World Cup moments: Uruguay break the hearts of a nation in 1950
Brazil sent into mourning after 210,000 see them lose sensational final at the Maracana
Juan “Pepe” Schiaffino scores for Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final. Photograph: Staff/AFP
Monday July 17th 1950, and the front page of the Manchester Guardian was still given over to classified advertising. Buy your new Bendix home laundry appliances at Fred Dawes, 90 London Road, Manchester; Miss Newgrosh of Princess Street, Blackburn is offering a German/Polish translation service at competitive rates; the Lancashire County Fire Brigade is selling off a 1930 Leyland fire engine, 55 hp, no guarantee attached, sold as seen, the County Council accepts no responsibility for any unexplained mechanical combustion.
Even taking the idiosyncrasies of old-school newspaper layout into account, one of the day’s biggest stories had been inexplicably squirreled away. The edition’s lead story on page five (just go with it) was fair enough: a report on the Battle of Taejon, the first big stramash of the Korean war which had begun a month beforehand. But here’s a few of the day’s other top tales: three yachts were caught in a squall near Bridlington; lightning struck a house in Wigan; the Yorkshire Winding Enginemen’s Association called a strike ballot in a pay dispute with the National Coal Board; 1.39 inches of rain fell in Hull.
And after all that, there in the bottom corner, was a brief five-paragraph report of the greatest, most dramatic, far-reaching, resonant football match ever to be played ...
All attendance records were broken at Rio de Janeiro to-day for the world championship Brazil-Uruguay football game: more than 160,000 people attended, paying the equivalent of about £120,000.
More than five thousand policemen, supported by special units of the Army, Navy, and the Air Force, stood by and every precaution was taken to prevent scenes like those that took place last Thursday, when two people died and more than 260 were injured in a rush for seats. The police made a final appeal to the crowd not to use fireworks to welcome the teams or to celebrate the scoring of a goal. They banned the sale of oranges and bottles of soft drinks, as these are handy weapons for anyone who disagrees with the referee.
But the police appeal was ignored. When the Brazilians trooped on to the field thousands of fireworks and rockets - both banned by the police - were let off. Clouds of confetti swept over the stands. Thousands enthusiastically waved small Brazilian flags and chanted “Brazil, Brazil, Brazil.”
But it was Uruguay that won - by two goals to one - and when the final whistle blew the Brazilian players, who had expected to obtain gold medals and thousands of pounds for a win bonus, walked slowly off the field, their heads bowed low.
In the huge white-and-blue concrete stands, women were prostrate with grief, and the announcer was so thunderstruck that he forgot to broadcast the result of the other cup match between Spain and Sweden to decide minor placings. Stadium doctors treated 169 people for fits of hysteria and other troubles. Six were taken to hospital seriously ill.
Some of this report was repeated verbatim halfway down the sports section on page six, along with additional information of a celebratory samba, Brazil the Victors, which had remained unsung, and of joyous Uruguayan players hugging match referee George Reader of England as he whistled his whistle for the final time. That, however, was your lot. A couple of broad brush strokes, and no detail about the actual game. The Guardian lost the news!
Though in fairness, the Guardian were far from the worst offenders. The Times buried the story at the very bottom of the sixth column of page 7, a seven-liner consisting of the bald facts and nothing else, below the racing results from Sandown, Doncaster and Hamilton, and news of a rugby friendly between a British team on tour in New Zealand and a combined Waikato-King Country / Thames Valley side. (For the record, Britain won 30-0, a remarkable scoreline considering the state of the pitch.) The Daily Mirror hid news of the “World Soccer Cup” away on page 12, in a small piece which gave no details of the match but did at least add a splash of colour with a jazz riff on that presumptuous Brazil the Victors ditty. “It will probably become known as the Silent Samba,” they lyrically predicted. The Daily Express did mention the match on its front page, fair’s fair, though only in a four-line snippet at the end of a column otherwise concerned with the recall of farmer Harold Gimblett, Somerset’s hard-hitting batsman, to the England Test team after an 11-year absence. Britain’s coverage of what would become the most storied match in the entire history of football just wasn’t cricket. We weren’t that interested.
More fool us. There have been World Cups which brought better teams, greater players and higher skill levels, most of it captured in modernity’s blistering Technicolor for added glitz and glamour. But the IV Campeonato Mundial De Futebol gave us the most jaw-dropping collection of stories. Reigning champions Italy, feared of flying in the wake of the Superga disaster, sailing to Brazil, rolling down the gangplank like gnocchi, then jetting home in a sulk after an early exit. The home-based amateurs of Sweden, denying themselves the Milan-based Gre-No-Li geniuses but making it to the Final Pool anyway. England beating the USA 10-1. Hooray! (That was according to one British agency, blithely assuming a rogue 1 had been lost over their wires.) The newly-built Maracana raining concrete from its roof during the opening ceremony’s 21-gun salute. Even the teams who didn’t make it contributed unforgettable twists to the narrative: India, refusing to wear boots and thus being ordered to do one by Fifa; Scotland, refusing to engage their brains and turning down a runner-up’s qualification spot behind England in the Home Championship.
And then there’s the final, the greatest story the World Cup has ever told, its circumstance a perfect storm of biblical proportion, the eventual outcome a sporting tragedy worthy of Shakespeare. The deciding match of the 1950 World Cup, between hosts Brazil and neighbouring minnows Uruguay, wasn’t, of course, technically the final: it was merely the last round-robin rubber in a ridiculous four-team Final Pool, the bureaucrats at Fifa having lost the thread completely. But fate would save them, and the tournament’s historical integrity, as Fifa’s pão landed jam side up, and they got away with the ludicrous decision to do away with a set-piece final. Thanks to the way the first four matches of the Final Pool panned out, the Brazil-Uruguay tie was effectively a winner-takes-all final, though Brazil’s better record against the Pool’s floaters, Sweden and Spain, meant they had the draw in the bag as well. Looking back, that caveat, ostensibly to Brazil’s benefit, ramped up the narrative possibilities. And so a match which, in theory, could so easily have ended up as a damp-squib irrelevance turned out to be the most dramatic 90 minutes of association football ever played.
Going into the final showdown, Brazil were hot favourites to get the job done. They’d been fancied from the get-go. As well as being hosts, they were the reigning South American champions, having won the 1949 Copa America. They bagged the trophy by scoring 46 goals in eight matches, a run which included a 9-1 win against Ecuador, a 10-1 victory over Bolivia, a 7-0 evisceration of Paraguay (their nearest challengers in the league-based tournament), and a 5-1 thrashing of ... yes, you knew it, Uruguay.
Still, the 1950 World Cup wasn’t all plain sailing for Brazil, who suffered some group-stage judders. They conceded a late equaliser to draw 2-2 against Switzerland. And would they have subsequently registered a 2-0 win over Yugoslavia in a tense winner-takes-all group game had the Yugoslav captain Rajko Mitic not missed the start after cracking his head open on an exposed girder in the still-half-finished Maracana? But Flavio Costa’s team made it through, and got their act together in the Final Pool in a style which was unprecedented and arguably since unmatched. They beat Sweden 7-1 in their first Pool game, then spanked Spain 6-1 in their second. The front three of Ademir, Chico and Zizinho had caught fire, coming at opponents from all angles, their many goals punctuating 90-minute showcases of dainty flicks, delicate feints, mazy dribbles, pacy runs, fluid bicycle kicks, vicious volleys, thundering headers and cute finishes. According to legend - no telly cameras, you see - one of Ademir’s four against Sweden came about when he gripped the ball between his feet and somersaulted over the keeper. The seleção’s soccer was anything but a one-note samba.
Uruguay on the other hand had struggled to get to a stage where the last match in the Final Pool remained alive and decisive. Having sauntered into the Pool by beating Bolivia 8-0, their only group game in a ludicrously lopsided tournament - Fifa couldn’t be bothered to rearrange their showpiece after India and Scotland had let them down - it took them a while to get their chops up against proper opposition. (Spain and Sweden were no mugs, which only goes to demonstrate Brazil’s excellence.) Uruguay had to battle to salvage a draw against Spain in their first match, their captain, the obdurate Obdulio Varela, scoring a late equaliser which stood more as a testament to sheer will than skill. They then needed two goals in the last 13 minutes to turn a looming loss against Sweden into last-gasp victory. Avoiding defeat against Brazil appeared to be a pipe dream - and thanks to that dropped point in the draw against Spain, they needed a win. Good luck, lads!
By common consent, it seemed they were going to need it. Uruguay were walking into the lion’s den with neither whip nor chair. The Maracana bounced with anticipation and expectation. The early edition of O Mundo newspaper screamed “Brasil Campeao 1950!” A celebratory samba, Brazil The Victors, had been composed, the house band ready to strike it up the minute Brazil had made it three out of three in the Pool. The mayor of Rio got in first with a paean to Costa’s XI: “You, players, who in less than a few hours will be hailed as champions by millions of compatriots! You who have no rivals in the entire hemisphere! You who will overcome any other competitor! You, who I already salute as victors!” An official world-record crowd of 173,850 - but in truth closer in number to 210,000 - spent the time leading up to kick off in full party mode. Brasil! Brasil! Brasil! There were approximately 100 Uruguayans in attendance. Good luck, lads!
And when the first whistle sounded, it seemed they were going to need it. Brazil flew out of the traps, Zizinho haring straight for the Uruguayan box and winning a corner that was fizzed straight through the six-yard box by Friaca. By the time 180 seconds were on the clock, Ademir had whistled two shots down the throat of Roque Maspoli in the Uruguayan goal. Within another couple of minutes, Jair had sent a free kick close.
It seemed only a matter of time: 7-1 against Sweden, 6-1 against Spain, 5-1 against Uruguay in the Copa America the previous year, the Uruguayan goal now under fire at machine-gun pace in the opening skirmishes. But all this didn’t quite tell the whole story, and may explain why Uruguay didn’t simply give in. For a start, the Uruguayans were, in their own heads at least, still the reigning world champions. They’d won the 1930 version, after all, then refused to compete in the 1934 and 1938 tournaments in political pique. So as things stood, they were still unbeaten in World Cup competition - and as such, it was their title to lose. Brazil who?
Uruguay also had three of the best players in the world lining up in their team: inside forward Juan Alberto Schiaffino, winger Alcides Ghiggia, and the domineering (and aforementioned) box-to-box midfielder Obdulio Varela. The trio played their club football for Peñarol, who had been scoring goals at a preposterous rate: on average, they were rattling home 4.5 goals per league match. All three Peñarol players would have a major say in the way the game panned out.
It should also be noted that Brazil’s status as champions of south America and recent 5-1 bosses of Uruguay wasn’t all it seemed. Since that thrashing in the Copa America, the two countries had met three more times, Uruguay winning one game 4-3 and narrowly losing the other two. Additionally, the way Brazil claimed the 1949 Copa America title was instructive, certainly in retrospect: they had only required a draw in their final game against closest challengers Paraguay to top the tournament’s league system, but lost 2-1, and were forced into a play-off against the same side. Which they admittedly won 7-0, but the affair illustrated that this brilliant Brazil could suffer from crippling nerves at the business end of tournaments along with the best of them.
Brazil remained on top throughout the first half. They had 17 efforts on goal, Ademir with five of them, the best being a thumping header from Chico’s cross which Uruguayan keeper Roque Maspoli, his back arched, tipped over the bar in spectacular style. (This was Ademir being kept quiet! A state of affairs thanks in no small part to the close attention afforded him by Varela.) But Brazil couldn’t score. And the half wasn’t quite the one-way traffic it has been often since painted as. Ghiggia caused a fair bit of trouble down the right, where the left-back Bigode - in English, literally, Moustache - was just about holding his own. Meanwhile, for all Brazil’s dominance, it was Uruguay who actually came closest to scoring, when Omar Miguez hit the post with a shot eight minutes before the break. Ten minutes earlier, Ruben Moran - making his debut in a World Cup final (!) - had missed an open goal by spooning an effort over the crossbar.
But the defining moment of the half came on 28 minutes, when Bigode, suffering his continued tussles with Ghiggia, nudged his adversary in the back. A cheeky foul. Varela, stationed nearby but getting mighty closer at speed, motioned to give Bigode a friendly pat on the head, then issued a little cuff round the defender’s ear. The Moustache bristled. The English referee George Reader, mindful that he was dealing with two adults, told them both to stop being so bloody effing stupid, and to shake hands. The players reluctantly embraced, with Bigode looking visibly shaken. Varela wandered off, gathering the front of his sky blue shirt into his fist, a gesture which celebrated the recording of a little victory.
A little victory that would have big repercussions.
Brazil came out for the second half in a similar manner as they did the first, Zizinho firing straight at Maspoli. And within two minutes of the restart, they were finally ahead. Ademir, in the middle of the park, spotted Friaca making good down the inside-right channel, and released him with a reverse pass. Rodriguez Andrade tried to muscle in over Friaca’s left shoulder, but he didn’t get there in time. Friaca bobbled a not wholly convincing shot towards the bottom-left corner. Maspoli arguably should have got a hand to it, the ball crossing his body, but for once the keeper - who had been in astonishing form during the first half - was found wanting.
Brazil, a goal up when a draw would do, could touch the trophy. The Maracana erupted. Varela, very cutely, engaged the linesman in vociferous debate. Ostensibly he was demanding an offside flag, but it would later become clear that he was simply playing for time, letting the 200,000-plus crowd scream themselves out, in order to take a little heat out of the situation. Not that he was of a mind to sit back and wait for things to happen, mind you. Uruguay now needed two goals if they were to win the World Cup, and there wasn’t too much time to waste. It was therefore appropriate for Varela to announce his strident manifesto. “Let them shout,” he told his teammate Rodriguez Andrade before Uruguay restarted the match. “In five minutes the stadium will seem like a graveyard, and then only one voice will be heard. Mine!”
The stadium was destined to seem like a graveyard all right, though Varela’s timescale proved a bit ambitious. Uruguay did respond to going a goal down with a positive mindset, Schiaffino shooting wide almost immediately after the restart, Ghiggia embarking on a couple of pacy dribbles, getting right up in an increasingly flustered Bigode’s grille. But it was Brazil who came closest to scoring the second goal of the game, Ademir sprinting into the box just after the hour and being clattered to the turf by Juan Carlos Gonzalez. Different times, different standards: while the player himself cried for a penalty kick, even the commentators on Brazilian radio were admitting that although “the play was ... of great violence” it was also “lawful”.
On 63 minutes, Jair sent a wild free kick sailing miles over Maspoli’s crossbar. It would prove to be Brazil’s last meaningful attack until the whole atmosphere had changed and the panic was on. Upon seeing his side take the lead, Brazil coach Costa had instructed his players to sit back a little, in the hope that Uruguay, desperately flooding forward, would leave spaces open at the back for deadly counter attacks. The flaw in the plan was that Uruguay were too good to be teased and manipulated in this way. Varela, now with fewer defensive duties, stepped up to augment the attack. On 66 minutes, he slid a pass to the right for Ghiggia, who turned Bigode inside out and tore past the lumbering defender on the outside, before whipping a ball to the near post, where Schiaffino stepped ahead of Juvenal to roof the ball home past goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa.
The Maracana didn’t quite fall silent - yet - but for the first time doubts were creeping in and the atmosphere became oppressively muted. Varela, just before Brazil gingerly kicked off, stood in the centre circle with his shirt bunched in his fist again, filling the air by shouting to nobody in particular. Brazil were still on course to win the World Cup, but suddenly their passes were no longer sticking. Ghiggia danced past Bigode again and crossed once more for Schiaffino, whose header clanked wide. Ghiggia-Bigode III saw the usual depressing result for Brazil, Uruguay’s scintillating winger finding the byline with ease. Schiaffino headed the resulting cross down for Moran, but before the new boy could send the ball fizzing goalwards, Augusto hacked upfield.
Bigode, who had just about kept up with Ghiggia in the first half before being cuffed by Varela, was now a shell of a man. And on 79 minutes he crumbled, as the visitors delivered the killer blow. Brazil were attempting a rare sortie upfield - they had not had a shot at goal since Schiaffino’s equaliser, an astonishing shift in momentum given the stats of the opening period - but Danilo’s searching pass for Jair was intercepted by Julio Perez. After one-twoing with Miguez, Perez then sashayed to the right, where he executed another one-two, this time with Ghiggia on the halfway line, before slipping a pass down the flank for the winger to chase. Ghiggia had been given the spring on the leaden-footed Bigode, and drifted inside and into the area, homing in on Barbosa. The keeper was in two minds. Should he close Ghiggia down? Thing was, Schiaffino was hovering in the middle. The indecision was fatal. Ghiggia cracked a shot low towards the near post, the ball flying into the bottom-right corner, Barbosa unable to drop to the floor in time to smother.
The Maracana fell silent, at least 200,000 jaws agape, swinging sadly in the breeze. Make that at least 200,001, for Gonzalez appeared to be as stunned at Uruguay’s turnaround as the hundreds of thousands of emotionally battered Brazilians: his keeper Maspoli had to forcibly shake him back into the land of the living. Gonzalez was far from the only one to have lost focus. Brazil, frightened but with ten minutes left to scramble out of a hole, came back at Uruguay in body, but without any real conviction in mind. Jair, Zizinho and Ademir poured forward, but Varela made a couple of easy blocks, and Maspoli gathered other speculative efforts calmly. “I will dribble them all!” Zizinho was heard to jabber at one point. Brazil were literally in a flat spin: Ademir sent one shot ballooning out for a throw by the corner flag. The Maracana offered volume again, but the screams within were desperate where they had once been joyful.
The 90 minutes were up, but there was still time for one moment of time standing still. With the clock kaput, Friaca - who for 19 minutes looked like being Brazil’s hero - forced a corner down the right and quickly took the kick himself. Jair challenged Maspoli for the high centre. The ball dropped loose at the left-hand post, where Zizinho, Ademir and Danilo were hanging. But the Uruguayan defender Schubert Gambetta got there first - then grabbed the ball with both hands! “What are you doing, you animal?!?” screamed team-mate Rodriguez Andrade. However there would be no penalty. Gambetta was one of the few people who had heard referee Reader’s final whistle in the hubbub. It was over. The match was over. The 1950 World Cup was over. For Brazil, everything was over.
The Uruguayans took turns to hug and kiss referee Reader. Fifa president Jules Rimet, ushered onto the field by hysterically crying policemen, let the winning captain and man-of-the-match Varela get his hands on the trophy, though he was advised against raising it. Varela made do with going out drinking in Rio that night, the king of Uruguay, the king of Brazil, the king of the world. No celebratory samba had been performed. Elsewhere in Rio, there were suicides. The country, almost as one, resigned themselves to the fact that they would never win the World Cup. This was seismic. The world of football would never be the same again. Meanwhile on the other side of the planet, three yachts were caught in a squall near Bridlington, lightning struck a house in Wigan, the Yorkshire Winding Enginemen’s Association called for a strike ballot in a pay dispute with the National Coal Board, and there was 1.39 inches of rain in Hull.