In 1950, an expectant world-record Maracanã crowd weren’t prepared for the national ‘tragedy’ that followed. Marc Jobling – with the help of Tim Vickery – looks back at that fateful day and what it would mean if Brazil banish their demons this summer.
“Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.” – playwright Nelson Rodrigues
They named it ‘Maracanazo’ – the Maracanã blow. For a nation determined to announce themself as a post-war superpower, it had seismic effects. Even now, Brazil hasn’t fully recovered; haunted by the possibility that history will repeat itself this summer. “Brazilian football is all about winning – forget those ideas of it being a carnival in boots, where people are happy to concede seven goals as long as they score eight. It’s all about winning” revealed Tim Vickery, the freelance journalist who is an expert in all things South American.
This wasn’t an explosion or natural disaster. It was just one football match. But in Brazil, where football is an obsessive religion, the consequences of losing this World Cup Final were huge. Vickery labelled the aftermath: “an orgy of national self-hatred”. At this point, the now five times world champions were still awaiting their maiden victory. Until 2010, Brazil were the only World Cup winners never to have won as hosts. Their chance to rectify this mistake can’t come soon enough.
Yet it all looked so promising for the seleção. After volunteering to host the first World Cup since the Second World War, preparations began for their assumed coronation as world champions. “Europe was rising from the ashes”, said veteran sports commentator Teixeira Heizer. “The only reason why the World Cup was held in Brazil was that nobody else wanted to host it.”
However, the hype surrounding this Brazilian side wasn’t undeserved. They had talents such as Ademir, Jair and Zizinho – the idol to Pelé and many others. “The 1950 team were a magnificent side, especially the front three”, revealed Vickery. “Ademir wasn’t a particularly complex player – he was quick, two-footed, could finish and was good in the air. Zizinho and Jair were absolutely outstanding. Zizinho just blew the minds of the European journalists who came over – they’d never seen anything like it. Whilst Jair was tiny, he had a cannonball of a left foot.”
16 teams were drawn into four pools of four, with each group winner progressing. To ensure more matches for their stadia, Brazilian organisers overlooked a knockout format and insisted on a round-robin final group stage involving these four. It remains the only World Cup to adopt this strange set-up. As fate would have it, the finest two sides in the winners’ group would play in the final, decisive match.
Brazil breezed their way through to it, starting with a 4-0 win against Mexico in the opening match (two teams that will meet at this summer’s tournament). The game against Switzerland was in São Paulo, so coach Flavio Costa replaced his midfield with three São Paulo players to please the locals. The game finished 2-2.
Yugoslavia were next but Brazil finally secured a 2-0 success. Yugoslav captain Rajko Mitić hurt his head on an exposed Maracanã girder and, by the time he was patched up, Ademir had put Brazil 1 up before Zizinho sealed the victory. Spending the two preceding months at a training camp had obviously focused the Brazilians, who destroyed Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1 in the final group phase.
The 1949 Copa America champions were relentless in their quest to claim the Jules Rimet trophy. Uruguay, on the other hand, were unspectacular. Although they humiliated Bolivia with an 8-0 thumping, several teams withdrew from the competition for travel reasons and Uruguay’s one group game took them through. The Celeste drew 2-2 with Spain and narrowly beat Sweden 3-2 – a vast difference from the Brazilian demolitions.
They shouldn’t have been underestimated though. Uruguay won the 1930 World Cup, yet didn’t participate in the following two. In their minds, they were reining world champions. In the era of two-points-for-a-win, Brazil went into the final match one point ahead of the Uruguayans and simply had to avoid defeat in order to be crowned champions. The Maracanã anticipated a party.
World record crowd
On 16th July 1950, the official attendance was 173,850 but in truth over 200,000 packed into the new stadium – 100 of those belonged to La Garra Charrúa. According to Vickery, the stadium looked “like a giant spaceship. Building it was a huge declaration of intent – Brazil was the country of the future and the future was arriving.”
To put things incredibly mildly, the Brazilian people were confident of victory. Their route to the final convinced them that home glory was their destiny. After all, two of the previous three tournaments resulted in the host’s coronation. There was excessive pre-match pride. Gazeta Esportiva declared, “Tomorrow we will beat Uruguay!” whilst O Mundo boasted, “These are the World Champions” next to a team photo. Uruguay’s inspirational captain Obdulio Varela was so incensed by O Mundo that he bought every copy he could find, took them to the dressing room and urinated on them in front of his team.
Brazil’s squad were given solid gold watches inscribed: “For the World Champions”. The victory parade was planned, where there would be scenes of absolute euphoria. Even FIFA’s President Jules Rimet fell for the postulation – writing a congratulatory speech in Portuguese. Rio’s Mayor chanted over the PA system: “You players who in less than a few hours will be acclaimed champions by your compatriots. You who are superior to every other competitor.” The downfall would be spectacular.
From kick off, Brazil flew out of the traps and it seemed only a matter of time before they scored – they had 17 attempts. Ademir’s header forced a li but no goal came in a goalless first half. a spectacular save from Roque Maspoli but no goal came in a goalless first half. Frustrated, those in attendance were unaware that a sly punch by Varela in the 28th minute would become a psychological turning point. Left back Bigode (named after his moustache) didn’t even retaliate; he just took it. Varela walked away victoriously clutching his shirt in a symbolic little win.
Brazil continued the blitz into the second half, with Zizinho going close. Finally, in the 47th minute, a breakthrough when Ademir’s pass found Friaça, who bobbled a shot past Maspoli to ease the growing Brazilian worries. Appealing for an offside only to buy time, Varela wisely let the crowd lose their voices and shoot their fireworks before restarting. The talented Juan Schiaffino immediately went close. The 66th minute saw Alcides Ghiggia turn Bigode inside out, before crossing the ball for Schiaffino to equalise.
Doubts began to creep in and uncertainty stained the atmosphere. Brazil were still on their way to World Cup victory but were shaken. In hindsight, perhaps the clues were there during their Copa America triumph. Needing just a draw against Paraguay in their final game, they lost 2-1. The resulting play-off saw an emphatic 7-0 win but there were concerns that they were susceptible to crippling nerves.
In the 79th minute, the killer blow. Ghiggia was sent down the right flank and ghosted past a defeated Bigode, bearing down on Moacir Barbosa’s goal. The in-form goalkeeper was in the midst of a great tournament but didn’t know what to do here – close down Ghiggia or anticipate another cross to Schiaffino. His indecisiveness proved costly. Ghiggia’s shot was low and at Barbosa’s near post, but the keeper couldn’t get down in time. 2-1 to Uruguay and the muted Maracanã’s jaws dropped collectively. Radio commentator Luiz Mendes shouted “Gol du Uruguay” many times, each with a new strain of horror and disbelief.
With 10 minutes to rescue their World Cup dream, Brazil resorted to speculative shots to try and find a way through the rear-guard. But it never came. With Friaça’s corner approaching the far post, Uruguay’s Schubert Gambetta caught the ball. He’d heard the full time whistle. The match was over and the national mourning began for the shell-shocked Brazilians. This wasn’t part of the script.
“Only 3 people have silenced the Maracana – Sinatra, Pope John-Paul II and me” – Alcides Ghiggia
Fans openly wept as Rimet was brought onto the pitch by hysterically crying policemen. There were suicides that night, with two throwing themselves from the stadium itself. The consequences were huge for Brazilian football and society in general. “Losing in the final shows how manic-depressive football can be”, added Vickery. “Had they won they would have gained immortality. 24 hours after thinking they were great, they decided they were shit, believing ‘We Brazilians are a mongrel race, are morally inferior and will never amount to anything.’”
Amongst the scapegoats was the all-white kit. A competition was held to design a new shirt that was more patriotic, won by 19-year-old Aldyr Garcia Schlee. This was the birth of the seleção’s iconic gold and green shirts. Not that they were seen for a while – the scarred national team didn’t play again until April 1952 and avoided the Maracanã until March 1954. The three black players – Bigode, Juvenal and Barbosa – were labelled cowards by the press.
“A multi-racial society was still something that was fairly new and it was the black players that got most of the blame. Rationality went out the window”, continued Vickery. Yet nobody took more of the blame than goalkeeper Barbosa. He was never forgiven for his mistake, abused every day and his life was made a misery. He once tried to visit the seleção to wish them luck but was turned away. Forgetting Pelé and Jairzinho, Barbosa’s main 1970 memory occurred in a supermarket. A woman pointed at him and shouted: “Look at him, son. He is the man that made all of Brazil cry”.
Barbosa later tormented himself by working at the Maracanã and invited his remaining friends to a special barbecue at his home. The smoke smelt different, there were strange white logs – he was burning the Maracanazo goalposts. A cathartic experience, he claimed that the steak that day was the best he’d ever eaten. Starting a goalkeeping curse – a position symbolic of protecting the nation – no other black man was entrusted with the role until Dida nearly 50 years later. He moaned: “In Brazil, the most you get for any crime is 30 years. But my imprisonment has been for 50.”
Vickery believes the “absolute fury of nationalism” was evident in the 1954 tournament. “You could see the consequences when they played the great Hungary side in the quarterfinal because they got themselves whipped up in the dressing room beforehand. The players had to kiss the flag. They were told they had to avenge the deaths of Monte Cassino, where Brazilians had fought in the Second World War. Quite what the Hungarians had to do with this, fuck only knows! They went out and kicked them from pillar to post because they weren’t going to let anyone say that they were weak and would bottle it on the big occasion.”
World titles in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002 have helped remove the clouds that polluted the beautiful Brazilian skies but there’s still a sense of incompleteness – those weren’t on home turf. “For those that remembered it, the demons were slightly banished in 1970 when they beat Uruguay in the semi-final. The older members of that team had very vivid memories. Pelé has memories of his dad listening to it on the radio with his mates and watching them cry their eyes out at the final whistle.”
Looking forward, Vickery predicts a much calmer reaction to any failings from Neymar, Daniel Alves, Oscar and company: “For today’s players, it’s ancient history. In 1950, the players were doing far more than representing Brazilian football, they were representing Brazil’s place in the world. That’s changed now and thankfully society is much more mature. It won’t be seen as a reflection on the inherent weaknesses of the Brazilian people, it’ll be seen as the deficiencies of the football team. But I would still hate to be those players if they lose.”
The 1950 World Cup provided several myths. India’s team didn’t withdraw because they had to wear boots. English newspapers didn’t assume the shock 1-0 defeat to the USA was a mis-print, before printing a 10-1 victory. But the impact of this final on the Brazilian people is no myth. They were psychologically paralysed by defeat, it simply wasn’t meant to happen. In a country where football is such a strong bedrock of society, the Uruguayan victory shattered their self-esteem. Only being crowned champions this summer would bring it back fully. They’d call it the ‘Maracanã redenção’ – the Maracanã redemption.
This article is to be published in ‘brasileiro’, an alternative World Cup guide being produced by the MA Sports Journalism class at the University of Sunderland.