The Russia 2018 Favorites

Over 20 tournaments, since its inception in 1930 through to Brazil 2014, only eight countries have ever lifted the World Cup. All hailing from either South America or Western Europe, the “World Game” may be played all across the globe but it’s dominated by two regions.

Almost all the World Cup winners have another thing in common — a large population. Brazil, the most successful footballing nation in the world, has 209 million football-crazed denizens within its borders. Germany, the four-time champions, boasts a population of 82 million. A large population means a bigger pool to draw from, and it’s seemingly a must-have for any footballing powerhouse.

There is, however, one small exception.

Uruguay: A Football Anomaly

The tiny nation of Uruguay is a stubborn exception to the rule. Wedged between footballing giants Argentina and Brazil, the tiny country of 3.4 million managed to force itself into football history. After winning the inaugural World Cup in 1930, they claimed another twenty years later in 1950.

In the years since, Uruguay has taken a backseat to nations like Brazil, Argentina, Italy, and Germany. Still, the story of Uruguay is a glimmer of hope for smaller nations hoping to make an impact at Russia 2018 and beyond.

The Russia 2018 Favorites

The list of favorites for Russia 2018 holds no surprises. According to this site, defending champions Germany (11/2 odds) are favored to win back-to-back World Cups (a feat last managed by Brazil in 1962), with the other favorites — France (6/1), Brazil (7/1), Argentina (10/1), and Spain (10/1) — not far behind.

All five countries have a few things in common. Most notably, they’re all previous World Cup winners. In fact, those nations have won seven of the last eight World Cups. Italy (20/1) and England (25/1), two more previous world champions, are among the top contenders as well.

And then there’s Uruguay (55/1), the only previous World Cup-winner not among the favorites.

The old guard remains strong. Nations with a rich history of World Cup success continue to dominate international competitions, and every country with 10/1 odds or better has a population of at least 45 million.

But there’s still hope for the little guy, and it comes in the form of chocolate and male models.

A David Among The Goliaths

Portugal – home to Ronaldo, the best(-looking) footballer on Earth – and Belgium – home to Godiva, the best-tasting chocolate on Earth – are both nations of around 10 million people. Yet, on paper, they have the talent to compete with the giants of international football. If you’re hoping for a David-versus-Goliath moment in Russia, they have the best chance. with Portugal placed at 30/1 odds and Belgium at 16/1 to win the next World Cup — not exactly favorites, but certainly outside contenders.

Belgium reached the quarterfinals in 2014, finishing first in their group and defeating the US in the Round of 16. With players like Kevin De Bruyne, Yannick Carrasco, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku developing tremendously over the last four years, Russia 2018 could finally be their moment. But they don’t have a great track record at the World Cup; their best finish ever was a fourth-place all the way back in 1986. And this talented core of players suffered another letdown at Euro 2016, getting bounced by the even smaller Wales (3-1) in the quarterfinals.

Portugal have had some impressive results recently – including a monumental triumph at Euro 2016 in France, their first European Championship — but they have a history of underperforming at the World Cup, just like Belgium. They finished third in 1966 and fourth in 2006, but were knocked out in the Group Stage in two of the last four tournaments, including Brazil 2014.

Russia will be the team’s last World Cup with Ronaldo in his prime. If they don’t win the trophy next year, it’s likely to be a long wait. Just like World Cup titles, the history of the Ballon D’Or – FIFA’s player of the year award – is replete with winners from massive nations. Yes, the Marco Van Bastens (Netherlands) have had their time at the top. But, for the most part, the winners-list is riddled with the flags of Brazil, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the USSR.

Without Ronaldo’s peerless talent, Portugal would be a fringe team in qualification. Even massive nations with tens of millions more people and top-flight development programs go decades without breeding a player of Ronaldo’s caliber. For smaller nations, that’s likely what it will take to break the Goliath’s stranglehold on the trophy: lucking into one or two nonpareils who can get incredibly hot and make up for the lack of depth that teams like Brazil, Germany, Spain, France, and Italy are always going to boast. Because, at the end of the day, footballing success seems to be a numbers game.

Manyas: the origin of Peñarol nickname

Ever wondered, why are the fans of Club Atlético Peñarol known as Manyas? Martin da Cruz has traversed 100 years back through the history of Uruguayan football to find the compelling answer.

Carlos Scarone was born in barrio[1] Peñarol, Montevideo, not long after his father Don Giuseppe arrived from Savona, Italy in 1887. The entire Scarone family, headed by Giuseppe, became immersed in the local Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club, known simply as Peñarol. It was in the streets of that barrio that Carlos adopted a love for the ball, and skills that guaranteed his future.

An aggressive, technically brilliant centre forward, Scarone lasted only one season at River Plate before he was picked up by Peñarol in 1909. It was there that he linked up with a young Jose Piendibene, with the two developing a formidable attacking partnership that led to a Uruguayan title in 1911.

Scarone’s quality didn’t go unnoticed. Tempted by more money and possible adventures abroad,, the youngster journeyed to Buenos Aires in order to sign for Boca Juniors. His time in Argentina was cut short, however, with a supposed illness resulting in a return to Montevideo the following year.

Don Giuseppe was delighted. His son had left too soon, falling victim to the allure of wealth and the appeal of the unknown. With his little adventure over, it was now time to return home to Peñarol.

Then one night, Carlos made an announcement.

“I’m going to play for Nacional”.

His father was speechless. How could his son do this? Not only a betrayal of his former club, a move to Nacional was an affront to his father, his family, and to the place of his birth.

Don Giuseppe demanded answers. Where was his loyalty? What did Buenos Aires do to him? For what possible reason could he go to the Other team? The debate raged, arguments descended to insults. Don Giuseppe lambasted his son—calling him a coward, a traitor.

Carlos wasn’t interested. He claimed that Peñarol didn’t show him the attention he deserved upon his return from Buenos Aires. While his childhood club neglected him, their rivals saw an opening. Nacional’s directors swooped, showered him with attention, and made an offer he would be crazy to refuse.

His father was adamant—“You must return to Peñarol”.

Then Scarone, as incensed as his father, replied in his family’s native tongue. “Go to Peñarol? ¿A qué? ¿A mangiare merda? (To what? To eat shit?!”)

Scarone’s motivations were clear. He was only interested in money, and would pursue it even if it meant breaking his father’s heart. Pleas from his family fell on deaf ears, and Scarone made the move to Nacional.

Despite existing only fifteen years, the Peñarol-Nacional rivalry had already consumed the lives of the football lovers of Montevideo. What was the main attraction of the season now had the added element of Scarone’s return, but to the Other team. Trams were filled to capacity, thousands marched to the Parque Central, and Scarone was about to face it all.

July 26, 1914.

Scarone was battling more than those on the pitch. Indeed, Don Giuseppe was there in the stands, like he had been for every Peñarol game. This time, he was there cheering against his son, abusing him in the most lamentable manner, for he was now just another Nacional player.

It was an intense, emotional encounter. Hounded by an aggressive Peñarol, and with his father in the stands, a determined yet desperate Scarone went out with everything. He kicked out at his former teammates including Piendibene, John Harley, and especially his direct opponent, Manuel Varela. Accompanying Scarone’s kicks were his constant provocations.

“Come on! You’re all a bunch of shit eaters!”… “Manyas!!”

Peñarol won 2-1. Scarone’s performance was off, to say the least.

Penarol Manyas
Peñarol is climbing to the sky (Peñarol 3 – Cerrito 1, 2010) Photo Credit:
Jimmy Baikovicius

Seemingly focused on getting one back at his old side, the football Scarone was known for gave way to theatrics. La Razón noted that instead of playing the ball, Scarone dedicated the entire match to diving and fighting his opponents. Perhaps it was nostalgia. Maybe arrogance? More likely a preoccupation with his father right there, cheering against him. Whatever it was, Scarone and Nacional endured an afternoon they wanted to forget.

While it was a terrible Clásico debut for Scarone, he soon bounced back and forged a long, successful career for club and country. In another blow to Don Giuseppe, Carlos was joined at Nacional by his younger brother. His name was Hector. He became Uruguay’s star forward at the Olympic and World Cup triumphs, and the country’s all-time top scorer for over eighty years.

Carlos Scarone’s legacy is perhaps more enduring at Peñarol than his adopted team. He had turned his back on both his family and childhood club, and anything other than the best pay was the equivalent of eating shit. That Italian insult used by Scarone, Mangia Merda, was taken, creolized, and is now used proudly by Peñarol fans. Manya is as a statement of loyalty, as well as the expectation that the players put the institution, and the fans, ahead of their own desire for fame and fortune.

[1] “Barrio” : a district of a town in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries

Photo Credit: Nae and Jimmy Baikovicius

The article was first published on author’s personal blog. Please bookmark the website for great stories on Uruguayan football.

Uruguay’s Black stars of the 1916 Copa America

Uruguay was one of the most formidable forces in international football in the early years of last millennium. There was no World Cup then, but Uruguay was hailed as arguably the strongest team around. While the national team was scaling new heights, some interesting developments were taking place with far reaching impact beyond the realms of football. Here is one such story from the 1916 Copa America.

Uruguay entered the 1916 South American championships in Buenos Aires seeking not only redemption, but affirmation. Of course, they were there to avenge the humiliating 4-1 defeat suffered against Argentina at the Revolución de Mayo tournament six years earlier. More importantly, the tournament was an opportunity for Uruguay to measure both their progress as a footballing powerhouse nation and confirm their superiority in America. Such progress was clear in Uruguay’s inclusion of two Black players in their squad, Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín.

Gradín’s appearance at the tournament capped off a meteoric rise for the 18-year-old. As a youngster playing in Barrio Sur, Gradín’s raw talent caught the eye of Peñarol scouts who soon made a move for the then-13-year-old. Promoted to the senior team at 17, Gradín instantly made an impact. His devastating pace and trickery combined with the brilliance of Peñarol legend Jose ‘el Maestro’ Piendibene forged a devastating partnership. In his debut year, Gradín earned his first Uruguay call-up.

The importance of international contests to Uruguayan football was reflected in the team’s preparation for the tournament. Weeks earlier, twenty two of the league’s top players were called up. Divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams, a series of practice matches would ultimately decide the Uruguayan starting XI. While retaining a core of experienced players, the clear standout of the first team was Gradín, who dominated the first two practice matches. While respect was granted towards the veterans, young Gradín was the great hope.

Isabelino Gradín
Isabelino Gradín [Source:]

Following a 3-1 loss to the B side, however, uncertainty surrounded Uruguay’s chances. The weak link of the side was Alfredo Zibechi of Montevideo Wanderers, who occupied the position of centre-half. Revolutionised by Scot John Harley, whose short passing and control of tempo complemented and strengthened the Uruguayan dribbling game, the position was arguably the most important in the national team.While he retained the confidence of the selection committee, Zibechi’s performances failed to convince both the public and the press. ‘Above all else, Zibechi is not mature enough to carry out such an important role’ wrote El Día, laying the blame on the centre-half for the failure of the A side.

The solution was found in the opposition. Juan Delgado was already a household name in Uruguayan football, having played for several clubs in Montevideo in addition to a brief stint at Boca Juniors in the first half of 1916. Upon his return from Argentina, Delgado rejected overtures from Peñarol, opting instead to play for Central Football Club of Palermo, a barrio with a significant Afro-Uruguayan presence. Capped at national level in 1913, and among the most experienced in the team, it was a wonder why Delgado had not been first choice.

Playing centre-half for Uruguay B, Delgado’s superiority over Zibechi was clear. While Zibechi couldn’t intercept a single pass, forcing his teammates to leave their positions to support him, Delgado was the opposite. Delgado held his own, leaving star forwards Gradín and Bracchi impotent while saving his side from other dangerous moments. At 21, Zibechi was vastly inferior, lacking the confidence and experience of Delgado. Those present at the ground were unanimous, applauding Delgado’s performance and calling on the selectors to include the Central player in Uruguay’s first team.

The press agreed with the popular call, with the inclusion of Delgado a no-brainer. For ElDía, the Central midfielder was at ‘the peak of his career, and it can be affirmed that none of our players can rival him’. Not only was Delgado unshakable in his defensive responsibilities, he was a threat in attack through his precise passing and organisation of his teammates. The Central player was a natural fit for the role of centre-half. After initial hesitance, the committee gave in to popular pressure and Delgado was given a starting place in the team. With the additions of the explosive Gradín and the ‘popularly consecrated’ Delgado, expectations in Montevideo were high.

Uruguay faced Chile in the tournament opener. From the very first kick off, Delgado repaid those who had called for his inclusion with a timely interception of Chile’s very first play. The centre-half imposed himself on the rest of the game, with Chilean attacks repeatedly broken up by what the Uruguayan press called a ‘formidable adversary, watching their every move’. Delgado was just as effective with the ball at his feet, starting multiple plays that elicited admiration and applause from the crowd.  The first half finished 1-0 with a goal to Piendibene.

The second half was all Uruguay, with Gradín the star as they relentlessly attacked their Chilean rivals. Eleven minutes in, the Peñarol forward controlled a Somma cross with ease, putting Uruguay 2-0 ahead with a strong finish. Soon after, Gradín once again received a cross from Somma, coolly heading the ball into the net for Uruguay’s third. Piendibene rounded off a dominant Uruguay performance in typical fashion, dribbling a series of opponents before beating the Chilean keeper with a fierce drive. The game finished 4-0 with Delgado pulling the strings and Gradín starring in attack.

Juan Delgado
Juan Delgado [Source:]

The next day, controversy struck. The Chilean media, lamenting the loss to Uruguay, had ‘discovered’ the cause for such a loss. Indeed, the adverse result was explained by the composition of the Uruguayan team, which had included two ‘African professionals’. Startled by the claims, the president of the Asociación Atlética y de Football de Chile sent a telegram to his country’s delegation in Buenos Aires, demanding a formal complaint if such allegations were true. In response to the furore, the Uruguayan press lashed out, rejecting the Chilean complaints as absurd. Referring to the Chilean officials call for calm, El Día responded mockingly, suggesting ‘perhaps they fear that our ‘African’ players are cannibals, too!’

The reaction from Chile caused indignation among Uruguay’s officials, who demanded an official explanation. The head of the Chilean delegation, deputy Hector Arancibia Laso, immediately backtracked and apologised to the Uruguayans. Accompanying the apology was a letter of congratulations, the Chileans stating their extreme pleasure with the ‘gentlemanly attitude of the Uruguayans, who played the game fairly, winning because of their evident superiority.’ Overwhelmed by the result, but also clearly eager to smooth relations, the Chileans invited Uruguay to a practice game the following day to learn the superior ‘scientific football’ they had recently fallen victim to. The Uruguayans accepted, reciprocating with an invitation of their own to play a friendly game in Montevideo.

Two days after their official encounter, Chile and Uruguay played a practice game, one half of 45 minutes and a second of 30. The game was indeed a friendly, with three Uruguayans, including their captain, playing for the Chilean team. Despite fears that Uruguay’s star forwards would be targeted, the practice was deemed a success. It finished 3-2 to the Uruguayans, with Gradín scoring once again. While their compatriots back home remained in a panic over the scandalous presence of ‘African professionals’, the Chilean players were eager to meet and learn from the superior Afro-Uruguayans.


Gradín and Delgado continued to dominate the Campeonato. Two days after the Chile practice, Uruguay went out and defeated a tough Brazilian side 2-1 after trailing at halftime. Gradín was again the standout, scoring the equaliser in the second half. Interestingly, another Afro-descendant was playing, with one Arthur Friedenreich scoring the opening goal for Brazil. Uruguay would now play Argentina in the tournament decider, needing only a draw to be crowned champions.

In what seems outrageous today, the Uruguayans travelled back to Montevideo the day after the Brazil match for a friendly against Chile in the middle of the tournament. Despite the first team being rested for the game, the entire Uruguayan squad made the trip back together. Present at el Parque Central were Delgado and Gradín, whose attendance drew most of the attention. Gradín, the undisputed star of the tournament, received an emotional ovation from the public, with a group of excited fans lifting him onto their shoulders, carrying him around the stadium.

The Uruguayans returned to Buenos Aires for the decider against the hosts, only to have the match abandoned due to crowd violence. The replay the next day finished goalless, and Uruguay were crowned champions. Uruguay’s Black players again received the plaudits, with Gradín in particular ‘a colossus in every sense of the word’ according to El Dia, undoubtedly ‘the best element of the forward quintet’ with his great runs and powerful shots on goal.

Uruguayans are proud that they were among the first to include black players in their football teams. Their inclusion was a reflection of Uruguay’s policies of social justice pushed through under the influence of their president Jose Batlle y Ordoñez. Batlle strongly believed that the ‘masses’ deserved to be included in the national story, and football played a fundamental role. The inclusion of Delgado and Gradín was yet another celebration of the progressive, democratic nature of Uruguay, a country exceptional in both its football and its laws.

Afro-Uruguayan achievements in football, however, didn’t reflect their own place in society. By promoting the inclusion of the ‘masses’ through football, the state merely obscured the issue of race. The fact that Gradín was nicknamed ‘the black man with the white soul’ shows the extent to which Afro-Uruguayans were absorbed into the national story of a homogeneous, white Uruguay. Stripped of their blackness, Afro-Uruguayans could forget the everyday cultural racism that had continuously left them on the margins of society. Despite starring above all on the football pitch, Afro-Uruguayan footballers maintained the roles of servants and entertainers, rather than citizens.

Although they were confined to the accepted space of the sports field, Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín challenged racial ideas that had kept them in their place. The two resisted the confining nature of the pitch to show their true qualities. Delgado exemplified the intelligence, leadership and maturity needed for the important role of centre-half. Soon after the tournament he moved to Peñarol, taking over from John Harley and making the position his own. He joined star teammate Gradín whose skill, explosiveness and efficiency won championships, gold medals and the imagination of football lovers. Uruguay’s black stars were not only entertainers, but hard workers, who could reach the pinnacle on their own merit..


Cover Image credit goes to Jimmy Baikovicius

The article was first published on author’s personal blog. Please bookmark the website for great stories on Uruguayan football.

Rubén Sosa – Uruguay’s Little Prince, a Poet of the Goal

Uruguay are without Luis Suárez – their star striker – for the entire duration of Copa 2015 due to a disciplinary ban. They probably wish they had someone like El Principito to fall back upon! Debojyoti Chakraborty recalls one of the Copa heroes of Uruguay for Goalden Times. You can read the other stories of the ‘Copa America’ series here.

How do you describe the greatest moment in a professional footballer’s career? Scoring the winning goal against a European giant in one of the most elite cup competitions at the mere age of 20? Being crowned the kings of Europe almost a decade later with another European powerhouse? Winning another top European league in another two years? Or winning two Copa titles for your country? None of these probably apply to you if you are Rubén Sosa, because you would rather spend time with youngsters teaching them the tricks of your trade.


Rubén Sosa Arzaiz was born on April 25, 1966 in Piedras Blancas, a suburb in Montevideo. He was born to play football, and was a class apart from a very tender age. So, even though he started working at a poultry to support his family—he had 10 siblings , the perfect number for organizing a football match—he went on to become a part of one of the best quarries in Uruguay and South America, the Danubio, when he was only 15. He recalls his foundation days with a great deal of gratitude: “The Danube provides everyone with an excellent training facility. It takes great care of youngsters who are raring to go. In fact, even if you’re old, you do have conditions to make you feel like a debutant.”
Sosa was drafted into the national side quite early in his career. It was on his national duty against Argentina that Avelino Chaves, then a technical secretary team member of Real Zaragoza, spotted the canny left footed youngster and wasted no time in signing him in 1984. In Sosa’s own words: “I was about to leave for England that week when Zaragoza approached me. I did not hesitate. I went there on a Sunday and Monday I signed. I found some great people, a leadership that protected me because they knew I was still a child. Avelino Chaves was like my dad in Zaragoza, he talked to me, soothed me, and encouraged me. I would like to thank all members of staff, especially Pedro Herrera, I was ‘adopted’ as his younger brother, and Cedrún, with whom I still have some contact. “(1)
The move paid off almost immediately as he clinched the Copa del Rey in 1986, scoring in the final against FC Barcelona at Vicente Calderon. It was 35 minutes when the referee awarded a free kick about 25 meters away from the goal for a foul on “The Little Prince” (Sosa was called so in Uruguay as Enzo Francéscoli was referred to as “The Prince”). As Sosa put it: “I did not think that the defender hit me to break my leg. I was lucky because the ball hit the wall, I think (it was) Pichi Alonso and misled the goalkeeper. It was great, and time to start the party. We were the Cup Champions!!!” This was truly a memorable event for the club, which had last tasted success in 1966 (when Sosa was barely a month old)!
His achievements did not go unnoticed as the pocket striker, nicknamed Sosita, “El Principito” or Peter (of Peter Pan fame) for his small stature (a skinny lad with a height of 1.72 m) was selected to the national side for the Copa 1987. This was no mean feat as Uruguay was a very strong side then. Being the defending champions, Uruguay entered the competition at the semifinal stage. Sosa started the match—and the subsequent final—and made his presence felt in a title winning campaign. His name started doing rounds with another legend of that era, Enzo Francéscoli.

Uruguay champion of América (1987 *again in only 1 country: Argentina) Standing: E. Pereira, Obdulio Trasante, N. Gutiérrez, José Perdomo, José Pintos, Alfonso Domínguez. Kneeling: A. Alzamendi, Gustavo Matosas, P. Bengoechea, E. Francescoli, Rubén Sosa.
Enzo Francescoli and Rubén Sosa together in the Uruguay team photo of 1987 Copa America

With his short stature, tapered legs and stocky, overstuffed torso, Sosa looked like anyone but an athlete. That, as we all know, was an illusion—especially for the defenders who dared to ignore him due to his appearance. He was, in fact, one of the swiftest sprinters with sudden outbursts of speed that left his markers dumbfounded. How such a stiff and top-heavy person could transform into such an act of balanced grace still remains a mystery. He was forever ready to skim over a cushion of air. Sosa is best remembered for his image of speeding down the left wing, with his trunk slightly forward, his head erect, like a trotter racing down the homestretch.

Sosa was more than a prolific striker—he was a true showman. He had earned nicknames like “The Poet of the Goal” and “Speedy Gonzalez” for his craftsmanship. He would never shy away from deft-flicks, a bullet header, or a 30-metre toe-poker. He is best-remembered for his spectacular efforts and thunderous free kicks. Most of his goals came from moves beginning at midfield or just inside the half-line. He scarcely has an easy goal to his name. He was not a typical no. 9 or goal poacher who would be playing on the shoulder of the last defender. Rather, he was a complete forward who could shoot or volley from a distance, dribble or provide assists for others, and move deeper and create space for others to exploit. It is no coincidence that he was one of the most sought-after strikers in Europe, much like today’s Luis Suárez.
On a personal front, Sosa had a very satisfying Copa 1989. He finished with four goals, and won the Silver Boot. Uruguay started the final match against Brazil—tied on points as well as on goal difference and goals scored—aiming to clinch a third consecutive Copa title. However, a certain Romário had other plans, as Brazil won the match 1-0 through his winning goal and lifted the trophy after a gap of 40 years. Sosa’s mesmerizing display, though, did not go unnoticed as the man dwarfed stalwarts like Diego Maradona, Romário, Bebeto (Golden Boot winner) and Francéscoli to be awarded the Best Player of the Tournament.

Sosa’s mesmerizing display, though, did not go unnoticed as the man dwarfed stalwarts like Diego Maradona, Gabriel Batistuta, Romário, Bebeto (Golden Boot winner) and Francéscoli to be awarded the Best Player of the Tournament.

Comparison with a certain Maradona was inevitable in that era. True, Sosa did not have the three-dimensional genius and creativity of Maradona. However, he made up for that with his eagerness to create openings with the ball at his feet. He did demonstrate two very different sets of skills en route to demolishing Argentina 2-0 in the final round. In the 38th minute, Sosa benefited from an error from an Argentine defender. He intercepted a back pass intended for the onrushing goalkeeper Nery Pumpido in the penalty area. Sosa, with the ball in his left foot, rounded Pumpido with ease and slotted the ball in an empty net with his right. But, if the first goal was all about awareness and lazy elegance, his second in the 81st minute was about raw pace, body strength, and composure. Sosa got the ball near touchline in his own half, and everyone who thought that he was too far from the goalpost was about to be proved wrong. “Speedy Gonzalez” ran with the ball hogging the touchline— effortlessly beating his marker in speed. Midway in the “La Albiceleste” half, he started coming inside and shrugged off the shoulder charge from his second marker. By this time, he was inside the penalty area and Pumpido had narrowed down the angle. However, Sosa flicked the ball with his left toe inside the far post with amazing composure while still running in full throttle. The goal went unnoticed in most part of the world due to the lack of live coverage at that time, but the Latin American media went ga ga over it. It was, indeed a great goal, as proven by the fact that it was referred to and compared with Gareth Bale’s wonder solo effort last year against Barcelona.
Sosa went to the World Cup 1990, his only ever World Cup, with high hopes. Unfortunately, the tournament was a disappointing one for him. He failed to score a goal, got himself booked, missed a penalty against Spain in the group stages and by the time the knock outs came, “El Principito” found himself relegated to the reserve bench. Uruguay did not fare well either and exited from the round of 16.
By this time Sosa had moved on to Italy, first to Lazio—where he became the top scorer for them in 1991-92 — and then to Inter. Sosa made a name for himself in Serie A amongst stars like Diego Maradona, Marco van Basten, and Lothar Matthäus. He reached the pinnacle of his club career at Inter as he led the goal charts for the club in two consecutive seasons, rounding it off with a UEFA Cup in 1994. However, for some strange reason, he was overlooked for the Copa campaigns during this period. The results were as expected—Uruguay crashed out of the group stages in 1991 and barely managed to scrape through to the quarter finals in 1993.

Sosa made a name for himself in Serie A amongst stars like Diego Maradona, Marco van Basten, and Lothar Matthäus. He reached the pinnacle of his club career at Inter as he led the goal charts for the club in two consecutive seasons, rounding it off with a UEFA Cup in 1994.

Naturally, Sosa was called back for the 1995 Copa. But injury and loss of form has diminished his utility by this time. He was a bits-and-pieces player and could not manage a full 90 minutes in any of the games he featured in. He had lost his regular number 11 shirt and was donning a more squad player’s number 20 jersey. In fact, he was left out entirely of the crucial semifinal and final matches. But Francéscoli’s brilliance and a golden ball-winning performance ensured Sosa got his second Copa winner’s medal.
Sosa never played for the national team after 1995. In Europe too his time was up after a couple of injury-laden seasons with Borussia Dortmund. The club won the Bundesliga during this time, and Sosa received another silverware in his third European country. Sosa was, however, far from done. He tied his shoelaces to fulfill his dreams and joined his boyhood favorite club, Nacional. At Nacional, Sosa won the Uruguayan League in 1998, 2000, and 2001—himself being the top scorer of the Uruguay Championship in 1998 and the Copa Libertadores in 1999—becoming a fan favourite.

phoca_thumb_l_ruben sosa - campeon clausura 1998 copa
Sosa : The favorite son of Nacional

Life was not always a hunky dory affair for the “Little Prince” as the temptation of a fat paycheck brought him to play for Shanghai Shenhua in the Chinese League in 2002. Everything looked perfect as Shanghai won the Chinese Jia-A League title in 2003, but ten years later, the club was stripped of the title for match fixing.
Sosa did not stay long in China. He returned to Nacional in 2004 as an assistant coach, and immediately helped the team win the league title in 2005. He is still an assistant coach in the youth club, where he gives a master class in goal scoring to the young forwards. Besides, he just set up his own football school three years ago. “It’s called ‘Joy, joy’, is in Carrasco (a neighborhood in the east of Montevideo) and the name is what has always defined me. Children come from many parts of Montevideo and I teach them to play football. This is what fills my life, always linked to football.”
Seems like Sosa has found his peace, and it lies in spending time with kids. He does not want to graduate to a head-coaching job because, as he freely admitted, he is too impetuous for the role. He is still a popular figure and can be found in the streets of Uruguay, stopping by to sign autographs and talking to people about football. After all, he will always be remembered as their “Little Prince”.
(1) Interview excerpts translated from www.

Life From 12 Yards: Gyan’s miss fail to put Ghana in history books

Penalty. A term, that can ruffle the feathers of even the calmest of beings. A term, that in any walk of life, shocks and triggers signals of doom and punishment for some, and hope or satisfaction for others. Football, is no exception. Goalden Times bring you a series where we look at the more unfortunate events of missed penalties (and their aftermath??). Enjoy the ride with Subhashis Biswas.

Image Source - Daily Maverick
Image Source – Daily Maverick

Player : Asamoah Gyan, Ghana.

Opponent Goalkeeper: Fernando Muslera, Uruguay.

Match venue and date: Soccer City, Johannesburg, South Africa, Quarter-final, World Cup, 2nd July, 2010.

In the  fourth segment of the series, we bring you the story of a missed penalty, which had far more long lasting implications than just on the result of the match. Football in Africa was about to enter among the elites in the, for the first time ever, an African nation was about to enter the semi-final of the world cup. Only that penalty needed to be converted. But, as we have portrayed so far in this series, life from 12 yards is not easy, life from 12 yards does not go according to the plan. The gap between cup and lips, however small it may seem at times, are sometimes impossible to close.

In the build-up to the dreaded moment, we actually had a fascinating football match. Football in world cup 2010 was not particularly a scintillating affair, and more so in the knockout rounds, we did not have evenly contested exciting matches. The quarter-final encounter between Uruguay and Ghana was a different affair. From the very onset of the match, it was full of attacks and counter-attacks, and close misses. Suleh Muntari gave Ghana the lead with a stunning 35 yarder just with the last shot before half-time, but Diego Forlan, who was in red-hot form during 2010 world cup and eventual golden-ball winner, equalized on the 10th minute after the break, with a curling free-kick from just outside the box.

Though the match had many more goal-bound attempts, brilliant saves and close shaves, it failed to produce any more goal in the regular 90 minutes of play. The story remained same in the added extra time, as the match was slowly headed towards penalty shoot-out. On the last minute of the extra time, Ghana had one last attack towards Uruguay goal, and after a miss-timed clearance by Fernando Muslera from a free-kick, Stephen Appiah shot the ball towards goal. Luis Suarez blocked it with his knee at the goal line, but the rebound lobbed up to Dominic Adiyiah, who headed the ball towards the goal. The Ghanaian supporters present all over the world was about to erupt in joy, when they saw a player in Uruguay goal line saved the ball with both hands. Nope, the guy who saved the ball was not goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, but it was Luis Suarez!! This time instead of using knee or other body parts, he had to use his hands to keep his country’s hope at the world cup alive. Referee could not be quicker enough to show him the red card and awarded a penalty to Ghana. With what would be the last shot of the match, Ghana could become the first ever African nation to enter the semi-finals of the world cup. How we wish that life would have been that simple.

Asamoah Gyan walked up to take the penalty. Asamoah Gyan had already scored three goals in that world cup, and had 100% conversion rate from two previous penalties, one against Serbia and another against Australia in the group stages. Against Serbia his shot was about two feet above the ground, and towards the right side of the keeper, while the keeper dove left. Against Australian keeper Mark Schwartzer , his shot was a grounder , towards the bottom left corner of the goalkeeper, and again the goalkeeper dove towards the wrong direction. He was a good penalty taker, and did not provide any clue to the keeper till the last moment. It was difficult for the keeper to guess which Gyan was going to shoot, looking at his eyes. Gyan had already scored four  international penalty goals till that time, so the whole Ghana nation along with the players were pretty much confident about their progress to the semi-final.

Asamoah Gyan had already scored three goals in that world cup, and had 100% conversion rate from two previous penalties

Fernando Muslera, the Uruguayan goalkeeper was actually no mutt with penalties. He was playing with Lazio at that time and made them Copa Italia Cup winners by saving two penalties in the penalty shoot-out at the final against Sampdoria. When Asamoah Gyan was getting ready to take the penalty, there was a lot of tension among the players, and a few players were walking inside the box to distract the player. Referee had to clear the penalty box before asking Gyan to shoot. Just before the whistle, Andres Scotti, the Uruguayan defender made a signal with his right hand towards Muslera. It was not clear what he wanted to mean, but it seemed that he suggested the ball would be above the ground, it would be a high shot. It was exactly that in the end.

Gyan did not have a long run up, maximum up to three to four steps from the spot. Muslera was still, right at the centre of the goal line. He did not give any indication towards which side he is going to dive till the last minute, which probably forced Gyan to shoot the ball almost down the middle, and above the ground. Muslera finally dove to his right, but his dive was so late that Gyan already has struck his shot by the time Muslera made the decisive move.

Now let us look at the penalty from Gyan’s point of view. Gyan could have placed it on either side of the goal, choosing placement over power. But it was a nervous moment. Any penalty is a nervous moment for the shooter, no matter how calm the player remains outside. But there is added pressure on the shooter when he knows that his shot is the last shot of the match, and can put his team in world cup semi-final. This would be the first time for Ghana in world Cup semi-final. This would be the first time for any nation from the “Dark Continent in world cup semi-final.  It is difficult to think logically in these kinds of pressure situations.

Owing to this pressure, Gyan might have decided to blast it rather than place it. He probably knew about Muslera’s reputation of saving penalties, and thus feared that may be a placement on either side of the goal may result in a save by the keeper. Thus he chose the safer option, a shot above the ground, down the middle, so that even if the goalkeeper guesses correctly and outstretches his leg, the ball will be in the net.

Source -
Source –

Gyan’s shot was above the ground, not exactly down the middle, but may be a foot towards right from the middle of the goal. Muslera dove to his right, and saw that the ball was travelling towards middle of the goal as he was falling to the ground. But the ball was six  inches higher than the liking of Gyan, and the whole Ghana nation. The placement was almost right, but the power was a bit too much. The trajectory of the ball should have been six  inches low. The ball hit the upper part of the crossbar and went out of the ground. Uruguay survived; a jubilant Suarez went inside the tunnel knowing that his “innovative” and “impromptu” action has managed to save Uruguay from going out of the world cup. Gyan was in shambles, being consoled by the team members. History would have to wait for Africa.

The match went to penalty shoot-out. Diego Forlan gave Uruguay lead but Asamoah Gyan, brave man he is, walked up to take the first spot kick for Ghana. This time he struck it towards the left upper corner of the keeper, and despite guessing the direction correctly, Muslera had no chance of saving it. Gyan did not celebrate the goal, only thinking that had he made similar decisions a few minutes ago, this penalty shoot-out would not have happened.

Fate is a cruel thing. This time John Mensah and Dominic Adiyiah missed penalties in the shoot-out, both the shots being weak grounders which were saved by Muslera. The whole nation cried, the whole Africa cried. Uruguay celebrated. Ghana lost out of the world cup losing 2-4 on penalties, after the match was tied 1-1.


D Stands for Death

Debopam Roy previews the teams from the group of death.

Seven World Cups and 19 continental trophies distinguish the four teams in the group which has rightly been called the group of death. Of the 4 teams, one is a reigning continental champion, the other runner up at the continental championships. One is a perennial underachiever while the other is the rank outsider who has always punched above their cumulative weight.


Awesome Twosome
Awesome Twosome

Many consider this to be the year of the Los Charruas and not without reason. Their team was a young team on the rise when they lost the semifinals of 2010 World Cup to a Dutch team that was at the peak of its powers. They then lost the third   place playoff to another powerhouse – Germany. Since then, Uruguay has only gone up achieving their highest FIFA ranking (#2) in 2012. They have won the Copa America and also boast the record of being the World Cup winner the last time it was held in Brazil.

However, their prospects would have to be tempered if their qualification campaign is to be considered. Till the  sixth round, La Celeste was unbeaten and on top of group but then a 4-0 loss to Colombia derailed them. Bolivia beat them 4-1 and Argentina beat them 3-1 and Chile got better of them 2-0 and even Ecuador beat them 1-0 and last gasp wins over Argentina and Colombia allowed Uruguay to finish on  fifth spot. That meant a playoff match against a team from Asian qualification campaign, and it was Jordan. Uruguay thumped them by 5 goals away and then played a goalless home leg to qualify through.

The team is built back to front so that  it has a solid defence and midfield and an explosive forward line. The likes of Jorge Fucile, Diego Godin, Diego Lugano, Martin Caceres batten down the hatch of Fernando Muslera’s goal. However, Godin and Lugano are now getting on. Their lack of pack has often been exploited – 25 goals conceded in the qualifiers, of which 16 were on the road, shows that. Uruguay desperately need Sebastian Coates to return from his anterior cruciate injury and recapture the tremendous form of title clinching 2011 Copa America. The midfield has the steel of Walter Gargano, Diego Perez as well as the guile of Nicolas Lodeiro and speed of Gaston Ramirez. But the lynchpin of the squad is easily the formidable twosome of Luis Suarez, Uruguay’s all time leading scorer with 38 goals in 77 matches and Edinson Cavani. Both had extraordinary seasons with Suarez netting 31 goals in Premier League and Cavani 25 in his first stint in  Ligue 1. It’s undoubtedly the deadliest strike duo in world football. Add in the wily Diego Forlan into the mix and the young turk Abel Hernandez and this is a forward line which has everything. Manager Oscar Tabarez has been at the helm since 2006 and has taken Uruguay to their best ever spell in world and continental football since the heydays. After Uruguay had missed out on three of the four preceding World Cups, , Tabarez almost by a wand, transformed their fortunes and Uruguay came  fourth in the continental championships in 2007. Three years later, they repeated that  fourth place in the biggest stage in South Africa and then won the Copa America in 2011. The progression thus says they would repeat that win now in the biggest stage in Brazil and Tabarez’s canonization would be complete. His tactical versatility even during away qualifiers and the Confederations Cup, where he shifted from his usual 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 to counteract the opponent  has been one of the chief weapons.  In 2010, Luis Suarez used his hands (with some thanks to Asamoah Gyan) to send Uruguay to their first ever semi finals since 1950. Can his goals give them their first World Cup since 1950?


One Last Hurrah
One Last Hurrah

They say that if the World Cup was held every 12 years then Italy would contest every final (1970, 1982, 1994, 2006). Going by that logic, 2014 is  four years too soon. 12 years is also the time that would take for a new generation to come in and settle down. So Italy has roughly managed to get to every World Cup final when it has had an overhaul of a generation. Cesare Prandelli was the man who was tasked with this. After the debacle of 2010 World Cup when Marcello Lippi overstayed his welcome and his band of merry men, Italy went for a generational change except for  two very distinctive figures – Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon. Both are certainly going to their final World Cup,  and, along with Andrea Barzagli and Alberto Gilardino (if they are called up) they bear the only link to the team of 2006.

Indeed Prandelli has had quite the turnaround in fortune. After leading Azzurri, quite unexpectedly, to the finals of the Euros, it was a bit disappointing that Italy only finished third in the Confederations Cup. However, in the later tournament, Prandelli showed that the lessons from the 4-0 Euro final defeat at the hands of the Spaniards were well and truly taken. Italy only lost to eventual champions Brazil and held Spain goalless, losing in the tiebreaker  in  the semifinal. The experience of playing in the heat of Brazil would definitely help Lo Azzurri cope better than the other teams in the main tournament.

Looking at the World Cup qualifying stage, one would have to say Prandelli has broken new ground. Italy has been perennial slow starters as well as tense finishers. The 2014 campaign has been as smooth as one of Pirlo’s long range passes. Going unbeaten and  qualifying with two games to spare, was quite an achievement. Second-placed Denmark was  so poor that they were adjudged the worst runner up in European qualifying campaign and so failed to advance to the second round. But it has a different edge too. Once qualification was sealed, Prandelli experimented with the last two matches and rotated his squad. Italy failed to win either of them, lost vital ranking points, dropped out of the seeded places and now find themselves in the group of Death.

The new Azzurri have new heroes waiting to be unleashed. Ciro Immobile may have quite some puns on his surname but being the leading scorer in the Serie A at 24 is no mean feat. Just to put that into perspective, the last Italian striker to be capocannoniere in Serie A before his 24th year was one Filippo Inzaghi and the one before that was Beppe Signori. Both of them were part of the Italian  squad that reached the World Cup final and had the tiebreaker settling the fate – once with heartbreak and other with joy. Immobile, though, would have to thank Torino teammate Alessio Cerci, who is having the season of his lifetime. At 26, he is a rare Italian forward who can burn the wings while still being creative ( nine assists this season) and prolific in front of the goal (13 goals).  Then plying his trade for Napoli, Insigne is probably the closest Italy has to a true fantasista. Stephan El Shaarawy of Milan is returning after almost a season long injury layoff, and the Pharaoh would do well to get into the team. His teammate, Mario Balotelli though is sure to lead the charge of this young brigade. With Juventus winning a treble of scudetti, Italy is assured of a solid defence  and midfield which have played together for long.

Overall, Italy will provide a vibrant new team that still has the engine room run by Pirlo and a solid defensive backbone. But are they equipped enough to break the 12-year cycle? Probably not. The key personnel in this team are either going for their first World Cup or their last. Most world cups are won when the majority of the team  is in their peak between 25-32 years. So this maybe one World Cup too soon. But still this team has performed admirably and would definitely be there towards  the business end of the tournament.


Captain Fantastic
Captain Fantastic

England’s participation in a global event has two characteristics  – media hype and penalty anguish (England has only won one knockout match in a top tournament when it has gone to penalties) . Their press makes sure that the optimism is high for each “golden generation” and then when the team doesn’t come good, the recrimination is equally scathing. This time though there has not been too much hype. Part of it is to do with the understanding that success of English clubs in Europe doesn’t equate to success of the English national team in the World Cup. A chastening Euro where England  neither disgraced themselves (unlike the 4-0 thrashing in 2010 World Cup) nor lit up the ambitions showed that the team is still quite far off the continental front runners – Spain, Germany, Portugal and Italy. In the 48 years since their lone triumph, England has  managed to reach the semi finals only once.

The qualification campaign was more proof that England still aren’t what their scribes would like them to be. Despite going unbeaten, England failed to beat closest competitor, Ukraine across both the legs. And they were chased right till the last minute of their last match. Only a 2-0 win against Poland at home ensured England finished one point above Ukraine. The other jarring thing was that England couldn’t beat any of the other top  three nations on the road. Roy Hodgson’s team at times played listless football and managed to get the result by luck or great goalkeeping exploits. Indeed one of the bright features was the defensive display and England conceded   four goals – only Spain conceded lesser. They also scored 31 goals which would rank them third most prolific behind the Germans and the Dutch. But this fact should be tempered with the knowledge that 22 of those goals came in four matches against San Marino and Moldova. Indeed, if we take out the results of those two teams from group H, it is Ukraine who finishes above England both in points (11 to 10) and goal difference (+6 to +5).

In a twisted way though, this patchy qualification has for once ensured that the expectations are more tempered thus ensuring the squad goes to the finals in a better frame of mind. No more is it deemed that all English superstar players have to do is turn up at the biggest stage and the prize is theirs. They have to toil and graft, which they have shown they can do in this campaign and it will hold them in good stead in this group of death. Exiting at the group stage would probably be disastrous for the millions of fans and they would bank on the fact that the Italians are notorious slow starters and try to bag one of the top two spots.

One thing is for certain, if the team is to do well, Wayne Rooney would have to have an outstanding World Cup. The qualification campaign saw the Manchester United forward bag  seven goals which were still  four less than his Mancunian teammate Robin van Persie, the leading scorer in European qualifying campaign. Indeed if the support cast of Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge can support Rooney for the goals, then England probably has the defence in Leighton Baines , Gary Cahill, Joleon Lescott and Glen Johnson to hold on to those leads. Steven Gerrard is probably finally having the season he has always dreamt of. A Liverpool legend who just missed out in completing his trophy cabinet at club level as Man City won the league, he would elevate himself to an English legend if he can lead this English team to the Holy Grail.


Captain Bryan Ruiz
Captain Bryan Ruiz

When the other  three teams in your group are former World Cup winners, all you can hope for is, you exit with some dignity. Costa Rica would expect nothing different and they might decide which of the  three heavy weights go out at group stage by managing to sneak a draw or even a win against any of the three. But their qualifying campaign has been a fairy-tale and the confidence that they would gain from that may propel them to upset one of the group’s big shots.

Costa Rica has qualified for the World Cup  three times before this and twice they had topped from the CONCACAF region. This included their maiden venture at Italia 90 when they beat Scotland and Sweden in the tournament proper to actually advance to the second round. Their performance in their next World Cup appearance was equally commendable. The Ticos lost 5-2 to eventual champion Brazil, drew 1-1 with eventual    third place finishers Turkey and beat China 2-0. Still they finished third in the group and were eliminated only on goal difference as that 5-2 loss meant they would finish with an inferior goal difference to Turkey.  Four years later they qualified as  third team from CONCACAF and   suffered a rambunctious 4-2 loss in the opening match to Germany but proved insipid in the other two matches against Poland and Ecuador. In 2010, Costa Rica finished 4th in CONCACAF and went into a  two-legged play-off against Uruguay. The Ticos lost at home by a solitary goal and despite threatening a second goal which would have taken them through to the world cup, could only settle for 1-1 in the away match.

The 2014 qualifying campaign had the Ticos almost eliminated after  two losses to Mexico in the 3rd round of CONCACAF qualifying campaign. A 1-0 win over El Salvador and 7-0 thrashing of Guyana pushed them to the fourth round. There they were a different force altogether and qualified with a couple of matches to spare. But goal scoring remains a problem – captain Bryan Ruiz scored only three goals during the whole qualifying campaign (10 matches) but that was enough to make him the top goal scorer for the team.

The team has its blend of experience and youth. Many of the first team play in top leagues of Europe and have honed their skill well in the best leagues. In defence, there is goalkeeper Keylor Navas from Levante who kept  seven clean sheets from 14 qualifying matches, defenders Junior Diaz of Mainz 05, Christian Gamboa of Rosenborg and Oscar Duarte of Club Brugge. The best of the midfield play their trade in Scandinavia – Celso Borges at AIK and Cristian Bolanos at Copenhagen. But it is the forward line which has grabbed all the attention. 21-year-old Joel Campbell was signed by Arsenal and sent to Olympiacos. He showed his talent  by scoring against Manchester United in the Champions League second round . Captain Bryan Ruiz has been a star for PSV after joining them on loan from Fulham. Alvaro Saborio Chacon is the most experienced and has scored 32 goals for his national team placing him   third behind Rolando Fonseca and Paulo Wanchope in the all-time lists.

Costa Rica is managed by Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto who has experience of managing all over Latin and Central America, which included  three titles in Costa Rica. He has been managing Costa Rica since 2011. He has made them defensively compact and pressing the opponents when not in possession of the ball. Since qualification, Costa Rica has been less than auspicious. Losses to Australia and South Korea sandwiched between a 4-0 thrashing from Chile. But they managed a 2-1 win over Paraguay in their last friendly. It would be a miracle if Costa Rica can manage to open their account in the group. Their best chance would be to catch either of the two European teams unaware, who are not used to the heat of Brazil. Even then, it would be a brave man who would bet Costa Rica getting to the next round.


The Trivela is a Portuguese term to denote the art of kicking the football with the outside of one’s foot. It is used to hide one’s weaker foot and also to suddenly fool the opposition with a wickedly swerving ball from a difficult angle. In Triviela, we will attempt to find some football feats/facts which would make you sit up and take note, like it happens when you see Ricardo Quaresma try these

This triviela is dedicated to the wonderful group of Spanish footballers and their achievement in winning three consecutive major trophies that they entered – the 2008 and 2012 European championship and the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It is a unique achievement in the annals of football and most observers would place them in a group of ONE, to have achieved that unique feat. In this edition, we try and see which other teams came close to achieving what Spain has achieved and if any team had managed to do it before them….or maybe do better than them.

Spain with their third consecutive title

Now the simple fact is that, to win three major trophies, one has to win a World Cup in between, since most major trophies happen with a duration of four (sometimes two) years in between. Hence all nations, which haven’t won a World Cup, but may have monopolised their continental competition like Mexico – winners ’93, ’96, ’98 of CONCACAF Gold Cup or Iran – ’68, ’72, ’76 winners AFC Asian Cup or Egypt – ’06, ’08, ’10 winner of Africa Cup of Nations, would not feature in this discussion.

Close Misses

Brazil won the ’94 and ’02 World Cups but only finished runner-up in ’98.They had won the Copa America in both ’97 and ’99 and lost to Uruguay in penalties in the ’95 championship. So starting from the ’94 World Cup, Brazil reached the finals of every major championship till the ’99 Copa America. That’s a staggering five world and continental competitions. This sequence was broken when they lost shockingly to Honduras in the ’01 Copa. They then proceeded to win the next World Cup as well as the next two Copa Americas, but without a World Cup win in 2006, it again denied them the opportunity to grab a three-peat.

Germany, or West Germany as they were called, would also suffer the same fate – winning the ’72 European Cup and ’74 World Cup but missing out on the ’76 European Cup by losing to Czechoslovakia on penalties in the finals (when Antonin Panenka first showed his penalty skills baffling the great Sepp Maier). They would win the ’90 World Cup and ’96 European championship (beating the Czechs), but would miss out on the ’92 European Cup and ’94 World Cup to be denied this legacy.

South American Connection

Brazil’s two great South American rivals – Argentina and Uruguay though can claim something to this but in both cases, there was no World Cup being held and hence only the existing major championships can be taken into account. The World Cup was not held due to World War II between ’38 and ’50, but the Copa America was still going on. Argentina, led by players of the great River Plate team of the 40s won three consecutive Copa America – ’45, ’46, ’47. Add the runner-up in the ’42 and champion in the ’41 editions, and you again get a run of five consecutive finals with defeat in only the second one for a truly great Argentine side.

Uruguay was the earliest footballing South American giant. They won the ’24 and ’28 Olympics gold – at that point with no World Cup, the Olympics were the pinnacle of global football championship. Uruguay also won the ’23 and ’24 Copa America, thus recording the earliest sequence of three major championship wins.

Argentina and Uruguay thus won three in a row, but didn’t win the World Cup and that was not due to their fault. The World Cup was simply not conceived or was not being held when they won their championship.

Parting Shot Uno

There is one more instance of a team winning three consecutive major championships, which included the World Cup. And that team is Italy. They were the first European team to win the FIFA World Cup in ’34. They were also the first team to retain their World Cup crown (that no European team has ever done) in 1938. In between, they also won the ’36 Olympic Gold at Berlin. The first great Italian team of Vittorio Pozzo, thus won everything that they entered between ’34 and ’38.




Parting Shot Deux

Is every team that won that threesome a latin one? Well not quite. But you have to turn from the men to the ladies to find probably the most dominating team of all in history. Germany (or West Germany) has won seven of the last eight European competitions for ladies. This has included a frankly unbelievable five consecutive wins in the UEFA European Women’s Championship from ’95 to ’09. They also won two FIFA Women’s World Cup in ’03 and ’07. They had lost in the quarter-final stages of both the ’99 and ’11 World Cups. So if we look at a stretch – they won all the major championships that they entered in the first decade of the millennium – three European championships and two World Cups for an unprecedented 5 trophies and one decade long reign.

Surely the Spanish now know, they still have some way to go.

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.