“There was complete silence,” said Alcides Ghiggia of the moment he caused nearly 200,000 spectators at Rio’s Maracanã to fall into a deathly hush. “The crowd was frozen still. It was like they weren’t even breathing.”
Ghiggia, who died recently at the age of 88, had just scored for Uruguay in the final match of the 1950 World Cup. The expectant, and previously celebratory, crowd had just witnessed their worst nightmare come true. Ghiggia’s goal would make him a national hero in one country and would haunt another for decades to come. “They couldn’t even raise their voices to cheer on Brazil. That was when I realised they weren’t going to do it and that we’d won.”
Brazil had only needed a draw in the final group match, as was the World Cup format in 1950. Brazilians had little reason to doubt their team would achieve it. After all, they had been scoring freely throughout the tournament so far and in the final group had put seven past Sweden and six past Spain. Uruguay, in contrast, had come from behind against both of those European opponents, rescuing a point against Spain and securing a late win over Sweden. The Uruguayans had also lost 5-1 to Brazil just months earlier in the Copa America. Little wonder then that the front page of the Brazilian newspaper O Mundo on the day of the final pictured the Brazilian team with the headline: “These are the World Champions.”
But it was Uruguay, not Brazil, who had been world champions before – winning in 1930. Having failed to make the subsequent two tournaments in Europe, they were undefeated in World Cups and to their minds were defending their trophy in 1950. It was they who would prevail once more, leaving Brazil to their grief and soul-searching. The central character of the event that became known as the ‘Maracanazo’ was Alcides Ghiggia.
The 23-year-old was a gifted right-winger who played at arguably Uruguay’s greatest club, Peñarol. He had enjoyed a magnificent tournament, scoring in all three of Uruguay’s games thus far. But in the final, after a goalless first half in which Brazil had created countless chances to score, it was the home team that finally took the lead a minute into the second half through their forward Friaça.
As Brazil continued to attack, confidence abounding and the World Cup now well within reach, they left themselves vulnerable. Midway through the half, Uruguay captain Obdulio Varela played the ball to Ghiggia on the right where Brazil’s left-back Bigode had given him too much space. Ghiggia danced past him and crossed for the Uruguay superstar Juan Schiaffino, who headed home the equaliser. Brazil were still in pole position, though; a draw was sufficient to win them the trophy, and they kept on playing in their open and attacking way. The warning was not heeded.
What happened next, with just 11 minutes remaining in the match, is a tale that Ghiggia had told a thousand times, but one he still recalled years later with absolute clarity. “I took the ball on the right,” he recalled. “I dribbled past Bigode and entered the box. The goalkeeper thought I was going to cross it, like with the first goal, so he left a gap between himself and the near post. I just had a second so I shot low between the keeper and the post.”
The Maracanã fell silent. The shock reverberated from the thousands in the stands to the eleven on the pitch. They could muster no way of re-seizing the initiative. Uruguay had won the World Cup. “I remember the silence and later I felt sorry for the home supporters. But the first thing I thought about was when the goal went in was my family and friends, what it would mean to them.”
The Brazilian goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa never got over it. Barracked and outcast as “The man who lost us the World Cup” he only played for his country once more. Much later in life, he was barred from visiting the Brazilian team at the 1994 World Cup for fear of bringing them bad luck. Barbosa told reporters: “In Brazil, the maximum penalty for a crime is 30 years; I’ve spent 44 years paying for a crime I didn’t even commit.” Another casualty of 1950 was Brazil’s all-white kit, now considered jinxed. Thanks to Ghiggia’s goal a new kit design was sought and the iconic, and now synonymous, yellow and blue was adopted.
The treatment of Barbosa is in stark contrast with the way Ghiggia was later treated in Brazil. “Sometimes I feel like I am Brazil’s ghost. I’m always there in their memories,” he said. “They are always very affectionate towards me. Despite all that happened, people in Brazil still recognise me, they still come to talk to me about it.
“I spoke to him [Barbosa] years after the World Cup. I told him football is 11 men against 11 men. Goalkeepers are always under-appreciated. You can play the whole match, but you let in a goal and they blame you. My marker didn’t stop me. Why didn’t they blame him? Barbosa died with the ingratitude of the Brazilian people.”
Their lives may have taken opposite twists when Ghiggia’s shot beat Barbosa at the near post, but both are remembered in Brazil with a tinge of pain. “I was going through the customs in Rio,” Ghiggia commented, “And when I showed my passport, the young girl on the desk kept looking at it and up at me. I said: ‘Is everything ok, miss?’ and she said: ‘Are you the Ghiggia?’ I said: ‘Yes, but it was a long time ago.’ And she put her hand to her heart and said: ‘No, no, it still hurts us here!’”
World Cup-winning hero that he was, Ghiggia only played 12 times for Uruguay and scored just four goals. All of them came in that glorious and dramatic 1950 World Cup, where he became the first player to score in every match of the finals. His short international career was partly due to having become one of South America’s earliest football exports when left Uruguay and Peñarol to spend nigh on a decade in Italy playing for Roma and Milan.
Travel being what it was in those days, his international career for Uruguay came to an end with that move, though he did play later for Italy a handful of times having become a naturalised citizen in 1957. He even tried his hand at the World Cup again in the Azzurri blue rather than the Uruguayan celeste. He played in the qualifying rounds of the 1958 tournament, scoring once in his five appearances. But his World Cup Midas touch had gone – that would be the only time Italy have failed to qualify for a World Cup.
“It was difficult, but I was also very proud,” he recalled. “Of course my Italian inheritance qualified me, but it was something special for them to select someone who had been born and brought up in another country.” And been the World Cup winning hero for another country no less.
Having returned home to Montevideo in 1963, he played for Danubio until retiring at the ripe old age of 42 in 1968. Like the other members of the 1950 World Cup winning team, on retirement Ghiggia was given a job by the government. He worked at the Casino Montevideo keeping an eye on potentially cheating gamblers. His state pension when he retired from the casino saw him have to resort to selling his World Cup medal to help make ends meet. Heart-warmingly, it was bought by a Brazilian-Uruguayan businessman who, having paid a princely sum, returned the medal to Ghiggia. He also worked occasionally as a driving instructor, his first student later becoming his third wife.
He may not have become wealthy as a result of his exploits, but he was always remembered fondly. To commemorate his 80th birthday a special postage stamp was commissioned with his picture and the message: ‘Ghiggia nos hizo llorar’ – Ghiggia moved us to tears. Even in the country that he moved to tears of trauma, he was similarly remembered and revered. Alongside a mould of Pelé’s feet at the Maracanã walk of fame is a mould of Ghiggia’s.
For someone constantly being asked to look back, he did his best to move on. “I kept thinking about it, but now I don’t feel the same emotion. You can’t live on memories – it’s behind me. Many people called me a hero but I wasn’t a hero, just as Barbosa was not responsible for the defeat. It was just 11 footballers against another 11, and I was lucky to score the goal.”
But it was a goal that changed football history and made the story of Alcides Ghiggia one that captured the imagination for years to come. Only 23 when he scored his famous and infamous goal, he hadn’t fully appreciated the significance of it at the time. “I only realised its impact several years later when people started writing books on the subject and asking me about it,” he recalled. “It was beautiful what happened. It filled me with pride and was unforgettable. The biggest moment of my life.”
From the myriad of books, articles, interviews and documentaries he eventually came up with a quote that would last through the ages and would come to define his crowning moment: “Only three people have silenced the Maracanã,” Ghiggia said of the goal. “The Pope, Frank Sinatra, and me.”
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams