The dark shades of 1950 and 2014: the nights Brazil wept

The dark shades of 1950 and 2014: the nights Brazil wept

“YOU, PLAYERS, who in less than a few hours will be hailed as champions by millions of compatriots,” the mayor of Rio de Janeiro proclaimed with boundless pride as he passionately addressed his nation’s footballing elite. “You, who have no rivals in the entire hemisphere. You, who will overcome any other competitor. You, who I already salute as victors.”

His braggadocio insatiable, the mayor saw no reason to dilute his public rodomontade. There was not a doubt in his mind: Brazil were going to win the World Cup. A little foolhardy his claims of unchallenged supremacy, perhaps – hyperbolic, certainly – but there was nobody to warn him of the dangers of his myopia. This was not the view of the mayor alone but the entirety of Brazil.

On the morning of 16 July 1950, as the World Cup’s final fixture waited patiently on the arrival of its Brazilian hosts and their Uruguayan adversaries, the country’s old capital pulsed with excitement. Like a held breath the anticipation was palpable, writ large across the faces of its people. Only the Brazilians weren’t anticipating the final itself, they were anticipating a victory. They expected victory.

The game was still to commence yet already gold medals had been cast and inscribed with each of the Brazilian players’ names, 22 in all, ready to be draped around their champions’ necks. A song commemorating their triumph named Brasil Os Vencedores (Brazil The Victors) had been composed and readied for the final whistle. A carnival primed for the bustling streets surrounding the Maracanã awaited. Brazilian newspaper O Mundo had even taken it upon themselves to print an expedited edition of their national publication containing a photograph of the Brazil squad perched atop a bold caption that read “These are the world champions”.

Having caught sight of the papers in question, disgusted by their effrontery, Uruguay’s captain, Obdulio Varela, purchased all the copies he could carry and rushed home to his hotel with them in hand. There he splayed the tabloids across his bathroom floor, called for his teammates to join him and bullishly encouraged them to urinate on the blasphemous reports. Brazil were champions of nothing yet.

But it was not without cause the Brazilians believed so vehemently in their squad and foretold their impending conquest with such conviction. Their rampant patriotism was far from blind. The previous year the country had hosted the South American Championships and afforded its people a front row seat at a show like no other.

At the competition Brazil had waltzed to the title, discarding opponents with an efficiency and class that felt almost inappropriate to behold. Ecuador were trounced 9-1, Bolivia demolished 10-1, Colombia thrashed 5-0, Peru embarrassed 7-1 and Uruguay dismantled 5-1, all before, for their grand finale, the South American Championship was claimed with a most routine 7-0 victory over Paraguay. Brazil were simply unstoppable.

Furthermore, at the World Cup, Brazil had breezed through the preliminary stages, convincing victories over Mexico and Yugoslavia bookmarking an anomalous draw with Switzerland, before dolling out further beatings to Sweden and Spain, 7-1 then 6-1 respectively. Conversely, opponents Uruguay had only drawn with Spain before relying upon two late goals to squeeze past Sweden. They appeared to possess nothing like the same quality; strangers to Brazil’s intrinsic virtuosity. It was no wonder the host country’s confidence could be felt like a rising heat radiating across its cities, throughout its towns and amidst its favelas.

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At the end of a wait far less agonising than those that precede most World Cup finals, the main event finally began. After being held at arm’s length by a resolute Uruguayan defence for the entirety of the first half, it was Brazil who broke through early in the second period. With a deserved 1-0 lead in a game they simply had to avoid defeat in to be crowned champions – such was the bizarre and mercifully short-lived round-robin with which FIFA elected to decide the 1950 World Cup, in lieu of a conventional knockout format – Brazil appeared to be taking significant strides towards their ineluctable triumph. Then Uruguay equalised.

Friaça’s opener nullified by Juan Alberto Schiaffino’s strike shortly after the hour mark, a glimmer of hope appeared on the Uruguayan horizon. For Brazil, though, it sowed no seed of doubt. They were used to conceding the odd goal and the common course of action was simply to respond with a further three or four of their own. As such, the Uruguay equaliser failed to halt the Brazilian jubilation. A second Uruguay goal, however, from Alcides Ghiggia, did just that. “When Uruguay scored their second goal it was absolute silence in the packed Maracanã,” Brazil’s top scorer at the tournament, Ademir, later recalled. “It may be difficult to imagine but that’s what happened.”

Contrasting reports determine the Maracanã’s attendance that day to have been between 175,000 and 200,000, though many consider those estimations to be conservative. Regardless of the official figure, the 1950 World Cup final boasted the highest attendance ever recorded at a single football event and, at the very moment the underdogs scored their second goal, every one of them standing on home soil was stunned into silence. To their dismay, their players followed suit. On the pitch and off, Brazil came to a standstill.

Though a little over 10 minutes remained, the Brazilians were powerless to overturn the Uruguayan lead, sapped of their belief and their once thought otherworldly expertise, and so 2-1 the score stayed. In unwilling defiance of the hopes, dreams and unquestioned expectations of millions, on their very own patch, Brazil were defeated. Uruguay were crowned champions.

Long after English referee George Reader had brought the occasion to a close with the last blast of his whistle, the players of both teams remained peculiarly dormant atop the turf. Understandably the Brazilian players were inconsolable, quickly consumed by the immensity of their failure, but the Uruguayan players also sat momentarily amidst the melancholia, seemingly predisposed with internalising the guilt they felt for having caused such a scenario. So eerily funereal was the atmosphere, it took minutes for any kind of celebrations to begin. Even then they sparked deep in the Uruguayan section of the crowd, far from any of the players.

As those on the field slowly took their leave from it, many from both nations did so with their stoic game-faces betrayed by reddened eyes and tear-glossed cheeks. The dumbstruck Uruguayans cried tears of joy while the broken Brazilians sobbed rather more sorrowfully. Acknowledged as a national disaster, never to be forgotten for fear of its repetition, Maracanazo (meaning ‘The Maracanã Blow’) was the name by which the 1950 World Cup final would forever be known from that day forth. A waking nightmare for those who witnessed their dreams shattering before their very eyes, there was no doubt, this was the nadir of Brazil’s vast and so often glorious footballing history and few could imagine a scenario ever exceeding its tragedy.

Then, some 64 years on, for a new hopeful generation of Canarinho and their adoring, obsessive compatriots, came the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup to shake them from another blissful dream and deliver to them a cruel and achingly familiar lesson.

Despite the catastrophic circumstances under which the World Cup trophy departed Brazil in 1950, following the events of that fateful afternoon in Rio, the Jules Rimet trophy evidenced no reticence in returning and would even take up a permanent place in the adopted home of football. As prescribed by Mr Rimet himself in 1930, any nation successful in lifting the trophy on three occasions would be given it to keep, and so, after leaving Mexico in 1970 with the trophy gleefully held in hand, with their nation having previously triumphed at the tournaments of 1958 and 1962, the World Cup became Brazil’s to keep.

The tournament itself, however, unlike its famous prize, appeared rather more adept at playing hard to get and it was only at the country’s third time of asking, having seen bids to have the competition return to Brazil in 1994 and 2006 met with a cold shoulder, the World Cup finally returned to Brazilian shores in 2014.

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Unlike in 1950, when the country’s old capital was granted the honour, World Cup 2014 began under the bright lights of the Arena de São Paulo as Brazil hosted Croatia on opening night. Following an extravagant opening ceremony, which featured some 700 dancers, dressed as a vast arrangement of South American flora, stepping, spinning and shimmying to the hyper-commercialised sounds of Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull and Brazilian singer Claudia Leitte, the three of whom serenaded the nation from atop a platform initially concealed within a retractable flower-football-hybrid, the real entertainment began – for the visitors at least.

It took just 11 minutes for the first exasperated sigh to depart Brazilian mouths. The first gesticulations of furious, futile protest. One-nil to Croatia. The oft considered unflappable Marcelo buckled under the weight of his nation’s expectation, as well the presence of Ivan Perišić at the far post, and proceeded to nervously slice a low cross into his own goal to gift Croatia a surprise lead. That lead would not last long, however, as Brazil soon leant upon the magnificence of their talismanic captain Neymar who flipped the deficit.

First, a left-footed drive from the edge of the area sneaked beyond the outstretched Stipe Pletikosa in the Croatia goal to draw Brazil level before a successfully, if not somewhat unconvincingly, dispatched penalty gave Neymar his second of the afternoon and put his country into the lead. When teammate Oscar wrapped up the points in stoppage time with a fine individual effort the nation’s tapping feet, jittering knees and tapping fingers were brought to a timely halt. The home fans could breathe easy – for four days at least.

A goalless draw against Mexico in Fortaleza soon followed their victorious opener with neither country able to break the deadlock in their second match of the tournament. The stalemate did little to inspire those praying for the prosperity of either nation but both were relieved to have reached their final group stage game without a loss against their names.

Inspired perchance by playing in a stadium named in honour of their very own two-time World Cup winner Garrincha, at the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha in Brasília, the hosts confirmed their anticipated presence in the knockout stages with a convincing 4-1 victory over Cameroon. Again Neymar stole the show, with a second brace in three games, while goals from Fred and Fernandinho ensured Brazil continued onwards to the next round with confidence still brimming.

Suddenly it seemed as though the tournament had begun to assume the comely shape of its distant predecessor. In 1950 Brazil won, drew then won again to advance to the knockout round as group winners and now, in 2014, they’d done the very same. Those of a generous age, who boasted vivid recollections of the former World Cup, naturally wished for the similarities between the two tournaments to continue so long as they ceased approximately 65 minutes into the final. Their fragile hearts mightn’t take a shock of such magnitude for a second time.

On this occasion, Brazil were drawn to face Chile in the knockout round, runners-up to the Netherlands in their own group, and faced a far sterner test than they’d have hoped for en route to the last eight.

David Luiz’s contorted expression displayed shock, relief, ecstasy and more as he galloped towards the nearest corner flag in celebration of his first goal for Brazil. An instinctive goalbound poke assisted by a front-post flick from fellow centre-back Thiago Silva; the Paris Saint-Germain defender forced his team into an early lead against their South American rivals.

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Their advantage would last just 14 minutes, though, as a poorly kept throw-in deep into their own territory quickly degenerated into a scoring opportunity for their opponents which Alexis Sánchez gleefully took advantage of, squirming a swift shot beyond the reach of Júlio César to equalise.

Though both sides would come close to establishing an advantage – both keepers routinely tested, the Brazil bar rattled, the Chile net breached only to be ruled out for offside – the 1-1 scoreline would endure the remainder of the first half, the entirety of the second, and even extra time, so penalties would decide the victors.

After each nation successfully converted just two of their opening four penalties, a single attempt remained for both sides before sudden death would be required to part them. Neymar elected to take his country’s fifth and, they hoped, final penalty. He began his run-up, staggered, stuttered, then swept the ball neatly into the corner opposite to Claudio Bravo’s despairing dive. Gonzalo Jara stepped up in the hope of restoring parity but could only find the right-hand post with his shot. His effort cannoned away from the goal, handing Brazil the victory, eliminating his country and sending the hosts into the quarter-finals.

Later that afternoon Brazil learned of their next round’s opponents. Fellow group winners Colombia had defeated Uruguay, courtesy of two goals from James Rodríguez, who continued seizing the limelight in every passing match in order to bolster his growing showreel, meaning there was to be no 1950 rematch on Brazilian soil this time around.

A familiar scenario awaited a capacity Estádio Castelão in Brazil’s tussle with Colombia as it appeared the hosts had begun reading from the very same script used to navigate past Chile: an inswinging corner, a defender at the back-post, an improvised finish and an early lead. Only this time it was Thiago Silva whose timely intervention gave Brazil the lead and it had arrived as early as the seventh minute.

Unlike in their game versus Chile, no equaliser would halt Brazil’s progress. Colombia would score, another goal for James Rodríguez, who spoiled his opponent’s clean sheet from the penalty spot, but this would come only after another David Luiz strike, his most spectacular to date. With exactly 68 minutes on the clock, Luiz approached the static ball at pace and struck the free-kick with his instep, exerting exceptional power and sending it whirling on a wicked trajectory. In spite of its resting place, sat 30 yards or so from goal, Colombian custodian David Ospina could do little to track the ball’s flight such was the mazy path it wove through the air on its way towards its target.

Barely a second later the ball was bouncing out of the goal having lashed against the back of its net. Ospina landed with a crash, his fingertips stinging and his team now bearing a deficit they’d be impuissant to overturn. David Luiz rampaged past his joyous teammates, pumping his arms, straining and screaming, his mass of helical locks flowing wildly behind him as took flight, kicking the corner flag with both feet in frenzied jubilation. Though he stopped at the boundary between the pitch and stands, together he and his country continued their run all the way to the semi-finals.

Juntos num só ritmo’ meaning ‘All in one rhythm’ was the tournament’s official motto and, rather fittingly, in reaching its semi-finals, Brazil’s squad appeared to be finding no issue in playing to the same rhythm. It wasn’t always a free-flowing, hip-teasing samba – Brazil’s triumphs over Chile and Colombia were hard-fought to say the least – but every Brazilian seemed to be dancing to the same beat, from the pitch to the stands and beyond.

In contrast, their semi-final opponents Germany hadn’t danced into the final four so much as they had marched, in fixed formation, with an archetypal Germanic efficiency. Die Mannschaft had conspired to reach the semi-finals without ever looking in danger of exiting the competition while also never truly playing like champions. Joachim Löw’s men simply did what was required of them with wins against a self-destructive Portugal and a luckless United States arriving either side of a draw against Ghana, earning Germany top spot in their group, before sneaking past Algeria and France by virtue of a single goal in both ties.

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Brazil’s hopes were dented by the absence of two key players who wouldn’t be joining their team on the pitch for the semi-finals. Captain Thiago Silva’s naivety earned him a needless second caution of the tournament as he attempted to block the Colombian goalkeeper from releasing the ball upfield in their previous game, resulting in an automatic one-match suspension, while it was believed talisman Neymar would be forced to cheer his compatriots on from the relative comfort of a hospital bed after a knee in the back from Juan Zúñiga fractured a vertebra in the forward’s spine, leaving him with no hope of recovering in time to feature.

Despite their notable absentees, many fancied Brazil to make their home advantage count and vanquish their European opponents on the way to the final. Facing the Germans in World Cup competition for, remarkably, only the second time, having defeated them 2-0 to claim the 2002 World Cup title in their last competitive meeting, their expectant nation assembled eagerly to witness their safe passage onwards. The Germans, meanwhile, remained quietly confident of causing an upset. In retrospect, ‘upset’ would become perhaps the understatement of the century.

The semi-final was barely 26 minutes old when the camera panned from pitch to crowd to broadcast the reaction of a young Brazilian woman, tears rolling down her cheeks, smudging the yellow and green Bandeira do Brasil painted on them, wailing in disbelief. As she brought a hand up to her face to cover her shame, another found her shoulder and drew her close. A loved one attempted in vain to console her.

Jonathan Pearce’s commentary, though not heard by the distraught Brazilians in the stadium, accurately told of the tragedy unfolding before them, “Brazil are being humiliated, humbled and taken apart by Germany,” he called out as the replays recapped the latest goal, Germany’s fourth. In what felt like mere seconds since the fourth goal, Brazil had managed to kick off, surrender possession to the Germans again and capitulate as the white shirts poured forward once more. “Khedira, Özil, Khedira. Five-nil,” Pearce announced incredulously, “Five-nil. Absolute humiliation.”

Thomas Müller’s opener on 11 minutes had been followed by a brief period of typically tense back and forth with few signs of the madness that awaited. But in the space of six minutes – the 23rd to the 29th – Germany’s fluidity in attack and midfield dominance had undone Brazil and dismantled a defence whose instincts told them not to bunker down and hold firm until half time but instead to fight for immediate redemption. With their heads lost, all sensibilities deserted the Brazilian back line and their team were pulled apart at will.

Miroslav Klose had scored Germany’s second, rubbing salt into the wound by snatching from Brazilian legend Ronaldo the record for most goals scored in the competition’s history, before a quick Toni Kroos couple and a fine strike from Khedira made it five.

In 1950, following Uruguay’s humbling of Brazil in the Maracanã, those present recalled the stadium at full-time as feeling funereal. Already 5-0 down to Germany and with their dreams in tatters, but for the wild celebrations from the travelling contingent, a similar atmosphere enveloped the stadium. No second half would be required to haul a cloud over Belo Horizonte. The city of beautiful horizons had been plunged into darkness long before the final whistle.

As the second half commenced, Manuel Neuer’s goal quickly came under siege. Luiz Felipe Scolari’s half-time team talk had galvanised the hosts and his team came out the traps desperate to reclaim some dignity, but there was little to be recovered. Germany weathered the Brazilian storm, Neuer repelled every fraught effort, and soon the leaders piled on yet more misery as André Schürrle emerged from the bench to notch two semi-final goals of his own; the first a near-post tap-in, the second a sumptuous swipe that flashed past Júlio César and in off the underside of the bar.

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Oscar was on hand to score for Brazil as the final seconds of the game ebbed away yet rarely has even a consolation goal been greeted with such few cheers. By the time Brazil had grabbed a goal back, limited sections of the Brazilian crowd had long since applauded Schürrle’s second effort and had even spent the latter moments of the occasion ironically burnishing German passes with shouts of “Olé!” usually reserved strictly for their own team.

Others, meanwhile, could not yet bring themselves to trivialise the defeat with humour and instead sat speechless. The television cameras couldn’t help but tell the tale by returning their lenses to the shingled wash of forlorn faces amidst the crowd where tears and long wistful stares won out, vastly outnumbering those who could bring themselves to laugh.

Marco Rodríguez of Mexico eventually brought proceedings to a close, ending a dream semi-final for Germany and a typically nightmarish endeavour for the beaten Brazilians. Much like when the Uruguayans had taken their time to acknowledge and celebrate their 1950 World Cup win, such was the obvious scale of the hosts’ misery, the Germans respectfully tempered their revelry.

In post-match interviews, Germany captain Philipp Lahm described the atmosphere following their famous win as “not at all euphoric” while many of his teammates joined him in choosing not to laud their victory but instead consoling their adversaries. Lahm was even joined by fellow defender Per Mertesacker and manager Löw as the trio drew parallels between Brazil’s loss and the German’s semi-final exit from their own hosted World Cup in 2006, underlining the enormity of the added pressures and empathising with their opponents.

The next morning’s newspapers opted for no such caution and their reportage made for agonising reading across all of Brazil. ‘A derrota des derrotas’ (‘Defeat of defeats’) read the headline atop Gazeta do Povo. ‘Um vexame para a eternidade’ (‘An embarrassment for eternity’) said Correio Braziliense. ‘A maior vergonha do futebol Brasileiro’ (‘The biggest disgrace in Brazilian football’) wrote Estado de Minas. Elsewhere many papers couldn’t bare to recall the events in detail, to relive their heartbreak, and instead chose single word headlines to communicate their shock and their anguish. ‘Massacre’ read A Gazeta’s, ‘Humilhação!’ (‘Humiliation!’) wrote O Liberal, ‘Vergonha’ (‘Disgrace’) said Jornal da Manhã.

In the days after the match, as Germany continued onwards to defeat Argentina in the final while Brazil slipped to yet another defeat in the third-place playoff against the Netherlands, the gravity of the loss became clearer still and the disaster was christened with its very own nickname. In the very same style the 1950’s Maracanazo tragedy took its name from the stadium in which it was held, the scene of the crime, Brazil’s 7-1 demolition at the Estádio Mineirão was dubbed likewise: the Mineiraço.

Never before had any Brazil team conceded seven goals in a game, been defeated so emphatically on home soil, or surrendered so many goals throughout a single World Cup campaign. More importantly, though, never before had Brazil been hurt quite so badly or betrayed by their beloved team so blatantly. Scolari’s Seleção had made history yet they had found themselves stripped naked and ashamed, stood tall and vulnerable with arms wide like Christ the Redeemer, stranded on the completely wrong side of it.

For generations, the Brazilian people have rightfully prided themselves on the stunning legacy their nation has woven into the tapestry of the beautiful game and one famous aphorism neatly describes this lasting impact: ‘Os ingleses o inventaram, os brasileiros o aperfeiçoaram’ meaning ‘The English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it’.

In both style and substance there is little debate to be had. The unparalleled five stars sat atop their country’s crest, and the fashion in which each of those titles were attained, provide ample proof of the success of their incredible nation’s pursuit of perfection. However, if the analogous events of 1950 and 2014 are anything to go by, the heartbreak of their tournaments on home soil and the scars their nation still bear today, those moments of perfection may lack a certain permanence those in yellow and green so dearly wish it had. 

By Will Sharp  

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