Fateful Final: 1950 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã
by Alex Bellos
Riotur Maracanã Stadium
”Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.”
- Nelson Rodrigues
In 1946 Brazil declared a new democratic constitution after more than a decade of dictatorship. Optimism was galvanised by confirmation that in 1950 the country would host the fourth football World Cup, the most important international event to take place within its frontiers. Brazil had first expressed its intention to put on the tournament in 1938. The Second World War forced a twelve-year interruption. With Europe still recuperating from the conflict, Brazil was the only official candidate.
When Brazilians blow their own trumpets they have a tendency to use global superlatives. Size is important since it chimes with a sense of the country’s own enormousness. There is even a word for it - “ufanism” - an excessive arrogance based on the potential of Brazil’s vast resources. To honour the importance of the World Cup and reflect the grandeur of national aspiration, Brazil decided to build the largest stadium in the world.
The link with nationhood was explicit. The Maracanã was not only the embodiment of Brazil’s sporting ambition but also of the country’s place in the modern world.
The Maracanã was conceived as a man-made monument that would be worthy of a place among Rio de Janeiro’s other landmarks. Rio boasts the Sugar Loaf Mountain, Copacabana Beach and the Christ statue on Corcovado, a 700m-high granite outcrop adorned by jungle. The new football stadium was to be as audacious and dramatic - a vast concrete ellipse capable of holding 183,000 spectators, 43,000 more than the largest at the time, Hampden Park in Glasgow, and five times the size of the next stadium in Rio, Vasco’s São Januário. Construction started in 1948. More than 10,000 labourers worked on the project like Egyptians building a modern-day pyramid. Most were economic migrants - men like Isaías Ambrósio - to whom the project was the start of a new life as well as a new beginning for the country. The Maracanã fostered a football-inspired patriotism. As building drew to a close workers would test the structure by crowding into the stands to cheer imaginary goals. The stadium was finished in record time. Brazil, the so-called country of the future, could have been excused the thought it was almost there.
“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 the newspaper A Noite. “Now we have a stage of fantastic proportions in which the whole world can admire our prestige and sporting greatness.” The Mariana’s location at the heart of the city, near the dividing line between the North and South Zones, emphasised football’s importance in the hearts of the people. It was surrounded by some of Rio’s most traditional neighbourhoods, giving it cultural weight by association. Mário Filho's Jornal dos Sports, which had campaigned most loudly for the stadium, said it gave Brazil a new soul, awakening the slumbering giant within. The link with nationhood was explicit. The Maracanã was not only the embodiment of Brazil’s sporting ambition but also of the country’s place in the modern world.
The euphoria of the fans reached its zenith against Spain. After Brazil’s third goal the crowd started waving white handkerchiefs in the air - an “adios” to the opposition.
The city was gearing up for the festival. Posters went up in shops, the Post Office released commemorative stamps, and, in February, a particularly Brazilian tribute: Floats illustrating the World Cup paraded in the Rio carnival. Lamaratine Babo, a popular composer, wrote the uplifting “March of the Brazilian Team,” a banner-waving anthem that urged: “Let’s cheer with faith in our hearts / Let’s cheer for Brazil to be champions.”
Of the sixteen countries expected for the World Cup, only thirteen turned up. Brazil insisted on a format that had never been used before and was never used subsequently. There would be no knockout stage. Instead, the winners of each of the four first-round groups would form a final group of four teams. Each country would play every other in the group with the title going to the country that came first.
The opening game was on 24 June at the Maracanã. Flares and fireworks lit the stadium, the military band played and Brazil continued the party by defeating Mexico 4-0. The hosts’ next opposition was Switzerland. The game was in São Paulo and Flávio Costa, Brazil’s coach, replaced the midfield with three São Paulo players - a common practice to please local fans. The result - a 2-2 draw - was seen as an embarrassing wobble and meant that Brazil had to beat Yugoslavia in Rio to qualify for the final group. Helped, perhaps, by the fact that Yugoslavia’s main player, Rajko Mitic, had injured himself on the stairs walking on to the pitch and his head was wrapped in bandages, Brazil won 2-0.
Uruguay, Sweden and Spain joined Brazil as group-winners. Lots were drawn that established the order of Brazil’s adversaries: Sweden, Spain, and then Uruguay. Strictly speaking the Uruguay game was not the World Cup final, it was merely both countries’ last game of the final round - even though the results of the previous matches conspired, with unforeseen drama, to make it the decisive game of the championship.
On Saturday 15 July, São Paulo’s Gazeta Esportiva front-page headline was: “Tomorrow we will beat Uruguay!”
Brazil’s first two games earned them an aura of invincibility. Sweden were demolished 7-1 and the Spanish 6-1. Brazil played a happy, exciting football that left journalists searching for superlatives. A report in Milan’s Gazetta Dello Sport described Zizinho as Leonardo da Vinci “creating works of art with his feet in the immense canvas of the Maracanã pitch.”
The cumulative euphoria of the Brazilian fans reached its zenith during the game against Spain. After Brazil’s third goal the crowd started waving white handkerchiefs in the air - an “adios” to the opposition - remembered as one of the strongest images of the tournament. In the second half fans started shouting “olé,” upon which a group began to sing “Bullfights in Madrid”, a popular carnival march. The official supporters” brass band kicked off with the music and the entire stadium joined in. “The spectacle, which one would have supposed to be merely footballistic, transformed into one of the largest demonstrations of collective singing ever known: it was like the chorus of the fans was a counterpoint to the Brazilians” game,” wrote Jairo Severiano and Zuza Homem de Mello in their history of Brazilian music, The Song in Time.
When they went into the final no one doubted that Brazil would fail to be champions of the world.
On paper they were the easy favourites. Even though Uruguay had beaten Bolivia 8-0 in the first round, they were struggling in the final group. Uruguay drew 2-2 with Spain, and had only overcome Sweden 3-2 after scoring two goals in the last fourteen minutes. The results meant that a draw was good enough for Brazil to win the title.
For the final 173,850 entered with a paid ticket - a world record for a sporting event, even excluding the journalists, officials and guests who pushed the figure to about 200,000.
Past form suggested a Brazil victory. Whereas Brazil had played no European team since 1938, in the same period it had faced Uruguay seventeen times, winning eight, losing five and drawing four. Two months before the World Cup final the teams played three times in Rio. Uruguay won the first and Brazil won the other two. Brazil’s confidence was so contagious that the victory was not only predicted but also confirmed in the press before the day of the final. On Saturday 15 July, São Paulo’s Gazeta Esportiva front-page headline was: “Tomorrow we will beat Uruguay!” In Rio, the early edition of O Mundo printed a picture of the Brazilian players with the words: “These are the world champions.”
The build-up to the climax was reflected by the steadily increasing size of the Maracanã crowds. Figures showed the opening game was attended by 81,649 paying spectators, which grew to 142,429 against Yugoslavia and 152,772 against Spain. For the final 173,850 entered with a paid ticket - a world record for a sporting event, even excluding the journalists, officials and guests who pushed the actual figure to about 200,000.
Shortly before the match Rio’s mayor, Angelo Mendes de Moraes raised the stakes even further. In fervent tones he urged: “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!”
Brazil 1 Uruguay 2
Brazil: Barbosa; Augusto, Juvenal; Bauer, Danilo, Bigode; Fria¡a, Zizinho, Ademir, Jair da Rosa Pinto, Chico.
Uruguay: Máspoli; M Gonzalez, Tejera; Gambetta, O Varela, R Andrade; Gigghia, J Pérez, Míguez, Schiaffino.
Goals: Friaça 46, Schiaffino 66, Gigghia 79.
The 1950 World Cup final has been discussed, analysed and interpreted so many times, by so many people and for so long that it has ceased to be a game of football and is instead a weave of mythical narratives.
Before the game against Spain, the Brazilian team had transferred its base from an out-of-town hotel to São Januário stadium in the middle of the city. The new location was full of visitors, especially politicians campaigning for October elections. Players remember spending the morning of the game shaking hands and signing autographs. The bus that took the players to the Maracanã had a minor collision. Augusto bumped his forehead.
Uruguay are referred to as the Celeste - the Sky-Blues, the colour of their shirts. In Spanish and Portuguese the word has the double meaning “heavenly”. The suggestion of divinity is invoked to explain how such a small nation squashed in between the giants of Argentina and Brazil - has such a glorious sporting history: Uruguay won the football gold in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics and the first World Cup in 1930. Uruguayans are described as fearless defenders of their legacy, protected by the mystique of their sacred shirts. In 1950 the man who most embodied Uruguayan courage was Obdulio Varela, their thirty-three-year-captain. Obdulio, son of a Spaniard and a black woman, commanded the team from the centre of the midfield.
The Celeste were feeling the pressure. Julio Pérez wet himself during the national anthem. “I am not ashamed of this,” he said.
The first half was goalless. But in the twenty-eighth minute something happened that changed the panorama of the game. Obdulio hit Bigode, Brazil’s left half. The punch - denied afterwards by both players as being more than a sporting tap - nevertheless entered the game’s folklore as turning the psychological advantage in Uruguay’s favour.
“Only three people have, with just one motion, silenced the Maracanã: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and me.”
If you ask a Brazilian what his dream is, the answer will probably be to score a goal in a World Cup Final at a packed Maracanã. Only one man has ever achieved this. One minute into the second half, Friaça, receiving from Ademir, ran into the box and shot to Máspoli's right. GOOOOL do Brasil!
The comeback started in the sixty-sixth minute. Varela to Gigghia. He dribbled past Bigode. Raced down the right wing. Crossed to the mouth of the goal. Schiaffino intercepted, shot cleanly past Barbosa and scored. A deathly silence descended on the Maracanã.
Even so, with the scores at 1-1, Brazil were still on course for victory. Until 4.33 p.m. Gigghia again dribbled past Bigode and entered the box. Instead of crossing like he had done when he set up the first Uruguayan goal, Gigghia shot immediately to the near post. The angle was tight. Barbosa was caught off guard. He dived to his left but was too late.
“GOOOOL do Uruguay,” said Luiz Mendes, narrating for Rádio Globo, automatically and firmly. He repeated, asking in disbelief: “Gol do Uruguay?” He answered himself: “Gol do Uruguay!” He repeated the same three words six more times consecutively, each with completely different intonation - with various degrees of surprise, resignation and shock.
Football’s shrine was as quiet as a tomb. Gigghia said many years later: “Only three people have, with just one motion, silenced the Maracanã: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and me.”
“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 the sports author Joáo Máximo. Newspapers reported that in Uruguay, three supporters died of excitement hearing the unexpected outcome on the radio. In Rio a fifty-eight-year-old man collapsed at his home.
“When the players needed the Maracanã most, the Maracanã was silent. You can’t entrust yourself to a football stadium - that’s the lesson that sunk in after 1950,” wrote the songwriter Chico Buarque.
Film footage exists of the Fateful Goal. (The adjective “fatídico,” fateful, has, to all intents and purposes, been copyrighted by 1950. In his Football Dictionary, Haroldo Maranhão gives Fateful Final its own entry.) The camera is behind the Fateful Posts, slightly to the left. Gigghia approaches. When his left foot steps on the line of the box a cloud of white dust rises up. The camera follows the ball into the net but then loses it. Looking for the ball the camera moves back to the post, presupposing that the Gigghia had not actually scored, only to go back on itself and find it in the far corner. Barbosa slowly stands up. His posture is heavy, crestfallen.
Uruguay, Italy, England, West Germany, Argentina and France have all won World Cups in their own countries. Brazil remain the only world champions never to have won as hosts.
To Roberto Muylaert, Barbosa's biographer, the black-and-white film is Brazil’s Zapruder footage. The goal and the gunshot that killed Kennedy both have “the same drama...the same movement, rhythm...the same precision of an inexorable trajectory...”They even share clouds of dust - one from a gun, one from Gigghia’s left foot.
Paulo Perdigão writes in Anatomy of a Defeat, an obsessive and brilliant biopsy of the game: “It continues being the most famous goal in the history of Brazilian football...because none other transcended its status as a sporting fact...converting itself into a historic moment in the life of a nation.”
Second place in a World Cup was Brazil’s best ever result yet it felt like failure. The country never countenanced anything but victory. Loss was unthinkable. “I was motionless, sitting on a concrete step, watching the sun shine obliquely on the pitch, hearing the silence of the crowd, a silence not even broken by the sobs, in brutal gasps, of the collective orphaning,” grieved the novelist Carlos Heitor Cony. “Survivors of that cruel afternoon believed they would never again be able to be happy...what happened on July 16, 1950 deserves a collective monument, like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. These are the things that build nations, a people drenched in their own pain.”
Brazilians have a predisposition for colourful melodrama. On this occasion their histrionics were, if not excusable, at least understandable. The Fateful Final is the only time - before or since - that a clear favourite playing in front of a home crowd has lost a World Cup final. Uruguay, Italy, England, West Germany, Argentina and France have all won World Cups in their own countries. Brazil remain the only world champions never to have won as hosts.
Other circumstances help explain the strong emotional impact of the result. It was before the age of television. Almost ten per cent of Rio’s population was in the Maracanã. The match was an intimate and exclusive experience. To upset the largest amount of Brazilians as possible without loss of life, there is probably no more efficient way than creating the largest stadium in the world, filling it to overflowing, and then losing, in the final minutes, to neighbours you had recently beaten, at a sport that is believed to best represent the nation.
As the crowds left the Maracanã only one act of violence was recorded: the granite bust of mayor Angelo Mendes de Moraes “he who “saluted the victors” - was knocked over.