Goalkeeper who made a mistake his nation never forgave or forgot. In the late 1940s Moacir Barbosa, was arguably the best goalkeeper in the world. Yet he became synonymous with the most famous error in Brazilian football history.
The date is still etched on the country’s collective consciousness: July 16, 1950. Brazil were playing Uruguay in the World Cup final. Rio de Janeiro’s grand Maracanã stadium was crammed with almost 200,000 fans – an attendance never equalled.
Midway through the second half, with the score at 1-1, the Uruguayan Alcides Gigghia slipped past Bigode on the right wing and shot at goal. Barbosa, expecting him to cross, was caught off guard. The ball hit the back of the net, silencing the crowd and giving an unexpected victory to Uruguay.
It was a national humiliation. Not only had they lost to their local rivals, but they had lost at home in a purpose-built stadium whose vastness was supposed to underline the nation’s footballing greatness. Brazil had to wait another eight years before they eventually won a World Cup.
Barbosa was made the scapegoat. His career never recovered and he carried the weight of the blame for the rest of his life. “Under Brazilian law the maximum sentence is 30 years. But my imprisonment has been for 50 years,” he commented on his 79th birthday, a fortnight ago.
Barbosa was never allowed to forget the match, which showed an ugly side to Brazil’s passion for football. He told a documentary that the saddest moment of his life was not Gigghia’s goal, but a comment he overheard at a market 20 years later. A woman pointed at him and said to the boy with her: “Look at him, son. He is the man that made all of Brazil cry.”
Even fellow professionals were unable to forgive him. When, in 1993, he went to visit the training camp where Brazil was preparing for the 1994 World Cup, he was not allowed to meet the players. One of the coaches, the eternally superstitious Mario Zagallo, said that Barbosa might bring bad luck to the team.
One sportswriter wrote that he was the victim of the largest injustice in footballing history. “If I didn’t learn to stop getting annoyed when people spoke of the goal, I’d be in jail or in the cemetery by now,” said Barbosa recently. “People forget that in [the World Cups of] 1974 and 1978 there were worse humiliations. And what about the embarrassment of France in 1988? But people still prefer to talk about 1950.”
Barbosa was born in Campinas, in the south-eastern state of São Paulo. After playing for local teams he was transferred to Vasco da Gama in Rio, where he stayed for 14 years. He was the first black goalkeeper to have a solid career in the national squad. The colour of his skin is thought by many to have been a decisive factor in the antipathy felt towards him – in 1950, Brazilian football had not grown out of its racist past.
Barbosa retired from football at the age of 42. He worked in administration at the Maracanã for more than two decades. When he retired from his second career he moved to Praia Grande, on the São Paulo coast. His wife of 50 years, Clotilde, died of bone marrow cancer in 1997 and he struggled to make ends meet until Vasco da Gama heard of his situation and gave him £700 a month, which meant that he could rent his own flat.
He lived on his own, had no children and was not in contact with his few relatives. After the death of Clotilde he had been helped out by a friend, Teresa Borba. She said: “He even cried on my shoulder. Until the end he used to always say: ‘I’m not guilty. There were 11 of us.'”
Moacir Barbosa, goalkeeper, born March 27 1921; died April 7 2000