On 8 July 1962, Moacyr Barbosa Nascimento hobbled off the pitch with the aid of the doctor of the modest club side Campo Grande with a muscle injury. At 41 years of age he might well have imagined that he had played his last match.
Yet, despite the physical discomfort endured, the goalkeeper felt better than he had done for a long time, as he lapped up the endless ovation in the Aniceto Moscoso stadium in Madureira. It made no difference that only 670 people made up the crowd. For the veteran, the show of affection was uplifting and unexpected.
Despite being an innovator in his position and enjoying his share of successes, Barbosa did not have the privilege of many such moments in his long career - especially after he had been one of the main protagonists in the fateful Maracanazo, one of the most dramatic moments in the history of football. It all happened in a matter of seconds and left a lasting mark on his life. This is fully explained in the book Queimando as Traves de 50 – Glórias e castigo de Barbosa, maior goleiro da era romântica do futebol brasileiro (Burning the Goalposts of 1950 – the glories and punishment of Barbosa, the greatest goalkeeper of the romantic era of Brazilian football) by the journalist Bruno Freitas, which was recently published in Brazil.
Cross or shot?
The legendary goalkeeper was still alive when A Seleção won not only its first, but another three World Cups, banishing the memory of the defeat against Uruguay ever further. Indeed, for the subsequent generations any mention of “Brazil” and “football” would invariably be accompanied by the words “victories” and “trophies”.
Numerous triumphs were, however, insufficient to rid Barbosa of the memories from that dark day, 12 years before his retirement, when he was one of the main actors on a very different stage. A stage that played to an audience of 200,000 people, who were left in a state of shock in the imposing stadium built for the 1950 FIFA World Cup Brazil. "Barbosa later said that Brazil’s trophy conquests alleviated the pain somewhat, but historical accounts show that the country let the goalkeeper die with an unpaid debt owed to him,” writes Freitas.
The story is well known: everything had been prepared beforehand at the Maracana to celebrate the historic triumph – and not Uruguay’s. Friaca opened the scoring, but La Celeste turned it around. The winning goal was scored by Alcides Ghiggia, who took a pass on the right flank, and from a supposedly impossible angle beat the Brazilian custodian. “I took two or three steps forward and a gap opened up. He shot into the space I had vacated and Uruguay won the World Cup. The disaster was on my shoulders,” the goalkeeper said.
Barbosa believed the best option was to position himself to intercept a possible cross. After all, the equaliser had resulted from a cross, and once again the box was full of adversaries, waiting for the delivery. But the forward decided to shoot, and the Brazilian could not react in time. For one or two seconds, or centimetres, Barbosa was faced with a simple choice and a dilemma, and instantaneously found himself at the centre of a national inquisition - one at which he was convicted.
Few people realise that when he first took up football the man born in Campinas, Sao Paulo state, used to play as a forward just like his Uruguayan nemesis Ghiggia. Barbosa was a winger in amateur games until one day his brother-in-law, who owned the team, pleaded with him to fill in between the posts, even if just for one game. It proved to be anything but one game, and by the end of his career he had accumulated exactly 1300 official matches in that position.
Without gloves or knee-pads, and now in Sao Paulo, he started at Atletico Ypiranga in 1942. His displays caught the eye of the top local teams, but only two years later would he make the step up with Rio de Janeiro outfit Vasco thanks in no small part to the guidance and support of mythical defender Domingos da Guia. In the club from Sao Januario he was a key player in a squad known as the “Victory Express”, winning the Rio de Janeiro Championship in 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950 and 1952.
Furthermore, Vasco were South American club champions in 1948, in Chile, overcoming the powerful River Plate “Machine” boasting names such as Pedernera, Labruna and Loustau, as well as a certain youngster called Alfredo Di Stefano. Barbosa kept a clean sheet, securing a 0-0 draw that won the trophy for Vasco.
It was not the only international triumph for the goalkeeper, who one year later would also make the saves that propelled Brazil to the Copa America, ending a 27-year wait. He played 22 times for Brazil, clocking up 16 wins, two draws and four defeats, resulting in a win-rate of over 77%.
Standing 5’10, Barbosa was not the most imposing of goalkeepers. He made up for it with his intelligence, good positioning - he always preferred to make the save as simple as possible - and elasticity when required. Nor was he lacking in courage - “He suffered a total of six fractures in his left hand, five in his right, as well as broken legs twice, in two different places,” recounts the book.
“He changed the way Brazilian goalkeepers played,” Carlos Alberto Cavalheiro said, an ex team-mate and fellow goalkeeper at Vasco. “In that era goalkeepers were practically restricted to the six-yard box. But he dominated to whole of the area. He would come out of goal to make saves with his feet, with his hands, any way he could, it didn’t matter. He was a trailblazer.”
As for his technical aptitude, his ability to grab the ball high up in the air with just one hand and capacity to palm it away, avoiding rebounds, also set him apart from the rest. Not to mention his goal kicks, which were powerful clearances that changed the flow of games and would delight the fans.
It all counted for nothing in the collective memory, however, after the encounter against Uruguay. Even in that match, during a poor first half from A Seleção, the goalkeeper had to work hard on several occasions to keep the scores level, which would have been sufficient for Brazil to be crowned champions.
The frustrated supporters deleted the great achievements of that generation from the memory banks. And the goalkeeper, especially, was given no chance of redemption. Competition from Gylmar dos Santos Neves and Castilho was fierce enough as it was, and a fractured leg suffered when playing for Vasco in 1953 put paid to his chances of playing in a second World Cup. Barbosa would play just one more game for Brazil after 1950.
As the team that provided the basis of A Seleção, Vasco went from being a team that was widely admired to one that was persecuted wherever it went. In Barbosa’s case, though, things went further. It was impossible to go to the shops or the cinema without it ending in a heated discussion. This only ended when he ostracised himself, working as a public employee in the very sports complex that accommodated the Maracana – but in the swimming pools.
When at his peak, the goalkeeper and his team-mates managed to grab a degree of solace in 1951, when they once again faced six of the Uruguayans from the World Cup winning team in two friendly matches against Penarol. Barbosa put in a stunning display between the sticks in Montevideo, and upon returning home the word “revenge” featured heavily in the newspaper headlines.
Curiously, it was not the only time the old adversaries came face to face again. Far from it. As if the magnitude of what happened in the Maracanazo had united them forever, a group of Brazilians and Uruguayans would regularly play against each other in the following years. They played together in charitable matches, in the two countries. In Uruguay, the captain Obdulio Varela made strenuous efforts to ensure their former opponents were received with the utmost respect. They almost never touched on old wounds.
“We became friends," Ghiggia said. "Sometimes they’d come to Montevideo and we’d get together with them. Sometimes we’d go there and get together with them. It’s remarkable, isn’t it? When I tell people that they don’t believe me."
Ironically, it was on the shoulders of his foes that Barbosa was able to draw some comfort, because it was never forthcoming in Brazil. At least the goalkeeper never felt it. In an interview given to TV Cultura in 1993 he said: “The longest sentence you can get in Brazil is 30 years. I think I’ve served 13 years extra.” He would “serve” another seven until he passed away in 2000, at 79 years of age, without ever having healed the wound inflicted 50 years earlier.