When Diego Maradona was asked in 1998 who would win that year’s soccer World Cup being played in France, he said, “Countries organize the World Cup to win it,” thus suggesting that France would be the winner. And it was.
The same thing could be said for this year’s World Cup in Brazil. For most people, Brazil is favored to win the competition. History, however, may foreshadow a different outcome.
The year is 1950, when the fourth FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) World Cup was held in Brazil from June 24 to July 16.
Before qualifying for the final game Brazil had extraordinary performances: it beat Mexico 4-0, thrashed Sweden 7-1, and defeated Spain 6-1, to become finalist for its group.
Uruguay had a difficult match with Spain, finally ending in a 2-2 draw after lagging 2 to 1. Afterward Uruguay beat Sweden 3-2, the winning goal coming just minutes before the end of the match. The match between a splendidly performing Brazil and an unconvincing Uruguay would decide the world title. The latter, one point behind Brazil, had to win to become world champion, while its rival only needed a draw to claim the title.
There was enormous interest in the game despite the consensus from sports journalists and the public that Brazil would be the champion.
After all, the Brazilian team had won its previous games easily while Uruguay merely reached a draw with Spain and won an agonizing match against Sweden. A comparison of their previous performances left little doubt of the final result.
Rio de Janeiro was a beehive on July 16, 1950. An improvised carnival was ready to celebrate Brazil’s triumph over Uruguay. Brazilians filled the newly built Maracanã stadium to capacity. Although the official count was a world-record 173,850, unofficial estimates were close to 210,000. Only 100 Uruguayans were present at the game.
The daily newspaper O Mundo printed a special edition with a photograph of the Brazil team captioned, “These are the world champions.” Jules Rimet, former FIFA president and originator of the World Cup, had prepared a speech in Portuguese to congratulate the winners, expected to be the Brazilians. The Brazilian Football Confederation had imprinted 22 gold medals with the names of its players. A song titled “Brasil os vencedores” (“Brazil the Victors”) was composed days before the final game.
Before the game, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Ângelo Mendes de Moraes, addressed the crowd with words intended for the Brazilian players, “You, players, who in less than a few hours will be hailed as champions by millions of compatriots! You have no rivals in the entire hemisphere! You who will overcome any other competitor! You, I already salute as conquerors!”
With the Brazilian teammates and public anticipating victory, Uruguay’s coach Juan Lopez told his players that the best way to play against the powerful Brazilian team was to play defensively and try not to let them score too many goals. Outside the locker room, Uruguayan captain Obdulio Varela, nicknamed “El Negro Jefe” (The Black Chief”), told his players, “Juan is a good man, but he is dead wrong,” adding, “Boys, outsiders don’t play. Let the show begin.” And with these memorable last words the players went into the field.
The first half of the game ended 0-0. Two minutes after the start of the second half Brazil scored the first goal. Brazilians were delirious and the Maracanã stadium shook as people jumped and shouted at the top of their lungs. Brazil was a feast.
After the goal, Varela took the ball and slowly, very slowly, walked toward George Reader, the British referee and, speaking to him in Spanish, questioned the validity of the goal. He spoke at length, forcing the referee to bring out an interpreter. The game was suspended while the talk was taking place. The Brazilian spectators were furious. This was supposed to be a party! Why was this guy talking so long to the referee! One Brazilian player spat on Varela but he remained undaunted.
Afterward Varela would declare that his was a carefully thought-out strategy aimed at cooling down the crowd.
Mission accomplished, he addressed his teammates: “Let’s go, boys, now is the time to win.”
The Uruguayan players, suddenly energized by Varela’s words, felt they could deal with the Brazilian Goliath.
Twenty-one minutes into the second half Uruguay evened the score. Speeding on the right, Alcides Ghiggia crossed a low pass for Juan Schiaffino to score. Maracanã, which until then had been a party became silent, a silence “which terrified our players,” Flavio Costa, the Brazilian coach, declared later.
A draw would have crowned the Brazilians, but there was another surprise in store for them. Ghiggia exchanged passes with Julio Perez, continued running and sent a deadly shot scoring the second goal with only 11 minutes to end the game. Without any team scoring any more goals the inconceivable had happened. Brazil had lost the game and Uruguay became the world champion.
The loss of the World Cup had a devastating effect on Brazilians. There were dozens of suicides and many nervous breakdowns. Rio de Janeiro, which was all samba before the game, became as silent as an abandoned country church.
Years later Varela would recall, “There was such sadness among the fans that I decided to go and have drinks with them. I thought the Brazilians were going to kill me when they realized who I was. But I figured that if I had to die that evening it would be my fate. Fortunately I couldn’t have been more wrong. They congratulated me and we had quite a few drinks together.”
The following day Varela did not allow any photos of him and refused to join in the celebrations saying, “My heart goes to people who suffer.”
Upon their return, the Uruguayans were met by an ecstatic country. Everybody was exultant except one person: Obdulio Varela, the man who made the Brazilians sad.
César Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., from Argentina, is a cowinner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.
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