With just under 25 days to go until the opening of the FIFA World Cup on Thursday, 12th June, many football enthusiasts are considering Brazil as favourites to win the title. It is easy to see why: World Cups held in South America have always been won by teams from that continent; Brazil are the most successful country in the tournament; they won the Confederations Cup last year beating reigning world and European champions Spain 3-0 in the final; and they will be playing at home. But can all this put Brazil under too much pressure?
While the home advantage is undoubtedly something good, it is also a burden. The team will not want to disappoint in front of their fans, and when the home advantage belongs to a powerhouse, they become clear-cut favourites. In such a position, winning will impress no one, but losing will disappoint everyone. Brazil, of all countries, know this better than anyone.
The FIFA World Cup has been held in Brazil on one previous occasion: in 1950, the first post-World War II cup. The tournament was unique because it is to date the only world cup which did not include a knockout phase. Instead, the four semi-finalists played in a round-robin format and the team with most points at the end would take home the trophy.
Heading into the final game of the tournament, home nation Brazil was leading the group with four points, having humiliated Sweden and Spain 7-1 and 6-1 respectively (a win was worth two points at the time). Sweden and Spain were to play each other on the last day, but both were mathematically out of the race for the world cup. In second place, one point behind Brazil, were Brazil’s opponents for the final game, Uruguay. They had drawn with Spain and only managed a late win against Sweden. This coupled with the fact that the final game would be played in Rio de Janeiro made Brazil clear favourites.
Throughout the three days between the second game of the round-robin and the final game, everyone was proclaiming Brazil the winners. On the day of the final, 16th July, 1950, Brazilians filled the streets of Rio de Janeiro, organizing a carnival and chanting for hours. Newspapers printed photos of the Brazilian team captioned ‘These are the world champions!’ The Confederação Brasileira de Futebol (CBF) prepared 22 gold medals with the names of the players on them. A song entitled Brasil os Vencedores (Brazil the Winners) was composed. Not wanting to miss the historic moment of seeing their country lift its first world cup title, Brazilians stormed the Maracanã stadium, with an estimated 210,000 people in attendance, around 40,000 more than there were paid tickets.
The Uruguayan coach had similarly almost given up. Prior to the beginning of the game, he told his players to play defensively so as not to be humiliated by Brazil’s attacking style. However, after he left, Uruguay captain Obdulio Varela famously told the team ‘Juancito [the coach] is a good man, but today, he is wrong. If we play defensively against Brazil, our fate will be no different from Spain or Sweden’.
The first half of the game played out much like expected, with Brazil dominating the game, but the score was still level at half time. That changed quickly, with Friaça putting Brazil ahead just two minutes into the second half. The Maracanã stadium roared in triumph, but Uruguay would not give up. The players took Varela’s words to heart and attacked Brazil ruthlessly.
Brazil’s weakness, concealed for the entire tournament, was finally revealed. Their attacking style left them exposed defensively. Twenty minutes after Friaça’s goal, Schiaffino equalized for Uruguay. The Brazilian fans were still joyous. Being one point ahead in the group, a draw would still crown Brazil football kings of the world. But thirteen minutes later, Ghiggia put the ball into the net to give Uruguay a 2-1 advantage. For the remaining eleven minutes of the game the silence in the Maracanã stadium was deafening. The fans were dumbfounded as the referee whistled for full-time and Uruguay became world champions!
Although it was Brazil’s best-ever placing in the world cup at the time, the 1950 tournament is a good example of how being clear favourites can result in unbelievable disappointment. Many of the players retired. Others were never called up for the national team again. Some journalists retired as well, and most tragically some fans committed suicide. Brazil decided to change their home shirt from white and blue, which they considered to be cursed, to the now-famous yellow and green. Perhaps this worked, as Brazil went on to win three of the next five tournaments.
64 years later Brazil will do everything to exorcize the demons of 1950. The only question left is: “Can they do it, or will history repeat itself?”