Following the altogether more serious competition that had raged across the globe from 1939 to 1945, football’s World Cup finally got itself back on the road in 1950, the competition reverting to alternate hosting between Europe and the Americas with a trip to Brazil, the host nation quite naturally being favourites to take the title, a position strengthened when the vagaries of local politics saw Argentina withdraw from participation..
The scientific and technological advances that had come through wartime meant that long distance air travel was now altogether easier and more comfortable and that, combined with a post-war determination to return to normality and to achieve a global solidarity meant that far more nations than ever from all around the world were willing to compete, although Germany and Japan were not considered for entry while the bulk of the Iron Curtain countries withdrew before qualification.
From a domestic viewpoint, the home nations finally deigned to take part in qualification, FIFA bending over backwards to help by giving two places to the 1949/50 Home Internationals, making it all but a foregone conclusion that England and Scotland would succeed. However, before a ball was kicked, the SFA decreed that they would only travel to Brazil if they won the group. They kicked off by beating Ireland 8-2 in Belfast and then beat Wales 2-0 at Hampden, England achieving similar results with a 4-1 win in Cardiff before thrashing Ireland 9-2 at Maine Road. Top two places were thus guaranteed but because of Scotland’s declaration, the finale at Hampden in April 1950 took on yet greater significance than normal. The only goal of the game came in the 63rd minute and it went England’s way, registered by Chelsea’s Roy Bentley. FIFA again extended an invitation to Scotland following the defeat, but the head f the SFA, George Graham, refused to climb down from his position and the Scots did not travel. It’s unlikely he’d be quite so picky these days.
The French also withdrew after qualifying, attacking the amount of travelling that would be required to complete their group schedule and India also chose not to travel, ostensibly because they would not be allowed to play in bare feet. So it was that, after all the high hopes of this being a tournament that would unite the world, only 13 sides eventually assembled in Brazil, England the only World Cup virgins.
That left a lopsided opening format of four groups, two of four teams, one of three and another of two, the winners of each to prpgress. That one game group had a lopsided scoreline to match, Uruguay despatching Bolivia with no trouble at all, 8-0.
The holders, Italy, found themselves grouped with Sweden and Paraguay and in spite of taking the lead in their first game against the Swedes, by the game’s end, the Jules Rimet trophy had been all but prised from their grasp. When the Swedes drew 2-2 with Paraguay, Italy were out, their only duty to give Paraguay a proper game in the final group encounter to prevent them toppling Sweden. This they duly did, winning 2-0, Sweden progressing at the expense of an Italian shattered both by war and by the tragedy of the air crash that wiped out Torino, taking four internationals with them.
Host nation Brazil had the misfortune to find themselves in a four team group, but they started in imperious fashion, defeating Mexico 4-0 in their opener but Yugoslavia gave a statement f their own intent in beating the Swiss 3-0. When Brazil were held to a 2-2 draw by Switzerland in their next game, the Yugoslavs drove home their advantage by hammering Mexico 4-1, meaning that Brazil would have to defeat them in the final game to avoid the ignominy of going out of their own World Cup at the first hurdle. In front of an estimated crowd of 142,000 at the Maracana Stadium, Ademir gave Brazil the best of starts with a fourth minute opener, Zizinho securing their passage in the 69th minute.
Which left the group of England, Spain, Chile and the USA. If the Scots had shown unwarranted chauvinism in passing up a chance to compete, England’s imperious attitude was little better. They’d set out the first three tournaments, seeing no need to venture abroad to prove that they were the greatest team in the world. They headed to Brazil with home supporters fully anticipating their return with a golden trophy but as we know, life is seldom that straightforward, especially given the shambolic preparations and that the team was in a period of transition, no longer the conquering force that had beaten Italy 4-0 in Turin in 1948, but a side that was going through changes with only four survivors of that win lining up against Chile in the opening fixture. On arriving in Brazil, the great Tom Finney realised there might be trouble ahead.
“It was a big ambition to take part in the World Cup, something entirely new for us, and for it to be held in South America just made it more exciting. Nobody knew much about it, it wasn’t like now when everybody takes part, it was our first time. We were rated pretty highly, but all we knew about South American sides was what we’d read in magazines. It was a real eye-opener to go across to Brazil. It was a laughable really before the World Cup, it took two days to travel there and we arrived a few days before we played our first game! Now they’d be there a fortnight to acclimatise. We found it very hard to play in temperatures of 90 degrees having come from a mild English summer, among mad keen supporters, a completely different environment to what we were used to. The altitude was a problem and we even had oxygen masks at half time, which was completely foreign to us! Arsenal and Southampton had gone out there since the war on club tours and came back with reports on how skilful, fit and strong these players were, but we didn’t know much more than that. We saw the opening game with Brazil and saw incredible skills, I was in awe of what we’d seen. It gave us an indication of just how good they were, when prior to that the general feeling had been that Europe reigned supreme, and that England would do really well in 1950.”
That opener against Chile was the worst game England could have had, Chile just lambs to the slaughter, Stan Mortensen and Wilf Mannion scoring in the most routine of 2-0 victories as Spain were similarly dismissing the USA 3-1, suggesting that all would hinge on the final game between England Spain. Before then, there was the little matter of beating the USA, a ragbag of migrants from all over the world, captain Eddie McIllvenny a Scot who had played for Wrexham early in his career. An unchanged England side was named in spite of Matthews’ availability, suggesting that England were not complacent, a sentiment Tom Finney echoes: “We didn’t take it easy, it was just one of those games where you can’t score, a freak result, in the sense that we could have played them another ten times and won every one. Possibly with 2-3-5, our forwards weren’t as clinical as we needed to be, because in England there were always chances coming along. You got far fewer in internationals. We did the same against Spain, though Jackie Milburn had a goal ruled out for offside, even though he shot past their full-back standing on the line! But it was a catastrophe. We were a laughing stock, the press were very critical, you just couldn’t take it in that you’d lost to the USA, you just wanted to get home and forget all about it. But I’m still asked to explain it nearly sixty years later!”
As happens so often in the FA Cup, the more fancied side were brought down to earth by awkward conditions acting as a leveller between the teams, the Belo Horizonte ground hardly measuring up to the Maracana. Equally, the American side was far more capable than many have suggested, certainly their best team until the 1994 series. Finney is right in calling the game a freak, but equally, he was realistic enough to see it as a symptom of English decline: “The whole tournament brought us down to earth and made us realise we had to think a bit more about this game, that other sides had studied it and were more advanced than we were, not just in the systems but in individual play because there were some outstanding technical players. We had a lot to learn. Nowhere near the thought went into defending in this country as went into attacking. We stood still while others progressed, we kept thinking we were the best but we weren’t. It still happens, especially in the press. Obviously you ride your luck but to the press, all that matters is the result, and that stops you learning.”
As it was, the World Cup wasn’t yet over, even after the American defeat. A win over Spain would mean a play-off and possible qualification. Changes were made, Matthews, Baily, Milburn and Eckersley replacing Mullen, Mannion, Bentley and Aston. But morale had been shattered in Belo Horizonte and it was beyond Winterbottom and Wright to turn things around. Once Milburn had that goal disallowed in the 14th minute, it seemed the writing was on the wall and the players could do little but accept their fate. Billy Wright later argued that “the English team that sunny June afternoon played some of the finest football I have seen from our National team…the Spaniards for all their pushing, shoving and shirt-pulling, seemed to have little answer to our constructive football”, but that seemed to be putting more than a little spin on events. Certainly England could have won, but once again, they didn’t. The country that had given the world its game was now a second class citizen.
Spain’s 1-0 win completed the list of qualifiers, joining Uruguay, Brazil and Sweden in the final stages. But these were not semi-finals. Instead, for the first and only team, the World Cup would be decided by a final group round robin stage.
In order to avoid anyone claiming an advantage, each round of two games kicked off simultaneously and by the end of the first round of games, the home nation was in the throes of ecstasy after Brazil had thrashed Sweden 7-1, Ademir helping himself to four more goals. The Maracana was happier yet when news filtered through that Spain and Uruguay had fought themselves to a standstill and drawn 2-2. The cup was Brazil’s to win.
There was not a hint of any nerves in the next game as they crushed more European opposition, Spain wilting in front of 153,000 in the Maracana, losing 6-1. The other game, in Sao Paulo, was rather lower key, just 8,000 in attendance as Sweden and Uruguay met. Sweden were looking for some consolation and were 2-1 up at the break, and still a goal to the good with 13 minutes to go. Had the result stayed that way, Brazil would have been all but anointed, but the Uruguayans would not give up and two late goals from Miguez set up a grand finale against the hosts.
In what was effectively the third place play-off game, Sweden defeated Spain 3-1 in Sao Paulo while 200,000 were packed into the Maracana to see Brazil just needing to avoid defeat to win the cup, the convoluted complexion of the competition somehow delivering up a World Cup final of sorts.
When Brazil took the lead through Friaca early in the second half, it seemed the die was cast given that Uruguay had to win the game. Oddly though, that gave them the freedom to simply pour forward and embrace history, the players drawing on their pre-match team talk when copies of a local paper depicting the Brazilian team as “World Champions” were brought into the dressing room for the players to relieve themselves upon, skipper Varela then delivering an impassioned speech that they must take the game to the feted Brazilians. Varela was the key man through the game, protesting so vigorously that Friaca’s goal was offside that an interpreter had to be called before play could be restarted, Varela deliberately looking to take the sting out of the game. At the kick-off, he exhorted his players, “Now it’s time to win!”
Putting the hosts on the back foot, Schiaffino equalised in the 66th minute and 13 minutes later, Ghiggia hurtled down the right before smashing in what proved to be the winner. The Maracana was in shock, Jules Rimet calling the silence, “Morbid, sometimes too difficult to bear”. Uruguay were the champions of the world for a second time and Brazil would need to wait a little longer for their first crown, the defeat having one sartorial legacy that would transform our view of Brazil forever. Gone forever was the white kit with blue neckline and in came the canary yellow shirts that would go on to dominate and encapsulate all that was greatest about the beautiful game. But in 1950, the game belonged to Uruguay.