A young boy glanced up at an old man. The old man looked away, returning his gaze to the floor below. “Come along,” said the boy’s mother, grabbing her son by the hand, “that’s the man who made Brazil cry.”
The old man died in a little over 12 years ago. His heart could take no more. It had been broken for half a century and finally gave up one hot afternoon in Praia Grande. By then, Moacir Barbosa Nascimento was broke, living in squalor, left to relive the night that changed his life forever on an eternal loop.
It couldn’t have been more than inch. It was so close he felt the wisp of wind as the ball snuck beneath him. The thinnest of margins change football matches, change the course of history. This one altered the course of Brazil goalkeeper Barbosa’s life forever.
With 25 minutes to go, they were 1-0 up. “There were 200,000 people at the Maracana and it was a real inferno,” said Uruguay goalkeeper Roque Maspoli. “They took the lead and nobody thought we had a chance, except us that is.”
Juan Alberto Schiaffino equalised. Then Alcides Ghiggia squeezed the winner inside Barbosa’s near post. The 200,000 fell silent. Barbosa attempted to stand, but froze halfway. Perched on one knee, all he could do was stare, perplexed, at that damn post. It was all his fault. They never let him forget. In 1993, after being refused entry to Brazil’s training camp during qualifying for the World Cup in USA, he said: “In Brazil, the most you can get for a crime is thirty years. For forty-three years I have been paying for a crime I didn’t commit.”
It had been a disaster. A Maracanazo! Brazil were champions before the World Cup final of 1950 had even kicked off. The newspapers had proclaimed them so, as had the mayor of Rio: “You, players, who in a few hours will be hailed as champions… You, who I already salute as victors.” At the final whistle, Jules Rimet found Uruguay’s captain, Obdulio Varela, and handed over the trophy without uttering a word. In his pocket, Rimet had the speech he’d written to congratulate Brazil.
The pressure that day was unbearable. And so it will be in two years’ time when the World Cup returns to Brazil over half a century later. It’s already begun. Mano Menezes’ youthful squad had their first taste of the demanding Brazilian public this past week against South Africa in Sao Paulo. “Goodbye, Menezes,” sang the crowd at the Morumbi as his team stumbled to a 1-0 victory over South Africa.
“I think all the criticism is normal. I wish it were different,” said Menezes. “The fans should support us more, but that is normal,” added Hulk. It’s all too normal. It’s counter-productive, and will likely cost the Selecao in 2014, but it’s normal. It appears there will be no home ‘advantage’ when the greatest show on earth returns to Brazilian soil. Just pressure. Ungodly pressure. The likes of which ultimately cost them in 1950; the likes of which cost Barbosa more than anyone else.
It speaks volumes that despite Brazil’s unrivalled devotion to the cult of the idol, not even he is exempt from the scorn. “[Neymar] is the best Brazilian player and we can’t have our best player treated like that,” said Menezes, after the jewel in Brazilian football’s crown was subjected to jeers last Friday night. “They need to understand that our best player has to be treated with more care,” added Dani Alves.
“I am not a machine,” said Neymar, fully aware that he more than anyone will carry the burden of exorcising his nation’s demons. “I was exhausted after Friday’s match, both physically and mentally.” He has every right to be – the 20-year-old has played without a real break for three years now. His Santos coach, Muricy Ramalho, even proposed this week that Neymar should be left out of Brazil’s next few friendlies. There appears little chance of that. Not while Menezes’ Brazil remain a work in progress.
The Recife crowd on Monday night was much more encouraging, and Brazil responded with an 8-0 hammering of China. But patience with Menezes has worn thin. A rotten Copa America didn’t help; neither did the Olympic final defeat to Mexico. Failure to secure next summer’s Confederations Cup will likely be one too many for the former Corinthians coach. That Luiz Felipe Scolari stepped in shortly before Brazil’s last world title in 2002 offers him little reassurance.
But regardless of who’s in charge by then, failure is not an option. Brazil’s first World title arrived eight years after that night at the Maracana. Asked to how he did it, coach Vicente Feloa wrote in 1963, “There was a simple answer to it all: we were indivisible.”
It’s an adjective that, this time around, will have to include not only the squad, but the public they represent. Their jeers have served only to increase the nerves – and it is nerves that will present Brazil the biggest obstacle of all in 2014. After all, nobody wants to be the next Barbosa.
Rupert Fryer is an expert on South American football and is the co-founder and editor of southamericanfootball.co.uk