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The 1950 FIFA World Cup: A Brazilian Tragedy

Moacyr Barbosa was heralded as one of the finest goalkeepers in the world throughout the 1940s and 50s. The unbeatable colossus stood in goal for the Seleção during what should have been their finest honour – glory at their own World Cup. It wasn’t to be for the team, the shining stars of a country that was desperate for success. Newspapers even ran headlines the day before the match against Uruguay (which technically wasn’t an official final, but if Brazil drew or won the game, they would hold the trophy) proclaiming them to be champions. 

Legend has it that in 1963, long after he had retired, Barbosa was presented the old wooden goalposts at the Maracanã as a gift. The story goes that he took them home and burned them, maybe for own peace of mind, or to potentially banish the ghosts from that fateful day: a life lived in despair from that moment on. This is the story of the most infamous day in Brazilian footballing history, and the first World Cup of a world being finally free of global conflict.

The Second World War had caused destruction over Europe, and by 1950, much of the continent was still trying to recover. Italy had won the previous World Cup in 1938, the last one before war intervened and stripped many players of the chance to play on the biggest stage.

Football can be a platform to unite nations and spread overwhelming joy into the hearts of everyone. After the Second World War, the World Cup was needed more than ever.

In quite stark contrast to Brazil’s rather impressive World Cup record since 1958, their early experiences were slightly underwhelming. Knocked out in the group stage in the first edition in 1930, where they only won one game, the Seleção travelled all the way to Italy in 1934 to get knocked out by Spain in the first round (the competition was a straight knockout format in ‘34 and ‘38). A vast improvement was made to finish in third place in 1938, losing to the winners Italy in the semi-finals, with their striker Leônidas finishing as top scorer.

The planned World Cups of 1942 and 1946 were both obviously cancelled due to the global conflict. FIFA were insistent to hold another competition as soon as it was feasibly possible to do so but there was one problem – it was extremely difficult to find a country that was both willing and able to host the event. 

As the previous two events pre-war had been held in Western Europe, it was suspected that the next competition would be held in South America, striking somewhat of a gentleman’s agreement to rotate the host continents every four years.

Brazil was officially awarded the World Cup at the FIFA congress in 1946. As is often the case with hosting major sporting events, the host nation tends to build new stadiums to create a lasting legacy. This was no exception for Brazil, and in this instance, the new stadium was to be the finest of them all. 

The construction of the Maracanã began in 1948, and with a capacity of 160,000 it became the largest stadium of its kind in the world. Many critics however argued that the money that was to be spent on the construction of this new arena would have been better spent on other areas such as healthcare and education. 

The government eventually funded the building of the stadium and the stage was set for the 1950 FIFA World Cup to begin. However, many reports state that the stadium still wasn’t completed as the finals got underway, and that there was still cement drying and scaffolding in some areas.

Qualifying for the World Cup is the pinnacle for every national team, with an intense fight to secure one of 32 overall qualification spots on offer (or 48 teams starting from 2026). During the early editions of the competition however, many national teams didn’t take it as seriously as they do now. This was mainly due to two things: political and logistical factors.

The 1930 finalists Argentina refused to take part. This was due to a clash with what was then known as the Confederação Brasileira de Desportos. Both Germany and Japan were banned by FIFA due to their actions which lead to global conflict. Both Scotland and England entered qualifying via the British Home Championship route. Two places were allocated so the first two teams would qualify for the World Cup. 

The Scottish football secretary, George Graham, had a different idea on the other hand; he stated that Scotland would only travel to Brazil if they won the Home Championship. After a defeat to England Scotland finished second, so they ultimately stayed at home, much to the players’ complaints. 

India qualified but withdrew citing the travel costs and lack of practise time as the two main motives for the withdrawal. There was another reason though; the Indian team had been playing barefoot, but FIFA had banned this practice in any competition, so this is deemed the real reason India pulled out. Turkey also withdrew, but this was actually for financial reasons. 

It might be hard to believe now, but the first global tournament after the war only attracted 13 teams. This was a competition that FIFA wanted to be a global success in order to get it back up and running and prove that even after such a prolonged absence, this was the competition to unite nations.

The previous two World Cups had reverted to a format of a straight knock out tournament instead of the group stage that the first edition had used. This was met with a mixture of disdain as teams could travel across the world to potentially only play one match, as Brazil had done in 1934. So to somewhat appease the European nations travelling thousands of miles to the competition, the group stage format was back in use.

The group stage format brought some fascinating storylines. Group A kicked off with Brazil who eased through to the final group stage as a result of topping their group despite a 2-2 draw with Switzerland. The biggest shock of the first group stage, however, took place in Group B. 

England, who many people had down as one of the favourites to win the competition, beat Chile 2-0 in their opening game. It was the game against the USA that would go down in history though. A team largely made up of amateurs defeated the English 1-0. 

When the result eventually made its way back to England, many people thought that an error had been made and the actual score was 10-1 to the English. Spain defeated them in the final group game to send England home with a whimper, and the team never really recovered from this throughout the rest of the decade. 

Group C only had three teams due to India’s withdrawal. The key fixture here was Sweden vs Italy, who were reigning champions even if their title had been earned 12 years earlier. Sweden defeated them 3-2 in the opening fixture. The Italians finished second in the group and failed to qualify for the final stage, with Sweden topping the section. 

The Italians surely would have been contenders for a third straight success, had disaster not struck. The plane carrying the famous Grande Torino side back from Portugal crashed into the supporting wall of the Basilica of Superga, killing all 31 people on board. This was a team who had won five straight Serie A titles and provided many players for the national team. 

The final group was very straight forward, as it only consisted of two teams; Uruguay and Bolivia. The Uruguayans showed their class by winning 8-0. The final group stage was set, and it consisted of Uruguay, Brazil, Sweden and Spain. It would be a battle between Europe and South America to see who would win football’s biggest prize.

Even though Brazil eased through the group stage, it hadn’t been without its moments. Leading 2-0 against Switzerland, the Swiss fought back to earn a draw. For the final group stage though, Flávio Costa’s team made sure they played with more fluidity. They played the first two matches with the flair we would all become used to seeing from a Brazilian team, beating Sweden 7-1 and dismantling Spain 6-1.

Uruguay’s lack of game time on the other hand could have potentially derailed their bid for a second title as they drew the first match 2-2 with Spain. It all seemed over for them as Sweden took a 2-1 lead with 13 minutes left of the penultimate match, but this wouldn’t be the first time the Uruguayans showed their steely grit and determination to win a match. Two late goals by Óscar Míguez gave them a chance against Brazil in the final game of the final group stage. 

Neither before this World Cup, nor after, has there ever been a final group stage section in order to determine who would win the competition. It was a bold move by FIFA to not have an official final match. As fate would have it, the last match between Brazil and Uruguay would have a final feel to it. Brazil just needed a draw to win the title, whereas Uruguay needed a win to destroy the Brazilian dream.

The Uruguayans were essentially walking into the lion’s den, seemingly written off by everyone. Even an early edition of O Mundo newspaper had declared Brazil to be the champions even before the game had been played. The official attendance for the match was stated as 173,850, however it may have been closer to 200,000, as the Brazilians kept piling into the stadium embracing the party atmosphere and seemingly getting ready to celebrate in a couple of hours. With only around 100 or so Uruguayans in the stadium, the signs looked ominous.

Brazil, spurred on by the massive crowd, started very well, having 17 shots on target in the first half, with the tournament’s top scorer Ademir having had five of them. Uruguay were not in the mood to just go away however, and although Brazil had plenty of shots, the Uruguayans were still very much in the game at half time. 

Knowing only a win would bring them the title, they had to go out and take their chances with arguably three of the best players in the world on their side in: Alcides Ghiggia, Alberto Schiaffino and Obdullio Varela, who all played for Peñarol. These three would all have a say in the final outcome of the match. 

Brazil started the second half the way they finished the first, all guns blazing. They shortly found their reward. Friaça scored with an unconvincing shot which found the bottom corner. The Uruguayan keeper Roque Máspoli, who had been outstanding throughout the match, was finally beaten. 

The favourites had taken the lead, and with only a draw needed to win the title, it seemed a formality now. The Maracanã was in fine voice and ready to start celebrating, but the Uruguayans were not about to give up their title. After missing the ‘34 and ‘38 competitions, plenty of Uruguayans claimed they were defending their title from 1930.

After Brazil scored, Costa instructed the team to sit back and soak up the inevitable pressure from Uruguay and hit them on the break. Uruguay proved too good to be teased in this way, however. They needed two goals to get their hands on the trophy and on 66 minutes step one was complete. Ghiggia turned Brazil’s left-back Bigode inside out and played the perfect pass to Schiaffino, who nipped ahead of Juvenal Amarijo at the near post and scored past Barbosa. 

The onus was now on Brazil to defend this draw for the next 24 minutes. The Maracanã, in which around 200,000 spectators had been in jubilant mood only 20 minutes earlier, had drifted into near silence. The killer blow came in the 79th minute for Uruguay. 

Ghiggia was released down the flank by a pass from Julio Pérez and was instantly bearing down on Barbosa. The keeper could do one of two things; close Ghiggia down, or remain rooted and give himself a great chance to save the incoming shot. What happened next will go down in Brazilian footballing folklore and terrorise Barbosa for the rest of his days. 

Ghiggia took his chance and rifled in a low shot in which Barbosa couldn’t get down to quickly enough. The unthinkable had happened; now it was Brazil who needed a goal to salvage hope and who were moments away from disintegrating. 

The last 10 minutes must have felt like an eternity for the Uruguayans, chasing every ball down and not giving the Brazilians a sniff. Finally the whistle blew, the match was the over, the tournament was over, and according to the silence in the Maracanã, Brazilian football was over. The defeat was to be simply known as the Maracanazo, or the Maracanã blow, and was considered a national tragedy.

Back to Moacyr Barbosa, who arguably suffered the most out of anyone involved in the defeat to Uruguay. Fans of opposition teams mocked and heckled him, blaming him for the two goals they conceded in the final. This wasn’t just to be throughout his footballing career, but persisted through the whole of his adult life. 

Before a qualifier for the 1994 FIFA World Cup, Barbosa was planning on meeting the keeper Cláudio Taffarel and offering some words of wisdom and support. Mário Zagallo, the manager, had other ideas and forbade the meeting from happening. Superstition had taken hold of him and this influenced his decision.

Shortly before his death, Barbosa said that: “Under Brazilian law, the maximum sentence is 30 years, but my imprisonment has been for 50.” All it took was 30 minutes in the Maracanã to tarnish his reputation. Even after burning the goalposts from the final, he would never quite banish the ghosts from that fateful day in July 1950.

Many people thought that Brazilian football was cursed, but in fact it was just the first step to rebuilding and creating a path for Brazil to be the greatest team in World Cup history.

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