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