A tournament unlike any other

This is a story about distance. A time when the world was a bigger place and everywhere else was far away.

The embers of World War II weren't yet cold. Many could not forget. Many did not want to.

But others believed that the longest night must be followed by a dawn. And so FIFA, the game's governing body, decided the time was right to once again stage the biggest spectacle in sports. The 1942 and 1946 World Cups had been cancelled because of the war and its aftermath. Brazil 1950 would be the first time in 12 years that the football world would come together -- and it was important that it did.

The war had meant that, by and large, nations had become islands separated by ideological oceans. There was little cross-pollination apart from the occasional tour. National myths were born and thrived, largely without any chance to compare themselves with their neighbours.

Those World Cups are obviously last on the list of things the war stole from humanity, but that doesn't stop us from mourning the sporting loss as well. They go down as "phantom World Cups," fodder for "what if" scenarios.

In that sense, 1946 is particularly intriguing. Without the war you would have had Argentina, powered by River Plate's "La Maquina" -- the terrifying attack led by Angel Labruna and Adolfo Pedernera, perhaps with a young Alfredo Di Stefano too. England, possibly, ready to join the football world and fielding Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews in their prime. Italy, based around "Il Grande Torino," the legendary side that would be wiped out on the hill at Superga three years later.

Then there's Hungary, the team that would redefine the game, already with Laszlo Kubala and a young Ferenc Puskas. Spain, led by the incomparable Telmo Zarra. Sweden, 1948 Olympic gold medalists, with the awesome "Gre-No-Li" trio of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm. Scotland, featuring Willie Woodburn and Gordon Smith, legends of their day and, of course, Brazil, who would go on to win the 1949 Copa America.

That's why 1950 was so important. It would mark the end of isolation and, in some ways, the beginning of the global game.

Jorge Robledo was the only player at the 1950 World Cup who played outside of the country he represented and even that was something of an accident: Born in Chile, he emigrated with his family to England when he was 5 and then returned, at 24, to play for the national team. This time around, more than half the players selected will likely ply their trade abroad. There are fewer differences, there is less to discover, there is -- virtually -- no distance.

When it came to bidding for the World Cup, the process was straightforward. Largely untouched by the war, Brazil was the only candidate. The game was booming in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo; Brazil were front-runners for the cancelled 1942 World Cup and, in many ways, had been waiting 20 years to host it.

FIFA also had the problem of recovering the physical World Cup itself. The Jules Rimet trophy was held by defending champion Italy, winner in 1938. For a time it seemed as if the cup itself was lost in the war and, truth be told, it nearly was. After Benito Mussolini was overthrown in 1943, Germany invaded the country and there were legitimate fears that the trophy, like other artifacts, would be plundered or melted down into gold to finance the war effort. So Ottorino Barassi, an executive at the Italian FA, took it upon himself to hide it in his native Cremona.

Versions differ over where exactly it was kept -- the most popular theory says it survived a German raid in a shoe box under Barassi's bed -- but it somehow saw out the war safely and was duly returned to FIFA in 1946.

For the first time, the organizers realized the folly of having the competition as a straight-knockout tournament. Back in 1938, the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia) traveled the 6,500 miles to France only to be beaten 6-0 in the first round and return home. Given the distances and expense involved in traveling to Brazil, it was decided to hold the World Cup as a round-robin: four groups of four in the first round, with the four group winners playing a round-robin tournament to determine the world champion. That way everyone would get at least three games.

Of course, that was predicated upon actually having 16 teams participating and, crazy as it sounds, that proved to be more difficult than you would expect. Germany and Japan were still banned as a result of the war. The Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other Warsaw Pact nations announced they would not participate, leaving Yugoslavia as the only Communist nation to enter. In South America, Venezuela was not yet affiliated with FIFA and Colombia had been kicked out after sanctioning the creation of a breakaway professional league that ignored FIFA rules and signed star players from around the world without paying transfer fees.

With Brazil qualified as hosts and Italy as holders, there were just 32 nations contesting the remaining 14 slots. They came from just four continents; Oceania and Africa were left out entirely.

Asia was also almost entirely ignored. The Asian Football Confederation had yet to be created, but FIFA arranged a qualifying group including Burma (now Myanmar), the Philippines, Indonesia and India. All but India withdrew before qualifying even began. This left India as participants, but they relinquished their place late, citing the distance and the expenses (you may have heard the story that they refused because FIFA would not allow them to play barefoot ... it may well be apocryphal and perhaps a bit colonialist too).

Central America and the Caribbean were left out as well, though not what was known as the North American Football Confederation (NAFC) comprising Mexico, the United States and Cuba. Those three NAFC teams held their own qualifying tournament, which saw Mexico dominate and the USA qualify as runners-up.

South American qualifying was downright bizarre. There were three slots for four teams, but Argentina withdrew in a dispute with the Brazilian organizers and Ecuador and Peru followed suit, meaning that Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay qualified without kicking a ball.

European qualifying was a veritable mess, too. Syria was grouped with Turkey (largely for geographic reasons) with the winner scheduled to face Austria. Turkey duly beat Syria 7-0, and the Syrians withdrew without playing the return game. But then Austria withdrew as well, citing the huge expense of traveling to Brazil. Turkey would have been going to their first World Cup if not for the fact that the Turkish government also elected to pull out.

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Across the continent, that was the story. Teams dropped out and their places were offered to runners-up, who also said no: France, Belgium, Portugal, the Republic of Ireland. (Another bizarre point? Due to a political dispute, both Northern Ireland -- or, as it called itself, Ireland -- and the Republic of Ireland picked some of the same players, meaning guys turned out for both nations.)

Furthermore Scotland, runners-up to England, declined to go because they hadn't won the British Home Nations Championship. A man named George Graham -- no relation to the future Arsenal manager -- announced the Scots would go only as champions.

All this left FIFA with just 13 teams -- even that was a stretch because Italy were persuaded to go only at the last possible moment. The defending champions had suffered terribly during the war, but, just as importantly, they were still reeling from the Superga tragedy.

As a result, many players and officials refused to fly to Brazil. Eventually they agreed to go, but only by boat. And so a young and inexperienced Italy side chose to turn a 24-hour journey into a 15-day odyssey. They arrived five days before their opening game and, according to legend, hardly managed to train during the voyage. This was because while their ship was large enough to accommodate a small training pitch, the entire supply of balls was lost overboard after six days. So, according to striker Egisto Pandolfini, all they could do to train was perform calisthenics, play table tennis and take endless walks around the perimeter of the ship.

The late withdrawals thus left the organizers with just 13 nations. Because commitments had been made and tickets sold, rather than making it three groups of three and one group of four, they opted for two groups of four, one of three and one of two, featuring just Uruguay and Bolivia. That meant Uruguay had the easiest path possible to the World Cup final: one game, which they duly won 8-0.

Elsewhere, Brazil qualified from Group 1, riding a groundswell of national enthusiasm. Again, though, politics and distance played a part. After sweeping Mexico aside in the opener at the Maracana, they traveled to Sao Paulo for the second match. As was the custom at the time, the manager changed the team, inserting three players -- Bauer, Rui and Noronha -- who played for local Sao Paulo teams.

It seems bizarre today, but Brazil is the size of a continent and for the Paulista (Brazil's domestic league) fans, seeing their heroes turn out for the Selecao evidently was just as important as team cohesion and a settled starting XI. The result was a hairy 2-2 draw with Switzerland, largely forgotten as Brazil then beat Yugoslavia 2-0 to reach the final group stage.

Again, to underscore just how different things were back then, consider poor old Ratko Mitic, the Yugoslav striker. On his way to the pitch, he somehow banged his head on a steel girder at the Maracana. He needed stitches and medical attention. There were no substitutions in those days and nor could the starting XI be changed once it had been submitted. And nor was the referee, Welshman Mervyn Griffiths, going to delay kickoff. That left Yugoslavia with just 10 men for the first five or so minutes -- during which Ademir opened the scoring -- while Mitic watched, powerless, from the sidelines.

In some ways, Group 2 was the most curious. It featured Chile, with the English Chilean (or Chilean Englishman) Robledo, England making their World Cup debut, an impressive Spain team led by Telmo Zarra and, of course, the United States. So much has been written about that USA team, you probably need no introduction (if you do, go read "The Game of their Lives" by Geoffrey Douglas). Suffice to say the U.S. was a hastily assembled group featuring no fewer than three players who weren't even U.S. citizens. Still, they gave Spain a scare in their opening game, taking the lead through Gino Pariani, only to concede three in the final 10 minutes.

Had it not been for what occurred in the last 10 minutes of the Spain game, events in Belo Horizonte might not have been quite so dramatic. But it was there that England, who dispatched Chile in the opener 2-0, took on the USA as heavy favorites, so much so that Matthews, their star player, was rested for the game. Joe Gaetjens notched the winner and incredulity followed across the pond, with several newspapers believing that the intercontinental wire report had a typo and that the score had been 10-1 (to England, of course) rather than 0-1 (a U.S. win). As it happened England also lost to Spain, returning home humiliated.

Down to three teams after India's withdrawal, Group 3 opened with Sweden's 3-2 win over a just-off-the-boat Italy. You want a sign of the times? Eight of the Swedish starting XI were bought by Italian clubs. Journalists and observers returned home with tales of Norse gods beating the defending world champions and Serie A clubs took out their checkbooks. In the age before scouting networks, data analysis, YouTube and WyScout, that's how business was done. Sweden's 2-2 draw with Paraguay in the next game clinched a spot in the final round, rendering Italy's final game meaningless. This time, they opted to fly home.

This set up a final group featuring Spain, Sweden, Uruguay and Brazil. Brazil stomped all over Spain and Sweden, 7-1 and 6-1 respectively. Uruguay huffed and puffed to come from behind and draw with Spain (2-2). Against Sweden, again they had to come back twice and score a late, late goal to eke out a 3-2 win.

What came next has been told so many times, you may not need to read any further. In front of the greatest crowd ever assembled to witness a sporting event -- officially 174,000 people, unofficially more than 200,000 -- the heaviest favorites in World Cup history contrived to let the Jules Rimet trophy slip out of their grasp just 11 minutes from glory. Names like Bigode, Barbosa -- the poor keeper who famously said: "The maximum prison sentence in Brazil is 30 years. I served 50." -- and Juvenal were never spoken again, except in the nastiest, most censorious tones.

Fittingly, the most bizarre and improbable World Cup we've ever witnessed had the most bizarre and improbable ending. And the world became a slightly smaller place as a result.

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