Alberto Suppici – a World Cup-winning coach ahead of his time

In the 29 World Cups played to date there have been 27 title-winning coaches. Only Italy’s Vittorio Pozzo in 1934 and 1938 and the USA’s Jill Ellis in 2015 and 2019 have led their teams to two titles. The member of this elite club about whom football fans perhaps know the least is the very first of them – Alberto Suppici, who at the tender age of 36 led Uruguay to success at the 1930 World Cup.

In the 1930 showcase of the World Cup Gallery at the FIFA Museum, we display a small enamel-and-silver medal featuring the 1930 World Cup poster designed by the Uruguayan artist Guillermo Laborde. The medal was given to Alberto Suppici in 1930 by the Uruguayan Football Association because at that time, the coach – and even those members of the squad that did not feature in the Final itself – did not receive the medal awarded by FIFA. It was up to the winning association to recognise the achievements of those who they believed had contributed to the victory.

Team France training on the Conte Verde on the way to the 1930 FIFA World Cup Uruguay © Fonds Excelsior/Presse Sports (click to enlarge)

Outside of Uruguay, the part played by Suppici in the 1930 World Cup triumph has gone largely unnoticed. In World Cup literature, he is either absent or portrayed as a peripheral figure, but an interview he did for a lifestyle magazine called Mundo Uruguayo just before the tournament kicked off sheds valuable light on the role he played. The interview showed that Suppici was at the very heart of the team and was a trailblazer in more ways than just being the first World Cup-winning coach. In an era when the concept of training and preparation sometimes involved little more than a hop, skip and jump, Suppici was well ahead of his time.

In the lead-up to the tournament, Suppici had gathered the squad together in a retreat, away from the public glare. If the players thought this was going to be a holiday before the fun started, they were in for a shock. There was a strict curfew between 10:30 in the evening and 08:00 in the morning. When goalkeeper Andrés Mazali – a hero of both the 1924 and 1928 Uruguayan Olympic triumphs – broke this curfew, he was dismissed from the squad, leaving the way for his understudy Enrique Ballestrero to take his place.

Suppici worked for the National Commission for Physical Education, where his 15 years of experience meant he was well versed in how the players should prepare. “The first week I limited myself to getting the players’ bodies properly prepared for more intensive work,” he is quoted as saying in the interview with Mundo Uruguayo from July 1930. “The second period comprised a series of neuromuscular coordination and reaction exercises, always ending the sessions with combined calisthenics and gentle breathing exercises.” Heady stuff for football in the 1930s! A regular part of the regime were the runs. Each was up to 13 kilometres that he specified should be run at an average of 6 kilometres per hour.

Interview and one of the rare photos of Alberto Suppici in the magazin Mundo Uruguayo (Click to enlarge)

It wasn’t just the training that Suppici controlled. He was also a pioneer when it came to nutrition. Uruguay’s Spain-born centre-half Lorenzo Fernández, known as Gallego due to his Galician roots, turned up at the retreat with constipation. Suppici had the answer… “As far as diet is concerned, it is based on simple, easy-to-absorb food, with an emphasis on raw vegetables, wholemeal bread, fresh fruit, etc. I also allow them to eat barbecued meat and in general, I try not to introduce a very violent change in the eating habits of each player.” It certainly sorted out the inner workings of poor Lorenzo Fernández, who went on to play a starring role in the finals and was widely regarded in the press at the time as the man of the match in the Final itself.

It wasn’t all hard work. “I have tried to keep spirits up within the camp by means of recreational physical exercises, developing in every way the desire to cooperate. The games of Volleyball and boccia (bowls), etc. have contributed to improving the mood of the players, and these games have a double educational and recreational purpose.”

What is less clear is Suppici’s role on the tactical side and during the games themselves. Uruguay were slow to start in their first match against Peru, winning with a late goal by Héctor Castro, but they were much better in their 4-0 win over Romania and their 6-1 semi-final victory over Yugoslavia. The first time they were really tested was in the Final itself against Argentina. Playing the style of football that they had wowed the European crowds with at the Paris and Amsterdam Olympics – a short-passing, possession game based on individual skill – they found themselves 2-1 down at half-time against their neighbours.

Commemorative medal presented by the Uruguayan Football Association to Alberto Suppici | 1930 | Enamel on silver, stamped 800 | Made by S Johnson, Milan, Italy | 3.1 x 1.7 x 0.5cm | FIFA Museum collection. (Click to enlarge)

The half-time team talk completely changed the outcome. Uruguay decided to make heavy use of long balls that took advantage of the wide-open spaces of the Estadio Centenario pitch, which measured 138 by 100 yards. It was a tactical switch that worked as the Uruguayans scored three second-half goals without reply to win 4-2. But who was responsible for this tactical switch? Suppici? José Nasazzi, the captain? Or the team as a whole?

We may never know, but what we can be sure of is that the Uruguayan team approached the finals in peak condition both mentally and physically, and for that, they have Suppici to thank.