Moacir Barbosa: The goalkeeper who was condemned for life

Brazilian football is synonymous with the fun-loving freedom of inhibition that the yellow shirts have spent sixty years making famous.

The first of their five World Cups was won in Sweden in 1958, Pele and Garrincha finally firing the Seleção to the top of the world game. But it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Brazil were supposed to win the World Cup on home soil eight years prior, only to fall at the final hurdle. What followed was the sad story of the man they blamed – the condemnation of Moacir Barbosa.

Moacir Barbosa Nascimento spent the largest chunk of his career at Rio de Janeiro club Vasco da Gama, joining them in 1945. It was there that he spent the latter half of the 1940’s establishing himself as one of the world’s greatest goalkeepers.

Image Source: Twitter

Those five years were wildly successful for Vasco, who won the state championship in 1945, 1947, and 1949. They also lifted the Campeonato Sul-Americano de Campeões in 1948. That tournament was a precursor to the Copa Libertadores – a continent-wide South American tournament that featured the best team from each of Argentina (River Plate), Bolivia (Litoral), Brazil (Vasco da Gama), Chile (Colo-Colo), Ecuador (Emelec), Peru (Municipal), and Uruguay (Nacional). It was especially noteworthy for being the first continental club competition in football history, making Vasco da Gama football’s very first continental champions.

If that wasn’t enough to set up Barbosa’s legacy going into the 1950 World Cup, he was also the goalkeeper at the 1949 Copa America. That tournament saw Brazil smash Paraguay 7-0 in a play-off to be crowned champions of South America – on home soil.

All of this backstory is vital to set up exactly how things were for Barbosa going into the 1950 World Cup. He was a renowned goalkeeper who was the first choice for the South American champions at both domestic and international level. There was just one more detail to really hammer things home: The 1950 World Cup would be played in Brazil.

Now, you can say to yourself that you can have an idea of how badly Brazil wanted to win that World Cup – we just saw them host it in 2014, and the pressure was immense. It really had nothing on 1950 though. Not even close.

Brazil, a country that had only become truly independent in the past 60 years, was desperate to make a name for itself. It had never fought any proper wars, never really had the opportunity to show the rest of the world what it was. Or, most importantly, never had the chance to get one over on the “old world” that had only recently left it. Now the world’s major countries would be showing up on its doorstep, competing to see who was best. This was their chance.

Only Brazil wasn’t just hoping to win – it was expecting it. They’d won the Copa America just the year before, and so (admittedly like every country involved) firmly believed they were the best in the world. This was a time before television, and every country lived within its own little bubble where it had the best team, with the best players, with the best style of play.

So here was the 1950 World Cup. In Brazil. With Brazil flying expectations the likes of which have never been seen before or since.

The 1950 Brazil team. Image Source: Twitter

Brazil, led by Zizinho (a player who surely would have gone down in history as an all-time great, if not for what was to come), got through that opening group with a 4-1 win over Mexico, a 2-2 draw with Switzerland, and a 2-0 win over Yugoslavia – not a bad start. The way the tournament worked in those days was that the four group winners would then compete in a final group of four. Brazil made it there along with Spain, Sweden, and Uruguay. It’s worth giving a minor spoiler here to say that Uruguay will make that final along with Brazil if only to mention how Uruguay reached that position.

The way the tournament worked in those days was that the four group winners would then compete in a final group of four. Brazil made it there along with Spain, Sweden, and Uruguay. It’s worth giving a minor spoiler here to say that Uruguay will make that final along with Brazil if only to mention how Uruguay reached that position.

Only in a group of three to begin with, France pulled out of group D before the tournament, leaving Uruguay only playing one game against Bolivia – they won 8-0. And that was that. Uruguay were in the final group. It’s difficult to imagine a similar situation coming about these days.

The final group went like this: Uruguay drew 2-2 with Spain, while Brazil crushed Sweden 7-1. Uruguay then scored two late goals to beat Sweden 3-2, as Brazil tore apart Spain 6-1. Even though the tournament hadn’t planned on a final (again, that’s something it’s difficult to imagine in 2017. We like our finals) it had one anyway, with one caveat – Brazil only needed a draw to win the World Cup.

Moacir Barbosa has been talked about remarkably little for a profile about him – it’s his name at the top of the piece, after all – but establishing what was to come is remarkably difficult. It requires a perspective that isn’t readily available nowadays as football has moved further towards entertainment than being the “matter of life or death” that Bill Shankly once famously described it. If anything does offer that perspective, however, it’s the quote from Brazilian author and playwright Nelson Rodrigues, who would go on to describe the 1950 World Cup final in the darkest of terms.

If anything does offer that perspective, however, it’s the quote from Brazilian author and playwright Nelson Rodrigues, who would go on to describe the 1950 World Cup final in the darkest of terms.

“Our [Brazil’s] catastrophe, our Horishima.”

Neslon Rodrigues

200,000 people squeezed into the Estádio do Maracanã on 16th July 1950 for a World Cup final that Brazil were certain to win. The Gazeta Esportiva has printed a headline of “Tomorrow we will beat Uruguay!”, while O Mundo had gone for a photo of the players, emphatically stating “These are the World Champions” before a ball had been kicked. The mayor of Rio gave a speech:

“You, players, who in less than a few hours will be hailed as champions by millions of compatriots! You, who have no rivals in the entire hemisphere! You, who will overcome any other competitor! You, who I already salute as victors!”

They had even already printed gold medals with the players’ names on them.

Brazil took the lead in that final, Friaça scoring after 47 minutes of Brazilian domination. But on 66 minutes, Uruguay equalized, Bigode being beaten on Brazil’s left by Alcides Ghiggia before Juan Alberto Schiaffino scored. Then, on 79 minutes, Ghiggia beat Bigode once again, only this time he had a shot himself. Barbosa misjudged it and Ghiggia caught the goalkeeper out at his near-post, putting Uruguay in front.

Brazil attacked and attacked, but nothing followed. The game finished 2-1 and Uruguay were champions. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Brazil’s national disaster had happened – the unthinkable, the unimaginable. A scapegoat was needed, naturally, and unfortunately, it was Moacir Barbosa.

But this wasn’t scapegoating in the way that David Beckham received after the ’98 World Cup, nor was this an embarrassment in the way that the 7 (seven) – 1 was. Barbosa and Brazilian football would arguably never recover.

Barbosa was considered to be the reason this tragedy had happened, for there was no thought that it was a justified defeat. His career with Vasco continued for another five years, winning the state championship twice more, but nationally he was like a curse upon the nation.

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Indeed, in 1994, he was banned from meeting the players by then-manager Mario Zagallo who feared he would bring bad luck. He attempted to end any talk of a curse in 1963 when, after being gifted the goalposts from the Maracana, he invited the 1950 squad around for a barbeque. There they found he was using the posts as fuel, cooking the meat over the very goalposts present at the final.

He once told a documentary that the saddest moment of his life wasn’t that fateful day at the Maracana, but had actually come 20 years later. Barbosa said that he found himself at the local market when he witnessed a mother point at him and tell her child:

“Look at him, son. He is the man that made all of Brazil cry.”

Barbosa died on April 7th 2000. A friend of his, with whom he spent most of his later years, said about that time:

“He even cried on my shoulder. Until the end he used to always say: ‘I’m not guilty. There were 11 of us.'”

And it wasn’t just Barbosa who suffered. Brazil, with their long history of questionable race relations, didn’t have a black first choice goalkeeper again until 1999 – Dida, then having recently joined AC Milan.

Barbosa spoke out more and more towards the end of his life about what he endured. He summed it all up shortly before his death, poignantly saying,

“Under Brazilian law the maximum sentence is 30 years. But my imprisonment has been for 50 years.”

Moacir Barbosa was once regarded as one of the best goalkeepers on the planet, but one mistake in the wrong game condemned him to punishment for the rest of his life. Spurned by his country, he was blamed for a national tragedy, carrying that weight for 50 years. It is undoubtedly one of the saddest stories that the game has ever produced.