Not his country's keeper -- the tale of Moacyr Barbosa

This story appears in the ESPN FC World Cup preview. Order your copy here.

“Look, my son,” the mother said, walking into a bar, Barbosa’s local bar, in Rio de Janeiro. The mother pointed at the old goleiro on his stool as though Barbosa were an animal in a cage.

Barbosa minded his business. He’d been through this before. He knew what people thought of him. He wasn’t human anymore, they allowed him no dignity, he was Brazil’s living tragedy. Barbosa would shrink into his cachaça, the events of 1950 returning, often when he had just pushed them from his mind.

“Do you see this man here?” the mother asked her son. “He was the one who brought all of Brazil to tears.”

Something caused Barbosa to turn and regard the boy standing before him. This breaks my heart, he thought. A kid who has never watched the game. This will go on from father to son, and I will never be free. In the penal code, the maximum penalty is 30 years. In Brazil, I am condemned forever.

Barbosa didn’t talk about 1950 much, just now and again. In "Barbosa: A Goal That Lasts for 50 Years", published in 2000, he shared his thoughts with author Roberto Muylaert. In the last year of his life, Barbosa visited the ESPN studios in São Paulo and spoke a little more. Even after 50 years, there was plenty to tell, but it all resounded with one note: He could never escape the 1950 World Cup, when all of Brazil hung its devastation on his shoulders.

A goalie has to be perfect. For Moacyr Barbosa, that was never truer than on July 16, 1950. He needed to concentrate now, and for the next 90 minutes. Barbosa focused on the flag that was being raised across Maracanã, the largest stadium in the world. He was 29, at the apex of his training and conditioning. He strained his eyes, trying to read the words rippling in the breeze. “Order and Progress,” it said -- what Brazil had always wanted for itself, what had always eluded it.

In 1950, Brazil was not yet the team of modern fable, the champion of five World Cups, more than any other country. In 1950, the Seleção Brasileira had yet to win a Cup. This was Brazil’s opportunity, and victory was all but assured. Brazil had dismantled Sweden and Spain in the final round, outscoring them 13-2. In a 13-team contest with no knockout round and teams advancing on points, Brazil needed only a tie against Uruguay, which had scraped by with a close win and a tie. This final match against an appendage territory Brazil had once possessed? A mere formality.

During the playing of the national anthems, an Uruguayan player wet himself. Barbosa didn’t notice. Instead, he watched the Brazilian flag ascend the pole and thought to himself, Does anyone else swimming in this ocean of people see what I see, or is this message meant for only me?
At Brazil’s national moment, its flag hung upside down.

Barbosa didn't possess the ideal dimensions for a goalie, standing just 5-feet-8.5-inches. With Rio’s Vasco da Gama, one of Brazil’s elite teams, he plied his craft in an unorthodox fashion. Goalies of the 1940s stood beneath the crossbar, moving laterally, rarely advancing beyond the goal line. Given his size, Barbosa realized he couldn’t wait passively for a shot, then rise to defend it. Instead, he ventured beyond the goal, anticipating play.

When a shot came, Barbosa would spring into action. He perfected a move by which he leaped across the goalmouth for a shot, reaching with his opposite hand for the onrushing ball. His arm would cross his body and stretch over his head. In this way, Barbosa used momentum, hurling himself at a ball, shifting his entire weight from one side of the goal to the other. Those who watched Barbosa used the same adjective time and again: elastic.

There was excitement in Barbosa’s play, and something dangerous. Soccer in Brazil had always been the province of the upper class. Afro-Brazilian players dotted rosters, but the soccer establishment preferred a more conservative approach: the play of white goaltenders. The model was Oberdan Cattani, the tall, barrel-chested goalie for Palmeiras, champions of the São Paulo league. Oberdan didn’t run all over the field—he wasn’t elastic. He didn’t need to be. Oberdan was fundamentally sound, the best goalie in Brazil.

In 1945, Barbosa was a backup, understudy to Oberdan, on the Seleção. But before a match with Argentina, Oberdan was injured and Barbosa took the field. The Afro-Brazilian goalie allowed two goals in the first half, so the hobbled Oberdan completed the match. Barbosa’s play confirmed what most believed: that a black player of elasticity could never be the steady Brazilian goleiro.

Flavio Costa, the coach of both the Seleção and Vasco da Gama, believed differently. He gave Barbosa another chance, and Vasco took the Rio championship in 1947, 1949 and 1950. In 1948, Vasco won the world’s first continental club championship in Santiago, with Barbosa preserving a scoreless tie. Costa didn’t mind that his goalie was unorthodox, and when the World Cup opened in Rio de Janeiro in 1950, the savior of Santiago was in goal for Brazil.

Government offices decreed July 16 an optional workday. Shops shuttered throughout Rio. The newspaper O Mundo printed the Seleção team picture beneath the headline: “These are the world champions.” Jules Rimet, the 76-year-old FIFA president and namesake of the World Cup trophy from 1946 to 1970, had prepared a speech, in Portuguese, to give at the awarding of the World Cup. He had neglected to pen anything in Spanish.

Maracanã was built to hold 155,000 people, but the crowd sat on slabs of concrete, not seats, which allowed organizers to sell tickets beyond capacity. The attendance for the game was reported as high as 199,854, but that’s likely an underestimation. To this day, it’s the largest crowd ever to watch a soccer game.

In the locker room before the game, the mayor of Rio, Angelo Mendes de Morais, interrupted preparations to finalize details of the victory parade. He addressed the team: “I fulfilled my promises to build this stadium. Now do your duty: Win the World Cup!”

Through 45 minutes, Barbosa was perfect, but the crowd had grown unsettled. The score was 0-0. The mayor’s demand came back to Barbosa at halftime. That weighs heavily on us all, he thought. As if we don’t want the championship ourselves.

In the second minute of the second half, it looked as though the Seleção might have it. Friaca, a striker, placed the ball inside the left post of the Uruguayan goal to put Brazil up 1-0.

But in the 66th minute, it was Uruguay’s turn. Winger Alcides Ghiggia dashed past the Brazilian defense and entered the box as forward Juan Alberto Schiaffino streaked toward the goal. Ghiggia passed to Schiaffino, who drilled it over Barbosa’s outstretched arm. The game was tied. In the 79th minute, Ghiggia broke free again, and Schiaffino raced to the goal. The play has to go to Schiaffino, Barbosa thought, just like before. Barbosa played the pass. Ghiggia shot instead. Barbosa dived to his left, but the elastic man was too late. Ghiggia later said, “Only three people have, with just one motion, silenced the Maracanã: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and me.”

In the days after the game, the newspapers of Rio and São Paulo searched for a scapegoat. “Barbosa, who had played so well at other times, failed in a defense in which any second-rate goalie would have succeeded,” wrote O Estado de S. Paulo. Public opinion quickly crystallized, but Barbosa wasn’t reading the papers or listening to the radio. He and his wife, Clotilde, camped out in their home. It took a teammate’s warning for him to hear the rumor: People were planning to burn down his house. He and Clotilde had to get out.

Barbosa caught a train to Itacuruçá, along the Atlantic coast. At the station, he bought a copy of Jornal dos Sports, then hid his face behind it once he boarded. As the train rolled west, Barbosa listened to two men discussing the loss. First, they focused their ire on Ghiggia. “He played free all the time,” the first man noted, asking why no Brazilian player had knocked the Uruguayan from his line.

“What about Barbosa?” countered the second. “He played like a little kid. On both goals. I could have played in that game with dress shoes on and I would have done a better job.”

Barbosa listened from behind his paper, afraid to be recognized.

“You know,” said the first man, “if I ever meet that black, I don’t know what I’ll do to him.”

Barbosa leaped from his seat. “Are you looking for me?” he yelled.

Just then, the train made a stop and the men hurriedly exited the car. But this was an omen. No matter how aggressively Barbosa confronted his antagonists, he’d never be able to subdue them. There were too many—the critics, the angry, the unhinged—projecting lasting frustrations onto the goalie. They were always around, in the stands at games, in the sports pages, on the sidewalks of Rio.

Barbosa would play just once more for the Seleção, in 1953, a 2-0 win over Ecuador. That year, as the Brazilian Football Confederation debated the World Cup roster, Barbosa suffered a broken leg in a Vasco match. It was convenient happenstance. “In 1954, people thought Barbosa was trash,” says Teixeira Heizer, a journalist who covered Barbosa in his day. “Nobody wanted to talk about him. Everyone in Brazil blamed Barbosa for the loss in 1950.”

Yet Barbosa forged ahead. That is, until a Sunday afternoon in 1962. Barbosa, then 41 and tending goal for Campo Grande, reached across the goalmouth to save a shot and felt his groin tear. The team trainer helped him off the field; the crowd of a few hundred stood and applauded. Barbosa looked around the sparse bleachers and thought, They are saying goodbye to a friend.

Barbosa left the game, but the game -- particularly that one in 1950 -- wouldn’t leave him. As he entered middle age, he became an easy target. People would point at him. They would snicker and whisper when they noticed him. Sometimes they would just say it: “You’re the one who let us all down.”

But Barbosa had his friends. One of them was Abelard Franca, head of Rio’s department of stadium management. Franca noticed how heavily Barbosa bore his cross, so in 1963, he gave Barbosa the cross itself, along with the two posts—the frame through which Ghiggia had scored the winning goal.

Barbosa went home and sawed the goalposts into small pieces. He soaked the wood in coal oil. He placed some pieces in his barbecue pit. He struck a match and lit up Rio with a bright flare. But if this was meant as exorcism, it hardly had any effect.

By the time Barbosa had retired from soccer, the Seleção had won two World Cups, in 1958 and 1962, and Pele was on his way to being known as the greatest athlete soccer had ever produced. Such international success only reinforced the magnitude of Brazil’s 1950 collapse. Barbosa continually replayed the moment in his mind, the shot he could never stop from going into the net.

I put myself in the best position for the most likely move, he would tell himself. I keep waiting for Ghiggia to take a step forward. He’ll surely make the same move as the first goal.

There was no work for Barbosa in soccer. He was bad luck, an outcast. So one day in 1963, he showed up at Maracanã and joined the staff. When the city built a pool on the grounds, Barbosa taught swimming to children. For more than 20 years, he returned day after day to the site of his defeat. Sometimes, during the city championship or an international friendly, when the crowd made the stadium come alive, Barbosa would wonder what it might’ve been like if Ghiggia had passed the ball.

Barbosa could have been the first prominent black player to win a World Cup for Brazil. But Ghiggia didn’t pass, so that honor went to another player, Pele, in another time. Instead of liberalizing attitudes, Barbosa’s play had the opposite effect. “After 1950, black players lost self-confidence,” says Heizer, the journalist. “They were afraid of being blamed, like Barbosa, for teams’ losses.”

In time, the ethnic makeup of the Brazilian national team began to reflect the country’s diversity, with one exception -- goleiro -- as if Barbosa had placed a hex on the position. Aside from one match in 1966, no black player occupied the goal for Brazil in a World Cup for more than half a century. But on June 13, 2006, the Seleção took the field against Croatia with Nelson de Jesus Silva, known as Dida, in goal. A star with AC Milan, Dida finally broke the taboo. Fifty-six years after Ghiggia’s goal, Brazil again had a black goalie.

In the early 1990s, Barbosa, now in his 70s, traveled to Granja Comary, the training facility for the Seleção. The national team was preparing for the 1994 World Cup. Barbosa arrived to pay the team a visit, common practice in a country where former players routinely mingle with current stars. But when he appeared at the gate, the security guards radioed their superior, waiting for the order. Barbosa was not allowed inside. “It was a form of brutality when he was turned aside,” Heizer said. It had been more than 40 years since the loss to Uruguay, but Barbosa was still ostracized.

Barbosa had little reason to stay in Rio. He was tired of being recognized. So in 1994, he found an apartment in the coastal town of Praia Grande, a couple of blocks from the beach. He and Clotilde survived on his Maracanã pension of 150 reals a month, about $150. Shortly after arriving, Clotilde died of cancer. They had no children. Barbosa was in the last chapter of his life, and he was alone but for his thoughts.

That disaster affected all of us. We didn’t deserve it.

Ghiggia thought wrong and ended up being right. I thought right and was wrong. But it doesn’t matter. Enough time has passed.

Some say I failed. If I failed or not, who’s going to turn back time now? No one.

There is an old man who says Barbosa wasn’t the one who failed. He lives on a quiet street in São Paulo. Inside, the kitchen is brightly lit. There sits Oberdan Cattani, age 94, born just 25 years after the father of Brazilian football, Charles Miller, imported the game from his English boarding school.

Cattani’s hair is vibrantly black, and a mustache sketches a dandy line across his upper lip, just as it did in the ’40s. He sits regally, stiffly, and he has the long arms and large hands of a goalie. He flexes his biceps, but Cattani has little more to give.

Questions come his way, about why Flavio Costa left him off the 1950 team, about Barbosa’s first game for the Seleção. He tries to respond. His lips flutter, but they make no sound. His daughter repeats the questions, speaking loudly so he can hear, then shaking her head when he appears not to understand.

Cattani speaks. The sound he makes is soft but clear. “Barbosa and I were friends,” he says. “When Palmeiras played Vasco, he was always the best player on the field.” The kitchen falls quiet. “It was much better when we played. It was beautiful.”

“I went to the match,” he continues, and by this he means Maracanã. “I cried all the way from Rio back to São Paulo.” Cattani’s voice trembles and is faint: “The defense failed. He wasn’t to blame -- not Barbosa.”

One day, as he walked along the tide in Praia Grande, someone called his name, but Barbosa didn’t react. By now, he was conditioned to ridicule -- 45 years of ridicule. But he heard it again: “Barbosa of Vasco!” Not Barbosa, the one who lost it all—Barbosa, the champion of Rio, the hero of Santiago.

The caller was Mauro Borba, a man who could recite the history of Vasco da Gama. In time, Borba and his wife, Tereza, who managed a bar on the beach, became close with the old goleiro. It was at their bar that Barbosa found his safe haven. Every day, he arrived at kiosk No. 79 to drink cachaça with Cynar and talk to those who gathered.

Barbosa had no daughter. Tereza had no father. On these terms, their paths merged. Tereza called him “my champion.” In time, Barbosa would call Tereza “my daughter.” He told her about his 50 years of condemnation. There hasn’t been one day of my life I haven’t had to explain myself. I alone wasn’t responsible for the defeat. But I’m going to die, and people will still be looking for a reason.

One hot summer afternoon, a couple took shelter in the shade of kiosk No. 79. The wife spotted Barbosa, turned to her husband and said, “This is the guy who lost the 1950 World Cup.” Tereza became enraged, but Barbosa, with relaxed charm, invited the couple for a caipirinha. In a quiet moment, he would tell Tereza not to worry.

1950 was the way I entered history, and I will never leave.

In 2000, Tereza threw Barbosa a 79th birthday party. She has the pictures: Barbosa, with his white hair, cachaça with Cynar in hand, surrounded by people who loved him. A week later, he died.

The sun shines at the Cemetery of the Grand Plain. Tereza walks along the rows of numbered vaults towering 20 feet into the sky. Some have nameplates. Along several vaults, someone has scrawled “not decomposed” into wet cement. It’s an eerie place of great loneliness. She turns down row 300 and stops before Barbosa’s finely kept granite vault. Its assigned number: 50.