What better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first ever World Cup in Uruguay than to arrange a tournament between the six previous winners, a champion of champions event played in the very same country where the World Cup had first kicked-off all those years ago? And so the Mundialito (Little World Cup) or Copa de Oro (Gold Cup) was conceived in 1979, the celebratory tournament to be played in December 1980 and January 1981, contested between Uruguay, Italy, West Germany, Brazil, England, and Argentina.
There proved to be one major stumbling block to this plan though: England. It was obvious that a tournament slap bang in the middle of the English season was always going to be problematic, and although England manager Ron Greenwood and FA Chairman Sir Harold Thompson were keen on joining the party, they were struggling to get permission from their parents, in their case the Football League clubs.
A meeting was scheduled at Old Trafford between FA and Football League members, along with representatives from Liverpool, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace - Greenwood had proposed that the squad be selected from these teams - although Nottingham Forest's absence was a tell tale sign that they were not all that enthusiastic about the whole idea.
The meeting only lasted 45 minutes, as the League clubs voiced their reservations, and it soon became apparent that the idea of England sending a strong enough squad to Uruguay was a non-runner. Another suggestion that each of the 22 First Division clubs send one player was rejected, as well as a plea from the FA that the tournament be rearranged for the summer of 1981.
Thompson certainly changed his tune as the tournament began. "I don't think that we will lose a lot by not being there. It is far more important for us to qualify for the next World Cup". There was an element of truth in his words, after all England would soon be in a hole regarding qualification for Spain '82, yet some tournament exposure for their players could have proved valuable. With the League clubs reluctant to play ball, however, England's no show was inevitable, with the tournament organisers sending out an SOS to the Netherlands, runners-up in the last two World Cups.
However, the Dutch attendance was put into jeopardy as the Mundialito neared, the government ordering the Dutch FA that the team should not play in Uruguay, due to their opposition to the military-led Uruguayan regime. The parliament verdict that the tournament would be used by the Uruguayan dictatorship as a propaganda tool was seemingly shared by others, when a German news agency broke news that 41 Italians (including two international players) had signed a document condemning the fascist rule in Uruguay. Italian officials tried to cover up the embarrassment, indicating that not all players had signed, and those who did were unaware of what they were signing. It was not an auspicious start to the Copa de Oro.
The European teams all suffered from a distinct lack of acclimatisation, Italy, West Germany and the Netherlands arriving just a couple of days before their first matches. On the face of it, West Germany were the strongest European hope, unbeaten in 23 matches under coach Jupp Derwall, and despite the absence of their Spanish based players in Uli Stielike and Bernd Schuster, their squad was strong, containing nine of the team that started their victorious Euro 1980 final against Belgium, including the newly crowned European Footballer of the Year Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
Italy were still reeling from the Totonero match fixing scandal of 1980, which had seen AC Milan and Lazio relegated to Serie B, and the suspension of players such as Paolo Rossi. Their league programme was suspended for two weeks whilst the tournament took place, meaning that the Italians sent an impressive squad, including 13 of the players that would be involved in the successful World Cup squad in 1982, although the absent Zoff, Bettega and Causio were seen as key missing links.
The glory days of the Netherlands were fast becoming a distant memory. The Total Football stars of Cruyff, Rep and Neeskens were no more, with coach Jan Zwartkruis apparently frustrated at the lack of talent coming through in the Dutch game. Unsurprisingly perhaps, there also seemed to be unrest in the Dutch camp, with players rumoured to be less than enamoured with Zwartkruis' easy-going style and with his team selection, and after losing the first two games of their World Cup qualifying group to Ireland and Belgium, hopes were understandably low for the Dutch in Uruguay.
Of the South American countries Argentina appeared to be in the best shape, coach Cesar Luis Menotti recalling Mario Kempes, Ossie Ardiles and Daniel Bertoni, who had been axed after the 1978 World Cup win due to moves abroad, and gradually introducing youngsters into his squad, the pick of which being the 20-year-old Diego Maradona, who some were already labelling the best player in the world.
If the eyes of the whole world were not quite on Maradona during the tournament, then it became apparent that most of Europe's top clubs were taking a keen interest in him, Juventus and Barcelona reportedly after the little genius. Indeed, many South American players were being scouted during the Mundialito, Uruguay's Ruben Paz and Brazil's Ze Sergio also attracting attention, although neither of these players would ever make it across to Europe as Maradona would be destined to do in 1982.
Hosts Uruguay had warmed up for the tournament by hammering Finland 6-0, Bolivia 5-0, and Switzerland 4-0, and with home advantage being so important in the last two World Cups - won by West Germany and Argentina - the team coached by 1950 World Cup winning goalkeeper Roque Mapoli, were hopeful of capitalising on this. Brazil were seen as the outsiders of the three South American teams, even more so when Zico had to withdraw due to a thigh injury, Tele Santana attempting to rebuild a team ready for Spain '82, after two relatively poor showings at the last two World Cup tournaments.
The format of the tournament involved two round-robin groups with the two group winners contesting the final. In total, seven matches would take place, although as the tournament approached, reports in Britain suggested that ticket sales were not as high as been hoped (a third of tickets were unsold), and European TV companies were hardly queueing up to buy the rights to show any matches.
With ticket prices apparently too expensive for locals, the British press were in full scaremongering mode, yet in the end, matches involving South American teams were well attended. The British press were partly right, as many journalists had written that there would be a lack of European tourists in Uruguay, although this was hardly unsurprising due to the timing of the event.
Every match was played at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, the location of the first World Cup final, and it would be the Group A fixture between Uruguay and the Netherlands that opened the tournament. Paz was outstanding, reportedly impressing scouts from AC Milan, as The Times detailed how his darting runs tormented the Dutch defence. First half goals from Venancio Ramos and Waldemar Victorino gave the hosts a comfortable 2-0 win in front of a 65,000 crowd.
When Uruguay repeated the scoreline against Italy four days later, Group A was done and dusted after just two matches. "I've always believed that tactically Uruguayan football is the best in South America," indicated Italian boss Enzo Bearzot prior to the match, and so it transpired. Uruguay's fifth consecutive clean sheet highlighted their solidity, as a Julio Morales penalty - hotly disputed by the irate Italians - and another clincher from Victorino booked their place in the final. The match was not without further incident, however, Moreira and Cabrini sent off for fighting, and Tardelli later dismissed for a bad challenge.
"The referee has forced me to experiment," bemoaned Bearzot, as he prepared his team for the dead rubber against the Dutch. In came Franco Baresi's older brother Giuseppe, along with a 21-year-old debutant in Carlo Ancelotti. In fact Ancelotti would enjoy a dream debut, opening the scoring after just 7 minutes, but in an extremely dull and uninspiring affair, Jan Peters equalised to give both teams a point before their long flights back home.
Zwartkruis must have used this time to ponder his future, as when the dust had settled he decided that enough was enough, bringing to an end his second spell in charge of the Dutch national team. And to think, the Netherlands had not even originally been invited to Uruguay, England's withdrawal leading to a series of events which led to Zwartkruis' departure. His time in charge may have been progressing to a natural conclusion anyway, yet the Dutch involvement in the Mundialito definitely sped up the process.
Group B was a lot more interesting. Expected to be a straight forward fight between Argentina and West Germany, Horst Hrubesch's 41st minute goal in the group opener appeared to give the Europeans the edge, especially when Kempes limped off early in the second half. But two late goals turned everything upside down; Manfred Kaltz's own goal after 84 minutes was bad enough for the Germans - Kaltz given the dirtiest of dirty looks from Harald Schumacher - but Ramon Diaz's 88th minute winner looked fatal to their hopes.
Just three days later Germany were eliminated when Brazil and Argentina drew 1-1. In a pulsating clash between the great South American rivals, Diego Maradona's display was just as thrilling, his goal giving Argentina the lead (admittedly aided by some poor goalkeeping from Brazil's Carlos). Edevaldo restored parity shortly into the second half, but neither team could find a winner, leaving Germany out, and Argentina reliant on the final group match.
The Brazil-Argentina rivalry would spill over though at the final whistle. What started as a mere altercation between Maradona and Brazilian substitute Paulo Isidoro, developed into a general shoving match on the pitch, armed police required to ensure that the handbags did not escalate any further. The Times' Geoffrey Green was not impressed, describing "the degrading scenes of violence on the field between hot-blooded South American elements which do not augur well for Latin passion in Spain next year".
The draw meant that Brazil needed to win by two goals or more, or win 3-2 to progress to the final, with an unsatisfactory coin toss the solution should they win 2-1 and end up with an identical record to Argentina. When Allofs put the Germans in front after 54 minutes, a repeat of the 1930 World Cup final looked odds-on, but the goal acted as a cattle prod, waking up the Brazilians and leading to a display that would become familiar over the next couple of years.
"I knew I could build a good Brazilian team, but tonight's performance went higher than I had thought possible," said Santana of his team's response to falling behind. Junior started the recovery with a Zicoesque free kick, scoring just two minutes after Allofs, and just five minutes later Cerezo put Brazil ahead. Needing another to avoid the luck of a coin toss, the much-derided Serginho (in 1982 at least) added a third, with Ze Sergio's final goal the icing on the cake.
There may well have been street parties in Uruguay, involving supporters of both Brazil and Uruguay - their mutual hatred of Argentina uniting them in celebration - but Menotti was not amused. "I don't accuse them (the Germans) of anything. This is a problem of conscience. Argentina has a clear conscience. I don't know if the Germans can say the same".
Derwall defended his corner, stating that the Germans were at full strength, although admitting that perhaps they were not fully motivated. But the Uruguay-Brazil party went on nonetheless. A Uruguayan fan quoted in The Times neatly summed up his lack of sympathy towards Menotti and his squad: "The Argentines are such pigs and we are sick and tired of hearing them boast about being the world champions and the best in everything".
Much to Argentine disgust, the last match of the Mundialito would be the same as the final game of the 1950 World Cup. Unfortunately for Brazil, the score would be identical too. What was seen as a contest between South America's best disciplined defence against the most unpredictable attack, would be played out in front of 71,250 people - roughly 100,000 down on the estimated crowd at the Maracana 51 years before - as Uruguay attempted to turn back the clock and give their fans a small reminder of the glory days of the distant past.
Paz would again feature heavily in the final, although the impact of Venancio Ramos was crucial too. After a goalless first half, Ramos' threaded ball put Paz away, and although his shot was saved by Joao Leite, substitute Jorge Barrios bundled the ball home to send the home fans wild. But just 12 minutes later Brazil were level, Socrates making the most of a tackle by Walter Olivera in the box, and slotting home the penalty, after referee Erich Linemayr had bravely pointed to the spot before facing the predictable Uruguayan protests.
Just as in 1950, a late Uruguayan winner settled the tournament. A gorgeous Ramos free-kick from the right into the corridor of uncertainty eventually ended up on the head of Victorino, the striker unable to miss, his third goal of the tournament leaving him as the top scorer and winning Uruguay the Copa de Oro. As the final whistle blew there were scenes of ecstasy on and off the pitch, as players and fans shared in Uruguay's triumph.
Thousands of Uruguayan fans celebrated long into the night after keeper and skipper Rodolfo Rodriguez lifted the Copa de Oro - very Dino Zoff in 1982 - but it was not only the hosts that had reasons to be cheerful. They may not have won the tournament, yet the rebirth of Brazil as a footballing nation gave their fans hope for the near future. The starring roles of Batista, Cerezo, Socrates, and Junior, was an important stepping stone for Brazil before Spain '82, a tournament in which Brazil would thrill the world before their defensive frailties cost them dear.
A distinct lack of preparation married with a familiar European dislike of playing in South America, resulted in no wins for the European representatives. The Dutch were never likely to be a threat in Uruguay, their period of transition meaning that they did not even qualify for Spain, but the subsequent showing of Italy and West Germany at the next World Cup illustrated just how ill-prepared the pair had been for the Mundialito. And the familiar European surroundings probably helped too when it came to the following year.
The tournament may have been a success for Uruguay, yet it counted for very little when just seven months later Peru won in Montevideo, a result which ultimately cost the Mundialito winners a place at the next World Cup. They may have won this particular battle, but they definitely did not win the war. This was in the future though. For now, a country with a population of less than three million could bask in the glory of winning the mini World Cup. Admittedly winning the Mundialito was not as significant as their former glories, yet try telling the Uruguayan supporters on that joyous night in January 1981 that it didn't matter.