Moacyr Barbosa: Brazil’s greatest villain?

Rarely in the glorified history of Brazil’s global football dominance, have they produced lasting names that were revered for presence between the sticks. Of course there were exceptions and had one of them been treasured aptly, then today’s acrobatic and out of the box keeping style would have seemed an inherited legacy from South America. This article travels down the road to the faraway land of Jogo Bonito – in the backdrop of the cursed Maracanazo that made a nation cry – to witness one such exceptional artist of the game who took the center stage of an epic monochromatic drama reminiscent of a Greek Tragedy. This article was first published in ‘Tiro: A football odyssey from Amazon to Alps’ , Rattis Books, UK, June 2016.

Intro credit

Long before the introduction of Aristotle’s theory of the ‘tragic hero’, human mind has been in a love relation with the concept of the fallen hero. From the Mahabharata’s Karna to Iliad’s Achilles, from epic tales of myth to staged drama or real life, tragic heroes tend to overshadow the protagonist in the painful teary eyes of the audience. But to become a tragic hero, one must take a fall, and often that fall is nasty.

Remember the last fight sequence in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby? Maggie was on the verge of becoming the welterweight champion when suddenly Billie ‘The Blue Bear’ gave her a sucker punch, which eventu­ally ended her career and shattered her and thousands of her fans’ dreams. Clint Eastwood’s near perfect direction and Hilary Swank’s heart-warming acting won millions of hearts and ended up winning four Academy Awards. Interestingly, the screenplay was adapted from a real life story, which makes it a bitter pill to swallow. Moreover, if it were a monochrome screenplay, with noisy camera work and a real life story on a big stage, it would have been even more interesting. We are talking, of course, about the final match of the 1950 World cup at Maracanã, the biggest football stadium on the planet, in front of the biggest football crowd the world has ever witnessed.

He jogged to the centre of the circle for the team photo. His hands were behind his back. He refused to look at the camera lenses aiming at his face. Instead, he looked extremely serious, watching the green and yellow flag flying all over Maracanã.

Our protagonist here is Moacyr Barbosa, a man with a thin moustache and the first black goalkeeper to represent Brazil in a World Cup. Wearing the familiar white shirt, white shorts with blue trim and a green sweater, he was standing in front of the queue, leading the team. His heart was pounding faster than usual. Every strike of the beat was loud and clear to his ears. He could feel the chill going down his spine even in the scorching sun as he came out of the tunnel. He jogged to the centre of the circle for the team photo. His hands were behind his back. He refused to look at the camera lenses aiming at his face. Instead, he looked extremely serious, watching the green and yellow flag flying all over Maracanã. Auguste Comte’s motto of positivity was running through his veins: Ordem e Progresso. ‘Love as a principle and order as the basis; progress as the goal.’1 Love had taken him this far and now the goal was to make his and his country’s dream come true. Of all the people, none more than him could understand the gravity of this moment. This was the day that would turn him into a Brazilian immortal. As the national anthem started, 200,000 people inside the stadium made their presence felt with an orderly chorus. The sound took the mercury a few grades higher as Juan López, the opponent coach felt the palpable pressure.

Moacir Barbosa, Carlos Castilho and Gylmar-dos Santos, 1953. [Source: Folhapress]
Moacir Barbosa, Carlos Castilho and Gylmar-dos Santos, 1953. [Source: Folhapress]

The background story

The life of a goalie is not as easy as it seems. The goalkeeper is the one player who runs least on the pitch during the 90 minutes of the play and yet bears the heaviest responsibility to keep the score line down. A little known fact is that the modern tennis legend Roger Federer fell in love with the ‘beautiful game’ before he became the tennis superstar of today. Unfortunately, the love never lasted. As Roger famously said:

“I enjoyed the position I was in as a tennis player. I was to blame when I lost. I was to blame when I won. And I really like that, because I played football a lot too, and I could not stand it when I had to blame it on the goalkeeper.” 2

Football in Brazil used to be an affair for the upper class people. Although Afro-Brazilian players used to fill in the team sheet in club-level football but to represent the national colours, Brazil preferred a more conservative ap­proach: to play with a white goalie. Oberdan Cattani was their model. He was the tall, barrel-chested goalie for Palmeiras, the champions of the Sao Paulo league. He was understandably the first choice keeper to represent Brazil until Flavio Costa, the Brazilian coach used Barbosa to replace the injured Oberdan and presented the world with a whole new face of goalkeeping.

Barbosa was born in the Campinas city in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Mecca of football. And just like every other kid in Brazil, his dreams of becoming a footballer was no exception. Few would believe that when he first took to the leather ball, he preferred to play as a centre forward just like his Uruguayan nemesis, Alcides Ghiggia. However, this was until the day when his brother-in-law (owner of the team in the amateur league where Barbosa played football) pleaded him to fill in the goalkeeper position for a single game due to the absence of his first choice goalkeeper. The rest was history as Barbosa accumulated exactly 1300 official matches in that position, since.

When Barbosa replaced Oberdan in the national colours, the people of Brazil did not immediately approve. For them a man between posts should never be as elastic as him, but rather possess sound knowledge of the fun­damental rules of goalkeeping. Additionally, a country still fraught with ra­cial tension made it even more difficult for Barbosa, but Flavio Costa had his reasons. During his time at ‘Victory Express’ CR Vasco da Gama as man­ager, he saw the young visionary keeper at his training ground. Standing 5’10”, Barbosa was not the tallest presence in the pitch. Rather he made his pres­ence felt through his intelligence and brilliant sense of positioning. He never lacked courage when it came to stopping the ball from crossing the goal line. Journalist Bruno Freitas who wrote a book on Barbosa named Queimando as Traves de 50 – Glórias e castigo de Barbosa, maiorgoleiro da era romântica do futebol brasileiro (Burning the Goalposts of 1950 – the glories and punishment of Barbosa, the greatest goalkeeper of the romantic era of Brazilian football) has pointed out, ‘He suffered a total of six fractures in his left hand, five in his right, as well as broken legs twice, in two different places’.3 Barbosa was an exceptional talent. His preference was simple enough: make the saves as simple when possible and spectacularly elastic when required. Given his size, Barbosa realised he could not wait patiently for a shot to come on either side of the 24 feet wide goal mouth and stretch out to stop it. Instead, he set out beyond the goal, anticipating the opponent’s play. When a shot came, Barbosa would leap into action. He perfected the move where he jumped across the goalmouth against an incoming shot, reaching with his opposite hand for the oncoming ball. His arm would cross his body and stretch over his head. Thus he gained momentum by throwing himself at the ball sometimes shifting the entire body weight from one post to the other. This display of skill was fascinating to watch but something dangerous was hidden beneath it and Barbosa himself was unaware of it. Carlos Alberto Cavalheiro, Barbosa’s for­mer team-mate and fellow goalkeeper at Vasco recollected from his memory –

“He changed the way Brazilian goalkeepers played. In that era, goalkeep­ers were practically restricted to the six-yard box. But he dominated the whole area. He would come out of his goal to make saves with his feet, with his hands, any way he could, it did not matter. He was a trailblazer.” 4

Moacir Barbosa, during his Vasco days. 1958
Moacir Barbosa, during his Vasco days. 1958

And as for technical grades, his ability to grab the ball high up in the air using only one hand and capacity to fist it away, avoiding rebounds, set him apart from the rest. He was ahead of his time by quite a mile. Thinking out of the box was his strength. He created a legacy of sweeper keeper long be­fore it was first introduced to the Brazilian game. Barbosa led Flávio Costa’s Vasco to a South American club championship triumph in 1948 in Chile as they outmuscled the powerful La Maquina River Plate boasting some of the most feared names such as Adolfo Pedernera, Angel Labruna, Felix Loustau and a certain youngster called Alfredo Di Stefano in their squad. Barbosa kept four clean sheets in the tournament, more than what any other team man­aged, keeping a healthy goal difference to ensure top finish. It was only a year later when Costa chose Barbosa in the national team and evidently he became a national hero making the saves that propelled Brazil to the Copa America title, ending a 27-year-drought. The next step for Barbosa was inevitably be­coming a world champion.

The stage setup

The World Cup came back to South America in 1950, twenty years since its inception, as Brazil embraced the opportunity to host the tournament. With Europe slowly recovering from the scars of World War II, only thirteen na­tions could participate in the chase for the ultimate glory. As the myth goes, a Scotsman named Charles Miller had first introduced the rules of the ‘beautiful game’ to the Brazilian shore in 1894 but they are the ones who discovered how to play it. Finally at home, in the first World Cup in twelve years, they were ready to claim what they believed rightfully belonged to them. They were so certain of glory that O País do Futebol built the Maracanã in order to parade the Jules Rimet Trophy and claim its heritage for the first time in their football history. In order to recuperate the mammoth amount of money they spent building the stadium, the Brazilians proposed a new format of the tourna­ment to FIFA featuring more games to earn more revenue in the process. It was decided that the four group toppers would play in a round-robin format to determine the champion.

Brazil came into the final match after rampaging their opponents, scor­ing 21 goals and conceding only four in their five matches. Their final hurdle was Uruguay who were back in the reckoning despite a draw against Spain. The Uruguayans were described having the most fearless defenders of their legacy protected by the allure of their blessed shirts. Scoring goals against them would need blood and sweat from the fierce Brazilian offensive line. Though Brazil had been marked as the favourites to win the prize, Uruguay was a far more superior power in the context of the South American Football Championship. This only added more fuel to Brazil’s urge to go on top of the world. Barbosa and Brazil, with an average defence line, had the advantage of only requiring a draw to be crowned champions, while their opponents had to win the match overcoming the hostile environment of the Maracanã, which was in fact a microcosm of the bigger picture in Rio. The streets were ready for the pre-planned victory parade to welcome their heroes as millions of shirts with victory slogans written on them were printed and distributed. O Mundo, a second-tier newspaper in Rio printed a photo of the Seleção un­der the headline ‘These Are the World Champions’5 in their morning copy. Gazeta Esportiva, the local newspaper in Sao Paulo came with the headline ‘Tomorrow we will beat Uruguay!’6 the evening before the finale. The honour­able mayor of Rio, Angelo Mendes de Moraes, greeted the Brazilians over the loudspeaker even before the kick-off, announcing:

“You, players, who in less than a few hours will be hailed as champions by millions of your compatriots! You, who have no rivals in the entire hemisphere! You, who will overcome any other competitor! You, who I already salute as victors!” 7

Before the players even entered in the field, they were gifted with solid gold watches, with ‘For the World Champions’ engraved on them. That emo­tion would come out to such extent for the countrymen was quite natural but much to everyone’s surprise, FIFA president Jules Rimet had also prepared a speech written in Portuguese for the Brazilians. The match was meant to be a mere formality before the Seleção took their first step towards global dominance of football but the La Celeste captain Obdulio Varela had different plans. Just before the teams took the pitch, he motivated his team with a strong and emotional speech. Countering Juan Lopez’s defence minded strategy, he said, ‘Juancito is a good man, but today, he is wrong. If we play defensively against Brazil, our fate will be no different from Spain or Sweden.’8 He even bought as many copies as he could of the O Mundo newspaper which already declared Brazil as the champions, only to cover up his bathroom floor and en­couraged his teammates to urinate on them and shouted as they progressed towards the tunnel, ‘Muchachos, los de afuera son de palo. Que empiece la fun­cion’ 9 (Boys, outsiders do not play. Let’s start the show). Later, it turned out to have a MASSIVE psychological effect during the 90 minutes of the fateful final.

The anticlimax

Every drama has its best part hidden in the climax where most of the tension is built up. It’s that decisive moment of maximum intensity where the drama can turn upside down. People with faint heart often fail to cope with such situations. Those 22 men on the lush green pitch of the Maracanã on 16 July 1950, felt the same way.

The first 45 minutes was not eventful as Brazil were seen typically launch­ing a series of attacking waves but were denied by the mighty Uruguayans led by Varela, playing in the defensive midfield and protecting the Sky-Blue’s defence. After the game restarted, one minute into the second half, Brazil showed the brand of football they loved to play and why they were favourites to win the Cup. Friaca, the Brazilian forward received a defence-splitting pass from Zizinho, made two Uruguayan defenders look helpless on their heels and ran into the box before shooting to Maspoli’s right. Gooool do Brasil. An ecstatic Luiz Mendes, the Radio Globo announcer jumped from his chair as all of Brazil leapt to their feet. The assemblage inside the Maracanã reverberated the Brazilian colosseum and on the pitch, Friaca lived the moment of his life under a heap of his teammates. Brazil were en route to becoming the world champion, but Varela and La Celeste had other plans.

The first reply from the Sky-Blues came nineteen minutes later and with it the party went onto hold as Maracanã noticed the first glimpse of the Fatídico day’s antihero. Uruguay winger Alcides Ghiggia made a run through the right side in the 66th minute catching Brazilian defender Bigode wrong footed and before he could position himself, Ghiggia let him taste some of their own medicine. He faked right, then left, then rushed towards the goal line before completely confusing Bigode about his intention and thrashed an inch perfect cross towards the incoming Juan Schiaffino who drove the ball into the top corner with a single touch. Barbosa was left exposed by his careless defence line and could do nothing but watched as the ball rattled the back of the net.


By then the match was evenly poised but Maracanã did not panic yet. A draw would still be good enough for the Brazilians if they could hold on for the next 24 minutes. Varela and company pulled their socks up and set foot on the pedal. Barbosa was aware that he had to play the role of a custodian now. Ademir, Friaca, Zizinho had played their part and suddenly the respon­sibility to take it home came on Barbosa’s shoulder. No one had thought that this match would come to such a point but such an eventuality was always on the cards. The beauty of football, as with many sports, is that the manner in which it is played, can never be entirely controlled by any one influential figure: it belongs entirely to the collective unit who play and coach. Barbosa, who was one of the many stars in the Seleção unit earned the dependency himself. His name echoed in the air of Rio and this was not an overnight achievement. During his time at Vasco, he took the team to six Campeonato Carioca triumphs in 1945, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1952 and 1958. Moreover his re­cent performance in the 1949 South American Championship triumph raised his country’s hope even higher. He kept two clean sheets including the final match against Paraguay and despite having a naïve defence line, was beaten only seven times throughout the tournament which made him the second best goalie in the campaign. At a time when Brazil were building their repu­tation by artistic play, Barbosa became the watcher of the Fort Knox. At 4.33 PM, thirteen minutes after the first blow to the Brazilian wall, the sun fell from the sky. Maracanã saw the emergence of the antihero, from a ‘nobody’ to a huge somebody. 79 minutes into the match Ghiggia again made a blazing run away from Bigode down the right wing. As he entered the penalty area, he kicked up a little cloud of chalk. By then Barbosa had already closed in the first post. He shaped himself such that Ghiggia would be forced to cross again as other Uruguayan players were approaching the back post. The first goal had not yet left Barbosa’s mind. It was kind of a run that leaves a keeper in two minds: cover the narrow angle to the left or start inching right to in­tercept a possible cross? Had Barbosa possessed the conventional grammar of a goalie, he would have waited until Ghiggia made up his mind, but he was an exception. He took his decision before Ghiggia could make his and that’s where Ghiggia got the better of Barbosa. Ghiggia read Barbosa’s mind in that fraction of a second. Instead of a cross he drilled a powerful low ball to the near post, the one place where a goalkeeper should never be beaten. As Barbosa dove left, he caught a piece of it. But was it enough? Barbosa sunk his face in the lush green grasses for a moment and waited for 200,000 people to give him the answer. There came the most roaring silence the world had ever experienced.

2–1 to Uruguay.

Luiz Mendes described the action in his charismatic style. ‘Goool do Uruguay’, he chanted repeatedly using the same words, this time asking a question. ‘Gol du Uruguay?’ He continued, every time with a different but un­happy style, nine times in a row to his disbelief – ‘Gol du Uruguay.’ and finally to acceptance – ‘Gol du Uruguay…’ Ghiggia on the other hand often used to describe the moment saying, ‘Only three people have, with just one motion, silenced the Maracanã: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and me.’1°

Although Brazil tried to make a dramatic comeback with rapid waves of attack launched by their powerful offensive line-up, it was all too little too late as the hosts were kept at bay and with the final blow of the whistle, George Reader, the English match official indicated that the La Celeste were the new champions of the world.

Alcides Ghiggia: Who had silenced the Maracana in 1950.
Alcides Ghiggia: Who had silenced the Maracana in 1950.

‘Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.’ 11 – Nelson Rodrigues, the famous Brazilian playwright, journalist and novelist described the outcome of the match. Coming second in a World Cup was the best ever result for the Brazilians at the time yet it felt no better than failure. They had never considered anything but victory. For the fans, the Uruguayan victory was obscure and even impious. July 16 became a dooms­day in Brazilian history like the Waterloo of the tropics. To the fans, their nation had been robbed and being the watchman, Barbosa had failed in his duty. In their lasting memory that goal was like Zapruder’s film of Kennedy being shot. The killer was Barbosa himself.

The aftermath

In the second half of the Clint Eastwood’s movie, Maggie was seen in a medi­cal rehabilitation facility where she wished to see her family members. It was only a few moments later that she came to know that her family had enjoyed the wealth she had provided until this time and now that she was on the verge of death, they would like to claim all the remaining property she had. As the days passed, Maggie developed bedsores and went through an amputation for an infected leg. She asked her friend, philosopher and guide Frankie one last favour: to help her die. When he refused, Maggie tried as best as she could to free herself from the pain but failed.

The monochrome drama of Moacyr Barbosa shares a somewhat similar picture. However, reality is stranger than fiction. When our tragic hero went through the catastrophe, he took the nasty fall. Although eleven men lost to a better opposition that day, Barbosa was the one vilified by the entire country.

The people of Brazil had deleted the otherwise brilliant career of Barbosa from their memory banks. He became ‘the man who made all of Brazil cry.’’2 Competition from Gylmar dos Santos Neves and Carlos Jose Castilho was hard enough as always, and a fractured leg suffered when playing for Vasco in 1953, put an end to his chances of playing in a second World Cup. Although he was still adored by the Vasco faithful but his presence in Vasco’s colours started creating problems. The team that once structured the base of the na­tional team and was widely admired became a hated one wherever it went. For Barbosa, it was even more painful. It became impossible for him to go to the shops or theatres without being involved in a heated discussion. Catering to his daily needs became an even greater challenge than stopping fierce goal bound shots. To free himself from this tormented life he left football. He started working as a public employee in the very sports complex where they were accommodated before the fateful final but this time in the swim­ming pools. The superstition became so strong that 1950 became the last time when Brazil wore their white jersey. They did not only change the jersey col­our. The ethnic diversity began to reflect in the Brazilian national team over the years except in one particular position. Except a single match in 1966, no coloured player was allowed to keep the goal for Brazil for more than half a century. Until on 13 June 2006, the Seleção took the field against Croatia with Nelson de Jesus Silva nicknamed Dida, as the goalkeeper. The Milan star fi­nally broke the trend. It took them 56 years after Ghiggia’s goal to introduce another black goalie.

Except a single match in 1966, no coloured player was allowed to keep the goal for Brazil for more than half a century. Until on 13 June 2006, the Seleção took the field against Croatia with Nelson de Jesus Silva nicknamed Dida, as the goalkeeper. The Milan star fi­nally broke the trend. It took them 56 years after Ghiggia’s goal to introduce another black goalie.

Over the years, various books and movies were made on that match. Arguably the best of them is Anatomy of a Defeat written by Paulo Perdigão where he said, ‘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.’’3 By the time the old white-haired goalkeeper sat down with Roberto Muylaert, his bi­ographer in the 1990s, he had made his peace with it. ‘He did not complain,’ Muylaert said, ‘He told the stories casually, matter-of-factly. He did not have any pain anymore.’14 After he bid farewell to his love, football, Barbosa was of­fered a job of an administrator at the Maracanã. The goal frame where Ghiggia had reoriented the course of his life for worse, was still standing there. In 1963, when the frame was replaced with new round posts, he was presented with the old ones as a mark of respect to his career. He accepted the gift, took them home and invited a few friends for a barbecue at his place. When they arrived, they noticed the fire in the grill’s pit, stuffed with strange white logs, was rag­ing far more than usual. The air smelt of paint burning. ‘The steak I cooked that day was the best steak I ever tasted’15, he recollected with a rare smile.

Three decades later, after that fateful final, when Barbosa went to visit the Brazilian national team as they were preparing for the 1994 World Cup, the Seleção’s superstitious coach Mario Zagallo forbade the ostracised goalie from speaking to the players as he might bring bad luck to them. ‘Under Brazilian law the maximum sentence is 30 years,’ he said. ‘But my imprison­ment has been for 50 years.’16 On a bright sunny day in Rio, in 1970, after the greatest-ever Brazil team became the world champion, a mother pointed out Barbosa to her child, recognising him out of a busy crowd in a market saying: ‘Look at him. He was the man who made all of Brazil cry.’’7 Tired of explaining the same story to different people on different occasions, Barbosa finally gave up. He pleaded with his teary eyes: ‘I am not guilty. There were eleven of us.’18

End credit

Towards the end of Million Dollar Baby, Frankie was seen sneaking into the hospital one night. He went there to grant Maggie’s last wish, to free her from the intolerable pain. Sadly though, Barbosa did not have anyone who could grant him his wish.

In 1994, when finally Barbosa had little reasons to stay in Rio, he moved to Praia Grande. Shortly after his wife Clotilde lost her battle to cancer, he felt he was in the last chapter of his life, having no one around but the pain­ful memories. One day, as he was walking along the tide in Praia Grande, he heard someone calling his name. ‘Barbosa of Vasco.’ Not Barbosa, the one who made the country cry. The caller was Mauro Borba, a diehard fan of Vasco da Gama. He and his wife Tereza, used to manage a bar in the beach-side. Later it became the place where Barbosa found his safe haven. Tereza who had no father and Barbosa who had no daughter, came close to each other. She used to call him ‘my champion’.

Moacir Barbosa, 1982
Moacir Barbosa, 1982

Champion is indeed the noun that could describe Barbosa’s football ca­reer. For those who had seen the fateful final at Maracanã and for generations of those born much later yet dwelling in superstition, Barbosa might still carry a curse for their nation. However, for the football romantics, who had the op­portunity to witness the magnificent artist of the ‘beautiful game’, Barbosa will remain a trailblazer, an innovator in the 18 yards box. On 8 July 1962, Moacyr Barbosa Nascimento limped off the pitch of Aniceto Moscoso stadium for the very last time with the aid of the doctor of the modest club Campo Grande with a muscle injury. Despite the pain endured, he felt better than he had for a long time. It did not make any difference that only 670 people made the stands. For the 41-year-old veteran, the endless ovation from the fans felt affectionate and unexpected.

Although Alcides Ghiggia’s goal made Uruguay world champions, Barbosa remained the protagonist of that ill-fated final of 1950. Being the tragic hero, his teary eyes over shadowed the euphoria of Ghiggia’s goal. He may be still regarded as the failed protector, but the truth is that Moacyr Barbosa happens to be one of the best goalkeepers Brazil has ever produced.

On 27 March 2000, Tereza threw a party for Barbosa on his 79th birthday. The white haired weak man could not remember the last time when he had felt so happy. A week later, Barbosa finally bade farewell to life. As Tereza walked along the rows of numbered vaults in the cemetery, standing twenty feet tall into the sky, she noticed some with nameplates. It was an uncanny place filled with great loneliness. She turned down to row 300 and stopped before Barbosa’s finely kept granite vault. Its assigned number: 50.


  1. Daniel, 2012, p. 264.
  2. Rao, 2007, ‘Interview with Roger Federer’.
  3. FIFA, 2014a, ‘Barbosa the innovator’.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Montague, 2014, pp. 235-236.
  6. Bellos, 2014, p. 49.
  7. Robinson, 2013, ‘The Defeat That Brazil Can’t Forget’.
  8. Hughes, 2014, ‘In Brazil, It’s Time for the World to Play’.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Bellos, 2014, p. 52.
  11. Ibid, p. 43.
  12. Wilson, 2009, p. 112.
  13. Perdigão, 2000 [quoted in Bellos, 2014, p. 54].
  14. Robinson, 2013, ‘The Defeat That Brazil Can’t Forget’.
  15. Yousif, 2013, ‘The Tormented Soul of Moacyr Barbosa’.
  16. Robinson, 2013, ‘The Defeat That Brazil Can’t Forget’.
  17. Yousif, 2013, ‘The Tormented Soul of Moacyr Barbosa’.
  18. Bellos, 2000, ‘Moacir Barbosa: Goalkeeper who made a mistake his nation never forgave or forgot’.

The Burden of Expectation in the Belly of a Giant

World War II had ravaged the world. The entire continent of Europe was in ruins. The World Cup trophy would have been lost amongst many other valuables which were seized by the Nazis. The Nazis were after the trophy as well, but it was saved by the efforts of a man named Ottorino Barassi. He was the president of the FIGC (Fedeazione Italiana Guioco Calcio or Italian Football federation) during the war. As Italy was the defending champions, the trophy was in a bank vault in Rome. Barassi sensing the danger to the trophy took it home and kept it in a shoe-box under his bed till the end of the war. There were very few countries willing to host the tournament after the war. People felt that spending money for a football tournament was wasteful when countries were rebuilding themselves from the ravages of war. Before the cancellation of the 1942 tournament, FIFA had received two bids from Brazil and Germany. The Brazilians presented their bid to FIFA again in 1946 when it was decided that the tournament would go back to South America after two decades. Barassi , the saviour of the trophy, was assigned to assist the Brazilian federation in organising the tournament, drawing on his experience from the 1934 tournament held in his country. The Brazilians presented the idea of building the largest stadium of the world in Rio de Janeiro, double the capacity of Wembley stadium, then the largest in the world.

The hosts started as favourites as they had won the Copa America in 1949 beating Paraguay 7-0 in the finals and Uruguay 5-1 before that. They had an impressive trio of inside-forwards in Zizinho, Ademir and Jair. Italy, the defending champions were weakened by the Superga air disaster involving the Torino team which resulted in the death of ten national team players. Sweden, the Olympic champion of 1948 was a strong team but their coach had refused to include players playing for foreign clubs. The best Swedish players had been signed up by Italian clubs after the Olympics, so they did not have their best side for this tournament. Yugoslavia, silver medallists from the Olympics were a good team. There was huge anticipation over the debut of England who had lost Frank Swift, Tommy Lawton and Raich Carter but still had Billy Wright, Stan Mortensen and ‘The wizard of the dribble’ Stanley Matthews in their ranks. FIFA had decided that the first two teams of the British Home Championships would qualify automatically for the tournament. England and Scotland both had qualified based on this FIFA directive. George Graham, the chief of the Scottish FA decided that Scotland would play only if they won the Home Championships. They lost the final to England and despite the pleading of Billy Wright, the England captain and Jules Rimet, they refused to go to Brazil. Uruguay had some good players like Juan Schiaffino and Alcide Ghiggia.  All the East European countries like Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Soviet Union refused to play the qualification matches. Turkey refused to go, citing financial difficulties. In Asia – Philippines, Burma and Indonesia – all destroyed by war pulled out of qualification matches while India qualified by default. Argentina withdrew citing differences with the Brazilian Football federation. France and Portugal were invited in place of Turkey and Scotland. Portugal refused but France accepted. Germany and Japan were banned from playing international football by FIFA.

FIFA had changed the format of the tournament with four groups where all teams played each other, with each group winner advancing to another group of four teams to decide the champions. The format was to ensure that each team would play more than one match as opposed to the knockout format used for the last two editions of the tournament. There was no final match but the last match became a final by circumstances. There was no zoning of the groups and all teams with the exception of the hosts had to travel large distances to play their matches which was not ideal in those times. The draw was held in Rio just before the tournament with the 15 participating teams.

Group 1: Brazil, Mexico, Switzerland and Yugoslavia

Group 2: England, Chile, Spain and the USA

Group 3: Italy, India, Paraguay and Sweden

Group 4: Uruguay, Bolivia and France

India wanted to pull out citing financial difficulties, but FIFA agreed to bear the major part of the expenses. They still pulled out as they played barefoot and FIFA had banned barefoot play in 1948. France also withdrew due to the large amount of travelling involved in playing their two matches. Finally, only thirteen nations remained in the fray, same as the last tournament in the same continent twenty years ago.

Group 1

The tournament started on June 24, 1950 at the huge Maracanã stadium, then known as the Municipal in Rio de Janeiro with the hosts playing Mexico. The capacity of the stadium was halved as it was not complete. There were fireworks, 5000 pigeons and a 21 gun salute which did not bode well for the unfinished concrete structure. The people in the stands were covered in shards of concrete but thankfully none of them were large in size. The host team however was better prepared than the venue. The Brazilians hit the post in the 6th minute by a Jair shot. Then Ademir tapped the ball into the goal past the advancing goalkeeper Antonio Carbajal to put Brazil ahead. Mayhem ensued with fifteen radio commentators and a dozen reporters rushing onto the pitch for instant interviews! The referee George Reader of England cleared the pitch without much of a problem and the game resumed. Brazil kept dominating and hit the woodwork five times. After halftime, Ademir and Balthazar switched positions. Jair scored with a cross-shot and Balthazar added a third with a header off a corner from ten yards. Ademir added his second of the game by a driving in Jair’s short pass. Brazil had won 4-0 but still their coach, Flavio Costa wasn’t sure about their forward line.

Half constructed Maracanã in the first match

Yugoslavia comfortably defeated Switzerland 3-0 with their incisive passing. This was the first finals match where the floodlights were switched on. Alfred Bickel, the Swiss captain was one of two players who had played in the last World Cup before the war. The other was Erik Nilsson, the Swedish captain. Incidentally both the players were from countries which were neutral during World War II.  Yugoslavia defeated Mexico 4-1 in their next match living up to their reputation as one of the best teams in the tournament. Brazil played Switzerland in Sao Paolo in their second match. The Brazilian coach called their opponents as a team without any importance. He brought in a lot of new players from the Sao Paolo club to please the crowd. The same crowd wanted to lynch him at the end of the match and riot police had to be deployed. Leaving out Jair was a bad decision. The Brazilians struggled against the plucky Swiss and led 2-1 at halftime. In the 88th minute, Bickel got away and crossed for Jacky Fatton to score his second goal of the game and stun the crowd. The result meant that Yugoslavia needed only a draw against Brazil in the last match. The hosts were in danger of being eliminated. There was massive amount of tension in Rio when Brazil met Yugoslavia to decide who would reach the final group. Brazil had a huge slice of luck when Zlatko Cajkovski, the Yugoslavian midfielder cut his head in an unfinished steel girder at the stadium. The referee, Mervyn Griffiths refused to delay the start in a stoic show of British punctuality. Ten man Yugoslavia were made to pay for their deficiency by conceding a goal scored by Ademir in the third minute. Cajkovski rejoined in the tenth minute and the Yugoslavs matched the hosts in creating chances. The Yugoslav goalkeeper, Srdan Mrkusic was asked to change his jersey as he was wearing the same all-white strip of the Brazilians after 30 minutes (Shades of Graham Poll of 2006). Cajkovski hit the post and missed with the goalkeeper at his mercy in the second. The host eventually made the match safe with Zizinho scoring in the 69th minute. The hosts had just about made it to the final pool.

Ademir of Brazil, the top scorer with 8 goals

Group 2

The English played their first World Cup finals match against Chile. The Chileans were facing their first European opposition since the 1930 World Cup tournament.  Neil Franklin, one of England’s best defenders had left England to play for Independiente Santa Fe of Bogotá for 5000 pounds and 35 pounds of bonus for each win. He was not pleased with the 20 pound a week wage cap imposed on footballers by the English FA in England. Columbia was not a member of FIFA and he refused to join the English teamfor the tournament which was a big loss for them. The coach, Walter Winterbottom did not even play Matthews. They defeated Chile with goals by Mortensen and Wilf Mannion in each half but looked far from comfortable at the back with Chilean George Robledo who played for Newcastle causing them problems. England team used oxygen cylinders to cope with the humidity during the halftime break but Billy Wright just didn’t like the concept. United States played Spain and led through a Gino Pariani goal for 80 minutes. The Spaniards eventually equalised through Silvester Igoa and won 3-1 with further goals from Estanislao Basora and Telmo Zarraonandia, better known as Zarra, in the 82nd and 85th minute. The scoreline did not reflect the real story of the match.  American defender Charlie (Chuck) Columbo played with gloves raising a few eyebrows. Spain next played Chile and defeated them 2-0 with both Basora and Zarra on target in the first half.

Joe Gatjaens (R) scores against England

England played USA in Belo Horizonte in a match that has been touted as the greatest upset in the history of football. The truth was that the Americans were not a bad side as they had shown against Spain in the last match. The English media has described the American win as nothing short of a miracle over the years but they were being unkind to their opponents to gloss over the shortcomings of their own team. Matthews was still not on the team as Winterbottom did not consider their opponents good enough to play the great man. Joe Gatjaens scored the only goal of the match with a diving header in the 38th minute. The English media describe the match as a procession of missed English chances and acrobatics by Frank Borghi, the American goalkeeper. Mortensen and Mullen missed chances but the Americans had their own chances to extend their lead. Pariani brought out a great save from Bert Williams, the English keeper. Alf Ramsey cleared off the line from a Frank Valicenti (Wallace) shot. The crowd grew from 10,000 to 40,000 by the end. An editor in London thought the scoreline was a misprint of 10-1 in favour of England. It was a bad day for the English against colonials as on the very same day England lost for the first time in a cricket test match against West Indies. The score in reality should have been 3-0 in favour of England as the Americans had fielded three foreigners in their team. The goal-scorer Gatjaens had played for Haiti, Joe Maca was a Scottish player and Ed McIlvenny was a Belgian. There was a FIFA letter showing that the three were ineligible. However, Jules Rimet was persuaded by the American ambassador, Herschel Johnson who conveyed the wish of a certain President Harry Trueman to overlook such small deficiencies and shortcomings.  In their last match, England needed a win against Spain. At last Matthews started and Jacky Milburn was brought in. Both of them played well but the rest of the team were demoralised by the loss in the last match and Spain won it by a goal from Zarra in the 48th minute. Spain had qualified for the final pool with an all win record. In the inconsequential last match, the Americans were defeated by the Chileans 5-2.

 Group 3

The first match was between defending world champions Italy against the defending Olympic champions Sweden. Sweden had not selected the great AC Milan trio Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm, known as the great Grenoli.  Again a lot of people say what if? The match was well fought with the Swedes bossing the possession with crisp passing. The Scandinavians were 2-1 ahead at halftime through goals by Hans Jeppson and Sune Andersson after Italians had taken the lead through Riccardo Carapellesse. Jeppson added another in the second half. Ermes Muccinelli pulled one goal back in the 75th minute but the Swedes comfortably controlled the game till the final whistle to win 3-2. Nearly all the Swedish players were signed by Italian clubs after this match. The Swedes played the Copa America runners up Paraguay next and were two goals up within half an hour. Paraguayans fought back with goals in the 34th and 75th minute. After that the Swedes shut shop and played for the 2-2 draw. The Paraguayans needed to beat the Italians by a two goal margin to qualify for the final pool but were handed a 2-0 defeat. The Italians played well and it was the last the Italians were seen in a World Cup for 12 years as their national team went into decline. Italy was the first defending champions to be eliminated in the group stage, an ‘achievement’ which they repeated six decades later. Sweden qualified for the final pool.

Group 4

There was only one match in this group which was hit by the pulling out of France.  Uruguay crushed Bolivia 8-3. In this match, Uruguay showed that they had some very good players like Roque Maspoli in goal, Rodriguez Andrade the nephew of the great player of the 1930 cup winning team and Obdulio Varela their captain. Schaiffino and Ghiggia were both impressive with Omar Miguez scoring a hat-trick. Uruguay made it to the final pool, easily playing just a single match which meant that they were much fresher and less travel weary than the other teams.

Uruguay team

Final Pool: Brazil, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay

The first match in the final pool was between Uruguay and Spain. Both teams were very physical and rough. Zarra was marked out of the game by the Uruguayans. Ghiggia sprinted in to score the first goal in the 27th minute. Spain hit back with two goals from Basora in the 39th and 41st minute. Uruguay was saved by Varela who moved up-field and went past two opposition defenders and scored from the edge of the box.  The bruising match finished 2-2 and two Uruguayans missed their next match. After narrowly qualifying from the group stage, Brazil unleashed their attacking prowess against Sweden by annihilating them 7-1. The Swedes were not a bad team by any stretch but four goals by Ademir, a brace of goals by Chico and one by Maneca finished their chances in the tournament. The three inside forwards Ademir, Jair and Zizinho were magnificent with their inter-passing and movement which was far more skilful than anything seen in Europe in those times. All the three were lanky and sported pencil moustaches. They would have scored more goals if they had not played exhibition football for the last 30 minutes.

Brazil Team

Uruguay played Sweden in their second match. It was a close match, the Swedes taking the lead through Karl-Erik Palmer in the fourth minute, after he controlled and shot high across the keeper from a long floating free-kick from the wing. Uruguay equalised through Ghiggia in the 39th minute, who after a characteristic surging run through the midfield, volleyed a long shot to the keepers right. Sweden immediately regained their lead through a Stig Sundkvist goal with a left footed volley, after the second choice Uruguayan keeper Anibal Paz came out and dropped a cross under pressure from Jeppson to take a 2-1 lead into the break. After the break the Uruguayans kept attacking without any success. Eventually Miguez scored twice from loose balls in the 77th and 84th minute to give Uruguay a 3-2 victory and kept alive their chances of winning the tournament. Brazil played Spain and was equally impressive as the last match winning 6-1. Jair, Ademir and Zizinho were magnificent again with their inter play leaving their opponents mesmerised.

Before the last match there was the league match to decide third place. Spain just needed a draw and Sweden needed a win. The Swedes won 3-1 to claim the third position. This was the best performance in the World Cup by Spain till 2010. Brazil went into the last match against Uruguay, just needing a draw to win the World Cup. They were overwhelming favourites playing at home in front of a crowd of 205,000, the biggest ever to watch a football match. The Brazilian press had already termed their team as champions. The Uruguayan captain bought a newspaper which proclaimed the Brazilians as champions and ordered his teammates to urinate on it to stoke their anger and focus.  The mayor of Rio de Janeiro referred to Brazil as the champions in his speech before the match. The Brazilians were exceptional in their forward play but their defence had a few problems. The diagonal defensive formation left their wing-halves with no cover if the opposition wingers managed to penetrate. The Brazilians started off like their last two matches attacking Uruguay relentlessly. They had eight shots in the first five minutes but were frustrated by a wall of Uruguayan defenders. Eusebio Tajera marked Ademir and he was helped by Varela who was falling back. Above all, the Uruguayan goalkeeper Maspoli played the game of his life.

Maspoli in action during the final

Maspoli saved a thumping shot from Ademir after some crisp interplay between Jair and Zizinho. Then he saved a great header to deny Ademir again. Chico had his shot saved by Maspoli after that. There was no goal at halftime but the spectators were in good spirit singing and dancing to the samba beats. The goal came in the 47th minute. The Uruguayan defence was in the left side to cover Ademir and Jair. A reverse pass from Ademir sent Friaca clear on the right side of the goal. He managed to hold off Andrade and beat Maspoli with a flopping cross cum shot (0-1). The entire stadium was in raptures. The volume was louder and the samba rhythm faster. The goal coming in the second half did not demoralise the Uruguayans who took heart from the fact that they had thwarted the hosts for so long. Varela started to make forays into the Brazilian half. Ghiggia then started to give the Brazilian left-back Bigode a harrowing time. In the 66th minute he took a pass from Varela and pulled Bigode to the left touchline, beat him by a body sway, crossed for Schiaffino to score with a sweeping shot just beating Brazilian defender Juvenal’s tackle and goalkeeper Barbosa’s outstretched hands (1-1).  The stadium was silent. The Brazilians were still going to win the Cup if the score remained the same but the crowd reaction was as if they had lost the Cup.

Schiaffino scores beating Barbosa: The goal that silenced 205,000 people

The Brazilian manager many years later said that it was the silence in the stadium that terrorised his players. Ghiggia repeated the move only to see Schiaffino shoot wide in the 71st minute. The Brazilian coach Flavio Costa should have done something to protect poor Bigode. Defensive tactical acumen was not the forte of Costa. Brazil kept attacking and Maspoli kept saving. Brazil had 30 shots on goal in the game to Uruguay’s 12. In the 77th minute Julio Perez, the Uruguayan half back played a one-two with Ghiggia which flummoxed hapless Bigode. Ghiggia angled in from the right wing and Barbosa stayed back on his line expecting another cross, instead the Uruguayan unleashed a fierce shot below the keeper’s hands, who got a faint touch (2-1).  The spectators were now horrified.

Chico (C) shoots wide in the final

On the other end of the pitch, Maspoli continued his procession of great saves, first from a Jair shot, another from a Chico toe-poke. Then Ademir volleyed over the goal from close range. In the last action of the game, Maspoli dropped a high cross after being challenged. His teammate Andrade was the first to the ball and the final whistle was blown by George Reader, the English referee. The Uruguayans had triumphed for the second time in South America and were yet to be beaten in the tournament.  Schiaffino described the after-match ceremony as having the atmosphere of a despondent funeral.

Obdulio Varela being presented the World Cup trophy

The Brazilians unfairly blamed the players of African origin for their loss, namely, Barbosa the goalkeeper. Thirteen years later Barbosa was given the goalposts as souvenir, which he took home and promptly used as fuel for a neighbourhood barbecue. The Brazilian all white jersey was deemed unlucky and with permission from the Football Confederation a newspaper held a design competition for a new jersey. The competition was won by a 19 year old named Aldyr Garcia Schlee who designed the current uniform reflecting their national flag. Ruben Moran is the only player to make his debut in the World Cup final and win. It was a very successful tournament with huge turnouts to the matches. The only down side was that an entire country was in mourning after the tournament finished.