This contribution by Rory McLean. He is a historian and soccer writer based in “middle America.” He is the co-writer of Steven Cohen’s Not Blowing Smoke, a collection of biographical short-stories available for the Amazon Kindle.
The taste of a sour Gold Cup finale is still puckers the lips of the US soccer fan.
The shadow of Mexico’s 4-2 come from behind victory looms large as the two teams are set to face off today in yet another meeting of this region’s premier soccer rivalry. However, one would probably be hard pressed to find many fans in the stadium, or anywhere for that matter, that merely know as much about the first soccer match between these two nations must less know someone who may have attended.
In fact, a wager that the answer is zero; unless of course you read on.
Following an increase in interest due to the success of the inaugural World Cup in 1930, organizers had to develop a qualifying process for the 1934 World Cup in Italy.
The United States–a 1930 participant–filled out their paperwork too late–seems like late rosters and tardy administrative work is in US Soccer’s blood–to fully participate in qualifying but the States were granted a reprieve when organizers arranged for the North Americans to play a final qualifying match against the champions from Central America, Mexico.
Instead of being a case of cultural favoritism, the move probably transpired because the US had been a semifinalist in the 1930 World Cup and the 1934 edition had already suffered a hit to its credibility due to Uruguay’s refusal to participate.
Uruguay, the reigning World Cup champions, was retaliating because some European nations, including the highly respected English and the Italians, refused to participate in the 1934 World Cup held in Uruguay. In any case the qualifying match would mark the first ever meeting on a soccer field between the United States and Mexico and it was decided that due to the lengthy travel times the match would have to take place in Rome (makes sense?) just three days before the World Cup officially opened.
Both teams embarked on a grueling 15-day sea voyage knowing that the team that lost this qualifier would miss out on the World Cup while the winners stayed in Italy for official tournament. Talk about do-or-die.
The Mexican national team had earned their place in the qualifiers by beating Cuba over the course of a three-match set after Cuba had knocked out Haiti in a similar set in a prior qualifying round.
The United States had not played a single qualifying game before the showdown in Rome because of the late entry, but even, bar that delay, it was unclear how the qualification process would have worked as the financial burden of travel seemed to be the largest consideration in the qualification process.
A reported dispute between which team should host a final playoff was cast aside when Italy offered to pay both teams way to Rome for the final qualifier. To make the most of the trip, both nations had arranged for a tour of Europe with many friendlies against various sides once their World Cup experience ended.
Even in those early days soccer was seen as a mainstay of Mexican culture with their many local and regional leagues. Meanwhile, the sport seemed to be reeling in the US following the disbanding of the nation’s only professional soccer league, the American Soccer League, one-year prior. (Remember the good ole days of the ASL?)
While the Americans had four veterans of the 1930 World Cup on the roster, it was Western Pennsylvania coal country’s Aldo Donnelli that left the greatest impression on soccer fans. Donnelli scored all four goals for the US in a 4-2 victory over Mexico before Benito Mussolini and a large crowd at the Stadio Nazionale del Partito Nazionale Fascista. The United States’ reward for winning that final qualification match was to play the hosts in their opening game of the single-elimination format World Cup tournament. Donnelli scored the lone goal for the US in the 1934 World Cup as the hosts, boosted by the inclusion of many talented Argentinean players of Italian descent, picked apart the Americans 7-1 on their way to winning the World Cup.
The actual World Cup experience might have been short for the American team in 1934, but many lasting effects did come from it. Following their tour of Europe some players were offered spots on European club teams but ultimately they all turned the offers down due to rising political troubles in Europe.
Aldo Donnelli earned a place in the soccer history books as the first player to score four goals in a World Cup Qualifying match. As for the United States and Mexico, a rivalry was born with a scoreline that read 4-2, the same scoreline (only reversed) that saw Mexico win the latest matchup between the two in the 2011 Gold Cup final. The game held in Rome remains the only time the United States has directly prevented Mexico from reaching the World Cup. Wednesday the next chapter in the US-Mexico rivalry will be written, but for now we can all say the rivalry’s first and latest results cancel each other out.
For more excellent reading on this topic, please click the Philly Soccer Page, here, which is one wonderful sources for information in the piece.