World Cup Stories: the goalkeeper who made all of Brazil cry
Brazilians still call it el Maracanaço – which roughly translates as ‘the Maracana blow’. The Selecao’s 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in the final game of the 1950 World Cup is written in the country’s consciousness. It was a national trauma: “our catastrophe, our Hiroshima,” wrote Brazilian author and playwright Nelson Rodrigues. But one man suffered more than most: Brazil goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa.
The newly constructed Maracana was then the biggest football stadium ever built – intended to symbolise Brazil’s new ambition. Instead, in front of 200,000 people, the national team were humiliated, and missed out on winning the World Cup on home soil. Having defeated Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1 in the bizarre final four-team group stage, their hubris got the better of them. Before the game, which Brazil needed only to draw thanks to the final group format, Rio newspaper O Mundo declared the team ‘world champions’. Tournament founder Jules Rimet had prepared a congratulatory speech in Portuguese, and the team were presented with gold watches in the changing room.
But they hadn’t counted on the garra charrua – a Uruguayan term for displays of bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. Their captain Obdulio Varela was reportedly so incensed by the front page of O Mundo that he bought every copy he could find, hurled them all on the floor of the dressing room and encouraged his teammates to urinate on them. After a goalless first half, Brazil took the lead early in the second through Friaca.
Uruguay hit back – Alcides Ghiggia raced down the right wing and crossed from the edge of the box for Juan Alberto Schiaffino to notch after 66 minutes. Just 13 minutes later, Ghiggia found himself in the same position. In goal, Barbosa took a step to his right, anticipating another cross. It would ruin his life. Instead, Ghiggia shot – low towards the near post. It crept in, evading Barbosa’s desperate dive.
“Only three people have, with just one motion, silenced the Maracana: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and me,” said Ghiggia years later. In the aftermath, it was Brazil’s black players who sadly became the scapegoats: centre-half Bigode, left-back Juvenal and Barbosa – the man who was never allowed to forget 1950, despite being voted the best goalkeeper of the tournament by journalists. He would play only once more for his country. In 1993, he tried to visit Brazil’s training camp, but he wasn’t allowed in because it was thought he would bring the team bad luck. It broke poor Barbosa, who insisted till his dying day:
“I am not guilty. There were 11 of us.”
In a strange twist of fate, after he retired from a club football career spent mainly at Vasco de Gama, Barbosa took a job at the Maracana. In 1963, he invited some friends over for a barbecue – the air was thick with acrid smoke, and they noticed strange white logs burning in the fire pit. They were the old Maracana posts. Barbosa had set them alight, in an attempt to exorcise his demons. He said the steak he cooked that day was the best he had ever eaten.
It didn’t really free him from his past.
In 1970, the same year that Brazil won the World Cup with Pele, who remembered “crying and crying and crying” as a boy in 1950, Barbosa was still reviled by the Brazilian public. An incident from that year sticks out – a woman in a market pointed at him, telling her child: ‘Look at him, son. He is the man that made all of Brazil cry.”
A few weeks before he died, almost penniless, in April 2000, Barbosa said: “Under Brazilian law, the maximum sentence is 30 years. But my imprisonment has been for 50.”
If Brazil can win the World Cup on home soil in the summer, perhaps the ghosts of el Maracanaço will finally be laid to rest.
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A baffling format saw the winners of each group go into a final group stage. Hosts Brazil drew 2-2 with Switzerland but still progressed with two wins to join Sweden (who they beat 7-1), Spain (who they beat 6-1) and Uruguay. The latter drew with Spain and scraped past Sweden to set up a final game showdown. Brazil needed only a draw. They failed.