“Down through its history, only three people have managed to silence the Maracana – the Pope, Frank Sinatra and me.”
Not many quotes resonate through the ages. Some end up as footnotes in various publications while others are discarded from memory without a second thought. But these words by Uruguay winger Alcides Ghiggia will forever live through football history after he scored the biggest and one of the most defining goals in the history of the sport.
It was a game to remember for the ages. And a game to forget for the Brazilians. Sadly, in spite of the five trophies they went on to win later, the Brazil vs Uruguay match in the 1950 World Cup will forever cast a dark shadow over their legacy. And nothing will ever act as consolation for the fact that the mighty Brazilians were humbled in front of a tightly packed and vociferous Maracana filled with more than 200,000 fans – a world record for any sporting event.
The format of the 1950 World Cup wasn’t the kind we are used to seeing today. It did have a group stage, but the final four teams played in a round-robin format with each team playing the other three and the team with the most points taking home the Jules Rimet trophy.
FIFA did not change the format in spite of teams like Scotland and India pulling out of the tournament and went ahead with the same format. Replacement teams like France also declined to commit due to the amount of travel involved. And so the tournament went on in spite of the ridiculously asymmetrical group stage format. While some teams needed to play three games to qualify, Uruguay and Bolivia needed to play only one (Uruguay thrashed them 8-0).
Eventually, the four teams that qualified from the respective groups were Brazil, Uruguay, Spain and Sweden. In the round-robin, Brazil continued their imperious form and handed out embarrassing 7-1 and 6-1 defeats to Sweden and Spain respectively. Uruguay on the other hand were held to a 2-2 draw by Spain and needed a late winner to beat Sweden 3-2.
In a twist of fate, the final round-robin match between Brazil and Uruguay eventually became the title decider. Brazil, a point ahead of Uruguay, had to ensure that they did not lose the game to win their first World Cup. Uruguay, however, needed a win to lift the trophy for the second time after the inaugural World Cup in 1930.
Buildup to “the final”
Brazil, playing at home, were undoubtedly the favorites to lift the coveted trophy. The stage had been set at the Copa America the previous year, where Brazil had won by scoring an astounding 46 goals in just eight matches. Ecuador had felt their wrath when they were beaten 9-1, Bolivia had been decimated 10-1 while even runners-up Paraguay were not spared and were beaten 7-0. Not to mention, Brazil also beat Uruguay 5-1!
But this was the World Cup, and Uruguay still considered this to be their domain. They had won the first edition in 1930 and had declined to participate in 1934 and 1938 due to political ramifications at the time. With the Second World War coming in the way in the 1940s, Uruguay had waited 20 years to “defend their trophy”. They were still undefeated at World Cups and it was their turf; albeit not literally.
The confident Brazilian people were already celebrating their team’s victory even before the final game. A victory song was composed, practised and ready to be played after the final. 22 gold medals were made with each player’s name imprinted on them. Even the mayor of Rio got into the act and delivered a speech with the words “You, players, who in less than a few hours will be hailed as champions by millions of compatriots! You, who have no rivals in the entire hemisphere! You, who will overcome any other competitor! You, who I already salute as victors!”
The radio and the press were not ones to be cautious either. On the day of the final, the morning edition of a Rio newspaper O Mundo carried the Brazilian team photograph with the words: “These are the world champions”. Uruguay captain Obdulio Varela, disgusted with the headline, grabbed as many newspapers he could and persuaded his entire team to urinate on them.
“Let’s start the show”
Official records state that there were 199,854 at the stadium. The official numbers were off by approximately 10,000. There were close to 210,000 people packed into the newly built Maracana – Brazil’s pride and joy (that is almost three times the number of people who will fit inside the renovated Maracana today). The stadium reverberated and bounced with the thousands of people inside the stadium, almost breathing as one, repeatedly chanting “Brasil! Brasil!”
Uruguay were definitely the underdogs – and the Maracana crowd made sure they knew it. A hostile reception awaited the team as they prepared to go out on to the pitch. Varela, one of Uruguay’s most experienced campaigners calmed his team down: “Walk out there calmly and don’t look up. The game is played on the pitch, so never look at the stands.”
Varela even defied his manager’s orders to play a defensive game against the Brazilians. He pointed out Brazil’s victories over Spain and Sweden and implored his team in a poignant speech to not sit back against the Brazilians, ending with the words: “Boys, outsiders don’t play. Let’s start the show.”
Brazil impose themselves
The game kicked off, and true to their attacking nature, Brazil controlled the game right from the first minute. In the first three minutes of the game, Brazil forward Ademir (the tournament’s top scorer) had already tested Uruguay goalkeeper Roque Maspoli twice. The Brazilians peppered Uruguay’s goal with a number of shots and pushed the Uruguayans back on a number of occasions.
But despite the unforgiving Brazilian attack and the voices of 200,000 and an entire nation behind them, the 11 Uruguayan men on the field refused to give in. Brazil’s best effort in the first half also fell to Ademir whose header was tipped over the crossbar with a stunning effort. The half had intriguing tactical and “physical battles” all over the pitch with Alcides Ghiggia giving Brazil trouble on the right flank and was involved in more than one altercation with Brazil defender Bigode. Varela and Bigode even squared up on one occasion, only to be separated by English referee George Reader. Uruguay had their chances too, but the half ended with Brazil having taken 17 shots on goal!
The second half started just as the first half had with Brazil on the front foot. Before Uruguay could settle down, the hosts struck in the 47th minute. Friaca made a run down Uruguay’s left flank and Ademir released him with a pass that took him past Rodriguez Andrade and fired a weak shot to the far post. Maspoli, who had been in such inspiring form in the first half, was wrong footed and failed to get a hand on the ball.
The Maracana exploded! Fireworks and rockets, which were supposed to be banned inside the stadium to prevent any untoward incidents, went off inside the concrete behemoth as the rambunctious crowd deliriously celebrated with the Selecao, who now had one hand on the trophy. All they needed was a draw and the team was 1-0 up.
But at that moment, Varela decided to take matters into his own hands. As the Brazilian team and crowd celebrated, he started arguing with the linesman over why the offside flag wasn’t raised. In truth, he was trying to delay the restart so that the crowd would scream itself hoarse; to bring the excitement levels down a few notches. “Let them shout, in five minutes the stadium will seem like a graveyard”
Although it didn’t take five minutes, his prediction wasn’t exactly off the mark. With Brazil only needing a draw, Flavio Costa asked his team to sit back and absorb Uruguay’s attack and exploit and vacant spaces in their half. It backfired. Varela grabbed the opportunity with both hands and, now relieved of additional defensive responsibilities, started to initiate attacks.
Brazil played an unconventional W-M formation, one they hadn’t used much until the World Cup. It would prove to be their undoing and it was exposed in the 66th minute when Valera found Ghiggia, who got the better of Bigode and crossed the ball into the box where an onrushing Juan Alberto Schiaffino took the shot first time and blasted it into the roof of the net.
Nervous anticipation now spread through the aisles of the Maracana. Although Brazil were still on course to lift the trophy with a little over 20 minutes to play, fear, doubt and ‘what if’ scenarios started to grip the crowd and the noise slowly started to ebb away.
“When the players needed the Maracana the most, the Maracana was silent” – Chico Buarque
The momentum was with Uruguay and in the 79th minute, Ghiggia with some neat inter-play with Perez found himself on the right flank again, making a clean run through the inside channel. Goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa was ready for the cross but instead, Ghiggia struck a hopeful shot towards the near post. Barbosa dived to his left to save it but missed. Uruguay were 2-1 up.
In a matter of 13 minutes, Brazil had seen its hopes of lifting a first World Cup trophy evaporate in front of their own eyes. With 10 minutes to go, Brazil poured forward but were easily dealt with by Uruguay. Fans who were initially screaming in delight were now screaming in despair – hoping and praying that Brazil would somehow get an equalizer.
In the dying seconds, they almost did. At least, they thought they did. After the 90 minutes were up, Brazil got a corner kick which was not dealt with by Maspoli. The ball fell near the far post where to the horror of some of the Uruguay players, their defender Gambetta grabbed it with both hands. But this was no Luis Suarez-esque save. He was one of very few who had heard Reader blow the final whistle.
Uruguay were the world champions and the event went down in Brazil history as Maracanazo – The Maracana Blow.
As the Brazilian players silently walked off the field in abject agony, Jules Rimet was escorted on to the field by equally disheartened policemen. The trophy was presented to Varela, who was also the man of the match. Uruguay had not only conquered Brazil in their own backyard, they had conquered the world.
A handful of supporters at the Maracana were taken to the hospital when they fell ill after the final whistle. Stadium doctors worked overtime to treat hundreds of fans who had fits of hysteria. Women and men alike cried their hearts out in the stands as their dreams lay shattered by a country almost 50 times smaller than their own.
Brazil even changed their kits from white shirts with a blue neckline and white shorts to yellow shirts with a green neckline and blue shorts to get rid of the curse. The kit has now become Brazil’s identity. Most of the players never played for Brazil again – some retired while others were never selected again. The medals were discarded – never to be seen again. The song ‘Brazil The Victors’ was never performed.
In a sad turn of events, racism reared its ugly head after the World Cup and Brazil’s black players were blamed for the debacle. Barbosa even burned the goalposts in a barbecue a decade later to help permanently banish the memory of that final. But even 20 years after the final, he still wasn’t spared. There is a heart-wrenching story where he walked into a shop and a woman pointed him out to her son saying, “Look at him, he’s the man who made all of Brazil cry.”
Barbosa wasn’t even allowed to visit a Brazil training camp in 1993 – to avoid bringing bad luck on the team. He was always adamant about the Brazilian people’s lack of respect. “I am not guilty. There were 11 of us.” He died in 2000 a poor man, and he made a damning indictment on the treatment meted out to him: “In Brazil, the maximum sentence is thirty years, but I have served fifty.”
Brazil may never be able to put the Ghost of Maracana to rest. Even if they do win the World Cup on home soil in the future, it may do so to a certain extent. But it will not be in front of 200,000 souls. And it will do little to serve justice to those players who were never the same after the final.