On July 16 1950, Brazil and Uruguay faced each other in the first World Cup final after World War II. The match was played at the open-air Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janerio, with Uruguay monumentally upsetting the hosts by winning the game 2-1.
Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues described the loss as the country’s “Hiroshima,” while Uruguay’s win inspired a new Spanish noun, Maracanazo, literally meaning “The Maracana Blow”- with the term used to signify the historic result.
The Maracana Stadium was specifically built for the 1950 World Cup. Construction plans were drawn by seven architectures and the work started in 1948. The building of the stadium came under political scrutiny, with Carlos Lacerda, then Congressman and political enemy of the mayor Angelo Mendes de Morais, criticizing the massive expenditure on the stadium as well as the latter’s location. Despite this, the plan wasn’t shelved.
Nonetheless, the work soon fell behind schedule. Despite 1500 workers engaged on the job, an additional 2000 labourers were employed in the final few months to meet the deadline. The stadium eventually came to use in 1950, just in time for the World Cup match between Brazil and Mexico. However, all the works were only fully completed by 1965.
The idea behind constructing the extravagant Maracana Stadium was “to construct a stadium that would be a testament to the success of Brazilian football and the victory of the Brazilian national team.” The stadium was to be a man-made monument, “that would be worthy of a place among Rio de Janeiro’s other landmarks.” It was to be “audacious and dramatic.” And the aim was fulfilled as Brazil built the largest football stadium on the planet, with a capacity of 200,000 spectators. It was located at the heart of Rio and surrounded by the traditional neighbourhoods of the city.
“Today Brazil has the biggest and most perfect stadium in the world, dignifying the competence of its people and its evolution in all branches of human activity,” wrote newspaper A Noite. “Now we have a stage of fantastic proportions in which the whole world can admire our prestige and sporting greatness.” Journalist Mário Filho of Jornal dos Sports said the Maracana Stadium gave Brazil “a new soul, awakening the slumbering giant within.”
Official FIFA documents state that 174,000 fans attended the final, but apparently there were more than 200,000 people inside the stadium.
Road to the Final
Brazil were chosen to host the first World Cup after World War II and for four years, the country prepared for the spectacle.
With only 13 teams playing the World Cup, there were no knockout rounds. Instead, the winner of the tournament was to be decided by a second round-robin group stage consisting of the four group winners from the first round. The four group winners were Spain, Brazil, Uruguay and Sweden.
As the tournament progressed, Brazil’s ecstatic showings meant they were the front-runners for the trophy. They swept aside their opponents with relative ease, scoring 21 goals in their first five matches.
In the final four-team group, Brazil defeated Spain 6-1 and Sweden 7-1, while Uruguay only managed to draw Spain and defeated Sweden 3-2 after a late strike by Miguez. Before the final group match between Brazil and Uruguay, the former had four points while the latter had collected three (2 points for a win, 1 for a draw).
Hence, Brazil needed just a draw to lift the trophy.
Presumptuous of Victory
On 15 July, São Paulo’s Gazeta Esportiva front-page headline was: “Tomorrow we will beat Uruguay.” Another newspaper, O Mundo, carried an image of the Brazilian players alongside the headline: “These are the World Champions.”
Shortly before the game, Angelo Mendes de Moraes said to the Brazilian players: “You, players, who in less than a few hours will be hailed as champions by millions compatriots! You who have no rivals in the entire hemisphere! You who will overcome any other competitor! You, whom I already salute as victors!”
Jules Rimet, the president of FIFA and the founder of the World Cup, had prepared a congratulatory speech for Brazil-in Portuguese.
No one in their wildest of imaginations, the Brazilians or anyone for that matter, expected Flavio Costa’s team to loss.
“To the Brazilian fans, the thought of a Uruguayan victory was unfathomable,” wrote Joshua Robinson of Wall Street Journal. The match was to start at 3 pm, yet the entire stadium was full by 11 am. The atmosphere was euphoric, as described by Robinson.
Via Wall Street Journal:
“Millions of fans had flooded the streets of Rio de Janeiro’s northern neighbourhoods, surrounding the Estadio Mario Filho, better known as the Maracanã…The luckiest 200,000 among them had been allowed inside… They had smuggled in streamers and flares and drums. Carnival on the terraces. For hours, they danced and sang in the sun, long before a single player took the field. They had all come to Brazil’s new cathedral to soccer, purpose-built for this 1950 World Cup, to bask in their country’s proudest moment. Brazil was about to beat Uruguay and win its first World Cup. They knew it.”
What happened subsequently, however, shocked the entire nation.
Brazil started off impressively, pressing high up the pitch and dominating the proceedings. They had 17 efforts in the first-half, but the visitors came closest to scoring before the interval. Omar Miguez hit the crossbar in the 37th minute and ten minutes earlier, Ruben Moran had missed an open goal.
Yet, in the 47th minute, Brazil broke the deadlock via Friaca. He received a pass from Zizinho, dribbled past two defenders and drilled the ball into the far past. One-nil Brazil.
The entire stadium was in delirium. Soon, flare smoke filled the air and the fans “twirled their handkerchiefs.” Brazil were some 40-odd minutes away from achieving their dream.
After conceding the opener, Uruguay captain, Obdulio Varela picked up the ball and went to the linesman to complain about the goal, arguing it was an offside. This delayed the restart by several minutes and gave Uruguay the time to regroup. “If not they would overrun us,” Varela later said.
This was the cue for Uruguay to bounce back. By the time the game restarted, the 200,000 Brazilian fans had settled down. And in the 66th minute, the men in blue equalized. Winger Alcides Ghiggia received the ball out wide. He got around a defender to deliver a low ball into the box for Juan Alberto Schiaffino, who sniffled the ball into the back of the net. One-all.
The Maracana Stadium had dropped dead silent. It wasn’t panicking, but as Valera put it, the Uruguayans had “passed their nerves” to the Brazilians.
Eleven minutes before full-time, Uruguay scored the winner as Ghiggia blazed down the right wing and drilled a low shot into the bottom corner. Goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa Nascimento had misjudged Ghiggia’s shot.
Barbosa was expecting the latter to cross so he positioned himself in the middle. When Ghiggia took the shot, Barbosa was caught completely off-guard.
Uruguay had the lead. Brazil tried to equalize but couldn’t. The crowd failed to lift them up and the players had succumbed under the pressure of the 200,000 fans around them. “When the players needed the Maracanã most, the Maracanã was silent,” wrote the songwriter Chico Buarque.
There is never a second place in Brazil’s psyche. “In this country you are either first or you are last,” Brazil’s Deputy Sports Minister, Luis Fernandes once told The Independent’s Ian Herbert. “Second place might as well be last place.”
After the match, in Rio, a fifty-eight-year-old man collapsed at his home. Two fans committed suicide inside the stadium. The surviving footage of Ghiggia’s goal is described as “Zapruder’s film of Kennedy getting shot.” There were tears and many suicides across the country in the following days.
“Only three people have reduced the Maracana to silence: Frank Sinatra, the Pope and me,” Ghiggia later commented. Uruguay captain Varela was presented the trophy by Jules Rimet, but was advised against raising it.
According to reports, Costa, coach of the Brazilian team, “discretely exited the stadium disguised as a nanny.” Moreover, the Brazilian team did not participate in matches for the next two years or play in the Maracanã for the next four years. The most visible consequence of the defeat was the fact that Brazil national team changed its jersey colour from white to yellow and green.
“Gigghia’s goal was received in silence by all the stadium. But its strength was so great, its impact so violent, that the goal, one simple goal, seemed to divide Brazilian life into two distinct phases: before it and after it,” wrote author Joáo Máximo.
Brazil’s ‘keeper, Barbosa, was technically at fault for Uruguay’s winner as he was caught out of position. And that moment changed his life forever. The fact that he was black and Brazil were still tackling the issue of racism at that time only made it worse for Barbosa. He was the first black ‘keeper for the nation and his mistake made him the scapegoat for the disaster.
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