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The 1980 Mundialito

World Cup winners faced each other in the Mundialito, a special tournament that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the first World Cup.

On the 10th of January of 1981, exactly 37 years ago, Uruguay and Brazil met in the final of the Mundialito (Little World Cup in Spanish), also known as Copa de Oro de los Campeones (World Champions' Gold Cup). Their game was the conclusion of a bizarre and unprecedented international tournament. Uruguay, the hosts, really sought a victory. It was not about football but a matter of national pride and morale.

Uruguay was under a dictatorship since 1973, when there had been a military coup. From poverty to oppression, Uruguayan people had silently been through a lot during those years. However, the days of the regime were coming to an end. A month before the 1980 Mundialito, the government organised a referendum in which a new constitution was going to be voted. If approved, the already established dictatorship would have strengthened, as it would have been able to modify the existing constitution. Against all odds, the new constitution was rejected by the 57% of the voters. The propaganda for the ‘yes’ had dominated the media, there was a limited, arguably inexistent, freedom of the press, and yet, the ‘no’ won. The military government would nevertheless ignore the result and incorporated some of their new laws. But the result of that referendum had been the spark that would eventually finish with the dictatorship five years later.

In that complex political panorama, the tournament arrived to Uruguay, where the first World Cup had taken place in 1930. The expectation was huge. The government was closely involved with the host team: they wanted a triumph in order to recover the damaged image of the nation and be accepted by the international community — similar to what Argentina had done in the 1978 World Cup. The team started their preparation early on and the media encouraged the fans to attend in numbers to the games. They even made a song to cheer the team.

All the World Cup winners —Uruguay (1930, 1950), Italy (1934,1938), West Germany (1954, 1974), Brazil (1958, 1962, 1970) and Argentina (1978)— but England (1966) attended the tournament. The English rejected the invitation because their football calendar during those Christmas dates was specially busy. Instead, the Netherlands (runners-up in 1974 and 1978) took their place.

The Estadio Centenario de Montevideo, where the 1930 World Cup final took place, was of course the chosen venue for this tournament. The nations were divided in two groups of three teams, and the winners of each group would meet in the final. The hosts Uruguay were first in the Group A after defeating both Italy and the Netherlands. On Group B, it was Brazil who progressed following a draw against Argentina —a side that included an impressive 17-year-old named Diego Armando Maradona— and a victory against West Germany.

Uruguay took the lead in the final just after halftime and then Brazil equalised with a goal from the penalty spot scored by the iconic Socrates. It was late in the game when Victorino eventually made it 2-1 for Uruguay and the title stayed in Montevideo. There are rumours of a new edition of the Mundialito taking place in 2030, as it will be the 100th anniversary of the World Cup, but FIFA has not made any official statement.

Uruguay won the 1980 Mundialito. Cover of magazine El Gráfico.

The 1980 Mundialito was captured in a documentary by the Uruguayan filmmaker Sebastian Bednarik called Mundialito (2010). The film tells the story behind the tournament with insights from those who were involved. This is the trailer:

Photo by AP/REX/Shutterstock (8550537l)