Brazil’s 1950 ‘Maracanazo’… the great Maracana blow

Handout image provided by Fifa showing a birds-eye view of the stadium during the Fifa Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 Final match between Brazil and Spain at Maracana on June 30, 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

What you need to know:

  • The game itself was tense, but the Brazilians broke the deadlock when striker Friaça scored in the 47th minute
  • While the country basked in what they thought was an impending win, Uruguay tied the score in the 66th minute via a Juan Alberto Schiaffiano goal
  • The final whistle brought with it jubilation from the Uruguayan players, prompting some to even hug and kiss English referee George Reader

Take a stroll along the boardwalk of Copacabana, the famous waterfront that hugs the coastline of Rio de Janeiro, and you will see sandy beaches, women in flesh-revealing bikinis, and lots of boys juggling soccer balls. It’s a place with plenty of good food, drinks, and smiling people.

It remains the best-known beach on the planet, but it’s also the place where people showcase their impressive skills for all to see. In soccer-obsessed Brazil, the game has taken on greater significance than perhaps anywhere in the world. No other country can claim to have won five World Cups, a record, and no other place can say it is the birthplace of Pelé, arguably the best player the game has ever seen.

“Brazilians always think there is a critical situation with the national team,” former defender Carlos Alberto told me while on a walk along Copacabana in 2014 just days after their 7–1 humiliation to Germany in the semi-finals. “Individually, Brazilians are always the best. As a team, that is not always the case.”

No longer the lean figure he was when he helped Brazil capture the World Cup in 1970, Carlos Alberto knew the pressures players have to shoulder as a result of representing a country where everyone likes to think they are national team manager.

Working as a commentator for Brazilian TV network SporTV during the 2014 World Cup, Carlos Alberto relished reminiscing about his time as a player.

“The pressure the people put on the players is never good psychologically,” he noted. “Only someone who has lived with that experience can understand.”

The iconic black-and-white mosaic pattern that runs along the Avenida Atlântica is where Zizinho had mastered his craft. The attacking midfielder, who was a member of Brazil’s 1950 World Cup squad, was the best player Pelé said he had ever seen. The Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport had likened Zizinho to Leonardo da Vinci, “creating works of art with his feet on the immense canvas of the Maracanã field.”

“Brazil always has the chance to be the champions of the world,” Carlos Alberto said. “That doesn’t always mean they will win.”
The Brazilians would not prevail in 1950. The defeat was a national trauma. Despite winning so many World Cups, the country never really got over losing that tournament. Pelé, just nine at the time, would later recall his father’s tears following the shock defeat.

Pelé promised his father all would be better because he would some-day win a World Cup for Brazil. He recalled years later, according to the book Passion of the People? Football in Latin America, that the unexpected defeat produced “a sadness so great, so profound that it seemed like the end of a war, with Brazil the loser and many people dead.” Within eight years, Pelé would emerge as one of world’s best talents, setting Brazil on a quest that would include three World Cup titles.

1950 World Cup

Europe lay in ruins in the aftermath of World War II. Fifa’s vice president, Ottorino Barassi, had stashed the trophy away in a shoebox under his bed for safekeeping in his Rome apartment located near the Vatican.

With the war over, Fifa was keen on bringing the World Cup back in 1950. The tournament was awarded to Brazil after the South Americans—along with Germany—had put in bids for the 1942 edition that had been scrapped.

As a result, the tournament returned to the Southern Hemisphere in connection with the 25th anniversary of Rimet’s presidency. To honor the Frenchman, the trophy was referred to as the “Jules Rimet Cup.”

The 16-nation tournament featured the automatic qualification of hosts Brazil and defending champions Italy, leaving 14 more spots available via qualification. Germany and Japan did not participate, while the United Kingdom’s four national teams—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—had rejoined Fifa four years earlier following 17 years of self-imposed exile. England would win the “Home Championship” and qualify for its first World Cup, an experience that would turn out to be memorable for some and forgettable for others.

The Soviet Union, along with Czechoslovakia and Hungary, refused to take part, as did Argentina, following a disagreement with the Brazilian FA.

Brazil, untouched by the horrors of the war, embarked on a massive effort to host the tournament. Organizers decided six cities would host matches—Rio de Janeiro, São Paolo, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Recife, and Curitiba—with the newly built Maracanã Stadium the crown jewel of all the venues.

Owned by the Rio state government, the stadium, located in Rio’s Maracanã section, is now used by clubs Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense, and Vasco da Gama. The stadium’s construction at the time was criticized by several Brazilian lawmakers—something that would repeat itself when Brazil hosted the tournament for a second time in 2014—given its large expense.

After a design contest and contract awarded to engineer Humberto Menescal, work on the stadium began in August 1948, giving organizers just two years to complete it before the start of the World Cup. The work quickly fell behind schedule, prompting Fifa to send Barassi, who had also helped organize the 1934 World Cup, to help.

Logistics eventually improved—as did the number of men needed to complete the work—with nearly 2,000 workers feverishly trying to finish the project in the months leading up to the tournament.

The stadium, officially named Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho after the Brazilian sportswriter and editor, would be used at the World Cup, but construction would not officially come to an end until 1965.

Once again, Fifa had to deal with withdrawals and disputes with several nations in the months leading up to the competition.
India decided against going to the tournament, citing travel costs and valuing the Olympics over the World Cup.

The Indian team had played barefoot at the 1948 London Games, a practice Fifa had banned. France also withdrew, citing the amount of travel that would be required.

Given the lack of time before the start of the World Cup, the tournament would only feature 13 teams. Of those finalists, several South American teams were returning to the World Cup for the first time since 1930: Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, and Bolivia.

Fifa decided to abandon the single-elimination format and replaced it with a first round featuring four groups of four. The winner of each group advanced to a final group stage, which would decide a champion by playing a round-robin format. It would be the first—and last—time this format was used. The draw resulted in the following groups:

Group 1: Brazil, Mexico, Yugoslavia, and Switzerland

Group 2: England, Spain, Chile, and the United States

Group 3: Sweden, Italy, and Paraguay

Group 4: Uruguay and Bolivia.

Brazil entered the tournament as favorites, while Italy looked like a long shot to defend its crown following the Superga air disaster that killed the Torino team that had formed the backbone of the national squad. England, Sweden, and Uruguay were also among the pre-tournament favorites.

Final: Uruguay v Brazil

The Maracanã was packed to the rafters on July 16 with 200,000 spectators—about one-tenth of the city’s population at the time.
Waving white handkerchiefs, they made their way into the concrete grandstands. A band stood along the sidelines—prepared to play a song called “Brasil Os Vencedores” (Brazil the Victors)—once the final whistle sounded. It was a scene of happiness and national pride. By the end of the game, it would become one of despair and sadness.

O Globo, one of the nation’s leading newspapers, took part in the hype, reflecting the country’s mood going into the game. “The draw will bring the title, there is no doubt, but the whole country expects the repetition of the big wins that elevated Brazil’s soccer reputation to an international level. A big win would not mean an expressive final score,” the newspaper noted.

The government made 22 gold medals, one for each player, with the intent of awarding them to the team after the game.  
The teams played a tactically similar 2–3–5 formation, with Brazil known for scoring goals, Uruguay for their smart midfield play. The game itself was tense, but the Brazilians broke the deadlock when striker Friaça scored in the 47th minute.

The goal only fueled the inevitability of a final victory. While the country basked in what they thought was an impending win, Uruguay tied the score in the 66th minute via a Juan Alberto Schiaffiano goal after connecting with a Ghiggia cross. In the 79th minute, Ghiggia scored to make it 2–1, beating goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa.

Radio Globo’s Luiz Mendes, whose call was heard by millions throughout Brazil, exclaimed, “Gol do Uruguay!” He then, incredulously, asked himself aloud, “Gol do Uruguay?” His words reflected those of a nation. Indeed, those in the stadium couldn’t believe it.

The final whistle brought with it jubilation from the Uruguayan players, prompting some to even hug and kiss English referee George Reader. Uruguay had done the impossible to win a second World Cup.

Brazilians throughout the city openly wept. The nation had been so invested in the success of its team that it was not emotionally prepared for defeat. Fifa presented the trophy to Uruguay without a ceremony. “I had a split second to decide what to do,” Ghiggia recalled. “I shot and it went to the post… It was the best goal I ever scored.”

The game came to be known as “the Maracanazo,” which translates into the “great Maracanã blow.”

A young Pelé was home at the time listening to the game on the radio, recalling that it was the first time he’d ever seen his father cry. Barbosa was largely blamed for the defeat, something he was forced to deal with for the rest of his life. For half a century, he would take his phone o the hook on July 16. “Otherwise it rings all day,” he recalled, “from people all over Brazil, asking why we lost the World Cup.”

The Brazilian team did not play in another game for two years or play at the Maracanã for nearly four following the defeat. The most visible consequence came when the team adopted the now iconic yellow shirts instead of the white ones the players had worn during the match.

It had been a blow to the national psyche—despite future World Cup glory— that even superstars like Pelé would be unable to totally erase from their memories.

Tomorrow: Puskas beaten, another upset on the heels of the Maracanazo