50 Greatest Players in World Cup History: #42 Obdulio Varela
The man who captained a legendary side to the greatest upset in World Cup history
How much of cojones must one have to lead 10 men against 200,000? What pushes a man to ask his team to literally piss on the favourites to win the 1950 FIFA World Cup?
And yet that's exactly what Uruguay captain Obdulio Varela asked his teammates to do before the final game. But more on that later.
When Uruguay first won the World Cup in 1930, Varela was just a teenager. Little did he know back then that he would captain La Celeste (The Sky Blues) to the greatest upset in World Cup history.
He was the quintessential central midfielder in an era where formations were still evolving but more or less top heavy. He was the man that linked defence with attack, he was the force in the middle of the park that shielded the 3-man defence that played with a sweeper.
El Negro Jefe (The Black Chief), as he was called, stood six feet tall and had a cannon of a foot with which he did score piledrivers that beat goalkeepers all ends up. He was also the ideal leader - even castigating his own players if they did not play in the spirit of the game - a bonafide captain dedicated to the cause of fair play.
Varela played for Uruguay in two World Cups. He never lost a single game he played. The only time Uruguay lost with him in the squad was when he was out injured prior to the 1954 semi-final where the defending champions lost to that magical Hungary side in extra-time.
However, his most important contribution would be that 1950 final. Technically it wasn't a final as the 1950 edition had the final four teams play a round-robin format. However, Brazil vs Uruguay was the final game and the result would decide the champions.
Brazil only needed a draw. Uruguay needed a win. Although only 173,850 tickets were sold officially, a Guinness World Record crowd of nearly 200,000 fans packed inside the iconic Maracana Stadium.
All baying for Uruguay's blood. Many already celebrating a Brazil win. Indeed, the host country was so confident of lifting their first ever World Cup trophy that they went overboard before the final game.
They had won the Copa America the previous year after all. Victory songs were composed, goal medals with the players' names were made, the mayor even saluted the 'victors'. Rio newspaper O Mundo had even published a front page with the Brazilian team's photograph claiming, “These are the world champions”.
It was these newspapers that disgusted Varela so much that he collected a number of them, spread them out on the floor and asked his teammates to urinate all over them.
With the crowd chanting as one in support of Brazil, Varela calmly looked to his team and said: “Walk out there calmly and don’t look up. The game is played on the pitch, so never look at the stands.”
This was a man who knew no fear. Neither did he respect authority. Uruguay coach Juan Fontana had actually asked them to play a defensive game after seeing Brazil trounce teams with scorelines such as 9-1, 10-1, and 7-0.
But Varela was not one to back down. He knew they would lose if they sat back and defended based on what he had seen. As soon as the manager left the room, he told his team that with all due respect to the coach, he was wrong. He implored them to attack if they wanted to win.
Despite Brazil imposing themselves thanks to the crowd at the Maracana, Uruguay did not budge in the first half. Brazil had 17 chances on goal and did not score.
It wasn't until the second half got underway that Brazil found the back of the net through Friaca. Of course, the crowd erupted and even fireworks illegally smuggled in went off in the crowded stadium. Brazil had one hand on the Jules Rimet trophy.
But Varela ensured they would never touch it.
Although Brazil were celebrating, Varela immediately approached the linesman to argue an offside call. He was actually buying time - waiting for the crowd to scream themselves hoarse before they restarted play.
“Let them shout! In five minutes the stadium will seem like a graveyard.” - Varela
Brazil needed only a draw and they were 1-0 up. That was when Brazil made the mistake of sitting back to protect the lead. It was all the invitation Varela and his men needed.
Soon, it was 1-1 when Alberto Schiaffino blasted the ball into the roof of the net. As nervousness gripped the team and the stadium, Uruguay silenced the Maracana when Alcides Ghiggia made it 2-1 with 11 minutes to go.
“Down through its history, only three people have managed to silence the Maracana – the Pope, Frank Sinatra and me.” - Alcides Ghiggia
The final whistle threw most of the crowd into hysterics as Uruguay were crowned World Champions. Jules Rimet had to be escorted on to the pitch to hand Varela the trophy.
This was the game that eventually came to redefine Brazil as a football team. To get rid of the Maracanazo curse (The Maracana Blow), they even switched to now famous yellow and blue kits.
"We could have played [that game] 100 times, and that was the only time we would have won." - Varela
The repercussions of that game spread far and wide, echoing across decades to come, affecting Brazil's players and fans alike.
It was Varela's confidence and leadership that had helped Uruguay "defend" their 1930 title. Uruguay had not participated in the 1934 and 1938 editions after winning it in 1930. 1950 was their first year back and they had reclaimed their throne.
If not for Varela, Maracanazo would never have come to pass. It is why he is on our list of 50 Greatest World Cup Players.