It is often said “you’re only as old as you feel” and that would appear to be case for Uruguayan legend Alcides Ghiggia, who is enjoying something of a second coming at the age of 87. “People still recognise me on the street, I’ve had tributes paid to me in my country and I’m feeling happy,” said a man who went down in FIFA World Cup™ history in 1950 when scoring the winner in the final match against the host nation, in front of over 170,000 spectators in the Maracana.
Six decades later and the only surviving participant of that historic clash returned to ‘enemy soil’ to take part in December's Final Draw for Brazil 2014, just days after a tribute was paid to him by his countrymen in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario. Up for discussion, in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, were these recent acts of recognition, La Celeste’s 1950 heroics and Uruguay’s chances at this June/July’s showpiece.
FIFA.com: What’s your verdict on Uruguay’s travails in Brazil 2014 qualifying?
Alcides Ghiggia: I wasn’t happy about it. We lost so many points at home, crucial points, and we ended up having to fight it out for a [World Cup] place with a team [Jordan] that have never been a force on the world stage. We beat them 5-0 away, but we couldn’t beat them at home. That’s Uruguay in a nutshell.
La Celeste also needed an Intercontinental play-off to reach South Africa 2010, only to go on and finish fourth. Could the same thing happen again?
Winning our opening [Group D] game [against Costa Rica] will be vital, as that would give us fresh momentum going into our second match [versus England]. And there also needs to be changes on the playing side, we need some younger footballers brought in. Some of the guys there now are at an age when they shouldn’t be in the national squad any more. Let’s see what the coach [Oscar Tabarez] does. Everyone knows how Uruguay play now, which will make things pretty difficult. It’ll be make or break.
For you personally, how does it feel to be back in Brazil?
It’s like a second home to me. There comes a point when people realise who I am and want to have a photo taken with me or get my autograph. That shows how much they [the Brazilian people] value me as a person. Every time I come back it makes me feel very happy.
Would you class that decisive win in 1950 as the greatest feat in World Cup history?
Well, it was a real feat, because no other host nation had ever lost in a World Cup Final before then (Editor’s note: Brazil-Uruguay was the final game of the four-game mini-league that decided Brazil 1950). That was the first time and, what’s more, I was fortunate enough to score a goal. What I always say is that only three people have ever been able to silence the Maracana: the Pope, Frank Sinatra and me. The stadium went totally quiet, you couldn’t hear a sound.
Sixty-four years have now gone by, but do you still vividly remember that winning goal from 16 July 1950?
Of course. Their keeper Barbosa thought I was going to do the same thing as for our first goal, when I cut the ball back [for Juan Schiaffino to make it 1-1]. So, he made a move and left me a gap. I was on the run and had to make up my mind in a matter of seconds. I shot at goal and in it went, between the post and the keeper. I can still remember how I thought about my family, my friends and how my team-mates all came to hug me. I’d given my country something to celebrate, though I also brought sadness to Brazil.
What was the mood in the stands after the final whistle?
You could see people crying. Even though we were happy to have won the game, once you looked into the crowd you couldn’t help but feel sad! People were crying inconsolably, you know? But football’s like that, you win some you lose some. In Brazil they thought the game was won before it was played, the newspaper headlines were already written, saying “Brazil are world champions”, with just the score to be added later. But it all turned out differently. (Smiles)
There are a lot of myths about that game, one of which goes that Charrúa skipper Obdulio Varela said “Los de afuera son de palo y en el campo seremos once para once” (Forget about everybody else, on the pitch we’ll be 11 versus 11). Was that really the case?
That came about because on the Saturday evening three Uruguay directors went to speak to Obdulio, [Roque] Maspoli and [Schubert] Gambetta, who were our oldest and most experienced guys. They told them we’d done enough already, that we should just try to behave ourselves well out on the pitch, not cause any trouble and that we should be happy to lose by three or four goals. We only found out about that in the tunnel on the way to the pitch. Obdulio stopped us, told us what had gone on and that phrase was born.
Another story goes that some of the players went out for a few drinks after the game, where they ended up commiserating with Brazilian fans. Is that true?
Again, it was Obdulio who went out. He just went for a beer at a bar round the corner from the hotel. The Brazilian fans there recognised him and hugged him and everything, even though they were in tears. He himself told us what happened. And he also told me that ‘I didn’t pay for a drink either!’ (Laughs)
How important was Varela to the team?
As a captain, he was quite severe. Us younger guys didn’t use the (informal) ‘tú’ form with him, we used to use say ‘yes, Obdulio sir’. And out on the pitch he was like a coach, he’d tell you what to do. But he was very friendly with it and got on well with all the players.
Do any modern-day players remind you of him?
No, there’s nobody like him – the game’s played differently now. If your team plays good football then people come and watch and if they don’t the fans stay away. And that’s what’s happening in Uruguay, where the football’s not very entertaining. Players used to be more intelligent, sparkier. Now I watch teams get close to the opposition box and pass the ball 15 or 20 metres backwards. You don’t see many dribblers, many lively players nowadays, you know? Football’s changed a lot.
On 20 November last year, a tribute was paid to you prior to the Intercontinental play-off second leg against Jordan in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario. Do you see it as justice being done for you and your team-mates?
Definitely. In my country, what we achieved in 1950 was hailed for a year or two, then faded somewhat. And sometimes all you have left are people’s memories, or what’s in the minds of young people who weren’t alive at the time but were told the stories by their dads or their uncles. It’s something that keeps you going, because you can’t live on memories alone. It was really beautiful and emotional when the goal was replayed on the stadium’s giant screen and everybody cheered. It was the first time something like that was done in Uruguay. Look, I’ve travelled a lot around the world and I’ve had more recognition from other countries than my own, which is why it made me very pleased.
Had it been a while since you’d watched that goal?
At home I’ve got three CDs with commentaries of the goal from three Uruguayan radio commentators from the time, but my wife doesn’t let me listen to them because she says they make me upset. And I tell her ‘What do you want from me?’ - I was young once. I won a World Cup, I scored a goal: it was phenomenal. But as the years go by the more sentimental you get about it. So it makes you sad, you know? You get tears in your eyes.
How do you think you’re remembered from your playing days?
A lot of different ways. I’m remembered as a hero, some call me ‘Maestro’. I tell them I’m no maestro, I’m just like everybody else. I was fortunate enough to play football, score a goal in the final [game] of a World Cup and that’s it – I’m not from another planet. But there’s nothing you can do to stop people praising you, hugging you… it’s really lovely, a lovely feeling.
What has football meant to your life?
It’s been like a bride to me: you see it, you fall in love and you get married. That’s how much it means to me. You have to get to know the ball, handle it well. It’s what you love most.
With the World Cup in Brazil just months away, would you like to be a 20-year-old again to have the chance to be involved?
I’d love Brazil and Uruguay to meet in the Final again, so that I could watch it as a Uruguay fan this time. I’ve already been involved, now I’d like to experience it as a fan. But you never know what’ll happen over there, how the games will play out. Let’s see what happens.
What would you give to see La Celeste win the world title again in the same stadium you did 64 years ago?
What would I give? I don’t know, I’d give my life to see Uruguay as world champions.