Brazil’s greatest footballing tragedy a testament to structural racism

. Jul 16, 2020
maracanazo brazil football uruguay Goalkeeper Barbosa was scapegoated for the 1950 defeat. Photo: Public Archive

When one thinks of Brazil’s biggest sporting tragedies, the mind immediately wanders to the 2014 World Cup semifinals, when the national football team was destroyed by champions-in-waiting Germany, seven goals to one, in front of their home fans. However, the defeat pales in comparison to the significance of a loss suffered 70 years ago today, when Brazil saw the World Cup trophy slip through its fingers in front of almost 200,000 fans in Rio de Janeiro.

The “Maracanazo” of 1950 — when Brazil lost 2-1 to Uruguay and saw their tiny neighbors from the south crowned world champions at their expense — became a source of huge national shame, with the widespread excitement around the national football team giving way to defeatism and even self-hatred. In fact, the fallout even took on racial overtones, as the press and fans turned on Brazil’s three black players, creating certain prejudices that persist in the national game until today.

The bigger they come, the harder they fall

The importance of Brazil’s loss in the 1950 World Cup was magnified by the fact that the team were the absolute favorites to win the trophy. The traditional European footballing powers were still in a period of reconstruction after World War II, while reigning champions Italy had seen the spine of their team perish in the Superga air disaster of 1949. Brazil were hosting the tournament and they already seemed to have one hand on the cup.

Brazil strolled through the tournament, qualifying for the final stage and needing a simple draw in the final match against Uruguay to win their first-ever world championship. The certainty of victory was such that the press was already hailing Brazil world champions on the morning of the game, and Rio de Janeiro Mayor Ângelo Mendes de Moraes gave an extremely confident speech to the team before kick-off.

“You Brazilians, who I consider as winners of the tournament … Who in less than two hours will be acclaimed as champions by millions of your compatriots … You have no equal in this hemisphere, you are superior to any opponent, you who I already address as conquerors.”

The gods of football, however, had something else in mind. Though Brazil controlled the majority of the game, taking a 1-0 lead, they gradually started to relax and allowed openings for their Uruguayan visitors. With 66 minutes on the clock, the unthinkable happened: Uruguayan winger Alcides Ghiggia tore down the right flank and cut the ball across goal for center-forward Juan Alberto Schiaffino to shoot high into the net. 1-1.

The Maracanã stadium, with 200,000 supporters in attendance, went completely silent, so much so the cheers of the 11 Uruguayan players could be heard high up in the stands. With the scores level, Brazil would still be crowned champions, but the potential of failure fell on the stadium like a ton of bricks.

Brazil’s players suffered a collective collapse under the pressure, not too dissimilar from what was seen in the 7-1 drubbing against Germany in 2014. And on 79 minutes, it happened again. Ghiggia broke down the right side once again, and just as he was about to repeat the exact same play as the first goal, cutting it back to Schiaffino, he angled his body and shot for goal himself, and it crept into the near corner of the net. The last 11 minutes of play were met with a deafening silence.

football world up 1950
Scoreboard shows Uruguay winning 2-1 to a flabbergasted crowd. Photo: Public Archive

The fallout for Brazilian football

Brazilian journalist Paulo Perdigão, in his wonderfully obsessive book Anatomy of a Defeat in which he pieced together radio commentary to come up with a comprehensive autopsy of the 1950 loss to Uruguay, described the match as “a Greek tragedy in the Third World (…) it was a Waterloo in the tropics, and its history our Götterdämmerung”.

The optimism and pride that had radiated among Brazilians during the tournament had disappeared, and in its place came defeatism and self-hatred. Brazil looked up to the Uruguayan team — in particular their commanding captain Obdúlio Varela — as archetypal human beings: admirable men with integrity and mental strength, able to win under pressure and against all odds. Meanwhile, they saw their own team, and the Brazilian population as a whole, as no more than spineless dogs, forever bullied and bossed around, ultimately unable to rise to any challenge.

Brazilian fans laid the blame for the 1950 defeat on the doorsteps of three of their starting lineup. The first was Flamengo’s left-back Bigode. An accomplished defender, known for his strength and flying tackles, his reputation would change forever during the first half of the match against Uruguay. At the beginning of the game, he stayed close to right-winger Ghiggia, stepping on his toes and trying to unsettle the quick attacker. Concerned his teammate was being intimidated by his Brazilian marker, Uruguay captain Obdúlio Varela told Ghiggia off, demanding he stand up for himself.

From that moment, Ghiggia appeared to play with more confidence and the tactical battle between him and Bigode would prove critical to the outcome of the match. However, it was an incident some minutes later that would seal Bigode’s fate with the Brazilian public.

After reinstating Ghiggia’s confidence, Obdúlio Varela turned his attentions to Bigode. During open play, the Uruguayan violently grabbed Bigode by the neck and some accounts say he sneaked a sly punch on the Brazilian’s chin. Bigode, wary of punishment and putting his team in serious trouble by leaving them with 10 men, chose not to retaliate. To the 200,000 fans in the Maracanã, Bigode’s refusal to react came across as cowardice. He appeared as nothing more than a subservient dog kicked by his master, the imposing Varela. While Varela was revered for his authority and virility, it was in Bigode that the Brazilian saw himself – and for that they hated him.

The second culprit was Brazil’s goalkeeper, Moacir Barbosa. An excellent player in his time, Barbosa came into the final after a stellar World Cup. In Brazil’s draw against Switzerland he made a heroic last-minute save, touching a shot from Hans-Peter Friedländer on to the post to save them from defeat. In the following match against Yugoslavia, he made a number of critical interventions, allowing Brazil to progress to the final stage.

It was beyond doubt, however, that Barbosa was partially at fault for Uruguay’s winning goal on July 16, 1950. Having expected Ghiggia to cross the ball to Schiaffino, his positioning was poor and gave the Uruguayan winger reason to believe he could score by himself. Barbosa was caught off guard by Ghiggia’s shot on goal and though he managed to get down to meet the ball, he could only fumble it into his own net.

Considering he was one of Brazil’s greatest goalkeepers and an idol at his club side Vasco da Gama, Barbosa was perhaps treated the harshest out of the Maracanazo’s “guilty trio,” as his career became defined by his second-half performance in that fateful match. In 1994, he told reporters: “the maximum prison sentence in Brazil is 30 years. I’ve been paying 44 years for a crime I didn’t commit.”

The third of the accused was not blamed right away, but while journalists and fans went after Bigode and Barbosa, the players and coach blamed center-back Juvenal. He was Bigode’s defensive partner at Flamengo, and his crime in 1950 was poor covering and defensive positioning. Bigode, his teammate for club and country, was brutally clear about who was at fault: “We lost the match because Juvenal screwed up. At the second goal he should have been covering me but he just stood still, doing who knows what.”

There were rumours that Juvenal’s preparation for the match had been less than satisfactory, having had a fight with coach Flávio Costa the night before. The story goes that Juvenal had asked to leave the team hotel the day before the game to visit his sick mother, but instead went out drinking, was caught, and brought back to the hotel still inebriated. It is speculated that he was confronted by Costa and the two argued, ending with the coach striking his defender across the face. Costa acknowledged the incident at the time, quoted as saying he “punished Juvenal, like a father would to his son,” but denied it years later. Brazil’s only other center-back was injured, so, disagreement or not, Flávio Costa was forced to play Juvenal against Uruguay.

In the decades after the Maracanazo, players on both sides would organize reunions where they would reminisce about the match. Juvenal was one of the few who refused any invitations, unable to forgive being thrown under the bus by his team-mates.

Out of the three accused, Barbosa was the only one ever to play for Brazil again, playing once against Ecuador in 1953. Bigode and Juvenal, regulars before 1950, would never get anywhere near the national side.

One important fact connects Bigode, , and Juvenal: they were the 1950 Brazil team’s three black players. As one of the last countries to outlaw slavery in 1888, Brazilian society in the 1940s and 1950s was still heavily divided and racist sentiments remained prevalent. Many of the same people that gave birth to Brazil’s “stray dog complex” with their self-hatred and feelings of inferiority believed that their defeat came as a result of Brazil’s deep racial mixture, claiming the Brazilian had turned into some sort of impure sub-race.

This was made all the more vicious by the fact Bigode, Barbosa, and Juvenal were defenders, positions of confidence. Over the years, Brazil has been blessed with tons of wonderful black and multiracial players, but less so in defensive positions, and almost never as goalkeepers. The progression of this racist idea was that black players might well be technically gifted and creative, but they could not be trusted.

It is ironic, then, that the player Brazil’s “stray dogs” looked up to after 1950, the mentally strong and commanding Obdúlio Varela, was himself multiracial. His father was a white Spanish immigrant and his mother, Juana, was a black laundry worker.

Excerpts of this article were adapted from A to Zico: an Encyclopedia of Brazilian Football, co-authored by Euan Marshall and Mauricio Savarese.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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