Much has been made as Uruguay has progressed to the semifinal of the World Cup of its "garra," the grit or guts that supposedly sees them through when the pressure's on (although in the last 40 years it's been more about the toughness that leads them to brutal fouls than about heroic resistance). Never has that quality been more in evidence than in 1950 when it won its second World Cup.
Uruguay had been the great team of the 1920s, traveling to Paris in 1924 for the Olympic Games and writing one of the first great romantic stories of soccer. It was a team of workers, featuring a meat-packer, a marble-cutter, a grocer and an ice-salesman. It traveled to Europe in steerage, and, drawing some interest as the first South American team to play in Europe, played to pay for their board, winning nine friendlies in Spain before they even reached France.
Uruguay was the first Latin American side to tour Europe, but it attracted little attention -- at least initially -- only around 2,000 turning up to watch them eviscerate Yugoslavia 7-0 in their opening game in the Olympics. Word soon got around. "Game after game," the poet Eduardo Galeano wrote in Soccer in Sun and Shadow, "the crowd jostled to see those men, slippery as squirrels, who played chess with a ball. The English squad had perfected the long pass and the high ball, but these disinherited children from far-off America didn't walk in their father's footsteps. They chose to invent a game of close passes directly to the foot, with lightning changes in rhythm and high-speed dribbling."
La Celeste scored a total of 17 goals and conceded two in four games before the final in which it beat beating Switzerland 3-0. The reaction of the French essayist and novelist Henry de Montherlant was typical. "A revelation!" he wrote. "Here we have real football. Compared with this, what we knew before, what we played, was no more than a schoolboy's hobby." It went on to win the first World Cup in 1930, on home soil.
Uruguay didn't travel to Europe for the tournament in 1934 and 1938, but it made the short trip to Brazil in 1950. It got lucky in the first round, in which the withdrawals of Scotland and Turkey meant it had only Bolivia to beat to reach the final group pool. This was still a skilful Uruguay side, but it also had a toughness, physical and mental.
A draw against Spain and a win over Sweden meant Uruguay had to win its last match to be champions. Its opponents, Brazil, had won both its first two games in the final pool and required only a tie in front of an estimated crowd of over 200,000 in the Maracana. Most thought it was a foregone conclusion. The early editions of O Mundo on the day of the final even carried a team photograph of the Brazil side under the headline "These are the world champions." Obdulio Varela, Uruguay's captain, saw the newspaper on display at the newsstand in his hotel on the morning of the final, and was so enraged that he bought every copy they had, took them back to his room, laid them out on his bathroom floor and encouraged his teammates to urinate on them. That was garra.
Before the game, as the players waited to take the field, Angelo Mendes de Moraes, the state governor of Rio de Janeiro, gave an address in which he hailed, "You Brazilians, whom I consider victors of the tournament ... You players who in less than a few hours will be acclaimed champions by millions of your compatriots ... You who have no equals in the terrestrial hemisphere ... You who are so superior to every other competitor.... You whom I already salute as conquerors." Julio Perez, Uruguay's inside-right, was so overwhelmed by nerves that he wet himself during the anthems. That wasn't garra, but playing superbly afterwards was.
Uruguay's coach, Juan Lopez, had seen how Switzerland had unsettled Brazil in the first group stage with their verrou (bolt) system, dropping deep behind the ball when out of possession with a libero sweeping behind the back line. The war had cut Uruguay off from tactical developments in Europe, but Lopez liked what he saw, realized the formation's effectiveness and instructed the fullback Matias Gonzalez to stay deep, almost as a sweeper, which meant that Eusebio Tejera, the other fullback, became effectively a center back. The two wing-halves, Schubert Gambetta and Victor Andrade, were set to man-mark the Brazilian wingers, Chico and Albino Friaca, while Varela and the two inside-forwards played deeper than usual in what was essentially a forerunner of a modern 4-3-3.
Brazil, subdued rather than neutralized, started well, but they couldn't find an opener. Jair hit the post while Roque Maspoli, in the journalist Brian Glanville's words, "performed acrobatic prodigies in goal" and, after 28 minutes, Varela punched Bigode, Brazil's left back. Both players agree it was barely more than a tap, but in the mythology of the game it was at that moment that the fear enveloped Bigode, at that moment that he became "a coward," the taunt that would pursue him for the rest of his life.
Friaca put Brazil ahead two minutes after halftime, but Uruguay knew by then it could live with Brazil. With 24 minutes remaining, it equalized, AlcidesGhiggia accelerating on the right and crossing low for Juan Schiaffino to sweep the ball in at the near post. "Silence in the Maracana," said Brazil's coach Flavio Costa, "which terrified our players." A draw would still have been enough for Brazil, but the momentum was against them. Ghiggia exchanged passes with Perez, ran on, and with Moacyr Barbosa, the Brazilian goalkeeper, anticipating a cross, struck a bobbling shot in at the near post. The unthinkable had happened, and Uruguay, not Brazil, was world champion.
That was garra, and it is the legacy of that win when all circumstance was against it that will inspire Uruguay against the Netherlands on Tuesday.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.