Until the arrival of television, radio was the first method of mass communication that allowed football fans to follow their team’s matches live. What many people do not realise, however, is that the first radio transmission of a game was produced in Uruguay exactly 90 years ago today, on 1 October 1922.
The world’s first radio broadcast occurred in Argentina in August 1920, when a group of youngsters, using technical equipment imported from Europe, transmitted a Richard Wagner concert in Buenos Aires to a handful of fortunate listeners. Just three months later, the USA witnessed the second instance, when the results of that year’s presidential elections were broadcast from Pittsburgh to receivers specially provided for the occasion by the company Westinghouse.
In January 1921 an important international technology exposition was held in Rio de Janeiro Brazil, at which the company General Electric presented an incredible product called radio. However, the Brazilian authorities were suspicious of the new equipment, leading to the invention being passed on to Argentina.
There, bureaucracy prevented local businesses from obtaining the transmitter, which resulted in General Electric moving to its branch in Montevideo, Uruguay. In 1922, Uruguayan businessman Sebastian Paradizabal eventually bought the apparatus and hired two electrical engineering graduates to help secure the success of his investment.One of them, Claudio Sapelli, later became the world’s first football commentator.
In August 1922, Uruguay became the third country to launch a fixed radio station, coming even before the United Kingdom set up the BBC in London. Such was the interest it generated that the 50 receivers put on sale were quickly sold out.
On 17 September that same year, the sixth edition of the South American Championship, now known as the Copa America, began in Rio de Janeiro. Although Chile had originally been designated as hosts, Brazil requested the change as part of its centennial independence celebrations. As the only side to have won three titles at that point, Uruguay’s participation was met with excitement, even with the conflict generated by the absence of Penarol’s players in their squad.
Los charrúas first match was on 23 September, beating Chile 2-0 with goals from Juan Carlos Heguy and Antonio Urdinaran. That day, thousands of fans convened in the offices of the newspaper El Plata in Montevideo, as they had installed a cable radiotelegraphy set on the terrace and had an employee conveying the concise reports that arrived from Rio de Janiero through a megaphone.
A historic stalemate
By the time Uruguay’s second match came around, against Brazil on 1 October, there was another novel invention. Two copies were made of the wires that the teleprinter received; one to share with the crowd and another for Sapelli, who was on the roof with his portable transmission equipment, commentating as the match unfolded for his approximately 50 listeners.
It is said that the improvised commentator took advantage of the opportunity for creative license the new method of reporting allowed. He was, however, unable to shout “goal” given that the match finished 0-0. Nevertheless, it not only became the first ever transmission of a football fixture in history, but also the second sporting event to be reported on radio on record. A boxing match in the USA had been covered the previous July.
In the tournament, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay finished top with five points each, followed by Argentina on four and Chile with one. Obliged to play a decider, the Uruguayans chose to withdraw from the competition in protest against the officials. That left two teams to contest the final, and the hosts were crowned champions for a second time after goals from Formiga (two) and Neco gave them a 3-0 win.