Alcides Ghiggia was worn out. His team-mates kept sending the ball long and the man on the wing was growing frustrated. Half-time arrived, with time for rest and refreshment – and some advice. “Tell Julio Perez to play the ball to my feet,” Ghiggia asked Juan Lopez.
The coach duly spoke up and it was not long before a precisely weighted pass brought a run and a lay-off for Schiaffino to level the scores. Next, with the ball played to feet once again, another run and a low drive made it 2-1 to silence some 200,000 stunned Brazilians. And back in Uruguay, thousands of new-born boys were soon to be proudly named after the country’s latest hero: Alcides Edgardo.
Ghiggia, who was just 23 and had only been wearing the iconic Celeste jersey for four months, helped bring about one of the most spectacular feats in the history of the FIFA World Cup™: El Maracanazo. Thus became known Uruguay’s victory in the final game of the 1950 tournament over firm favourites and hosts Brazil, who had gone 1-0 up and needed just a draw to be crowned champions - only to end up defeated and in despair.
In a team full of talent and tenacity in equal measures, featuring Odbulio Varela, Roque Maspoli and Juan Schiaffino, among others, Ghiggia was the shining star. Indeed, when newspaper El Observador once asked Schiaffino what had been the determining factor against the Brazilians, “Ghiggia”, came the reply. “He was brilliant, his play was decisive.” Uruguay played four matches in that World Cup and El Fantasma (The Ghost), as he has been dubbed in Brazil, scored in each one.
With his chiselled good looks, lothario’s moustache, long legs and robust torso, Ghiggia terrorised his markers with his trademark swerve, technique, speed and courage. Legend has it that after the second goal against Brazil, coach Lopez asked the winger to help out in defence and forget about going forward, only for his pleas to be ignored. “That madman wanted to score a third,” Lopez is claimed to have said.
That ambition stayed with him for his entire career, from the beginnings at Sudamerica to his farewell at Danubio, when he said goodbye at the age of 42. Perhaps that fire was lit in 1930. Ghiggia, born on December 22, 1926, was very young when Uruguay won their first World Cup, but as he grew up – in a rigid but traditional patriarchal family, typical of the time – he heard the legendary stories of the very first world champions.
And even though he started out playing basketball, football was Ghiggia’s love, and he eventually followed his heart. So in 1946, he abandoned his studies and signed up with Sudamerica.
A year later, Buenos Aires' side Atlanta took him for a trial and he played with Adolfo Pedernera, one of the greatest players he ever saw, but the club ultimately decided against signing him. So he returned to Uruguay and the club supported by his mother Gregoria, Penarol, and began to show what he did best: taunt defences and set up goals.
His stride was so long, he was a greyhound. He was almost impossible to stop and he had enormous courage. There has never been another winger like him.
That is how he made his name in the unforgettable Escuadrilla de la Muerte quintet that any Penarol fan since 1949 can reel off: Ghiggia, Oscar Migues, Ernesto Vidal, Juan Alberto Schiaffino and Juan Hohberg. It is also how he won a place in the Uruguayan national team and how he became a world star when, in 1953, he was the first big signing for a post-war Roma side.
A punch on the referee in a Penarol-Nacional derby in 1952 was another factor in his move to Europe, as it brought a 15-month suspension in Uruguay. His strong character did at times reveal a less friendly side, but the 55,000 fans who went to witness his Roma debut did not seem to care much about that. And as always, Ghiggia kept his eyes on the pitch and away from the stands, so as not to be overcome by emotion.
Ghiggia lived life at high speed in Rome. On the right wing, in any of his three Alfa Romeo cars and with the Italian women. “He was very farfallone – a real charmer with the ladies – but he had a big heart and was exceptionally generous,” former team-mate Giacomo Losi once recalled.
In Rome, Ghiggia became an idol but in terms of silverware won only one Fairs Cup. He later claimed the Scudetto in his only year at AC Milan, although he played just five matches. At 37 and ready to retire, he returned to Uruguay and embarked on a tour of the country alongside other revered veterans in friendly matches to raise funds for a children’s hospital.
And it was then that Danubio directors tempted him to extend his career. His love for the game convinced him to continue playing and Ghiggia carried on for almost five more years.
After his retirement, he coached for several months and subsequently worked as a public inspector for the Montevideo Casino for many years, in a post given to him by the Uruguayan government. Today, having miraculously recovered from a traffic accident which left him in a coma, he is now the sole survivor of the Maracanazo.
What is more, he is still able to recall every image from that momentous match, although he no longer listens to the radio reports of the game he has kept ever since. That is because, despite his tough character on the pitch, the experience has become far too emotional, even for Alcides Edgardo Ghiggia.
Did You Know?
The only four goals Ghiggia scored for Uruguay all came at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
Ghiggia also played for the Italian national team. He took part in qualifying for Sweden 1958, but the Azzurri were knocked out after a notorious defeat against Northern Ireland in Belfast. It remains the only time Italy have failed to successfully make it through a FIFA World Cup qualifying phase.
Ghiggia’s current wife is 45 years younger than him. They met while he was giving her lessons at a driving school where he was working in 1996.
Ghiggia was not a prolific scorer, though his strikes did tend to come in a similar fashion: a run down the right followed not by a cross, but a shot at goal. At Brazil 1950, he found the net like this against both Spain and the hosts while, when playing at club level for Roma, his only goal in the derby versus Lazio was also very similar.