Barbosa-inspired Vasco become the maiden kings

Who was the best club side in South America?

It had long caused intense intrigue across the continent. The debate would finally be ended 65 years ago to this day.

The Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones – a precursor to the Copa Libertadores – unfolded in Santiago, Chile as a round-robin tournament featuring the supposed best team from seven different countries. The format left the drama-thirsty fans a touch disappointed they wouldn’t see a final. Yet they would – effectively at least – and it was the one all the neutrals wanted to see: River Plate versus Vasco da Gama.

La Maquina (The Machine), as the Argentinians’ attack was referred to, boasted rare geniuses Feliz Loustau, Angel Labruna and Jose Manuel Moreno, and an even rarer one in 21-year-old Alfredo Di Stefano. Together, they had thundered River to the previous year’s Primera Division title, scoring 90 goals in 30 games in the process.

O Expresso da Vitória (The Victory Express), as Vasco’s breathtaking side was then known, had won its place in the Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones due to going unbeaten en route to the most recent Campeonato Carioca crown. That team, which would form the base of Brazil’s 1950 FIFA World Cup™ squad, was highlighted by goalkeeper Barbosa, elegant playmaker Danilo, rocket-unleashing winger Chico, cerebral attacker Friaca and the monotonously prolific striker Ademir de Menezes.

Vasco, having accrued a point more than River, required just a draw from the teams' final game, but a majority felt that would be beyond them for various reasons. The Brazilian national team had not won the South American Championship – a precursor to the Copa America – since 1922, during which time Argentina had been crowned eight times. Moreover, Vasco would be without star man Ademir due to injury, while coach Flavio Costa surprisingly dropped Ramon Rafagnelli because he didn’t have confidence in starting the formidable Argentinian – presumably because he would be up against his compatriots and former club.

The first-half was a pulsating, end-to-end affair. Barbosa pulled off several brilliant saves, particularly from Di Stefano and Loustau, while River keeper Hector Grisetti displayed equally superb reflexes to deny a Chico thunderbolt and a Friaca free-kick. But the pick of the bunch was Barbosa’s repelling of Labruna’s penalty, which ensured that, somehow, a shot-crazy period finished goalless.

The opportunities continued to flow following the restart, but Barbosa and Grisetti continued to frustrate – and when they didn’t, the woodwork behind them did. When a Barbosa-initiated counter-attack culminated with Chico rippling the net, Vasco thought they had done it only for an offside flag to disappoint them.

There was more bad news for the Brazilians. Maneca and Wilson, who was having an inspired game marking Di Stefano, both sustained injuries that forced them to be substituted, while the talismanic Chico was sent off, along with River’s Mendez, after an altercation.

River, sensing their opponents were wounded, piled forward in search of a title-winning goal, and against any other goalkeeper Di Stefano, Ferrari, Moreno and Munoz would have all probably scored within the last five minutes. But 14 March 1948 belonged to Barbosa and Vasco.

Barbosa is, to many, remembered for his nadir: a mistake that allowed an Alcides Ghiggia strike to win Uruguay the FIFA World Cup on Brazilian soil. To Vascaínos, however, he remains the man most indebted for making them the maiden club champions of South America.