Rebuilding Brazil from the ruins of 1950

Friday, June 06, 2014


Joao Luiz Albuquerque was 11 years old when he went to the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro for the final game of the 1950 World Cup. Brazil, the hosts and irresistible favourites, were playing Uruguay, their tiny South American neighbours.

After 33 minutes of the second half, with the score at 1-1, the Uruguayan winger Alcides Ghiggia darted into box and from a wide position shot to the left of Moacir Barbosa, the Brazilian keeper.

"I have never forgotten that moment," says Joao Luiz, who is now 75. "It is still with me. I was right behind the goalposts. It happened in my face!"

The Maracana -- crammed with 200,000 people, the largest crowd ever present at a soccer game -- fell silent. The Brazilian players were unable to respond and, when the whistle blew a dozen minutes later, Uruguay were unexpectedly world champions.

To fans in the stadium like Joao Luiz, the shock was a personal trauma. "Every time I hear mention of Uruguay I still get anxious," he says. "It is like a person who was once bitten by a dog and gets twitchy each time he hears a bark."

But the defeat was also a defining moment for the nation. Possibly, the defining moment. "Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima," wrote Brazil's most celebrated playwright, Nelson Rodrigues. "Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat to Uruguay in 1950."

Rodrigues delighted in exaggerated metaphor, but his point is uncontroversial. Roberto DaMatta, the influential anthropologist, argues that the 1950 World Cup was "perhaps the greatest tragedy in contemporary Brazilian history. Because it happened collectively and brought a united vision of the loss of a historic opportunity. Because it happened at the beginning of a decade in which Brazil was looking to assert itself as a nation with a great future. The result was a tireless search for explanations of, and blame for, the shameful defeat."

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To understand why the fallout from a single soccer match reverberated so deeply and for so long, one needs to consider the previous 500 years of Brazilian history.

Portuguese navigators first reached Brazilian soil in 1500. The country's economy in the following centuries was based on slave labour. Brazil imported more African slaves than any other country in the Americas, and abolished slavery later, in 1888.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Brazil had a social problem that was also a racial one -- a large, poor and disenfranchised black underclass. There were no national symbols that united the haves with the have-nots.

Then came soccer. Originally played only by the white, European-descended elite, it quickly spread throughout the population. Anyone could play since all you needed was a vaguely spherical object that you could kick around.

Soccer made Brazilians think differently about themselves. Not only did they like playing and watching it, but they were very good at it, too. The view that there was a magical Brazilian way of playing that reflected the country's unique racial mixture -- first suggested in the 1930s by the writer Gilberto Freyre and then embraced by the nation -- made Brazilians proud about their racially mixed heritage for the first time.

Soccer also gave Brazil a newfound prominence on the world stage. A turning point was the 1938 World Cup. Brazil were knocked out in the semifinals, defeated by Italy, the eventual winners. Even so, the South Americans were the tournament's sensations. Striker Leonidas da Silva was top scorer and voted the World Cup's best player.

That year Brazil declared its intention to host the next World Cup. It finally was scheduled for 1950, a 12-year interruption because of the Second World War. The competition was the most high-profile event ever to take place in Brazil, and in order to reflect the grandeur of national aspiration, a decision was taken to build the Maracana, by far the largest stadium in the world. "Now we have a stage of fantastic proportions in which the whole world can admire our prestige and sporting greatness," trumpeted Rio paper A Noite.



Brazil began the tournament with a comfortable 4-0 win against Mexico. A 2-2 wobble against Switzerland was followed by a 2-0 defeat of Yugoslavia, which qualified the hosts into the final round.

The 1950 World Cup installed a peculiar system not used before or since: the final round was a mini league in which each of four remaining teams -- Brazil, Sweden, Spain and Uruguay -- faced each other. The title would go to the team that amassed the most points. The match against Uruguay was therefore not the "final," but merely the final game in the round-robin.

Brazil's first two games gave them an aura of invincibility: Sweden and Spain were swatted away 7-1 and 6-1. Against Spain, the euphoric atmosphere led to the entire Maracana singing the carnival song "Bullfights in Madrid," which has been described as "one of the largest demonstrations of collective singing ever known."

So Brazil headed into the final game as overwhelming favourites, giddy and triumphalistic. All they required was a draw. Opponents Uruguay had drawn 2-2 with Spain and only beat Sweden 3-2 after scoring two goals in the last 15 minutes. They knew Uruguay very well and had a better record against them, adding to the certainly of victory.

What happened next is arguably the most staggering example of hubris in world sport.

The national mood was of such supreme confidence that on the day of the game, O Mundo's first edition printed a picture of the Brazilian players with the words "These are the world champions." In his speech just before the kick-off, Rio's mayor said in front the packed Maracana, "You players, who in less than a few hours will be hailed as champions by millions of compatriots... You, who I already salute as victors!"

The defeat was so shocking because no one countenanced defeat. "Nowadays soccer players and fans are more mature. Even if you are favourites to win a game, a part of you knows that you might lose," says Joao Luiz. "In that match we were told we would win. It was like the soldiers being sent to the trenches and told that they would be back by Christmas. We were told a lie."



It is hard to envisage more-humiliating circumstances for losing a game of soccer. Brazil were beaten in the dying moments of the most important game in the its history, by a local rival, in a stadium designed to project their greatness, with 200,000 home fans assuming victory. The match is still the only time a clear favourite playing at home has lost a World Cup final.

Brazil had intended the World Cup to demonstrate their sporting superiority. But the unexpected outcome showcased the opposite, and it reinforced a feeling of inferiority. The defeat to Uruguay subsequently become a metaphor for a more general lack of national self-esteem.

"It stuck in my head that we really were a luckless people, a nation deprived of the great joys of victory, always pursued by bad luck, by the meanness of destiny," wrote the writer Jose Lins do Rego the following day.

If soccer was what best represented Brazil, then the defeat meant that Brazil was a nation of losers. It also caused a racist backlash. Barbosa, the keeper, and the two defenders Bigode and Juvenal were black, and they were made scapegoats. The treatment to Barbosa was especially cruel. He was treated as a pariah for the rest of his life. Once he said that 20 years after the game he was spotted by a woman in a shop. "Look at him," she told her son. "He's the man that made all of Brazil cry." Barbosa died virtually penniless in 2000.

One positive effect of the loss was that it gave Brazilians even more impetus to become the best in the world. Pele was nine years old on the day of the final and he remembers it being the first time he ever saw his father cry.

Brazil won its first World Cup in 1958, with a 17-year-old Pele in the side, and its tally is now five titles, more than any other country. Yet even though Brazil has established itself as soccer's superpower, the trauma of 1950 lives on.

If you look at the sports sections of Brazilian bookshops, you will find more books about 1950 than about any other single topic, and the shelf continues to expand. "The 1950 World Cup: The Biggest Tragedy in Brazilian Soccer" was published last week.



What else is there to say, I asked its author, Francisco Michielin. "I noticed that young people know what happened against Uruguay but don't know some very elementary facts about that tournament," he said.

Brazil validates the scientific theory that we feel the pain of a loss more strongly than we feel the pleasure of an equivalent gain. The nation felt more hurt from the loss in 1950 than it felt joy from its five subsequent World Cup titles.

Whenever Brazil play in a World Cup, the press inevitably mention 1950 since it is a reminder never to become complacent. If Brazil reach the final this year, the spectre of 1950 will be much discussed.

Joao Luiz Albuquerque thinks that if Brazil were to lose in the final, the pain would be nothing like it was 64 years ago. "There will be suffering, but it will be more spread out. It will also be different since people now realize it is possible for a favourite to lose."

He adds that the tournament will finally put his demons to rest. "Whatever the result, I think that after this World Cup I will be 100 percent cured of 1950."

Francisco Michielin, however, is less confident.

"The only way to overcome the stigma is to beat Uruguay in the final. Otherwise it will be eternal."

Alex Bellos is the author of "Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life," now available in bookstores in the U.S. and U.K.

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