West Auckland is as unassuming as any village in Britain. It is said to be to home to one of the largest village greens in the country, and with that, you can gather the image of the place itself. There are few things more stereotypically British than a village green. Often characterised by a game of cricket on a mild summer’s afternoon. A modest place for a community to gather and enjoy their surroundings. A place where often, nothing remarkable would happen.
It is, therefore, entirely unlikely, unless you have passed through, and shot a glance at the seemingly ordinary sign which invites you into this small village, you would have known, the story of the ‘First World Cup’.
The orchestrator of this important but lost piece of football history is Sir Thomas Lipton. Lipton’s life is an entirely fascinating story in itself. He was a self-made man, who built his empire from the ground up. The name we may recognise today comes from his innovative venture into the tea industry. He was instrumental in selling tea to the poorer working-class market. With the business ethos of selling the best goods at the cheapest prices, Lipton bought several tea yards and established Lipton teas. The company, of course, is still going strong to this day and is known mostly by it’s Lipton iced tea, distributed largely in America, as the company is now jointly owned by PepsiCo.
You would be forgiven for wondering how a businessman known for tea, is at the heart of this footballing story. Well, in fact, Thomas Lipton was a keen sportsman himself. You could find Lipton in the hall of fame for America’s Cup, known to be the oldest international sporting trophy. Essentially America’s Cup was a yacht race which Lipton contested on several occasions. However, he wasn’t content holding a role in the history of only one prestigious international sporting trophy.
FIFA, the governing body which began and still control the football World Cup we know today, was founded in 1904. However, had very little success in their early efforts to put on an international football competition. They began by managing the football event at the Olympic games, which was originally an amateur-only competition. FIFA built of the success of Olympic football and went on to establish the FIFA World Cup. President Jules Rimmet organised the ‘inaugural World Cup tournament’ in Uruguay in 1930.
Thus coming, 21 years after Sir Thomas Lipton had organised what was, in fact, the first-ever World football tournament not to be competed in by amateurs. Similar to how the adoption of the Premier League and the Champions League, almost undermined the success of the clubs who had thrived in the ‘old era’ of football. Seemingly, when the first FIFA branded World Cup was introduced, those that had competed and won before its adoption were lost to the football history books.
However, although I believe the pioneering efforts of Sir Thomas Lipton need to be remembered. There are a few key factors which affect the credibility of West Auckland’s triumph. The competition was contested by club teams, who all took on the burden of representing their entire nation. This would likely be compared to a tournament like the Europa League, rather than the World Cup, in today’s age. Furthermore, the licencing of the tournament is speculative, due to the English Football association declining the invitation to nominate a team to represent England at the tournament. Therefore, without the backing of the English FA, Lipton was left with no choice but to recruit a team himself, as he believed it was vital that Great Britain is represented.
There is further speculation over how West Auckland was chosen. Needless to say, they are far from a household name in English football. Some offer a rather novel explanation of how this came about. Arsenal Football Club, of course, one of the most reputable and successful football brands in the country, was said to have originally been contacted. At this time they were known by the name Woolwich Arsenal and some say that when addressing the invite to W.A.A.F.C, there was a misunderstanding and the result was the invite being addressed to West Auckland instead. This seems a bit too far fetched and coincidental for me. The other version of events seems a tad more plausible. One of Lipton’s employees was also a part-time referee in the Northern League, and it seems more likely that he was decisive in helping Lipton find a replacement team, once the FA had refused.
The decision to include West Auckland puts the credibility of the tournament in further doubt. The tournament was set to include the most prestigious professional sides from the competing countries. Torino XI represented Italy. Stuttgarter Sportfreunde represented Germany. FC Winterthur was Switzerland’s representative. Assuming, Torino XI was made up of professional players from Torino, who would go on to represent Torino FC, it is easy to say they are now the most well-known club that competed in the 1909 competition. FC Winterthur is currently in the second tier of Swiss football. However, Stuttgarter Sportfreunde is on a similar playing field to West Auckland in today’s age. They compete in the Stuttgart district league. Therefore, it is not surprising, that they too, speak proudly of their involvement in the Lipton trophy, which they describe as a ‘precursor to the World Cup’. The key factor was, that at the time of the tournament, West Auckland was said to be the only amateur club that took part, meaning it was not an entirely professional international tournament.
The tournament was set for April 1909, in Torino, Italy. The West Auckland team was made up largely by coal miners, who were said to have pawned their belongings to afford the journey to Italy. Some may say a small price to pay, considering the mark they would make for themselves in the football annals. They beat Stuttgart or Germany, in the semi-finals 2-0, not needing to take the game to penalties such as England did against Germany in the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup. They then faced Switzerland, or FC Winterthur in the final, again winning 2-0. With that, Great Britain was crowned the winners of the ‘first World Cup’, due to the exploits of a group of amateur footballers, who paid for the privilege themselves. Little is known about the team that played that day. Although, a few of them seemed to have nicknames highlighted in the lineup, which echoes further the amateur nature of this historic team. Alf ‘tot’ Gubbins and Charlie ‘dirty’ Hogg, may not be as much household names as Sir Bobby Charlton or Sir Geoff Hurst. However, you could say, despite the controversy over whether the competition can be officially recorded in the history books, that those players, who were likely modest coal miners, are world champions.
You may be wondering why the sign seen in the photo above, says the ‘Home of the First World Cup’ however. That is because West Auckland’s exploits did not end in 1909. They went on to defend their title in 1911. With the rules that if a team won consecutive tournaments they could keep the trophy, that made West Auckland, ‘Home of the First World Cup’. In 1911, this time they beat FC Zurich, who with a look at their honours list have been 12 times winners of the Swiss Superleague, but only record a fourth-place medal in the Sir Thomas Lipton trophy. The most remarkable of feats, however, was the 1911 final. Whereupon West Auckland ran away victorious, with a 6-1 win over, none other than Juventus.
Of course, you can see this tournament as a far throw from the World football tournament which FIFA heralded over from 1930 onwards. You can see it as simply a building block in what the World Cup has become and therefore not warranting it’s official place in the honours list of World champions. Despite all this, for the small village of West Auckland, who’s expansive village green is the simple and modest hallmark of their area. They say, with pride, that they were the first outright winners of the ‘World Cup’. Furthermore, even if you take that away from them, they managed to beat, 35 times Serie A, and 2 time European Championship winning Juventus, 6-1, in the final of a professional tournament.
Unfortunately, the trophy was stolen in 1994 and never found. Thankfully, an expertly crafted replica was made at the expense of the Lipton company, and the replica was returned to its rightful home at the West Auckland working men’s club.