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Judgment day is upon us

Men In Blazers Jun 16, 2014
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May 5, 2014

Ghost of Barbosa haunts Brazil

Part I: “No More Ghosts to haunt us”

How much are athletes hounded by the echo of history? As Brazil girds itself to host the 2014 World Cup, to what extent is the nation still stung by the memory of July 16, 1950, and the disastrous afternoon in Rio in which a stuttering Selecao lost the last tournament on home turf?

I had the opportunity to ask Carlos Alberto Parreira this question, last month. Brazil’s assistant coach and 1994 world champion suggested the trauma of defeat is more of a media creation. “There is no impact on the current players or coaches,” he said. “There’s no more ghost to haunt us. That doesn't exist anymore, however the press always likes to relive the 'Maracanazo' but it won't impact our preparation or winning of the cup in 2014.”

That may be wishful thinking.

The “Maracanazo” or “Maracana blow” is the name given to that fateful match in the 1950 World Cup in which Brazil lost to neighbours and rivals Uruguay 2-1. For a country without wars or monarchs, the traditional markers of a nation’s history, World Cups are the benchmarks of the nation’s narrative. The writer Nelson Rodrigues famously, and sensationally, coined the defeat “our national catastrophe, our Hiroshima.”

Part II: Glory grounded in foundations of agony

I have spent the past five months immersed in the 1950 story while working (with my production partner John Hock, and director Loch Phillips) on the film "Barbosa: The Man Who Made Brazil Cry." What initially attracted me to the story was the chance to examine how the myth of Brazil’s “beautiful game” is grounded in foundations of agony. I wanted to explore whether that 1950 loss had left a festering wound none of the five subsequent wins has healed because it was suffered on home soil. The film examines the story of Moacir Barbosa, the goalkeeper on that 1950 team whose fate was forever changed when the winning goal bobbled in at the near post. Barbosa proceeded to live out a doomed life as both scapegoat and pariah, his name a euphemism for national failure. An elite athlete fallen victim to the dark side of Brazil's passion for the game.

Brazil in 1950 was very different from the Brazil of today. The nation was still preindustrial and predominantly rural. Largely insulated from the Second World War, and eager to announce itself on the global stage with a victory, Brazil jumped at the opportunity to assume hosting duties at a time when Europe was rebuilding itself postwar.

In a country where soccer was a religion, the World Cup was anticipated with all of the fervour of a messianic coming; a national stadium, the Maracana, was constructed in Rio as a monument both to soccer’s importance to the soul of the nation and to the country's global aspirations. In an echo of 2014, the 200,000-seat national status symbol was not completely finished by kickoff time, a portent of things to come.

The 1950 Brazil team was stocked with talent. Star Zizinho was Pele's childhood idol. Ademir, a prolific sniper, netted eight times in the tournament. Yet Barbosa is the only man whose name became inextricably connected to the tournament.

Brazil’s campaign began well with a 4-0 thrashing of Mexico. In newsreel footage, Barbosa cuts a handsome figure. A powerful man with an ab-hugging jersey clinging tightly to the contours of his body.

The tournament’s final round featured an unusual format of a round robin among four teams. After eviscerating Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1, the Brazilians needed just a draw against Uruguay to fulfill their manifest destiny.

On July 16, 1950, the Maracana stadium was crammed with almost 173,850 fans eager to witness their nation’s coronation. Their team was so heavily favoured that before the game the players were presented with gold watches inscribed “for the world champions.” If that did not instill enough confidence, one of the Uruguayan players, Julio Perez, admitted he wet himself with fear while lining up for the pregame national anthems.

The game began according to script when Friaça put the Brazilians ahead. But the Uruguayans were resolute. First Alcides Ghiggia flew down the flank to craft an equaliser for Juan Alberto Schiaffino. Then 11 minutes from time, the 5-foot-6 winger slipped past Bigode on the right wing and thrashed the ball toward the goal. Cheating on the cross, Barbosa was caught off guard and was late to fling himself toward his post. He later confessed he believed he had actually made the save, yet the reaction of the crowd soon let him know he had missed the ball that trickled in behind him. Ghiggia famously declared, "Only three people in history managed to silence the Maracana stadium: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and me.” Part III: “A man who has just been doomed forever”

Footage of the goal exists. Its shaky, crackling black-and-white format makes it akin to a kind of Brazilian Zapruder film. The goalkeeper is captured post-goal as he raises himself up slowly from one knee, like a boxer getting up from the canvas still groggy from a punch. A blow none the less powerful for being psychic and not physical. Watching him rise is to see a man who had just been doomed forever. As the Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano says in our film, “[Barbosa] had touched heaven and all of a sudden everything collapsed around him.”

The goalkeeper’s life became a litany of tragedy. After retiring through injury, Barbosa ended up working at the Maracana as an administrator, forced to return to the scene of his greatest humiliation on a daily basis. He would ultimately take the goalposts from the field and burn them in the hopes he could exorcise the suffocating power of the memory.

It was not to be. He later confided to his biographer that years later he overheard a woman in a supermarket pointing him out to her small child and muttering, “See him? That’s the man that made all Brazil cry.” Ahead of the 1994 World Cup, the BBC paid the financially impoverished fallen icon to travel to the Brazilian training camp so it could film him meeting the squad’s goalkeeper, Taffarel. The contract was a trap as he was denied access. A stunt organised by the media to reinforce and rehash the enormity of the loss.

In 2000 at age 79, Barbosa appeared on national television. A frail, wrinkled old man, shrinking into the suit he was wearing. A panel of journalists surrounded the former player as if he were a criminal in the dock and they were his judge and jury. The writers broke down the goalkeeper’s tactical error as if reporting facts of a crime. A resigned Barbosa was given the chance to speak. “Technically, Ghiggia did the wrong thing and it worked. I did the right thing and it failed,” he said dolefully. “Some accept my explanation, some don’t. Whether I failed or not there’s no way to go back in time. I continually think about that goal. Even when I sleep, I dream of the goal. I replayed it in my mind thousands of times.”

Part IV: “What’s in the past is in the past ... right?”

Current Brazilian No. 1 Julio Cesar was among those who watched that footage. I asked him if the Barbosa story affects him. “We try to isolate ourselves as much as possible from what happened with Barbosa. Because, really, it’s something that left a mark and it carries a lot of weight in Brazil,” he admitted. "We are trying to work on it ... so that we don’t have bring that weight with us onto the field."

Cesar had his own Barbosa moment in the 2010 World Cup when his mistakes against Holland led to Brazil’s ouster. "I’ve already gone through an experience like [Barbosa’s] in 2010, and I know how much it hurts for a player, in this position, to be crucified because of a play that potentially determined the match," he said. “Barbosa was the only Brazilian citizen to have a life-in-jail sentence, because that doesn’t exist in Brazil. He paid for something that happened to him in 1950,” he explained. “I hope the Brazilian fans enjoy this World Cup ... and that they don’t make that kind of comparing of what happened in the past and what is happening now. What’s in the past is in the past. The word says 'past.' Let’s leave what happened to me in 2010 behind, let's leave it all behind. The most important thing is that we look forward. Right?”