Mexico 1970 was Brazil’s coronation as a footballing culture, coming 20 years since the tragedy of the Maracanazo. But the wheels were set in motion in Sweden, when a 17-year-old Pele helped them win their first-ever World Cup in 1958, and much was to come before the Beautiful Team.
On the 19th of July, 1966, a lone, crumpled figure sat on a bench in a dressing room. Goodison Park, home to Everton Football Club, had been the site of back-to-back defeats for defending world champions Brazil, and just like that, they were out of the competition, in the group stages.
Eight years after coming good on his promise to his father following the 1950 final that he would win him a World Cup, Pele was bruised, scarred, and very hopeless. That day he called journalists to the locker room and shocked everyone by announcing that, at age 26, he was retiring. “That’s it. This is the last time you’ll see me in the uniform of Brazil.”
In his book with David Winner, the legend muses that it was “downright dumb” to make that decision, any decision that important, in the heat of the moment. “I’d tell him to relax a little bit, and stop being so dramatic! I’d tell him things are never quite as bad as they seem after a big defeat. I’d tell him some adversity can make your life worthwhile, and make your triumphs even sweeter.” He would tell him that even the so-called “king of soccer” was yet to learn the most important lesson the beautiful game could teach.
Perspective can be a wonderful thing, smoothening the creases and the imperfect joins of history, creating narrative arcs for fragmented shards of time and memory. It is all the more tempting to crystallise the seemingly disparate threads in a rare perfection. But, like with any story, let’s go back to the start.
Scotsman Thomas Donohoe is credited with organising the first official football match in Brazil in April 1894. The five-a-side, played on a pitch he had drawn himself, took place in Bangu, a neighbourhood in Rio’s West Zone. Around the same time, a local boy was returning to Brazilian shores after an education in England; with him, two footballs and a copy of the Hampshire FA rules. Charles William Miller, born to a Scottish father and a Brazilian mother of English descent, would help set up Sao Paolo Athletic Club as well as the country’s first football league. But the father of football in Brazil also brought in Eurocentric methods.
However, by the time Brazil were chosen to host the 1950 World Cup, their team comprised a core of black players, and there was a sense of pride about the unifying powers of the sport in a society so racially and economically diverse. Right from the inaugural World Cup in 1930, these players lifted their country to the cusp of popularity. What better, then, for a deserved coronation than a world championship on home soil?
In July 1946, Brazil petitioned to host the World Cup, a tournament edging towards cancellation because of a lack of interest. The 1950 edition would be the first since the end of World War II. It would also be the first tournament where the trophy was named after the father of the cup, in honour of Jules Rimet’s 25th anniversary as FIFA president, and to celebrate the event’s survival. It was fitting that FIFA sent Dr. Ottorino Barassi, the Italian FIFA vice-president, to aid Brazil in organising the event. Throughout the war, the likeness of the goddess of victory was hidden in a shoebox under his bed. Now, it would be taken to Brazil and await new victors.
As the tournament went on, the host country made a strong case for it being them and eventually booked a place in the finals versus Uruguay whom they had beaten 5-1 in the Copa America just the previous year. The occasion would take place at Rio’s Estadio do Maracana, built specially for the tournament. At a capacity of 200,000, it was one of the largest stadiums in the world, and if its countrymen were to be believed, the final was a mere formality before their boys would lift that gold and lapis trophy in jubilation.
The fever spread throughout the land – a new song “Brasil Os Vencedores” (Brazil, the Victors) had been composed, with a samba band waiting on the sidelines only for the final whistle; newspaper O Mundo printed a photo of the team with a caption proclaiming them world champions; gold medals had been cast and inscribed; Rio’s mayor made a bold, hyperbolic speech; the victory parade had been planned; and the players were given solid gold watches – “For the World Champions.”
Meanwhile, the Uruguayan captain snatched as many copies as he could physically carry back to the team hotel and encouraged his teammates to urinate on them.
In the end, it would be La Celeste’s Alcides Ghiggia with the levelling blow and the final knockout, forever marking the day when a new term was coined especially for this national tragedy of mythic proportions – the Maracanazo (the Maracana Blow).
Alcides Ghiggia crossed to Juan Alberto Schiaffino in the 66th minute who cancelled out Friaca’s opener. With 11 minutes to go, the host country was still confident of vaulting across the finish line; the strange four-team round-robin meant that they only needed a draw to lift the trophy.
And then, the heart of Brazil stopped.
Ghiggia, running towards Moacir Barbosa in goal, spotted a tiny gap between the Brazilian keeper and the near post. With that one kick, the Uruguayan singlehandedly dismantled the hopes and dreams of a country now left with a suddenly fragile sense of identity. The 2,00,000 who spilled over the boundaries of the stadium that night were shocked into an eerie silence and there were at least four recorded deaths after the final whistle (three heart-attacks and one suicide).
A dazed Jules Rimet found himself on the pitch, hugging the cup with his name close to his chest, with a speech in his pocket for the team he had also thought would win. “I found myself alone with the cup in my arms and not knowing what to do. I finally found Uruguay’s captain, Obdulio Varela, and I gave it to him practically without letting anyone else see. I held out my hand without saying a word.”
If the defeat to Uruguay united the nation in grief, it also widened the cracks already present. There is no surviving Brazilian player from that 1950 team, but it is a well-documented fact that all of them were ostracised, blamed, even after the catharsis of Sweden 1958. Zizinho received calls every year on the game’s anniversary asking him why they lost. It was worse for Moacir Barbosa, the unfortunate goalkeeper whose entire life would be reduced to those few minutes when he failed to stop two goals. Brazil, in 1888, was the last country from modern civilization to abolish slavery and even more than 50 years later, everyday life was undercut with tremors of a jagged, deep-seated divide. Barbosa, in many ways, was sacrificed on that altar just for being born a certain skin colour. He would routinely get pointed at in public and wasn’t even allowed to enter the team dressing room or meet with any of the current players. Before his death, he famously lamented that he served an imprisonment two decades longer than the maximum awarded to a criminal under Brazilian law.
July 16, 1950 is still considered the biggest tragedy in the country’s collective consciousness. But it’s also the day a future superstar’s life was set in motion. A nine-year-old Edson, who had huddled around the radio with the rest of them, was among the grieving and made a promise to his father Dondinho, whom he had seen cry for the first time that night. “One day, I’ll win you the World Cup.”
Eight years later, Dondinho and others back in Brazil would wait for upto a month to see newsreel footage of their world champions.
Brazil, football, culture, identity
‘Os ingleses o inventaram, os brasileiros o aperfeiçoaram.’
The English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it.
Pele was not the only one affected by that night and the sense of loss, pain, and failure that followed, seeping into the country’s bloodstream, carried to its heart. All the players who played for Brazil from that generation knew about the Maracanazo before they could walk or talk. For a society as unequal and divided as Brazil, and with as fraught a history of race and slavery, football was the escape and the celebration of a unity missing in day-to-day life.
“Football was supposed to be this great expression of Brazilianness. The  defeat reinforced the sense that actually Brazilians were just doomed to be failures on the edge of the world.”
– Alex Bellos, Futebol
Were they doomed to live with an identity that was linked to the very thing that haunted them so? Nelson Rodrigues, the famed Brazilian writer and poet, summed it up, “Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.”
This may appear dramatic to anyone not following the sport or, in any case, unaware of how deep football’s roots have taken hold in Brazil, over the centuries. The defeat played on their delicate sense of self-worth, one inextricable from what Rodrigues calls their “mongrel complex.”
To fans of my generation, who know Brazil as five-time world champions, it is so easy to forget that 1958 was Brazil’s first-ever World Cup title; that it took them years before that first taste of victory on the international stage. But when they did announce themselves to the world, back in a time very different from our modern, globalised scene, they did it in a style like no other. The term O Jogo Bonito, The Beautiful Game, has disputed origins, but it would be Pele, the diminutive boy from Bauru named after Thomas Edison, who would make it synonymous with football.
And it was fitting, considering the origins of the “ginga” that this team exuded with obvious delight.
The 16th century had seen an influx of slaves from West Africa to work on Brazil’s numerous tobacco and sugar plantations. Along with their labour, these slaves also brought their culture and religion, thus indelibly shaping and impacting their new country. One of these was the martial art of capoeira, a mix of dance, music and acrobatics. Developed primarily in Bahia by slaves from Angola and Mozambique, this was an artform increasingly used for violent motivations leading to a ban by 1890. But the fluid grace and stylised violence crept into the soul of the sport that the Brazilians quickly adopted as their own and waited, patiently, for its moment under the bright floodlights. The moment when the ball could be caressed by feet instead of simply kicked across the field; the birth of la toque, the touch that distinguishes a good footballer from a great one.
Ginga is a base capoeira move always accompanied by music to set the style and tempo. It’s hypnotic, swinging, graceful but powerful, and aims to deceive. The manner of the movement is as important as what is achieved through it. This spirit has long characterised Brazilian football; an easy sell for advertisers, an alluring draw for non-fans. But, after 1950, grasping at the first thing they could cling to for blame, the country attempted to mould itself to a more disciplined European style, covering open wounds with the armour of structure.
Football in Brazil was forever changed after 1950, and forever marked. Outwardly, the country adopted the now-iconic yellow and green instead of white for their kit. Tactically, there was a complete reorganisation. The W-M formation with its lack of defensive cover was replaced by the 4-2-4 that would eventually lead the team to consecutive world championships in 1958 and 1962.
Until Pele and Garrincha came along and infused the style with a flair and ebullience missing since that night at the Maracana.
The wren is a small, brown bird with many different species seen across the world. In Brazil, one of the most popular kinds is the musician wren known to bring good luck. It’s said that when it starts to sing, all the other birds stop to listen to its beautiful, complex song.
When Manuel Francisco dos Santos was born in 1933, in the small village of Rio’s Pau Grande, there wasn’t much for his parents to feel lucky about. Through the blood of the Fulnio tribe, his ancestors, baby Manuel had inherited a common defective gene – his spine was deformed and his legs twisted and curved “as if a gust of wind had blown his legs sideways” (Alex Bellos, Futebol). Nobody expected him to walk much rather run, but run he did, with anything resembling a ball at his feet.
It was his sister Rosa who nicknamed him Garrincha, the north-eastern name for the wren, for his similarity to the little bird. But he wouldn’t play professional football until the age of 18 because he had no interest in a career despite a massive talent clear even to an untrained eye.
On the night of July 16, when the entire country mourned, the 16-year-old Garrincha was fishing.
But Mane Garrincha was destined to play a pivotal part in his country’s footballing fortunes. Julinho, another winger, had declined his spot saying that someone playing in Brazil should get a chance ahead of him, who played club football in Italy. So the little bird was called up for trials.
And in Gothenburg, on the 15th of June 1958, a record began that would last the length of two World Cups. Brazil beat the Soviet Union 2-0 with Vava scoring both goals. It was Pele’s first game in that World Cup. From that match on, for the following eight years, for 40 matches, whenever the Garrincha and Pele were on the field together representing their country, the team never lost a single game. For the latter, it was obvious why their understanding of each other’s game went deeper than footballing brilliance.
“We shared the bond of having been underestimated because of our humble roots – the two country hicks who were most scrutinised by the team doctors in 1958.”
Brazil couldn’t have asked for better ambassadors to their hypnotic samba exuberance than the team that clinched the title of world champions on that day, at the end of June, in Solna, a municipality of Stockholm. On that day, Pele, at just 17 years and 249 days, became the youngest goalscorer in a World Cup final, with a goal that was a microcosm for Brazil’s tournament.
Running towards the Sweden goal, Pele called for the ball. Nilton Santos passed long from across the field. Pele chested it, let it drop, and flicked it with his foot to clear it over the defender’s head. Pure street-ball, he would later call it. He ran around that defender and volleyed it in from ten yards out. Brazil 3, Sweden 1.
“Life would get more complicated in coming years – things would never again be quite as simple, or quite as pure, as they were in 1958.”
Garrincha’s World Cup
Chile 1962 should have been the peak of the Pele-Garrincha partnership, but a damning injury to Pele in Brazil’s second group stage game meant that the gods had something else planned. It was time for the wren, this little bird inconspicuous to look at with its drab browns, greys and blacks, to share its song with the world.
Garrincha had always been a sensational dribbler, comfortable on the ball with both feet; with short, intense bursts of speed remarkable especially with his legs. Now, called upon to save his country in their time of need, he rose to the occasion, particularly in the games versus England and Chile where he scored a brace each. The fact that he featured in the final versus Czechoslovakia is in itself a miracle. Following a suspension versus Chile, FIFA mystifyingly ruled that Garrincha would play in the final. Such was the aura of the man from Pau Grande that summer. He was half delirious with a severe fever, but Brazil defended their title of world champions and Garrincha was named the outstanding player of the tournament.
Unfettered, constantly smiling, easy-going – Garrincha was rightly dubbed the “Joy of the People”, no matter what came after, no matter how deep the cachaca soaked into his cells and blood. All he cared about was the game, the details be damned. Back in 1958, surrounded by the pandemonium of his teammates at Solna, Garrincha stood mute, confused because he thought it was a league-like competition and Brazil still had to play every other team twice. In 1962, he was probably more street-wise but never stopped making people happy. It was his almost childlike innocence for life and the beautiful game; coexisting and constantly warring with the demons that haunted him for all of his short life like his father before him.
In 1964, the Brazilian military staged a coup, and the country became a conservative dictatorship again. Throughout the preparations for the World Cup in England, the players were under tremendous pressure from the new military government desperate for football to cover up turbulent divisions in the country. The result was a chaotic training period and a team that Pele called an “awkward collection of individuals”.
On 12th of July, 1966, Pele and Garrincha both scored to give Brazil a 2-0 victory over Bulgaria at Goodison Park. It would be their last game together, something nobody could have predicted at that moment. Pele had been fouled to an extent that robbed him of the chance to participate in the following game versus Hungary, a game Brazil lost 1-3. This was Garrincha’s last match. In Brazil’s last home match versus Portugal, Pele, who had been nursing a bad knee throughout the tournament, tore a ligament, but had to continue, because substitutions were only allowed for injury to the goalkeeper.
To the football king, sitting in that dressing room in Goodison Park after the impotence of limping around on one leg, football “stopped being an art, instead it became an actual war” and it was a battlefield he thought he wanted no part of; hence the hasty decision to announce his international retirement. But we all know how that turned out.