Brazil was so confident of victory in the last World Cup final played on its home soil, the country started to celebrate before the game had even started.
Millions of T-shirts with victory slogans had already been distributed. On the morning of that game in 1950 one newspaper printed a team photo with the headline “These are the world champions.” And Jules Rimet, the president of FIFA and founder of the World Cup, prepared a speech congratulating Brazil, whose players had already been presented with gold watches inscribed “for the world champions.”
It isn’t hard to guess what happened next. Needing only a tie with Uruguay to win the title, Brazil, playing before an overflow crowd of 200,000 in Rio de Janeiro’s massive Maracana, gave up a goal to Alcides Ghiggia with 11 minutes remaining to lose both the game and the World Cup, 2-1.
At the final whistle, one distraught fan committed suicide while three others suffered fatal heart attacks. The rest of the country went into mourning at what became known as “the Maracanazo,” a national tragedy serious people there still liken to the bombing of Hiroshima or the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
“It was the first time I saw my father cry,” said legendary Brazilian star Pele, who tried to make up for that disappointment by leading his country to three championships — although none of the World Cups were in Brazil.
But the 2014 World Cup has returned to Brazil, and the home team is once again favored to win the title before a sellout crowd in Maracana Stadium.
Some Brazilians are taking no chances, though. In a suburb of Rio a colorful graffiti of Brazil’s star striker Neymar kissing goodbye to the ghost of the Maracanazo — roughly translated as “the Maracana Blow” — has drawn crowds that come to kiss the wall it’s painted on for luck.
Yet Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led the country to its last world championship 12 years ago, believes the 1950 World Cup final was a blessing, not a curse.
“My vision of 1950 is entirely different to what most people think,” Scolari told reporters at a FIFA workshop earlier this year. “Before 1950 Brazil had never gotten to the final, they were the pioneers of the five titles we have won since then. Those players got there and made Brazilian history. We built our success on top of them.”
Although some oddsmakers have Brazil as a 3-1 favorite to win the World Cup, Scolari’s young team will be under tremendous pressure with many in soccer-mad Brazil saying only a victory can justify the $11 billion the country spent preparing for the tournament.
Scolari’s roster includes just five holdovers from Brazil’s disappointing 2010 team, which went out in the quarterfinals for the second consecutive World Cup. But the team is hardly inexperienced because 16 of its 23 players were on the squad that blitzed Spain, 3-0, in last summer’s Confederations Cup final.
For those players, the ghost of the Maracanazo is viewed the same way young Boston Red Sox fans once viewed “The Curse of the Bambino” — as a page out of history too old for them to relate to. But even ancient curses have to be exorcised. Which is why the only tears Pele wants to see this July are tears of joy.
“I don’t want to remember what happened in 1950,” he told FIFA.com. “I have to have faith and believe that victory is possible because you just never know. Football is a big box full of surprises and the best team doesn’t always win.
“I just want to be positive and think that Brazil will win the Cup. That’s what I want to believe.”