13th July 1930: It’s 3pm in Montevideo, and the Uruguayan referee Domingo Lombardi raises his whistle to his lips and blows. The French and Mexican players gathered on the pitch of the Estadio Pocitos have been waiting for this – the first ever match of the first ever World Cup has begun…
It doesn’t take very long. Nineteen minutes later, in front of a crowd of less than 5,000, a 22-year-old Frenchman by the name of Lucien Laurent (above) finds the back of the net and makes history.
Lucien Laurent had scored the first goal in the first World Cup. Many years later, he described the move that led to that historic moment:
[I]t was snowing, since it was winter in the southern hemisphere. One of my team mates centred the ball and I followed its path carefully, taking it on the volley with my right foot. Everyone was pleased but we didn’t all roll around on the ground – nobody realised that history was being made. A quick handshake and we got on the with game. And no bonus either; we were all amateurs in those days, right to the end.
France went on to win the game 4 – 1, but they were narrowly beaten 1 – 0 by both Chile and Argentina in their other group stage matches, and crashed out of the tournament as a result. It wasn’t really their finest hour in the competition (that, as we know, was yet to come). The eventual winners were the hosts, Uruguay, who beat Argentina 4 – 2 in the final, with the USA finishing third.
Lucien Laurent himself was one of two brothers who both played football for France (and who were both in that 1930 World Cup squad, although his brother Jean did not get a game). Born not far from Paris in December 1907, Lucien played professional, semi-professional and amateur soccer for a variety of teams in various parts of France during his career, often while also holding down a full-time job.
Indeed, he had to take unpaid leave from his position with the car manufacturers Peugeot to travel to the World Cup in 1930, and he was only paid expenses while he was abroad. It was a long journey to Uruguay by boat and the French players did their best to maintain their fitness on board, as Laurent describes:
We were 15 days on the ship “CONTE VERDE” getting out there. We embarked from Villefranche-sur-Mer in company of the Belgians and the Yugoslavians. We did our basic exercises down below and our training on deck. The coach never spoke about tactics at all.
One wonders what today’s national team squads and coaches would make of that! Eventually capped a total of ten times for France, Laurent scored twice for his country – the other goal being an equaliser against England in a 1931 friendly (that game finished 5 – 2 to the French, much to the English football establishment’s mortification). Injury kept him out of the 1934 World Cup in Italy, and his final cap came less than a year later.
Then, almost a decade after that memorable match in Montevideo, geopolitics noisily interrupted the football when war broke out and France was occupied by German forces. Laurent survived World War Two, despite spending three years as a prisoner of war (incidentally, this is in marked contrast to the wartime fate of France’s proud captain on that same July day in 1930 – Alex Villaplane (below) notoriously collaborated with the Nazis and was executed as a traitor in late 1944).
In 1946, Laurent retired as a player and went on to work in coaching, with an emphasis on youth teams. It is pleasing to report that he lived long enough to finally see France lift the World Cup trophy in 1998, and on home soil too. By then, he was the last surviving member of that somewhat unlucky French squad of 1930, making him the centre of much media attention. When asked for his views on the modern game, he commented:
It has developed enormously in terms of fitness, technique and tactics. But today there is too much negativity and cynical play. We used to bump into each other, not much more than that, there was no real tackling. We had respect for our opponents and for the referee. In the modern game there are no wingers: it’s the fullbacks who penetrate down the flanks as they say, but they can’t replace a good winger
He died, aged 97, in the much-changed footballing world of 2005, still holding one of the few World Cup records that can never be beaten.
For completeness’ sake, the first World Cup clean sheet was kept by the USA goalkeeper Jimmy Douglas in their game against Belgium on the same day. You can see some fascinating images of that, and the France v. Mexico match discussed above, in these videos below.
Incidentally, there were couple of first goals in the opening match of the 2018 World Cup. That game, between Russia and Saudi Arabia, saw several – the first goal of the tournament was scored by Russia’s Yuri Gazinsky (also his first goal for his country), and another debut international goal was scored by Denis Cheryshev (who also became the first substitute to score in the opening match of a World Cup).
(That’s enough firsts, I think! – Ed.)