World Cup 1950: Maracana Magic


The World Cup returned from its 12 year hiatus the destination would be Brazil and a new Cathedral of football in Rio, but in a tournament of surprises the last laugh would be on the hosts in the Citadel of the Maracana Stadium.

The Maracana

New World, Old Problems

When World War II finally ended few were thinking about reviving the World Cup. The 1942 tournament had been cancelled due to the war and there was no appetite or practical way of holding one in the immediate aftermath. FIFA held a congress in 1946 to decide on a post war World Cup, proposed for 1949. With the previous two tournaments held in Europe a return to South America was agreed and Brazil who’d wanted to host in 1942 were awarded the tournament but insisted on moving it back to 1950.

The major concern remained was there enough interest is brining the tournament back? The 1948 Olympics went a long way to allaying many of the organiser’s fears, held in London the return of the Olympics showed there was still enormous public enthusiasm for global sporting events and the role sport could play in bringing people together. The tournament got a major boost when 1930 winners Uruguay agreed to return having boycotted the previous two events, an even bigger story was at long last England, footballs founding nation would participate for the first time.

Sadly it wasn’t the end of the withdrawals and boycotts. The Soviet Union and their Eastern European satellite nations almost entirely boycotted with Yugoslavia the exception, meanwhile the defeated nations of Germany and Japan were also excluded. Several South American nations including Argentina boycotted, Turkey pulled out due to the travel costs along along with India. Scotland withdrew despite the pleas of captain George Young and England counterpart Billy Wright, still the tournament would go ahead with 13 teams heading to Brazil.

Brazil Superstar Ademir

Hosts Up and Running

The format for the 1950 tournament was bizarre, the teams were drawn into four groups with the winners advancing to a final pool of four teams who would play a mini league to decide the champions, meaning there would be no final.

The Brazilians kicked off their own tournament at the new awe inspiring Maracana Stadium, in front of nearly 82,000 fans. Brazil were amongst the favourites, with a rock solid goalkeeper in Barbosa, hugely gifted midfielders Zizinho and Jair and a goal machine in striker Ademir. They got off to an emphatic start by thrashing Mexico 4-0, Ademir scoring twice.

Brazil then fumbled their second match against unfancied Switzerland, Alfredo had given them the perfect start but Jacques Fatton grabbed a late equaliser in Sao Paolo and Brazil were held to a 2-2 draw. It meant a nervous final game in Rio against Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs were spearheaded by the potent Kosta Tomasevic and having thrashed both Mexico and Switzerland needed only a draw to progress at Brazil’s expense. Over 142,000 crammed into the Maracana and Ademir sent the enormous crowd into raptures with a second minute opener, Zizinho added a second on 69 minutes and Brazil had survived a scare to progress

Joe Gartjens celebrates his shock winner against England

The Miracle on the Green

England were favourites to progress from Group 2 ahead of Spain, Chile and the USA. England had some amazing players in their ranks in captain Wright, wing wizard Stanley Matthew and the prolific Tom Finney in attack, however this was their first World Cup experience in an unfamiliar environment. Any worries seemed to be put aside when England eased past Chile 2-0, Stan Mortensen grabbing the opener in a sparsely populated Maracana.

England’s next game was agains the USA, whose team of part timers included a Postman, Dish washer and Funeral Director. The Americans had given Spain a fright in their opener, taking an early lead and holding it until the 81st minute when Spain finally broke through and scored three quick fire goals. In Belo Horizonte, England went on the front foot with six shots on goal in the opening 12 minutes but failing to score, but in the 38th minute a rare US attack saw Walter Bahr knock in a hopeful cross, striker Joe Gaetjens got the deftest of headers on the ball and US were ahead.

US goalkeeper Frank Borghi now took centre stage as England laid siege to his goal, but Borghi pulled off a string of stunning saves to keep the US ahead. Mortensen was getting closer for England and thought he’d won a late penalty but instead England got a free kick on the edge of the box. Alf Ramsey floated in the free kick and a powerful Jimmy Mullen header appeared to be in, but Borghi incredibly tipped it away and the Americans had pulled off the biggest shock in World Cup history.

England now faced Spain in Rio needing a win to progress. Spain had eased past Chile 2-0 meaning only a hefty defeat would see England overtake them. England pressed and probed but the predatory Telmo Zarra settled the game early in the second half and England were out. As for the US, they fought back from a 2 goal deficit against Chile with two goals in a minute. However, lightning didn’t strike twice and three second half goals saw Chile to a consolation 5-2 win, the US would not return to the World Cup for 40 years.

Champions Return

Italy were nominally defending champions but any hopes of a third title were dealt an incalculable blow a year before the tournament when the entire Torino team were tragically killed in the Superga air crash. Torino were on the verge a fourth successive Serie A title and had been the first truly great post war football team, ten of the victims were Italy internationals. In a three team group Italy opened against Sweden and they got a dream start through Riccardo Carapellese but Sweden responded with Hans Jeppson scoring twice as the Swedes inflicted Italy’s first ever World Cup defeat 2-3. With just Paraguay left to play a draw would be enough for Sweden to progress, two goals in the first 26 minutes put Sweden in a commanding position and although Paraguay fought back, Sweden held on to progress to the final stage.

Meanwhile the withdrawals had left Uruguay and Bolivia in at two team group making their meeting in Belo Horizonte effectively a playoff. Uruguay easily outclassed Bolivia with striker Oscar Miguez claiming a hat-trick in an 8-0 rout. It left a surprise quartet of Brazil, Uruguay, Spain and Sweden to compete in the final phase.

Brilliant Brazil on the Cusp

Brazil kicked off the final group at the Maracana against Sweden and underlined their favourites tag. Ademir took just 17 minutes to find the net and grabbed four goals in a 7-1 rout, with Chico scoring twice. Meanwhile in Sao Paulo Spain faced Uruguay in a far tighter encounter. Winger Alcides Ghigga gave Uruguay a 29th minute lead but Spain fought back with Estanislau Basora firing in two goals in as many minutes to give Spain a 2-1 halftime lead. Uruguay were on the ropes and it was their inspirational captain Obdulio Varela who came to their rescue with a 70th minute equaliser to salvage a point.

Four days later over 153,000 packed the Maracana to see Brazil take on Spain. Ademir again struck early give Brazil the early lead before a rasping effort from Jair made it 2-0 after just 21 minutes. Chico added a pair of trademark poachers goals to put the contest to bed as Brazil ran out 6-1 winners, the World Cup was now within touching distance.

Whilst the Maracana partied in Sao Paulo a tense encounter was unfolding, Karl-Erik Palmer gave Sweden the early lead. A brilliant long range effort from Ghiggia brought Uruguay level only to see the Swedes retake the lead a minute later, 1-2 Sweden at the break. Uruguay were looking down the barrel but with 12 minutes to go Oscar Miguez got them level and five minutes from time added the winner, 3-2 and Uruguay had won to keep their slim title hopes alive.

“Que comience la función”

Despite the tournament not having a final, the final game in the Maracana would decide the title. A draw would do for high flying Brazil, Uruguay needed to win. After their emphatic wins over Sweden and Spain Brazilian confidence was sky high, tonking Uruguay 5-1 in the previous year’s Copa America only added to the sense Brazil were champions-elect.

Brazilian newspaper O Mundo went a step further, on the day of the final their front page contained a photo of the Brazil team under the headline ‘These are the World Champions.’ Uruguay captain Varela was outraged, he bought up every copy of the paper he could find, covered the team’s bathroom floor in it, and encouraged his teammates to spit and urinate on the offending front page.

Fans flocked to the Maracana for what was expected to be Brazil’s coronation, 173,850 paid for tickets but thousands more flooded in, the actual attendance is estimated to be a staggering 220,000.

Uruguay coach Juan Lopez instructed his team to play a defensive game but after he’d spoken it was Varela’s turn to speak. Varela told his teammates he respected Lopez but his plan would only see Uruguay suffer the same fate as Sweden and Spain, he gave a rousing call to arms inspiring his teammates to show no fear of either their opponents or the enormous crowd, he finished by saying “Que comience la funció,” rough translation “Boys, outsiders don’t play. Let’s start the show.”

Uruguay’s legendary skipper Obdulio Varela

Epic Final

For all Varela’s oratory it was Brazil who charged into the ascendancy, Uruguay forced onto the backfoot. This time the early goal didn’t come as Varela organised his team’s defence, Brazil couldn’t find a way through and despite Brazil completely dominating the half the score was 0-0 at the interval.

Two minutes into the second half Brazil finally got the breakthrough, as Friaca got clear and rolled a shot in the bottom corner 1-0 to send the Maracana into raptures. Varela protested for offside and by the time the game was back under way the crows had quietened down. Varela urged his team on and forced to go for broke Uruguay put Brazil on the backfoot with Ghigga getting the upper hand on the right wing. In the 66th minute Ghigga broke loose down the right and his cross was directed home by Juan Alberto Schiaffino 1-1.

The draw was still enough for Brazil to be crowned champions but nerves reverberated around the Maracana, Ghigga was now roasting Brazil leftback Juvenal and was baring down on goal again, the usually rock solid Barbosa was left exposed and Ghigga decieved the ‘keeper by rifling in at the near post 1-2 with only 11 minutes to play.

Brazil pressed forward and Chico went close with a rasping drive. With time running out a right wing cross dropped perfectly for Brazil talisman Ademir, but the striker miscued and ballooned the ball high and wide. Brazil were beaten, the Maracana stunned and Uruguay were champions.

Ghigga’s winner


Brazil went into a collective shock as the pain of the ‘Maracanazo’, it would be the first of three enormous traumas to shake Brazilian football to its foundations. An odd scapegoat for the defeat became Brazil’s kit of all white with blue trim. In 1953 Brazilian national newspaper Correio da Manha launched a competition to design a new using the four colours of the Brazilian flag. A 19-year-old illustrator named Aldyr Schlee won with a design of yellow shirt with green trim, blue shorts and white socks. Schlee who supported Uruguay later claimed his concept was meant as a joke, nevertheless it became the most iconic kit in football history. Brazil may have been traumatised by the final result, but much like London hosting the Olympics two years earlier in taking the tournament when nobody else would they’d proved the World Cup did have a place in the new world.

Jonathan Fearby

Jonathan Fearby is a United Kingdom native. Prior to joining The Athletes Hub as a staff writer, he founded and operated Football England.

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