There is a spectre that haunts Brazil. Pale blue. Running down the right. Fast. Ball at his feet. Past a floundering defender. Drifting inside. A cloud of dust. A shot. Low, hard.
Bottom-right corner. The net bulges.
Time freezes. There is a deathly silence.
When Brazil hosted the World Cup in 2014, football’s most successful nation was on a quest to bury the ghosts of its past. Unlike its South American neighbours, Argentina and Uruguay, the country that has won a record 5 World Cups has never won one on home soil. The reason: Uruguay.
If Brazil vs. Argentina is South America’s most famous rivalry, Brazil vs. Uruguay is its bitterest. Uruguay is the footballing nation that broke Brazilian hearts. Uruguay are the biggest spoilsports in the history of football. In 1950, they defeated Brazil at the Maracana to win the World Cup, a seismic moment described by journalist Scott Murray, in a Guardian article, as “a sporting tragedy worthy of Shakespeare”.
You think you know Brazil: those iconic yellow shirts; the spectacular, joyous football; the magical final of 1970; the unforgettable preternatural genius of Garrincha and Pele, Zico, Falcao, and Socrates, Ronaldo and Romario, mesmerising us with their dancing feet, their nonchalant tricks and flicks, mazy runs, cheeky dribbles and astounding goals. The Seleção are every fan’s dream football team. They are the behemoths of world football.
Hard to imagine today, but back in 1950, Brazil were the underdogs who had never won the World Cup. Uruguay were South America’s most eminent team. They had won the inaugural World Cup in their own country in 1930, along with back-to-back football gold medals at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics.
Brazil though were the reigning Copa America champions with a devastating front line of Ademir, Chico and Zizinho, and had scored a record 46 goals in eight matches on their way to the World Cup. The nation was ready for their promising team finally to be crowned world champions at their home World Cup.
A brand new stadium, the Maracana, the biggest in the world, was constructed in Rio de Janeiro, especially for the tournament.
Bizarrely, the 1950 World Cup had no knockout stage or final. Instead, after a preliminary group round, the four group winners would play each other in a round-robin second stage, with the winner of the group being declared World Champions.
Brazil led the way in the final group, playing sparkling, expressive football full of creativity and guile, crushing the opposition and scoring 13 goals in two matches. Meanwhile Uruguay struggled, with only a last-gasp draw and win keeping their chances alive. The final group game on Sunday, 16th July, between Brazil and Uruguay would be, by fortuitous coincidence, the decider, the de facto World Cup final. Unbeaten free-scoring Brazil only needed a draw, while Uruguay had to win.
So confident were Brazilians in their team that the nation was already celebrating victory. In anticipation, medals were made, speeches prepared, songs written, carnivals organised and early triumphant newspaper headlines printed.
On the day, the Maracana was heaving with an expectant world record crowd, unofficially over 200,000. This included only 100 Uruguayans. Their team would be entering a cauldron of fire.
Obdulio Varela. Uruguay’s domineering, defiant and wily captain, Varela, would be the prime architect of Brazil’s destruction.
When told by his own officials that they would be grateful with a less than four-goal defeat, he bullishly retorted: “¡Cumplidos un carajo! Cumplidos solamente si ganamos”, roughly translated as sod that, only a win will do.
On the morning of the final, Varela spotted an early edition of the O Mundo newspaper emblazoned with a picture of the Brazilian team and the gleeful headline ‘Brasil Campeao 1950!’. Incensed, he bought every copy, laid them out on his hotel bathroom floor and encouraged his team-mates to urinate on them.
Later, in the dressing room, the Uruguayan coach Juan Lopez, concerned about Brazil’s attacking potency, had ordered his players to play defensively. Varela countermanded his instructions, making an emotional speech urging his fellow players not to be intimidated but to fight fire with fire.
They took his advice to heart, staunchly withstanding a barrage of 17 efforts on goal from Brazil in the first half, helped by their resourceful skipper. Varela, as well as closely marking the dangerous Ademir and restricting him to a mere five shots on goal, he also intimidated Brazilian defender Bigode by cuffing him ‘playfully’ around the ear, leaving Bigode visibly shaken. The incident would have significant repercussions on the destiny of the match.
Two minutes into the second half, Brazil finally broke through to take the lead. Ademir, from the middle made a reverse pass to Frica, who ran into the box and shot low into the bottom-left corner. The Maracana erupted in a deafening roar of delight. Surely Brazil were now heading for World Cup glory.
But once again, Uruguay skipper Varela proved to be a master of psychological warfare. He started arguing with the referee in a deliberate attempt to buy time and allow the fervent crowd to calm down. Job done, he impelled his team on.
They responded. Alongside their implacable box-to-box midfielder captain, Uruguay possessed two of the best attacking players in inside forward Juan Alberto Schiaffino and winger Alcides Ghiggia. They started to take control of the game by exploiting Brazilian defensive frailties, particularly poor Bigode, who had never recovered from Varela’s blow. On 66 minutes, Varela passed the ball to Ghiggia on the right, who bamboozled his way past the hapless Bigode before crossing to the near post, where Schiaffino incepted and hit the ball home past goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa.
The Maracana was stunned. Suddenly, there was tension and doubting. But a draw was still good enough.
And then it happened. 11 minutes from the final whistle, Ghiggia once again charged past Bigode and headed towards the goal. Barbosa, not knowing whether he would shoot or cross was paralysed with indecision. In that fateful split second Ghiggia shot low and hard to the near post beyond the despairing keeper and into the net. 2-1 Uruguay.
A shocked silence fell upon the crowd. Ghiggia would later memorably say: “only three people have, with just one motion, silenced the Maracana: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and me”.
At the final whistle, while the Uruguayan players celebrated by hugging and kissing the referee, mass hysteria gripped the Maracana. Policeman were crying uncontrollably, people fainted, and some were hospitalised. There were even reports later of suicides. Brazil was engulfed by a collective national grief.
Such was the trauma of defeat that the Brazilian team didn’t play any matches for the next two years and couldn’t bring themselves to play in the Maracana for four years. The team’s white kits, now forever tainted by the stain of defeat were considered unpatriotic and hastily dumped. More tragic and unseemly was the cruel scapegoating of goalkeeper Barbosa, who was ostracised for the rest of his life. In the aftermath of what became known infamously as the Maracanazo – the Maracana blow – a sense of fatalism set in. Losing to Uruguay was a bitter jolt to the nation’s self-esteem and the country became resigned to never winning the World Cup.
Since that ‘Fateful Final’, the trajectory of the two rivals has gone in the opposite directions. Brazil, like the proverbial phoenix from the flames, would reinvent themselves as the greatest footballing nation on earth, with new yellow shirts, new footballing stars and a renewed sense of confidence. They would go on to win an unprecedented 5 World Cups, including the greatest World Cup final in 1970. They would also eventually exact revenge against Uruguay in the semi-final in 1970.
In contrast, Uruguay have never got to another World Cup final again, and their greatest glories remain consigned to the past. Yet Brazilians continue to fear Uruguay whenever the two teams play, particularly at the Maracana. It is a fear termed the ‘Phantom of 50’.
The phantom dramatically resurfaced in 1993. Brazil were struggling to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. They needed to win their final qualification match at the Maracana. Once more Uruguay stood in their way. In desperation, Brazil urgently recalled Romario, who had been left out of the qualifying campaign. With just 20 minutes left, Romario saved Brazil’s blushes by scoring 2 goals to ensure qualification. Further traumatic memories of another humiliation by Uruguay at the Maracana were averted, but it had been so close.
Brazil, of course, went on to win the World Cup in 1994. Nevertheless, they had still not won a World Cup on home soil, and it galled.
The 2014 World Cup was Brazil’s opportunity to atone for the Maracanazo. But with Uruguay qualifying for the tournament, the phantom returned. Inevitably, the two teams were drawn to meet each other in the quarter-finals, though thankfully not in the Maracana. In the event, fellow South American neighbours Columbia did Brazil a favour and defeated Uruguay in the second round, preventing the prospect of Luis Suarez becoming Uruguay’s new demon slayer.
With Uruguay’s defeat, the Brazilians must have believed their ghosts had been exorcised. Their path to glory must be safe now.
However, they hadn’t reckoned with football’s other giant spoilsports – Germany.
They say the best way to eliminate pain is to override it with another pain. So, in 2014, the defeat of 1950 was assuaged by an even greater humiliation – a pulverising 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-final in Belo Horizonte. This annihilation, known as the Mineirazo, after the stadium in Belo Horizonte, had an unexpected benefit in affording an absolution for the Maracanazo, which was now judged in a kindlier light. The O Globo newspaper stated that “the defeat to Germany makes the tragedy of 1950 honourable”. More importantly, this new sympathetic perspective finally allowed Barbosa to be redeemed in the nation’s eyes.
Ghiggia though disagreed with this new benign view. He would. He claimed the 1950 game would always be more traumatic as there had been far more at stake. It was a pertinent reminder of Uruguay’s recurring role in Brazil’s greatest failures.
Ghiggia was the last surviving member of Uruguay’s victorious team. He died a year ago, remarkably on 16th July, 65 years to the very day he scored the winning goal and famously silenced the Maracana. Ghiggia may be gone, but his legacy lives on in every match Brazil play against Uruguay. Their rivalry will continue to be defined by Brazil’s fateful defeat 66 years ago because it continues to define Brazilian football. The Fantasma del 50 will never be vanquished until the day Brazil finally realises its unfulfilled dream of winning a World Cup final at the Maracana.