched in the intervening century and offering the bare minimum of creature comforts for fans, speaks of a ground frozen in time in a world of all-seaters, retractable roofs and luxurious corporate boxes.

Indeed, the Centenario seems curiously aware of its own legacy. It exudes importance from the moment the visitor enters its impeccable museum, tucked under one of the lateral stands. Rather than the hagiographic story-telling of a club or nation’s triumphs one usually receives when entering such establishments, the emphasis here is on a celebration of the game itself, in Uruguay and across the world. Images of Obdulio Varela’s winner for Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup decider against Brazil, therefore, sit comfortably alongside a replica of the shirt Sir Geoff Hurst wore when he made his own piece of history sixteen years later. It is as if the tiny South American republic can afford to be magnanimous in its telling of the football tale, secure as it is in the knowledge that as four-time world champion it has already played its part in making the game the universal behemoth it is.

The above sentence needs no correction. Uruguay, it is true, have lifted the World Cup on two occasions, that debut victory over Argentina in the partially completed Centenario followed with the famous Maracanazo that destroyed the hopes of neighbours Brazil. On the Celeste shield, however, four stars shine proudly from players’ chests. To understand the reason for this anomaly of arithmetic, further inspection of the nation’s most illustrious sporting arena is required. 

Two European venues lend their names to each end of the Centenario. Looking west you will find the Amsterdam stand, while on the eastward side lies the Colombes. The former pays homage to Uruguay’s triumph at the 1928 Olympic Games, while the latter is a celebration of gold in the same tournament four years previously. Both triumphs are officially counted by Fifa as tournaments which, in the absence of a World Cup, denoted world champion status and hence are treasured as such by all Celeste fanatics as on a par with their two more conventional titles. 

It is difficult to exaggerate more than 90 years after that first Olympic success just how much of a step into the unknown Uruguay took in sending a team to try their luck in the Parisian suburb that hosted the 1924 Games. The nation’s Olympic Committee had been formed only the previous year, and the entire delegation was composed of just 32 participants – the 22-man squad that represented the Charrúa in football, six fencers and four boxers. The Olympics also came at a delicate time in the development of the young sport in Uruguay. Football was of course still an amateur pastime at that time, thus allowing the stars of the Primera División to fulfil the fiercely Corinthian spirit of the early Games; but a bitter conflict between clubs had threatened to leave a weakened side to fight in France. Peñarol, along with Nacional one of the two giants of the national game, had broken ranks with the Uruguayan Football Association and in 1924 formed part of a rival federation, meaning none of the their players were present. Having mustered a squad of just 20, two short of Olympic regulations, Uruguay improvised. Among the list for Colombes appear the unheralded Leónidas Chiappara, an architect living in Paris and who helped house the team once in the French capital, and a Madrid-based Uruguayan by the name of Antonio Urdinarán, who was forced to stay with the team throughout their stay in case the authorities came to inspect their whereabouts. 

The side cobbled together without half of the nation’s traditional powerbase then had to face the not insignificant hurdle of crossing the Atlantic Ocean. For a group of youngsters for whom the greatest distance previously travelled was barely out of Montevideo, the steamer journey was one of discomfort and intense boredom. “I was 21 years old; [Pedro] Petrone 19; Zaldombide the same. We only had one old-timer with us: [the Nacional forward Ángel] Romano,” the goalkeeper Andrés Mazali told El Gráfico years later. “But he was in phenomenal shape. I remember that when the ship left we were seen off by just a few fans and relatives, and half an hour after going down into that terrible third-class deck, in which we spent almost a month living on used mate because the food was awful, [Pedro] Zingone said, ‘Lads, we have travelled half an hour and we still have thirty days to go.’” 

Once safely in Europe and fattened up again after the hardships of third class, Mazali and the rest of the Uruguay side showed little sign that the trip had affected them. The sole practice match arranged for the side on arrival left such an impression on a reporter in Vigo, Spain, that he was moved to exclaim, “On the fields of Goya an Olympic storm has blown through.” The opening match of the Games was similarly blistering. Yugoslavia were blown away 7-0, with Nacional’s teenage sharpshooter Petrone netting twice. ‘L’Artillero’, as he was dubbed, took to the Olympics like a duck to water, scoring a total of 11 goals across the two gold medal campaigns and later blazing a trail as one of the first South Americans to play in Italy’s Serie A, for Fiorentina. 

Further back was the original ‘Black Pearl’, the nickname later adopted by Pelé: José Andrade, the heart of the Celeste midfield and cornerstone of the nation’s golden age in football. Uruguay had long set themselves apart from their South American rivals in their willingness to field players of African descent, with Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín smashing the colour barrier against Chile as far back as 1916 – earning themselves an official complaint from the defeated team incensed at the foul play implied in the “Use of Africans”. Andrade’s talents did not stop on the football pitch, however. A lover of dance and the traditional Carnival celebrations, it is said that while in Paris he shared a tango with the legendary cabaret star Josephine Baker, who later switched the stage for politics and marched alongside Martin Luther King in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. The player was at his apogee in 1924, but after playing in both Amsterdam and at the World Cup in the years that followed he fell into poverty and obscurity upon retirement, dying penniless at just 55, seven years after the Maracanazo.

Having dispatched Yugoslavia with such ease, the Uruguay train was gathering momentum. The United States, who along with Turkey and Egypt constituted the only other non-European football presence, were dispatched 3-0, while the hosts France suffered the humiliation of going down 5-1 in front of their own fans. The semi-final against the Netherlands gave the Celeste their stiffest challenge yet. The Feyenoord legend Kees Pijl fired the Europeans into the lead, an advantage which was sustained until the final half hour of play. Then, in a forerunner of what was to come in Rio de Janeiro almost a generation later, José Pedro Cea levelled the scores before Héctor Scarone fired home the winner from the penalty spot with nine minutes remaining. The final was in comparison a non-event. Cea, Petrone and Romano hit the goals to destroy Switzerland 3-0, leaving the Uruguayan heroes to complete a victory lap that was to coin its own uniquely South American denomination: La Vuelta Olímpica, the Olympic lap. Andrade, Petrone and the rest of the squad were feted by their gracious hosts in the stands, garlanded with flowers and acclaimed as heroes: they had just put South American football, and perhaps even the continent itself, firmly on the map. 

But if Colombes, one side of the living Olympic homage attested to by the Estadio Centenario, prompted nervous Europeans to dust off maps and try to locate the origin of these mysterious champions, it was in Amsterdam that the Old World’s pretensions to football dominance were truly shattered. This time there were no surprises when Uruguay docked: as defending champions they would be the team to beat and indeed, with the likes of Mazali, Andrade, Petrone, Scarone and several others reporting for their second Games even the names would have a familiar ring. But it was to no avail. Uruguay and now Argentina steamrollered their European opposition, smashing a combined 32 goals in the six matches that formed their road to the final. 

Nowhere had Uruguay’s status as world champion rankled more than on the southern bank of the Río de la Plata. Having declined to enter the 1924 Olympics themselves, Argentina barely waited for their arch-rivals to disembark off the steamer before extending a two-legged challenge to see who the best side really was. Those games were notable for several reasons: the intense level of violence from the stands in Buenos Aires following a 0-0 draw in the opening match, with Andrade being pelted incessantly with missiles until the clash was eventually called off; the goal scored by Huracán’s Cesáreo Onzari directly from a corner when the match was replayed, a move henceforth dubbed simply a gol olímpico; and finally, Argentina’s 3-2 aggregate victory which predictably enough led to claims that they were the true masters of football. A quarter of a million people in Amsterdam reportedly applied for tickets to fill the stands for the 1928 final, proof if any were needed of the fascination this grudge match inspired in its European observers. 

As in that unofficial ‘world championship’ tie four years previously, two games were needed to determine the victor. Uruguay’s patient build-up and expert marksmanship had come as a shock in 1924 to European sides who dribbled furiously to the opposition goal almost without looking back, but this time around they were playing a fellow adherent of the South American way, who would not be caught out by their feints and trickery. The great Rioplatense rivals drew 1-1 the first-time round. The replay drew the same interest from Dutch spectators and a similarly packed Olympic Stadium convened again three days later to watch Uruguay prevail 2-1, goals from Roberto Figueroa and Scarone making the difference either side of Luis Monti’s solitary strike for the vanquished Albiceleste. This time there could be no doubt: having conquered Europe twice in four years and beating their neighbours for good measure, Uruguay were indisputably the finest team on the planet. 

“Thanks to football we became known to the world. When we won the Olympics in Paris, people could not believe that such a small country, that was barely on the map, could be champion!” The Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti had no doubt that victory in Colombes and Amsterdam was a unique feat for his nation, and propelled it to the elite of the world game. The sport, too, was on the verge of taking a giant leap into the unknown. The day before the action kicked off in 1928, Fifa’s congress was convened in Amsterdam to vote for the creation of a new tournament, a World Cup, which would from 1930 onwards take precedence over the Olympics in the football hierarchy. Uruguay, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden and Hungary all lodged bids to host the brainchild of Jules Rimet, but it was the South American team, elevated by the celebrations of one hundred years of independence, that got the nod. 

The Estadio Centenario, then, was steeped in history even before the first stone was laid. Ground was broken on 21 July 1929 and the original plan was to hold every game in Montevideo’s new landmark. Heavy rains, however, delayed construction, meaning the 13 teams that had deigned to travel for the inaugural World Cup were forced to play at Peñarol’s Pocitos ground and Nacional’s Parque Central while building frantically continued. Under the supervision of the architect Juan Antonio Scasso, teams of labourers worked around the clock to prepare the stadium. Finally, on 18 July 1930, the Centenario opened its doors for Uruguay’s first match of the tournament, the cement on the opposing Amsterdam and Colombes stands still drying in the southern hemisphere winter. Héctor ‘Manco’ Castro, the Nacional forward who had been left with one arm at the age of thirteen following an accident with a buzzsaw, scored the stadium’s first goal as the home team prevailed 1-0 over Peru.

The results of 1924 and 1928 were faithfully replicated. Far too strong for the few Europeans that had made the gruelling trip across the Atlantic, Uruguay and Argentina breezed unbeaten into the final, where 67,000 fans – of which almost half, it is estimated, were visitors from across the Río de la Plata – watched the Celeste confirm their superiority with a 4-2 win. The Centenario had witnessed a momentous occasion in football’s development, even if those present were not yet aware: that improvised tournament organised in Montevideo was the first step towards making the sport the universal religion it is today, where a World Cup is followed with relish in all four corners of the globe. Those European teams who declined to travel or had done so only to be embarrassed by the Latino upstarts were watching and learning. Italy in particular, who had turned their noses up at a month in a cramped steamer, went directly to the source, hand-picking the best Argentine and Uruguayan talent to form the Oriundi base of the side that would win the next two editions of the tournament. While on the other side of the Atlantic plans to restore those bruised egos were already being hatched the Centenario fell silent, beaming in glory after hosting further confirmation of the Celeste’s elite status in the game.

An empty football ground is a curious beast to behold. Like a cathedral absent of worshippers, the atmosphere is eerily calm and the structure itself appears bashful and awkward without its fans to give it meaning. “There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium,” Eduardo Galeano wrote in his seminal homage to the game, Football in Sun and Shadow. “Nothing lies muter than the stands with nobody present. In Wembley the shouts of the 1966 World Cup persist, but straining the ear one can also say the groans of 1953, when the Hungarians thrashed the English team. The Estadio Centenario, in Montevideo, sighs with nostalgia for the past glories of Uruguayan football.” That sensation is inescapable upon walking through the vast expanses of the Olympic stand on a weekday, where the only sound emanates from the chatter of tourists milling in the museum. But as a church bursts into life for morning mass, so the Centenario explodes in colour when the ball starts rolling. 

In 2011 cup fever returned to Montevideo thanks to the exploits of Peñarol, who had battled through to the final of the Libertadores for the first time in a generation to take on another past giant of South American football, Santos. Almost fifty years previously the Brazilian side had been the first to wrest the trophy from the unbeatable Peñarol, beating them over three games in 1962 after the Uruguayans had triumphed in the first two editions. There was no Pelé this time round; but Santos did boast a young Neymar, already the lynchpin of his team at the age of 19. The future Brazil captain, however, was cowed in that first leg and barely made an impact. The grizzled defender Darío Rodríguez was part of the reason, calling back on a fine tradition of Uruguayan hardmen to bully the teenager out of the game, but just as intimidating was the capacity Centenario crowd, fiercely partisan and baying for blood; the incandescent red of the flares ignited constantly in the Amsterdam stand illuminating the black and gold stripes that burst off fans’ torsos. I was there for a dull goalless draw in that first leg, a mean-spirited game that was nevertheless made unforgettable by the atmosphere provided in that famous old stadium.

Normal service resumed in the return match when Santos and Neymar prevailed 2-1 to take the title. Peñarol’s bid to win a sixth Libertadores title was frustrated. The last such triumph by a Uruguayan club came as far back as 1988 with Nacional’s defeat of Newell’s Old Boys. The national team, meanwhile, must look all the way to the Maracanazo of 1950 for their last World Cup triumph, although a steady stream of Copa América titles in the intervening six decades have made that wait somewhat less painful. 

The Estadio Centenario, then, is a monument to that mythical side, the only nation in history to have been named world champions on three consecutive occasions. Literally so: in 1983 Fifa named it a Historical Monument of World Football, the only stadium to have received that honour. But it is a living monument nonetheless. In the same arena lit up by the likes of Pelé and Ghiggia, or Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás and Alberto Spencer in the first-ever Intercontinental Cup match, hosted in Montevideo between Real Madrid and Peñarol, Uruguay’s modern heroes dream of reaching those same heights. Until their move in 2016 to the Campeón del Siglo, Peñarol also used the ground as their home, somewhat ironically given their early strife with the AUF, while any Uruguayan team looking to boost their attendance for a big game is free to rent the national symbol. Unchanged almost since the moment it was first opened and yet undiminished: the Estadio Centenario stands as a reminder of those days otherwise forgotten as football has transformed beyond all recognition since Uruguay first got their hands on the Jules Rimet Trophy.