“The most chaotic, disorganised and ramshackle tournament in history” is how one publication described the World Cup in Brazil. Not the 2014 edition, with its concerns over stadiums, protests and transport – but the one in 1950, which was something else altogether.
Blighted by teams withdrawing for dubious reasons, not technically having a final and the main stadium – the Maracanã – not actually being finished, FIFA’s fourth showpiece tournament still provided some of the most incredible drama that football has ever witnessed on the world stage.
The conclusive match between Brazil and Uruguay was a game which would change football, and the lives of many players – not least home goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa – forever. But more on that later.
Taking place in the aftermath of World War II, the IV Campeonato Mundial de Futebol was the first World Cup since France 1938. Much had changed, with only two players from 1938 – Switzerland’s Alfred Bickel and Sweden’s Erik Nilsson – featuring again.
With European countries unable to justify large expenditure on hosting a football tournament, Brazil were happy to step up and play host, particularly as they had been one of the favourites to host the aborted 1942 tournament.
Only 31 countries entered the qualification process. West Germany were not yet a member of FIFA and several countries behind the Iron Curtain – such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary – refused to take part.
The qualifiers proved to be a farce. FIFA generously allowed the British home nations – who had only recently returned to the fold after years of self-imposed exile – two places in the tournament, to be decided by the Home Nations Championship. Scotland though, were only willing to qualify as group winners. When England triumphed, the Scottish FA – to the annoyance of their own players – stubbornly refused to take their place as runners-up.
Elsewhere, India withdrew because of one of two very silly reasons. One story is that they were affronted by the fact FIFA didn’t want them to play barefoot. The other is that as they only qualified after Burma withdrew when all their players were called to arms in a civil war, they didn’t realise they had a place until too late. FIFA’s telegrams apparently arrived too late in the day.
Turkey also pulled out, so eliminated France were invited to take their place. They initially accepted, but after viewing their travel schedule across the vast host nation, decided to stay at home.
In the end, only 13 countries took part in what was designed to be a 16-team tournament. FIFA were reluctant to go with the Brazilian federation’s proposed format – four groups of four, with the winners going into a final group of four – but were forced into it when Brazil threatened to withdraw as hosts should they refuse.
The folly of a final group, with the potential for dead rubbers and no showpiece finale, is clear but how Brazil dealt with the withdrawals was even more daft.
Instead of rearranging the opening groups when teams pulled out after the draw, they left them as they were. This meant one group only had two teams in it – Uruguay and Bolivia – who had both qualified automatically due to other South American withdrawals. Therefore Uruguay reached the final group with a simple 8-0 victory over the Bolivians.
The other three groups did provide plenty of drama, however. England, many people’s favourites for the tournament and boasting a post-war record of 23 wins and just four defeats in 30 games, were humiliated.
After beating Chile 2-0 in their first game, the Three Lions would fail to find the net again. In a match against the USA, a team of amateurs captained by Eddie McIlvenny, a Scottish-born former Wrexham player who had been given a free transfer after just seven appearances, they simply could not score. Despite having Billy Wright, Alf Ramsey and Tom Finney in the team – and Stanley Matthews not making the line-up, a header from Haitian-born Joe Gaetjens proved the difference.
Back home, the humiliation of Walter Winterbottom’s team was scarcely believed, with some newspapers believing a rogue ‘1’ had been lost over the wires, printing the scoreline as 10-1 instead of 0-1.
The favourites had been unfortunate, hitting the woodwork four times and being denied two strong penalty appeals leading forward Wilf Mannion to say: “Bloody ridiculous. Can’t we play them again tomorrow?” But the damage was done and a demoralised England’s 1-0 defeat to Spain ensured it was the Spaniards who made the final group with a 100% record.
In the group of three, Sweden saw off holders Italy despite only calling upon their amateurs – thereby denying themselves the legendary Gre-No-Li trio of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm. The genius forwards had led their nation to 1948 Olympic gold and all subsequently joined AC Milan but the Swedes had strength in depth. Paraguay could only draw with the Scandinavians who marched into the final group.
The greatest narrative of the event meanwhile, was taking place in Group One, where the host nation were trying to deal with the immense pressure from their fans.
Having blown away all-comers in the 1949 Copa America and with a core of scintillating talents including Ademir, Chico and Zizinho, the nation expected nothing less than a Brazil triumph.
They brushed off Mexico 4-0, before Switzerland held them to a 2-2 draw. Against Yugoslavia, they were given a helping hand from the unfinished Maracanã, when a girder outside the dressing room cut open the head of visiting inside-right Rajko Mitić. By the time he emerged with a bandaged head, the hosts were already 1-0 up and ended up winning 2-0 to qualify.
For the final round, Brazil found their feet in style. They obliterated Sweden 7-1 thanks to four from Ademir and embarrassed Spain 6-1 as the final group appeared to be a procession.
Uruguay were held to a 2-2 draw by Spain and only edged out Sweden 3-2 meaning in their final group game Brazil only needed a draw. But this game proved to be as dramatic as any actual “World Cup final” has been since.
While clearly the underdogs, Uruguay – a miniscule country when compared to Brazil – had plenty of confidence from being unbeaten in World Cup history.
They had triumphed in the inaugural competition on home soil in 1930, and refused to take part in the following two editions in Europe. So, in a way they felt like reigning champions.
Brazil were so confident they had a samba commissioned in advance called Brazil the Victors and the Mayor of Rio’s pre-match speech already proclaimed them as champions. As Uruguay star Juan Alberto Schiaffino put it: “Brazil were the giants, who were everyone’s choice.”
In front of a world record crowd – officially just over 170,000, but believed to be well over 200,000 – at the unfinished Maracanã, Uruguay were up against it. So much so, that right-half Julio Pérez wet himself during the national anthems.
But Brazil goalkeeper Barbosa noticed something else. The Brazil flag was upside down as it was being raised during the anthem. A bad omen indeed.
The hosts dominated the first half, playing exhilarating football, but couldn’t find the net.
When they eventually did, two minutes after half-time through Friaca, Uruguay needed two to take the trophy. Uruguay captain Obdulio Varela was still confident and hushed the jubilant crowd by remonstrating with the linesman until the atmosphere had calmed down.
Varela, an excellent box-to-box midfielder, had seen that right-winger Alcides Ghiggia was getting the better of full-back Bigode and made sure his team capitalised.
The speedy Ghiggia was played in down the right, cutting the ball back for star striker Schiaffino to stun the Maracanã crowd with an equaliser. There were 24 minutes left but it wasn’t in Brazil’s nature to simply see the game out for the draw they needed.
On 79 minutes, Ghiggia broke again down the right-hand side. Barbosa anticipated a move similar to the first goal and positioned himself to intercept a cut-back to Schiaffino. But the cut-back never came and Ghiggia’s quick thinking saw him squeeze a shot past the despairing goalkeeper at his near post.
He later said: “It remains burned on my memory. I had to decide in a few seconds what I was going to do in that move. I was lucky enough to drive it home.”
The unthinkable was happening, Brazil were losing to their neighbouring minnows in the one match that mattered more than any other.
In the final minute, Friaca won a corner. He crossed to the far post where Zizinho, Ademir and Danilo were waiting. Uruguay defender Schubert Gambetta got there first – and snatched the ball with both hands.
Team-mate Rodríguez Andrade screamed: “What are you doing, you animal?”
But no penalty was awarded. Gambetta had been one of the few to hear English referee George Reader blow the final whistle while the ball was in the air. It was over and Brazil had bottled it in their own back yard.
For Uruguay: exultation. The players embraced Reader, and Varela partied long into the night, his team having won their second World Cup on their second attempt.
Ghiggia famously quipped, many years later: “Only three people have ever silenced 200,000 at the Maracanã with a single gesture – Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and me.” Sixty four years on, the match winner is the only surviving member of the triumphant side and, health-permitting, will be in attendance at this summer’s final.
For Brazil, it was a national tragedy. After the final, they didn’t play for two years, and when they did return, they had ditched their previously traditional white kit. By the 1954 tournament, only one player from the starting XI would remain – José Carlos Bauer.
The players left the Maracanã, some isolating themselves for weeks. For Barbosa, who had been beaten at his near post, his life was changed beyond repair. He was scapegoated, chastised across the country for many years.
He would famously say, shortly before his death in 2000: “The maximum prison sentence in Brazil is 30 years, I have served 50.”
Of course, the nation would go on to put right the wrongs of 1950. When Pele emerged in 1958, they won three of the next four World Cups, and now have five – more than any other nation. But the ghost of 1950 remains etched onto the nation’s consciousness and they will be desperate to put that right this year.
It may have been disorganised, chaotic and ramshackle, but the last time Brazil hosted a World Cup it showed the beautiful game at its very best.