1950 World Cup loss still remembered in Brazil
Alex Ferguson says that for a professional footballer, every game is a statement of his worth. It's an inspiring thought. But all games are not of equal importance. Some are bigger than others - one of the hallmarks of the truly great player is that he tips the balance in the really big matches.
Of the hundreds of thousands of games played, there are a few that resonate for decades, showering the victors with glory and covering the losers with scars that last a lifetime. Perhaps the outstanding example is the final game of the 1950 World Cup.
World Cup comes to Brazil
Brazil staged the tournament, the fourth to be held, and hoped to register their first victory. Much, much more than football was at stake. Like some colossal space ship, the Maracana stadium was built in Rio de Janeiro.
Unlike any Copa America Brazil had hosted, this competition spanned the giant land, with matches held from Recife in the North East to Porto Alegre in the south. The message to be passed was one of a nation on the move, the country of the future that was just about to arrive. All that was needed to complete the impression was a win for the home side, and with one game to go it looked highly likely.
Instead of the traditional knockout format, the 1950 World Cup had a final round-robin pool, with the last four teams playing each other and the one with most points taking the title. Brazil brushed aside Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1. All they needed was a draw against Uruguay to make the dream come true.
But Uruguay came from behind to win 2-1. At kickoff time Brazil was the land of the future, no one could possibly stop them and so on. By the final whistle the country turned in on itself, judging its people as an inferior breed who would never amount to much. It is a study in the manic depressive mentality - and the journey between the two extremes took just 90 minutes, with a 15 minute break for half time.
It was an afternoon that would never be forgotten by those who wore the white shirt of Brazil - yes, white shirt. The famous yellow shirt came later, the white one hurled aside in disgust as a result of that defeat.
Bitterness still lingers
I had the pleasure of getting to know two of the leading members of that team, the magnificent duo of inside forwards Zizinho and Jair, and also the coach Flavio Costa. I met them in 1997, 47 years after the fateful day, and the bitterness they had carried for almost half a century was clear.
"Here in Brazil," said Jair, "a guy meets you in the street and he's capable of coming at you with a knife because you lost." Zizinho, the idol of the young Pele, tried tog get it out of his system on page one of his autobiography. "I played for 19 years, won some titles and along with the other members of that campaign I'm remembered as a loser."
None of them are still around to try and put the record straight. By all accounts they really were a magnificent team, one of the most attractive Brazil have ever produced. If I could build a time machine and travel back to watch one player it would probably be Zizinho, whose breathtaking talent amazed the European press in 1950. He and the others - especially centre forward Ademir, little Jair with the cannon in his left foot and elegant midfielder Danilo - deserve to be remembered for helping put Brazilian football on the map. But they will perpetually be prisoners of those 90 minutes in the Maracana.
The last two members of that Brazil side passed away in 2009. Neither of them were giants of the Brazilian game. But, in very different ways, they both had a huge influence on the course of that match against Uruguay.
Right-winger Friaca, who died on Jan. 12th, was not an especially well known player. But for around 33 minutes he was seemingly destined for immortality. He put Brazil ahead in the first minute of the second half, scoring with a cross shot to round off a move set up by Zizinho and Ademir. It was only his second goal for the national team, but it looked like being the most important his country had ever scored. The hosts only needed a draw. Uruguay would have to score twice to prevent Friaca from going down in history as the man whose goal gave the World Cup to Brazil. From the 46th minute until the 79th Friaca was a legend. Then he became a footnote.
Schiaffino silences the Maracana
Brazil let in two goals. They were unable to cope with Uruguay's right-winger Ghiggia, who set up the equaliser for centre forward Schiaffino, and then scored the decisive second himself. In the post-mortem, Brazilian public opinion pinned the blame on left back Bigode, who was marking Ghiggia, and goalkeeper Barbosa, who was beaten at his near post on the second goal.
But coach Flavio Costa was adamant that the blame had been wrongly attributed. "There was a flaw in our defensive system," he wrote years later. "Juvenal did not give Bigode the necessary cover."
In 1997 he told me that the centre back "was perhaps worried about the crowd or something. He hid from the game in the middle of the others. One defender who didn't perform caused great harm to my team."
There was nothing that Costa could do. There were no substitutions in those days, and in the hubbub of the giant Maracana it was hard to get instructions to his players. His team had been on a roll, with a series of crushing victories. Then, when it mattered most, "a weakness appeared in our team, but it was too late." Perhaps the weakness was that there was too much riding on the game for one man to bear.
Rematch in heaven
Juvenal was the last of the team to die, on Oct. 30th. He never played for Brazil again - all ten of his international appearances were crammed into two months when the team were either preparing for or disputing the 1950 World Cup.
Friaca did manage to pull on the new yellow shirt. He was called up for the 1952 Pan-American games and played twice, bringing his total number of Brazil appearances to 12.
And now the pair can join their other teammates and rest in peace from the expectations placed upon them that day and the burden of not living up to them. A re-match in heaven will have to wait - Uruguay's Ghiggia is still alive and well.
About the Author
The son of a reasonably skilled amateur soccer player, Tim Vickery inherited the enthusiasm but none of the talent - and soon came to the conclusion that his best position was on the sidelines writing about the game. Tim did not make it out of his native England until the age of 23, but has since made up for lost time. He has been based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for over 15 years, and writes and broadcasts about South American soccer for, among others, the BBC, World Soccer magazine, and SI.com.