Its organizers hoped the 1950 edition of the Cup would mark a return to normalcy. First contested in 1930, the quadrennial event was being held for just the fourth time, after being cancelled from 1938 onwards due to World War II. With much of Europe still war torn, Brazil easily won the hosting bid, and began construction on one of the largest architectural spectacles the world had ever seen—Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium. Although it was barely finished on time—entire sections were not yet built and there were reports of cement still drying during the tournament’s kickoff—it was the biggest stadium in the world, and would act as the crown jewel of their World Cup presentation.
But the drama of the 1950 World Cup began before the tournament got underway, when only 13 of the 16 qualifying teams agreed to make the trip to South America. Turkey refused its berth, citing prohibitive travel costs, while India reportedly refused to play because FIFA (the governing body of international soccer) had banned barefoot play in 1948—although India’s association cited lack of practice time and costs as the official reasons for their withdrawal. Controversy swirled again when George Graham, the secretary of the Scottish Football Association, announced his team would only attend if they won the British championships. They came in second, and despite pleas from his players, the Scots stayed home.
When the games finally got underway, it wasn’t long before one of the tournament’s signature moments emerged. The United States, which was fielding a semi-professional club, shockingly upset England—a national team so successful they had been dubbed the “Kings of Football”—1-0 in their group-stage match. The news was so unexpected, legend has it, that a London editor who received a cable of the score reported a 10-1 English victory, after assuming England’s score had been transmitted incorrectly. Because soccer wasn’t yet very popular in the United States, the impact was felt most keenly in England, where people simply could not believe that a team that included a funeral director, a part-time dishwasher and a postman, and being coached by physical education teacher Walter Bahr, managed to beat an English squad made up of some of history’s best players. The English team was unable to recover from the loss, failing to make it through the group stage and exiting the tournament just a few days later. Despite its stunning victory, the U.S. team was unable to capitalize on its success, losing all of its remaining games. It was also a signifier of the club’s future struggles on the international stage—the United States wouldn’t quality for another World Cup for 40 years.
Another unique quirk of the 1950 World Cup was how the tournament itself was organized. Eager to reap the financial rewards of the Brazilian team playing as many games as possible in front of their home fans, the organizers convinced FIFA to do away with the standard single-elimination knockout stage in favor of a round robin format that would determine the four finalists and eventual winner. It was the first and only time the tournament was played this way and it was a decision the hosts would come to regret.
Thanks to the unusual tournament setup and the withdrawal of three other nations, Uruguay, considered by many to be an underdog, breezed through the opening group stage (where they played just one game, an 8-0 trouncing of Bolivia). They struggled through their first two round robin matchups (a tie against Spain and a close win over Sweden) but advanced to the final. Brazil, meanwhile, easily defeated Spain 6-1 and Sweden 7-1 during round robin play. Thanks to its strong showing, Brazil didn’t even need to win the final match to become champions—they simply needed a draw against Uruguay—a feat that seemed easy to imagine, especially since Brazil had handily defeated its rivals in two of their most recent pre-Cup matchups.
Fans of the home team were so confident, in fact, that a victory song, “Brasil os vencedores” (“Brazil the Victors”), had been composed a few days earlier, and several newspapers were already congratulating them on their victory before the game even started. Unfortunately for the team and its fans, Brazil still had to play the game, and Uruguay was eager to play spoiler for their South American rivals.
On July 16, 1950, more than 200,000 people packed into Maracanã stadium to watch the final. The match began promisingly enough for the home crowd, with Brazil attacking the Uruguayan goal with vigor. But the game’s momentum soon shifted—not due to a goal, but because of a fist. Though later downplayed by both parties as merely a “tap,” Uruguayan captain Obdulio Valera appeared to punch Brazilian defender Bigode in the game’s 28th minute, landing what seemed to be the first psychological blow of the match.
Despite the earlier dustup Brazil scored first, when striker Friaça fired one past Uruguayan goalkeeper, Roque Máspoli. Uruguay equalized in the 66th minute, when Juan Schiaffino fired past Brazilian goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa. Just 13 minutes later, Uruguay would take the lead on a goal by Alcides Ghiggia, draining the energy completely from the massive crowd. Gigghia said many years later: “Only three people have, with just one motion, silenced the Maracanã: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paull II and me.”
After the goal, Uruguay fell back to defend, and waited out the last 10 minutes for a 2-1 victory and for their second World Cup championship. The game has since become known in both countries as the Maracanazo, roughly translated as the “Maracanã blow” and, though the victorious team is revered in Uruguay, the game (considered by many to be one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history) remains a crushing blow for Brazilians.
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