Ghosts of Maracanazo haunt Brazil
The Washington Post
National soccer museum reminds public of the match the country wants to forget
SAO PAULO, Brazil — The Museu do Futebol has been particularly busy this month, as the entire soccer world has funnelled into Brazil. Inside this inspired attraction, fans can gawk at World Cup trophies, see the nation’s soccer heroes framed in gold and even shoot a virtual goal with motion-capture technology. But one small room stands out, barely bigger than a walk-in closet with a projection screen at one end.
It’s pitch-black until the old footage starts flickering. The 1950 World Cup, a nightmare from which Brazil can’t quite seem to awake. A booming heartbeat serves as the soundtrack, and as the film progresses, it thumps faster and faster. Finally a ball rolls into a goal. Then time expires. Then nothing. Silence. On the screen, a woman cries in the stands, and a player buries his head in his hands. A deep voice finally speaks, saying in Portuguese: “2-1 Uruguay. The heart of Brazil stops.”
“People say, ‘Why do you show this?’” said Daniella Alfonsi, the museum’s content director. “They stand there and cry. They do not understand. It’s because this defeat was very important to the people of Brazil and for football in Brazil.”
Brazil is the only country to ever lose a World Cup championship match on its home soil. But the 1950 Cup was bigger than a single game, just as soccer here feels like something bigger than mere sport.
“Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima,” Nelson Rodrigues, the late Brazilian author and playwright, once said. “Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.”
Sixty-four years later, Brazil is again a heavy favourite to reach the World Cup title game in a tournament again designed to showcase the evolution of a nation. Uruguay is markedly less heralded here and needs a strong performance against Italy to have any shot at winning its first championship since 1950.
Brazil’s neighbour to the south amounts to a shrub in the shadow of a giant. Brazil has a population of around 200 million. Uruguay, 3.3 million, fewer people than Los Angeles. That means there’s one Uruguayan for every 60 Brazilians. And yet, despite the numbers, Uruguay’s soccer team still manages to impress, notably finishing fourth at the 2010 World Cup. Nothing, though, will ever compare to 1950, known as Maracanazo.
“In Brazil, people talk about it all the time,” said Alex Bellos, author of Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life. “It could be an older generation thing, but it has been passed down. It’s one of those things that has become bigger than what it was because it’s been spoken about so much.”
Soccer isn’t merely a favoured pastime here. The nation’s history can be measured in the World Cup's four-year cycle: growth, successes and failures plotted on a timeline, Brazil’s soccer record mirroring civic progress. In the 1930s, soccer had solidified itself as the country’s most important symbol of national identity. It united people of all backgrounds, showed the world how good Brazil can be and with a mix of races on the pitch. Soccer became a way for a nation conflicted over its racial history to finally celebrate diversity and a blending of cultures.
Eight years before Pelé made his World Cup debut for Brazil, the 1950 tournament was to be showcase event, a chance to make a big global statement. Tournament organizers sought to build an ambitious stadium unlike anything seen before, a monstrosity in Rio de Janeiro with a seating capacity of 183,000. Similar to today, journalists, politicians and Brazilians argued over the costly use of resources.
“It was sort of an opportunity to tell the world about 20 years of Brazilian development and also Brazil's football prowess,” said David Goldblatt, author of Futebol Nation. “The debate of the Maracana was most emblematic: Are we going to build the kind of stage that sends a message to the world?”
The Maracanã was more monument than stadium, a national landmark almost on par with Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue. A scaled-down version, which still seats nearly 80,000, is being used in this World Cup and will also be used for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics.
In 1950, Brazil needed just a tie against Uruguay to hoist the championship trophy. So sure was the nation that victory was imminent that the morning of the match, Rio’s O Mundo newspaper printed a photo of the team: “These are the world champions,” as Bellos documented in his book.
Estimates suggest that anywhere from 200,000 to 250,000 spectators might have crammed into the stadium that day. Brazil scored the game’s first goal early in the second half, and a nation prepared to uncork a celebration for the ages.
But in the 66th minute, a Uruguay player named Juan Alberto Schiaffino scored. The game was tied until just 11 minutes remained, and a player named Alcides Ghiggia dribbled down the right wing and into the box. He fired. Brazil’s goalkeeper, Moacir Barbosa, was a hair late, diving to his left and watching the ball fly past.
“Only three people have, with just one motion, silenced the Maracanã,” Ghiggia said years later, “Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and me.”
Barbosa became the goat, a point of comparison for every future Brazilian failure — not to mention every Brazilian goalkeeper. He died in 2000, never able to erase the bad memory of a single match.
Strands of logic
By most strands of logic, Brazil should have vanquished the ghosts in 1970 by now, especially with its 3-1 World Cup semifinal win over Uruguay in 1970 en route to a third Cup title. But in both countries there are reminders. Uruguay hasn’t won a World Cup since Maracanazo, but the echoes of that day can still be heard.
The sports apparel company Puma recently introduced a new Uruguay soccer jersey and aired a commercial that featured a ghost draped in Uruguayan sky blue with “50” on his back, popping up everywhere from Rio de Janeiro’s beaches to the favelas, scaring Brazilians. It concludes with the words: “The ghost of 50 is in Brazil already.”
Uruguay Coach Oscar Tabárez acknowledged the commercial was popular at home but says it has little impact on this tournament.
“There’s no ghosts for us,” he said last week.
And in Brazil, how much is today’s generation of players influenced by the 1950 Cup? Are the outsiders correct? Are Brazilians still obsessed with a single loss in a single game, now 64 years old?
Neymar isn’t simply the face of Brazil’s current World Cup squad. He’s an icon that transcends the pitch, on par with any celebrity the country knows. For him and the youngest generations of soccer fans here, Argentina is Brazil’s chief rival; Uruguay just another neighbour.
“I never heard about this Cup,” he said in an interview last year. “I know what happened. I know that Brazil lost, but that’s it.”
Neymar is 22 years old. Fifteen of his teammates aren’t even 30, which means for many players on this national squad, even their parents weren’t born when the heart stopped beating and the nation wept so long ago.
But perhaps innately, they still understand. Then as now, the stakes feel immeasurable.
“When you nail your colors to futbol the way Brazil had down in 1930s and 40s, that’s the catch, isn’t it?” Goldblatt said. “It’s a capricious thing. Brazil really did buy into it. They bought into it in a very serious way, and suddenly, the cupboard was bare. As far as the projection to the outside world, they were left asking themselves, what is Brazil?”