“Only three people have ever silenced 200,000 people at the Maracana with a single gesture: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II, and I.” – Alcides Ghiggia, on scoring the goal that would give Uruguay their second World Cup in 1950
It took 64 years, but Joachim Loew and his Germany team did enough in the space of 28 first-half minutes to rip Brazil’s heart out at the Mineirao in a 7-1 demolition of the home team in 2014 and consign 1950 and Ghiggia, to second place on the list of the Selecao’s footballing ignominies.
But the effects of the Maracanazo (Maracana blow) have rarely been forgotten despite five World titles and it is rare that Brazil will take any victory for granted after that fateful day seven decades in the past.
First post-war tournament
The country had bid for the cancelled 1942 World Cup and had re-confirmed its interest at the 1946 Fifa Congress. They were duly awarded the tournament as world football’s governing body set about trying to get all of the top teams in world football to participate.
Germany and Japan had international sanctions slapped on them as a result of the war, and therefore were ineligible to participate but Italy, as a result of being defending champions, qualified automatically for the World Cup. As a result of the 1949 Superga air disaster that claimed the lives of several Torino players, Italy travelled to Brazil by boat.
The French refused to travel as did India, citing high travel costs – no fancy tales of barefoot obduracy involved. England, winners of the five-team tournament, became the first team from the United Kingdom to enter the World Cup after previously deeming the tournament unworthy of their participation. They would face ignominy after a shock 1-0 defeat to the United States.
Uruguay, who had refused to enter the 1934 and 1938 World Cups, finally entered their second tournament and were still technically unbeaten in the World Cup. The late withdrawal of three teams meant that while Groups 1 and 2 had four teams each, Group 3 had three and Group 4 had Uruguay squaring off against Bolivia in a single match for a knockout berth.
Brazil stroll towards trophy
Fresh from winning the Copa America of 1949, where they scored 39 goals, Brazil would go into the tournament with the trio of Zizinho, Ademir and Jair who struck 21 of those goals. Tesourinha, who scored seven of his own, would get injured prior to the World Cup and would be a big miss for the home team.
Nonetheless, Brazil would saunter through the group, only slipping up against the Swiss, conceding a 88th-minute equaliser. They beat Yugoslavia and Mexico easily to top their group, with five points to their name, in an era where a win would earn a team two points.
Sweden and Uruguay also went through as group winners to a final group of four, where a round robin format would be followed to decide the winner – the only World Cup to not have a *final*, per se. Uruguay slipped to a 2-2 draw against Spain in the opener, as Basora’s brace was cancelled out by Ghiggia and captain Obdulio Varela.
They barely scrambled past Sweden, as two goals in the last 13 minutes by Omar Miguez spurred them onto victory. Brazil, on the other hand, steamrolled Sweden 7-1 and dealt a 6-1 humbling to Spain. It all boiled down to the last matchday, where the hosts only needed a draw and Uruguay a win to claim the title. Not a final by name, but a fitting finale nonetheless.
Carnival and complacency
Brazil’s head coach Flavio Costa would later say, “Destiny laughed in our faces. The fans, the press and the officials all thought the World Cup was ours, and that’s what did it.” Zizinho signed close to two thousand autographs with the words ‘Brazil, champions of the world’ on them.
Newspaper O Mundo had ran headlines that morning declaring that Brazil were champions of the world. The general mood was one of complacency. There was no doubting the pedigree of the Brazilians as Pele would later declare Zizinho as the greatest player he had ever seen and the footballer on whom he had based his own game.
Varela, the Uruguay captain, had asked his team to urinate on the newspapers and had mentally set himself up for a tough game. Brazil began the match at break-neck fashion with their deadly trio and Friaca tormenting the opposition. The first half ended goal-less but nothing could dampen the spirit of almost 200,000 people present inside the stadium on that day.
La Celeste keeper Roque Maspoli was a sitting duck as Brazil attempted 17 shots but Uruguay’s last line of defence held firm till the end of the first half. It took the home side just 78 seconds to break the deadlock as Maspoli, so reliable till that point, let a tame shot from Friaca squirm into the bottom-left corner. That goal was supposed to give Brazil a cushion, but in truth, with the incredible noise and the flair at their disposal, it egged them on.
Costa asked his players to relax after the goal, in the hope that Uruguay would attack and that the hosts would finish them off on the counter. What this did was however, release Varela from his screening duties and allow him to roam forward.
Ghiggia meanwhile, had tormented the left-back Bigode (literally ‘moustache’) all game and beat him again, crossing it into the path of Juan Schiaffino, who slammed it past Moacir Barbosa in Brazil’s goal. Ghiggia, Schiaffino and Varela, all club-mates at Penarol, would have a significant influence on the outcome.
Brazil however knew only one way to play and kept streaming forward but were all over the place. As Costa explained earlier, the first goal toyed with his team’s psyche because they were terrified of losing. They were listless by the time that the death blow was struck.
Bigode was a spent force, and was once again torn a new one by Ghiggia who kept charging up to the byline. Barbosa calculated that he would pass it to Schiaffino in the middle and stepped forward to try and block the cross. Ghiggia, who had other ideas, shot ferociously with his left foot and it went in at Barbosa’s near post, as the Maracana turned from a carnival to a graveyard.
Shock and disbelief
The home team attacked but to no avail, as the damage had been done.
An entire nation united in grief, as Fifa president Jules Rimet recounted in his book The Wonderful Story of the World Cup, “Just a few minutes from the end, with the score still at 1-1, I left my seat in the president’s box and, with the microphones at the ready, went down to the dressing rooms, the deafening shouts of the crowd ringing in my ears ... I walked towards the pitch and at the end of the tunnel that jubilation had given way to a desolate silence. There was no guard of honour, no national anthem and no ceremony. There I was alone, in the middle of the crowd, being pushed here, there and everywhere, with the Trophy under my arm. I eventually found the Uruguayan captain and, virtually out of sight of everyone, I handed him the trophy.”
The custodian Barbosa was a pariah for life and was squarely blamed for the defeat. He was not allowed inside a Brazilian training session years later and was disallowed from commenting on a Brazil game in 1993, due to the fear of him being a jinx. He was presented with the wooden posts from the final, which he burnt.
The white shirts with the blue collars that the home team had worn were termed ‘unpatriotic’ and thus came into existence, the yellow shirts with the blue shorts.
The incidents of 1950 might be remembered as a defeat for one of the World Cup’s finest teams but it should not be forgotten for the extraordinary courage of the plucky outsiders to snatch an improbable victory. Varela had rightly told his team, “Boys, outsiders don’t play. Let’s start the show.” They didn’t start it, but they did end up stealing the show.