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1950 World Cup hero Alcides Ghiggia: The Maracana Ghost's fall from grace

Photo: AP

Alcides Ghiggia celebrates his goal in the 1950 World Cup final that crushed Brazil's dreams at the Maracana.

Alcides Ghiggia sits alone on a stage. He has bandy legs, his hair is combed back, his eyes are tired, he has a large nose and big ears. His face is wrinkled. He is now 87 years old. He is telling the same story he has told since July 16, 1950, when his goal for Uruguay beat Brazil at the Maracana and caused a shock in the World Cup final that is still a cause for trauma in Brazil today.

His tour is financed by a whiskey company, Dunbar. After his talk, a teenage boy comes up to him. “Excuse me, which foot was it?” he asks.

“With this one,” he says, surprised. “My right one.”

“Can I kiss it?”

“Er, OK.”

The boy kneels down and kisses his foot. “Luckily, I washed it today,” said Ghiggia, and those listening in laugh.

Ghiggia believes it was destiny. His destiny. After all, he only gave up basketball because he played for Nacional and his family were huge supporters of Penarol; he only returned to Uruguay in 1947 because Buenos Aires club Atlanta turned him down, and at the time only Uruguay-based players could play for their country.

“If you play for Nacional you won’t be welcome in this house again,” said his mother, so he tried out at Penarol, whose coach Emerico Hirschl happened to watch the trial and throw him into the side one week later. He only made his debut for the national team two months before the World Cup began (in a 4-3 win over Brazil in Sao Paulo) and in all, only played 12 games for Uruguay.

He scored four goals, all of them in the 1950 World Cup. His legend was sealed in 13 minutes in the final: first he crossed for Juan Schiaffino to equalize after 66 minutes. The next time he had the ball out wide, 13 minutes later, Brazil goalkeeper Barbosa anticipated a cross to center forward Omar Miguez and Ghiggia drove it home at the near post. As his teammates jumped on him to celebrate, Miguez stood apart and, according to Atilio Garrido in his book "Maracanã: The Secret History," said: “Didn't you hear me? I was asking you to pass it to me. Why did you not pass it?”

“Omar, leave the ball there, it’s fine where it is,” Ghiggia replied.

Two years later, Ghiggia was vilified in Uruguay for striking a referee, Juan Carlos Armental, during the derby between Penarol and Nacional. He was suspended by the Uruguayan FA for 15 months, and so he moved to Roma. He was a celebrity in Europe, a paparazzi favorite in his fur coats, Alfa Romeo car and hanging out with the likes of Gina Lollobrigida.

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He would still call home every week to find out the Penarol results. He spent nine years in Italy, enough to qualify him to play for Italy’s national team in its failed effort to qualify for the 1958 World Cup. In 1963, he returned to Uruguay and he played for Danubio until he was 42. When he quit football, the Uruguayan government gave him a job – as they had done with everyone from the 1950 team. Until 1992, Ghiggia stood sentry at Montevideo Casino checking for gamblers who were cheating.

Ghiggia left Montevideo in 1992, when he was 66. He moved to Las Piedras, 20 kilometers away and rented a modest house downtown. He would go to the main square every afternoon and watch the birds. One day a driving instructor, Homero Caro, offered him a job. He took it and his first student was a 23-year-old Nacional supporter called Beatriz. She is now his wife, and works in a clothes market on the railway line that connects Montevideo to the Brazilian border.

These days, Ghiggia is bitter. He believes that people are not grateful enough to him, and that the state should do more than give him his pension worth 15,000 pesos per month. In 2008, he met a Uruguayan politician Reinaldo Gargano, who told him: “Ah Ghiggia, the people owe you so much!”

“No,” he replied. “It is you, the politicians, who owe me a lot.”

Ghiggia lives with Beatriz in a rented house in downtown Las Piedras. They would like to move to a house of their own on Highway 67, but it is currently half-built, and they don’t have the funds to finish it off. That’s why Ghiggia asks for money for interviews. He reportedly made $25,000 for selling a Golden Boot prize that he was awarded in Monaco and is said to have sold his World Cup winner’s medal too, but he denies both tales.

The story in Uruguay goes that a business partner of TV mogul Paco Casal bought the medal and gave it back to him. Casal also gives him $400 per month. Casal bought Ghiggia a Renault Clio, but on June 13, 2012, Ghiggia was thrown through its windshield after a horrific accident with an oncoming truck on Route 5.

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He suffered injuries to his head, throat, knee, and fractured his arm, ankle and hip. He was on life support for 37 days and has still not fully recovered. “Come in, come in, Alcides is awake,” said Beatriz when we enter the house. The living room is small, there are pictures and clippings on the wall, but no sign of the jersey from 1950.

Ghiggia left it in a box in his father’s care when he went to Rome; when he returned, it had disintegrated. In the bedroom, a TV is on the wall, the bedside table has a picture of Ghiggia in a Uruguay jersey, and on the other side, a shoebox filled with medication. A Zimmer frame is nearby.

“These youngsters have come to see you,” Beatriz tells him.

“Sit down, kids,” he says, keeping his eye on the television.

“Journalists come from all over the world to see you, don't they, Alcides,” she says. He nods. Beatriz’s mother then phones and Ghiggia explains that, at first, she did not like him. “For the age difference,” says Beatriz. Ghiggia cuts in. “But now she likes me.”

Who doesn't like him? “People in Montevideo have forgotten about Alcides,” says Beatriz.

But the pair have stories, how the vendor at the Paysandu toll-bridge paid for Ghiggia, or how someone bought him lunch because they recognized him. Beatriz says that a statue of Ghiggia is being built, but he growls: “Yes, but it doesn´t look like me at all!”

Ghiggia traveled the whole country with Dunbar, telling his story. And while he has photos and clippings of his moment in the house, Beatriz does not let him listen to the commentary of the goal.

“I have the audio, but it’s been years since I heard it,” he says.

“That’s because he’s old and emotional and I’m worried that something will happen if he hears it,” she says.

“I have all the audio recordings with the voices of the greatest Uruguayan commentators, people like De Feo, Pelliciari and Soler,” says Ghiggia with tears in his eyes.

Beatriz changes the subject immediately. I ask if he feels he should have more recognition. Beatriz answers. “Alcides always says he was born at the wrong time. Today, he would be better than Messi. Right, Alcides?”

Ghiggia agrees, and he pulls the blanket covering his bed up to his neck.

(Editor's Note: This story appeared in Spanish in Argentine magazine Don Julio. Reporting by Federico Bassahun.​)

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