What do the Pope, Frank Sinatra and Alcides Ghiggia have in common?

“Glory in excess is fraught with peril; the lofty peak is struck by Zeus' thunderbolt.”


Real life is not literature. There are no heroes, no villains, no 5-act structure, no rising action, climax, and all that good English Major stuff. Real life is just too messy. Except, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes real life becomes literary. Which brings me to the story of the 1950 World Cup final between Brazil and Uruguay. A story of vainglory, hubris, and tragic downfall.

Act I: “The English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it.”

There’s an old saying in soccer: “The English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it.” A cocky boast to be sure, but Brazil certainly backs it up. They’ve won the World Cup five times, more than any other country. They’ve reached the finals two other times as well. But in 1950, none of that success had happened yet. The first three World Cups had been won by Uruguay, and then Italy, and then Italy again. Then World War II cancelled the 1942 and 1946 World Cups. So when the World Cup resumed in 1950, Brazil was hungry for Cup glory. And wouldn’t you know it, the 1950 World Cup would be played in Brazil! What better place for their first-ever World Cup victory?

But hunger doesn’t matter if you don’t have talent. Fortunately, the 1950 Brazilian team was probably the most talented team in the world. They dominated the Copa America tournament the year before the Cup, scoring an absurd 46 goals in only eight games. In the Cup itself they blitzed through the field and reached the final without losing a single game. In the two games before the final, they annihilated eventual 3rd-place finishers Sweden 7-1, and 4th place Spain 6-1. They had the talent. They had the momentum. A Cup victory in their home country, in front of their home fans, seemed well within their grasp. All they needed to do was defeat Uruguay, a team they had already beaten at the aforementioned Copa America tournament 5-1.

Act II: “You, who I already salute as victors.”

And here is where things take a turn towards the literary. There is nothing that so offends the gods, or that they take more delight in punishing, than hubris. For days before the final match, the Brazilian press and public didn’t just predict victory, they acted as if it had already happened. 22 gold medals were made, intended to be given to the victorious Brazilians. The Brazilian newspaper O Mundo printed a picture of the team with a caption that read “these are the world champions.” This newspaper was printed the day before the actual match. A song named “Brazil the Victors” was written, and a band was on hand at the stadium to play the song after the match concluded. A Carnival was planned. Perhaps worst of all, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro gave a speech to the team before the match, where he said:

"You, players, who in less than a few hours will be hailed as champions by millions of compatriots! You, who have no rivals in the entire hemisphere! You, who will overcome any other competitor! You, who I already salute as victors!"

And so, on July 16, 1950, around 200,000 Brazilians crammed into Brazil's Maracanã Stadium in Rio to watch their team samba to an easy victory over Uruguay. It wasn’t a match. It was a coronation.

Act III: "Outsiders don't play. Let's start the show."

There was only one problem. Uruguay wasn’t interested in being coronated on*.

*It’s like getting dunked on, but much, much worse.

Uruguay might not be the largest or most powerful country in the world, but they have the sneaky-strongest national soccer team. They’ve won the World Cup twice (foreshadowing!). To put that in perspective, there are entire continents that have never won a World Cup. Heck, they won the first-ever World Cup in 1930. They’ve also been in the top four at the Cup on three other occasions. They were no one’s patsy or pushover, and if they were going to have to play the villains in this story in order to win, then that was fine with them.

Obdulio Varela, who can’t help but look like a total boss

Obdulio Varela, who can’t help but look like a total boss

Leading the charge was team captain Obdulio Varela, who seems by sheer force of will to have convinced his team that they could win. I said before that Brazilian newspaper O Mundo published a picture of their team with the caption “These are the world champions.” Varela went around Rio and bought as many copies as he could. He spread them in the Uruguayan bathroom and told his teammates to pee on them. This they did. After the Uruguayan manger told his team that they would need to play defensively to win, Varela told them to ignore their manager, and attack. And then, in true Hollywood fashion, he gave an Oscar-winning speech* that many of his teammates said later was crucial in convincing them that they could actually win.

*Unfortunately they don’t give Oscars for real-life speeches.

We don’t know the full text of Varela’s speech, but we know how he ended it: "Boys, outsiders don't play. Let's start the show."

The Uruguyans took the field.

Act IV: “Now it’s time to win.”

The Brazilians came out on the attack, and spent the majority of the first half on the Uruguayan side. However, unlike Spain and Sweden, Uruguay’s defense didn’t break. Brazil took an astounding seventeen shots on goal in the first half, but not one found the net. The score stood at 0-0 going into halftime. But things appeared to return to normal when Brazil scored only two minutes into the 2nd half. The 200,000 fans in the Maracanã stadium exploded in celebration. Literally exploded, as many fans had smuggled in fireworks, which they began shooting off. Victory, it seemed, had already been achieved. But what those fans didn’t know is that the gods must first build up those who they mean to bring low.

Ghiggia rips the heart out of the Maracanã

Ghiggia rips the heart out of the Maracanã

The turn of the tide began, as it should, with Uruguayan captain Varela. Varela sensed that, with the crowd now in an absolute frenzy, Brazil had too much momentum. They might be able to break the game wide open. To counter this, he grabbed the ball to ensure play could not resume, and deliberately had a lengthy argument with the referee over whether Brazil was offsides on the goal. Varela even demanded that an interpreter be brought over to make sure that the English referee understood him. The effort was pointless and the goal stood, but Varela didn’t care. By the time the argument was over, the crowd had calmed down. The momentum was lost, though no one but Varela seemed to know it. He took the ball to the center of the field for the kickoff, and told his team, “Now it’s time to win.”

Act V: “Only three men have ever silenced the Maracanã…”

Uruguay took it to Brazil from then on, putting up a relentless attack. In the 66th minute, they broke through and scored. The game was 1-1. Could the coronation possibly be in trouble? And then it happened. In the 79th minute Alcides Ghiggia broke free down the right side of the field. He rifled a shot that bounced off the right post and rolled just under the leg of the Brazilian goalkeeper. 2-1 Uruguay.

An eerie quiet descended on Brazil's stadium, the Maracanã. Remember there were over 200,000 people crammed into the stands, and according to earwitnesses, the last 11 minutes of the game were played in almost total silence. Ghiggia’s strike and the silence that followed sapped the Brazilian team of their will to fight, and they were unable to mount any sort of counterattack. The final whistle blew. Ghiggia’s goal stood as the game winner. The 1950 World Cup went to Uruguay.

The twenty-two gold victory medals were never given to the players. The “Brazil the Victors” song was never performed. The game would forever be known in Brazil as the “Maracanãzo,” which loosely translates to “The Maracanã Blow.” The gods had the last laugh. Like Odysseus and Oedipus before them, Brazil’s hubris had been punished. As if it could be any other way. And even though the Brazilian team would go on to win three of the next five World Cups, and five Cups overall, the Ghost of ‘50 still haunts them. I’ll give the last word on the matter to Ghiggia, who when asked about his Cup-winning goal said simply:

When you look down through history, only three men have ever silenced the Maracanã: the Pope, Frank Sinatra…and me.

 Submitted by Guest Blogger - Simon Tanzman