“16:31” read the faint, black numerals on João Ramos’ old Casio. The holes in the leather strap will give way in three years, and he would not have the means to buy a new one. The former Vasco striker’s watch will be held together by rubber-bands, while he sweeps lavatories of local hospitals, in three years’ time; at present, he is helping himself to a strong drink.
The air here skids into your nose and threatens to scorch your sense of smell, along with a few hairs in your nostril. A rude concoction of undiluted sugarcane spirit (the robust Brazilian Cachaça) and the salt-wet humidity usher in an impending tropical storm.
At 4:33 pm, the storm arrives. An overturned spittoon – probably kicked over – and shards of pea-green beer bottles – definitely thrown – catch the sepia-toned sunlight squinting through a crack in the papered over window in the shanty’s pé-sujo (smelly foot), the designated name for the watering holes of Rio. Above, peering through a hole in the roof, a stubborn 10-year-old, who is not supposed to be here, gets distracted by moats of dust waltzing in between the friction of silenced crackle of radios, thunder and collective gasps.
A few miles away, as the giant 19th century railway clock tower in Central do Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, strikes five on July 16, 1950, the bust of mayor Angelo Mendes de Moraes is toppled over by a handful of the 200,000 raging fans exiting the Maracana. Outright favourites Brazil lost 1-2 at the World Cup final to lowly Uruguay. And with that tumbled Brazil’s sense of invincibility, and identity.
The disaster of 1950
Those driving back, and those who had their radio sets in one piece, heard Nelson Rodrigues, the Brazilian playwright, calling in to the local radio to label it “the Hiroshima of our dreams”. While disproportionate, in strictly sporting terms, Maracanazo singularly mutilated the confidence of masses like no other event has ever mustered to, historically.
Every major upset has needed a build-up befitting it. In days winding up to the final, there was palpable ufanisimo – hubris, that frothed into a frenzy. Four-nil against Mexico: Floats with mock World Cups paraded the streets of Rio. Seven one against Sweden: Politicians popped in and out of the team hotel for the odd photo op, like moles from whack-a-mole. Six one against Spain: A military band escorted the team bus out of the stadium. Following a routine 2-0 win over Yugoslavia, the stage was set for the culmination of the national euphoria, the final. On the fateful day, the unwitting mayor of Rio – the one that eventually had his bust relocated – shot his mouth off, conferring the title of world champions to the players; the Gazeta Esportiva ran a full front-page spread declaring the same, a good six hours before the final commenced.
A testament of South American endeavour and competence, stages do not come any grander than the 200,000 capacity Maracana stadium, the Mecca and Medina of expressionist football. Most countries erect monuments in memoriam to war, Brazil erected one for football – a monument to the football-driven-patriotism which cemented Brazil’s place in the world, and, as ironically as narrative would have it, the setting of their most public humiliation. The epic exposé.
Brazil led through Ademir’s strike – Juan Sciaffino for Uruguay stuck in the knife with an equaliser, while Ghiggia twisted it deep, completing the assassination of Brazil’s national pride. Only two others can brag about silencing the Maracana in one swift motion: Pope John Paul II and Frank Sinatra.
The realisation of what had just happened crept up like a migraine, with all the subtlety of a million nails hammering away, simultaneously, into the casket of collective definition of the nation. It was their Kristallnacht, their Pearl Harbour, a tragedy glorified and reproduced in popular culture ad nauseam. While Europe have their contemporary origins wedged between two World Wars, Brazil’s is guillotined by this: BM and AM (Before Maracanzo and After Maracanazo). For Brazil, 1950 was Year Zero.
The unanimous consensus of the autopsy was this: The Stray Dog Complex. They got kicked around by the hard-as-tacks Uruguayans, and the otherwise flamboyant Brazilians hid their tails between their legs, like spayed poodles. They lacked the mental fortitude, the English bottle. The jurors behind typewriters exiled Brazil to find itself.
Kicking the English bottle
The Brazilian fixation with the English way was symptomatic and consistent with its primordial conditioning of inferiority. Brazil were yet to emancipate themselves from mental slavery, even after the government did so on paper in 1888.
Carlos Alberto, the apotheosis of the modern full-back, applied rice powder on his skin before he wore his Fluminense jersey. Black footballers were moved down by scything tackles that were meant to maim. In an act of self-preservation, they tapped into something instinctual: dance.
Capoeira leapt out from the jungle and found itself on the football pitch – a martial art technique that sprouted in Congo, where slaves used shimmies, feints, faux-trips, taunts by dropping shoulders, turning on a six pence that probably fell from the pockets of their hapless English pursuers, prancing away to freedom. Muidinho, a variant of samba which focused on the swivel of the ankles and the hips, further consummated the marriage. The dribble was thus born out of the need for survival.
Back in 1950, in the days following the final, disillusioned men did not turn up to work; the men who did, came home drunk and drugged up, beating on their wives. The children ran to the streets to practice their football. The dense undergrowth of Angola was replaced by the underbelly of the favelas of Rio. The urban wasteland of the Copacabana slums provided obstacle courses in the same manner Congo did. The English-branded chains between the bare ankles, were replaced by a mock football made up of cotton socks and muck. They were artisans being moulded by poverty, slumdog exhibitionists of the great escape.
And then... redemption
It is the 1958 World Cup. The young boy from the shack in Rio finds himself getting barked at by Vicente Feloa, manager of the Brazilian football national team, in Stockholm. He tells the fresh-faced tyro to hold his position in the regimental English 4-4-2 formation against the formidable Soviet Russia and, most importantly, cut out his tricks. The diagnosis in 1950 made the benign tumour malignant. Little did Senor Vicente know, the smooth operator on the receiving end of his verbal barrage was the cirurgião, surgeon, Brazil needed.
Elsewhere, Zizinho, another victim in the grand equation, went to the depth of the reason. He correctly attributed the defeat of 1950 to the formation Brazil played on the day of the final. He took a chalk and a blackboard to a live television interview, dotted and joined the ten outfield players to show the letters W and M – the same tactical positioning attributed to Herbert Chapman, the legendary Arsenal manager. The evidence was damning. Zizinho, the midfielder, the best player to have not been able to win a World Cup, the Leonardo Da Vinci of the 1950 Brazil side, won the nation solace.
Twenty minutes since the clock tower struck five, on July 16, 1950, the bare-chested young boy, walked up to the lurched over João Ramos. He has a frame bound by a spindly skeleton and possessed scanty muscle, packed in baked-mud coloured skin. His eyes will seek his father’s inconsolable eyes, and he will make a promise.
Another eight years from then, the headstrong boy, now a 17-year-old man, is going to defy his manager’s orders against the USSR. He will be the lightning rod for miracles and the unshackled verve of his ancestors, once disowned, then misplaced. He will caper around his rivals, in a pirouette, lead his compatriots into a merry dance, and humble old Vicente Feloa. His highlight reels will make his people look into themselves and re-discover football that captured the world’s imagination.
The scoreboard will read 1-5, at the final whistle on June 29, 1958. Brazil will win the first of the five trophies, and it will be against Sweden, poetically, managed by an Englishman from Yorkshire, George Sidney Raynor. Young Pele will fulfil his promise, exorcise Brazil’s inferiority, exact reparations in silverware and glory, and buy his father a Rolex.