Pele’s 1000th goal. Maradona’s first Copa America. Messi’s only World Cup final. The Maracanã Stadium has been the host of history since its creation.
We all want to be back. Sitting in your favourite stand, eating your favourite pie. The cathartic release of pointlessly screaming at a referee. The unmatched beauty of thousands of voices singing out their souls in unison. The animal instinct to hug any nearby human because your teams netted a 92nd minute winner; and where social norms don’t exist anymore.
Now, imagine sharing these experiences with 200,000 people, swaying as your packed bodies feel the reverberations of sound around a modern colosseum. That was the magic of the Maracanã. Standing in the Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood of the same name, the stadium’s capacity is now a modest 78,838. But let’s forget about the present, and stay in the past; when Brazil’s national ground once proudly boasted to be the largest stadium in the world …
The 1950 World Cup
In 1946, Brazil’s destiny was confirmed as the 1950 World Cup hosts. To fit the occasion, a new stadium was needed. An arena so immense that it would put Glasgow’s Hampden Park, the largest at the time, to shame. It was to be a national monument rivalling Rio’s Cristo Redentor statue. A symbol of the country’s dedication to the beautiful game. On 2nd August 1948, the first stone was laid. In under two years, the stadium would host its first competitive game, the World Cup opener between Brazil and Mexico.
Looking like a building site, 81,649 fans packed into the partially completed ground to watch Brazil sweep aside Mexico in a resounding 4-0 win. After a surprise wobble against Switzerland (2-2), a 2-0 win over Yugoslavia sent the expectant nation through to the final round of matches. This wasn’t your regular final knockout stages. No, Brazil had opted for a round-robin format, a final group stage between the top four teams.
If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of this format, it’s because it was never used again … Brazil didn’t seem to mind though; demolishing Sweden and Spain 7-1 and 6-1 respectively. Only the 1930 champions Uruguay stood in their way. The now-152,772 fans, who danced and sang as the goals rained in against Spain, believed this was Brazil’s World Cup. But football is never so simple …
The Maracanãza – A National Tragedy
The Brazilian press were so confident of victory that O Mundo printed an early edition with a picture of the Brazilian players titled: ‘These are the world champions.’ After all, they only needed a draw to lift the trophy. The largest crowd in footballing history had flooded into the Maracanã to witness Brazil’s most haunting footballing memory.
Friaça opened the scoring for the hosts soon after half-time. All was going to plan. The crowd were in pandemonium. Fireworks and flares shot into the sky. But, Uruguayan captain Obdulio Varela had other ideas. Seeking to kill Brazil’s momentum and quieten the crowd, he deliberately delayed the restart by extensively complaining to the referee. By the time of kick-off, the joy had subsided, and nerves crept back into the air. Varela had succeeded.
In the 66th minute, Juan Alberto Schiffiano’s equalising header swung the momentum to Uruguay. Could it really happen? This was supposed to be a coronation, not a hard-fought battle. The gigantic crowd were then sent into stunned silence as Alcides Ghiggia flipped the tie on its head with a near-post strike 11 minutes from time. The stadium stood in disbelief. It is rumoured that some even suffered heart attacks as the second Uruguayan goal reverberated around the world.
” There was complete silence. The crowd was frozen still. It was like they weren’t even breathing! “Alcides Ghiggia
on silencing the Maracana in 1950
There was to be no great recovery. The final whistle blew. A traumatic unease filled the air. A nation in shock. The unthinkable had happened: Brazil had lost. What came to be known as The Maracanãza would be etched in many Brazilians memories for decades. Until 2010, Brazil remained the only world champion never to have won as hosts. It was ‘their’ World Cup and they had thrown it away.
Perhaps one positive did emerge from Brazil’s devastation: That famous yellow shirt. Declared unpatriotic, the previously worn white was scrapped and here was born the now famous kit. Although the new design was created by a Uruguayan fan so, maybe they did have the last laugh in the end. But then again, Brazil maintained and loved the Maracana for decades – and they didn’t!