Forerunners

This is the first in a four-part series chronicling international club tournaments in South America and Europe in the era before the Copa Libertadores and European Cup.

On 16 August 2015, CONMEBOL retroactively recognised as official two cup competitions between Argentine and Uruguayan clubs dating back to the early 20th century: the Cup Tie Competition, contested between 1900 and 1919, and the Copa Aldao, founded in 1913 and held irregularly until the mid-1950s.

Three days later CONMEBOL retracted their statement. The Vice President of the Confederation suddenly claimed it was a mistake by the press department. Official or not, the Cup Tie and Aldao deserve to be remembered. These tournaments were not just a stepping stone on the road to the formation of the continent-wide Copa Libertadores. They form a prominent and indelible part of the legacy of South American football, and are the first truly international club competitions in the history of the sport.

Early days

Football spread to South America in the same way it did to the rest of the world: via British sailors, merchants, educators, and other ex-pats who brought with them their sporting traditions. It first took hold along the Río de la Plata, located along both sides of the estuary that forms part of the Argentina – Uruguay border and separates the capitals of the two countries by just over 200 kilometres.

That football’s point of entry on the continent was Buenos Aires is not surprising given the massive British presence and influence on the local economy. Every major economic sector in Argentina, from the railroads to agriculture to meat exportation, was dominated by the British. By the late 19th century, Argentina had more British expats than any country in the world, outside of the Empire itself.

The first athletic clubs to spring up in Argentina focused on polo and tennis, but British sailors were playing a form of football on the docks as early as the 1840s. The Laws of the Game were published in an English language newspaper in 1867, just four years after they were drawn up by the Football Association in England. The Spanish language newspaper El Nacional predicted several years later that it would not be long before Argentines got used to ‘the English game.’

It proved a prescient prediction. A league was set up in 1891 and was won by a team composed entirely of Scots. Clubs sprung up in every barrio of Buenos Aires. By 1907 there were 300 clubs in Buenos Aires playing outside of the official championship.

Across the Río de la Plata in Uruguay, the pattern of football’s rise was similar. The first organized match was reportedly played in 1878 between British sailors and the Montevideo Cricket Club. The first match between Uruguayan clubs took place three years later, and from there the sport skyrocketed in popularity. New clubs proliferated in the 1890s and by 1895 a local league had been set up.

The early years of Rioplatense football were dominated by teams of British expats, but the game’s popularity was quickly spreading and within two decades, British players were a small minority in the leagues of both countries. This demographic change facilitated the development of a criollo footballing identity, with a heavy focus on dribbling and individual creativity. Faster than anywhere else, football in the Río de la Plata rapidly transformed from the pastime of the elites to the passion of the masses.

The roots of a rivalry

The geographic proximity and cultural links between Buenos Aires and Montevideo set up the perfect environment for the birth of one of football’s greatest rivalries.

The first ‘international’ fixture between the countries was international in name only. It was played in 1888 between British ex-pats living in Buenos Aires and Montevideo to celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria.

The first ‘proper,’ officially organised international fixture between the two sides took place in 1902. Argentina won 6-0, a result that was not a harbinger of things to come. This was the first match between national teams outside of the British Isles.

It quickly became a regular affair. In 1905 the tea magnate Thomas Lipton donated a trophy to the winner of the matchup, on the condition that the two teams field exclusively native-born players. The cup was contested regularly through the 1920s but lost prestige with the advent of the South American Championship (later renamed the Copa América) in 1916.

The early cups

At the same time as the Argentine and Uruguayan national teams initiated their long-lasting rivalry, club competitions in the region also gained an international flavour.

The first cross-border tournament was the Cup Tie Competition, also known as Copa de Competencia Chevallier Boutell after the president of the Argentine Association Football League who donated the trophy. The Cup Tie was founded in 1900 and included teams from Buenos Aires and Montevideo, as well as the Argentine city of Rosario.

It preceded the founding of FIFA by four years and CONMEBOL by 16, and was the first officially organised and recognised club competition featuring teams from different countries.

In 1907, the format was changed to a single final held in Buenos Aires between the winners of the Argentina Copa de Competencia Jockey Club and the Uruguayan Copa Competencia, two of the premier cup competitions in the respective countries.

Six of the first ten editions were won by Alumni, who were founded by the man considered to be the father of Argentine football, Scottish teacher Alexander Watson Hutton. In 1907, Alumni recorded perhaps the first ‘quadruple’ in the history of world football. In addition to the domestic league and cup, as well as the Cup Tie, they also defeated Nacional in the Copa de Honor Cusenier. The latter was founded in 1905 as a sort of Montevideo-based counterpart to the Cup Tie, and was contested between the winners of a separate Argentine and Uruguayan domestic cup called the Copa de Honor.

Confident of the superiority of Rioplatense football, Argentine newspapers had no qualms about declaring Alumni “champions of South America.” Journalists claimed that they were “capable of competing with the best clubs from abroad” and dubbed them “one of the best amateur teams in the world, without any doubt.”

Though Alumni disbanded two years after their final Cup Tie victory in 1909, their international titles in the first decade of the 1900s helped solidify their reputation as Argentina’s first great club.

The Aldao Cup

The early success of the Cup Tie encouraged the formation of a new international tournament. The new cup would feature the champions of the Argentine and Uruguayan leagues. The first edition was set to take place in 1913, but the match between Estudiantes of La Plata and River Plate of Montevideo was suspended due to a torrential downpour. By some accounts it was never replayed; by others, Estudiantes won the rematch an entire year later by a score of 4-1.

The historically verifiable era of the competition began in 1916. The newspaper La Argentina reported on 30 November that the country’s football association received confirmation from their Uruguayan counterparts agreeing to the formation of a ‘Championship of the Río de la Plata.’ Dr. Ricardo Aldao, president of the Argentine Football Federation in the mid-1910s, donated the trophy and the competition was named Copa Aldao in his honour.

The first Copa Aldao took place in Buenos Aires on 3 December 1916. It was a fitting matchup between the two most successful teams in Argentina and Uruguay of the decade: Racing Club and Nacional. Racing Club won a stunning seven league titles in a row from 1913 through 1919, while Nacional boasted an impressive haul of five league titles between 1912 and 1919.

The Uruguayans edged out a 2-1 victory. The competition immediately captured the imagination of the press. La Argentina described the two teams as “enthusiastic and strong sides… who yesterday demonstrated their superiority playing for the Río de la Plata Cup.”

The next two cups were won by Racing Club, before the trophy returned to Nacional. The Uruguayans beat undefeated Argentine champions Boca Juniors 3-0 in 1919 and defended their title against the same opposition the following year. The core of the Nacional squad, including forward Ángel Romano who scored in all three of their victories, would soon take the world by storm.

Rioplatense football conquers the world

The 1920 Copa Aldao was to be the last for six years. In 1919 a dissident group broke off from the Argentine Football Association and formed the Asociación Amateurs de Football. The reason for the schism was so-called “brown amateurism.” Though nominally still an amateur league, clubs easily evaded the ban on payment via various informal means. The separatists were opposed to this practice and set up a parallel league that competed with the established one.

The schism’s effects were felt across the Río de la Plata. Racing were one of the dissident clubs in Argentina, and newly-crowned Uruguayan champions Peñarol wanted to face them in the Copa Aldao rather than Huracán, champions of the established league. This eventually caused a group of Uruguayan clubs breaking away from their own established league, leading to an existence of four separate governing bodies in the two countries.

The breakaway associations even set up their own version of the Copa Aldao in 1923. San Lorenzo, champions of the dissident Argentine league, defeated their Uruguayan counterparts 1-0 in a one-off tournament dubbed the Championship Cup of the Río de la Plata.

Domestic confusion notwithstanding, in 1924, the Uruguayan national team set sail to the Olympics to represent the continent as the winners of the 1923 South American Championship. Not everyone was certain this was a good idea. Many Uruguayans were fearful that their nation would be humiliated on the world stage.

They need not have worried. The Uruguayans, the virtual unknowns from a tiny Latin American country, stunned the world and won the gold medal following a convincing 3-0 victory in the final over Switzerland. Journalists, fans, and even rivals were all impressed with their technique and style of play. As Jonathan Wilson writes in Angels with Dirty Faces, Uruguay “went to the 1924 Olympics as unknowns; they left having redefined football.”

The Uruguayans repeated as Olympic champions in 1928 in a Rioplatense Clásico against Argentina, and the two met again in the 1930 World Cup final. Uruguay emerged victorious both times.

Both the Uruguayan and Argentinian squads in the Olympics and World Cup included multiple players who featured in previous or future Aldao Cups. Four of the eleven players in the Uruguayan starting lineup in the 1924 final were members of the three-time Copa Aldao champions Nacional, and a fifth was a finalist with Rampla Juniors in 1927.

The aforementioned Ángel Romano, goalscoring hero in the Copa Aldao matches, scored the third goal in the Olympic final. The Nacional-based core remained largely intact for the subsequent tournaments.

Argentina’s starting lineup in the 1928 final also featured two members of San Lorenzo’s victory in the ‘alternative’ version of the Aldao Cup. By 1930, Uruguay’s starting eleven was supplemented with two players from 1928 Copa Aldao winners Peñarol. Argentina’s Guillermo Stábile, who scored their second goal in the final, was a runner-up with Huracán in the same match.

The presence of so many players from the Aldao Cup in these most prestigious of competitions is a testament to the enduring quality and influence of the tournament.

Stagnation and demise

The schism in Uruguayan football ended in 1925, and in Argentina, it was resolved by the following year. The Copa Aldao resumed in 1927, but returned to being a regular occurrence only in 1936.

The 1936 cup ushered in an era of dominance by two Argentine clubs: River Plate and Independiente. That year, River Plate swept aside Peñarol 5-1 at the Centenario Stadium in Montevideo. Next year’s cup was contested by the same teams, with a similar result. River Plate ran out 5-1 winners.

An impressive Independiente won the next two cups, including a thorough 5-0 hammering of Nacional in 1939. River Plate added to their collection with additional titles in 1943, 1945, and 1947. After their last triumph, an Argentine newspaper declared them to be “champions of the best football of the world.”

But this newspaper’s adulation may have been more reflective of bias toward River Plate than a sign of the cup’s importance. By this point, it is clear the Copa Aldao was losing its lustre. In 1940, Boca Juniors refused to play the extra period following a 2-2 draw with Nacional and the match was suspended. Nacional were originally awarded the title, but it has not been recognised by either association. In 1942, the return leg in what was meant to be a two-legged affair between Nacional and River Plate was simply never held.

After a ten-year hiatus following River Plate’s 1947 title, one last attempt at reviving the competition was made in 1957. River Plate were again set to face Nacional, a rematch of their 7-4 aggregate victory ten years prior.

River Plate won the first leg 2-1, but Nacional failed to show up for the return. River Plate should have been champions by default, but the title was never officially awarded, and they do not claim it on their website.

The quiet failure of 1957 was the death knell. With the launch of the Copa Libertadores in 1960, direct contests between the champions of Argentina and Uruguay lost their glamour and importance. Any attempts to revive the Copa Aldao since have been strictly as pre-season friendly tournaments.

A legacy at risk

The decision of CONMEBOL to retract their recognition of the Cup Tie and Copa Aldao was a controversial one and was criticised by the media in both Argentina and Uruguay. Though the distinction between official and unofficial tournaments may seem an arbitrary one to the outside observer, to the clubs and their supporters it is an affront to their history and a repudiation of their accomplishments.

The Cup Tie and Copa Aldao may appear a distant memory. But they were crucial to the development of Argentine and Uruguayan football, and to South American football as a whole. Their proper place in history should not be forgotten.

Read part two here.