The Group of Death - Final Round 1950

1950 World Cup - Final Round

Brazil (4)

Sweden (3)

Spain (9)

Uruguay (18)

Twelve years after the climax of the 1938 World Cup, the game’s most prestigious international tournament would return once more. Following the devastation caused by the Second World War and the resultant political instabilities across Europe, Brazil would be chosen to host the competition in 1946. Four years previous, the South American nation had been hopeful of hosting the World Cup in 1942, only for the war to escalate to unthinkable levels. Originally planned for 1949, Brazil would ask FIFA for a year extension on the start date of the competition in order to fully prepare. Further citing the close proximity of the prospective tournament to the 1948 Olympics, the decision was met with widespread agreement. Once awarded, the country would begin to develop elaborate plans including the construction of the 200,000 capacity stadium, the Maracana. Brazil’s ‘massive commitment and celebration of the game’, was enough for some sports historians to regard the 1950 World Cup as the start point for a ‘new era in football history’.

In comparison to tournaments before and after, the 1950 World Cup stands alone in its unique format. Following the initial 16 team group stage, a final round was introduced, consisting of the four group winners. The qualified sides would all play each other and the winner of the newly named Jules Rimet trophy would be the country which topped the group. Such a decision to change the tried and tested knockout format was made relatively late. Before qualification had begun, it had appeared that the final tournament would be similar to the three editions that preceded the 1950 showpiece. Most newspaper reports from 1949 were certain of the knock-out system, with the Hartlepool Daily Mail drawing readers in with its clear message of a ‘July Final’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reason for an eventual change in format was financial. Brazil had spared no expense in creating a tournament fit for a true festival of football. A reported £5 million was due to be spent on the Maracana alone as it was to boast ‘a four foot wide moat, filled with water...a swimming pool, a gymnasium and 38 restaurants and bars’. Such outgoing costs would be difficult to turn a profit and the knockout system of the World Cup would mean only 16 games in total would be played. The decision was eventually made to introduce four groups of four teams before a final round would decide the winner. From this, FIFA could promise at least 30 games, almost doubling the previous tournaments.

The Teams

Brazil qualified first from Group 1. Opening with a comfortable 4-0 victory over World Cup regulars Mexico was enough to feed the expectations of the home fans. A standout performance from star centre-forward Ademir had further demonstrated that the squad was peaking at the right time. 81,000 supporters would be seated in the ‘Eighth wonder of the world’, the Maracana, to watch their nation (playing in an unfamiliar white jersey) win. With an official capacity of around 155,000, such numbers are relatively low. Perhaps the most obvious reason for a lack of spectators, was due to the stadium’s incompletion. Just a month before the 1950 World Cup kicked-off, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph would comment on the ‘feverish night and day work’ needed to finish building the world’s largest stadium. It would be the lack of a water-filled moat which concerned many referees, particularly in Brazil, where football had almost become a matter of life and death for many. The threat of ‘squibs and rockets’ had created a genuine sense of anxiety. On the day of the opening match, the Shields Daily News would comment on how ‘thousands of workmen stripped to the waist toiled in the blazing sunshine yesterday’. Regardless of the unfinished Maracana, the stadium would still be used throughout the tournament, even without adequate toilets or a press box. Today, such blatant disregard for supporters’ safety is troubling to see but it offers another key moment where the history of football governance is open to scrutiny.

Following their opening victory, the samba nation would progress to the Final Round on the back of a 2-2 draw with Switzerland and a 2-0 triumph over Yugoslavia. Over 140,000 would cram into the Maracana for Brazil’s deciding group match against the Eastern Europeans as only victory would assure the selecao of progression. The earlier draw against the Swiss had stunned home fans who had expected their team to comfortably seal their place in the final round. Irate at their team’s failure to defeat their European opponents, those in attendance would wait for the Brazilian team after the match outside of the stadium. It was reported that the side was met with a swarming, jeering crowd which may have been ‘man-handled’ had it not been for the mounted police intervention. Such animosity further demonstrated the passion of the Brazilian public and the win-at-all-costs mentality which had enveloped their psyche. The attack on the team would invigorate the hosts in their final group match as Yugoslavia were confidently dispatched in Rio. Although officially recorded as just over 140,000, the stadium announcer would report that nearer to 200,000 were in attendance, with a world record gate of £90,000 taken. Despite a ban on fireworks and rockets being enacted upon supporters, thousands were still unleashed as Welsh referee Mervyn Griffiths blew the final whistle.

The Spanish would find progression far more routine. Despite being placed in a group with the game’s inventors and World Cup debutants, England, La Roja would win all three fixtures. In their opening match, Spain were stunned by an early United States strike, only to score three late goals to win 3-1. The Chilean challenge was also comfortably put to bed after goals from Estanislau Basora and Telmo Zarra. Zarra had entered the World Cup as one of Europe’s finest goalscorers, and by scoring a third in as many games, Spain would overcome England in Rio. England’s abysmal debut at the World Cup had been one of the biggest stories to emerge from the tournament. Defeat to the USA three days earlier had been described by the British press as a ‘black day for England’ and ‘unbelievable’. The US had fielded an inexperienced side of which many were part-time players. The ‘Miracle on Grass’ would leave a bitter legacy on English football and take supporters years to forget. As a result, the final group game between England and Spain was effectively a play-off to determine which nation would emerge as a finalist. Such was the quality of football on display at the Maracana, the Bradford Observer described the match as ‘one of the best games of football ever seen’. A combination of physical play for the Spanish and a well-taken Zarra goal would be enough to see the Iberian nation progress into the Final Round. Even in spite of an ‘anti-Spanish’crowd, there was no denying the ‘first class’ and ‘magnificent’ football demonstrated by La Roja.

Group three would see Sweden narrowly progress from a tight group involving Italy and Paraguay. Only three nations would enter the pool, as India had withdrawn from the competition, citing travel costs as the primary reason for their absence. Furthermore, a delay in the payment of the team’s finances had left India unable to provide their side with suitable preparation time for the tournament. With just three teams competing for a place in the final round, each game had added significance. A defeat for any of the three nations would be catastrophic. Despite Sweden’s growing reputation, Italy were arguably favourites to progress having entered as defending champions, winning the trophy in both 1934 and 1938. Perhaps the most important reason for the Azzurri’s failure to qualify for the final round would be in the nation’s preparations for the competition. Just a year earlier, in May 1949, Italy had lost most of its XI in the Superga Air Disaster in Turin. The ‘Grande’ Torino side, featuring the likes of Valentino Mazzola, were killed as their aircraft crashed into the Superga Basilica. A prolonged period of mourning enveloped the nation and left the 1950 Italian squad reluctant to fly to South America, instead undertaking a two-week journey by ship. Some writers believe the disaster would set calcio back thirty years and an early exit at the hands of Sweden was hardly surprising. Nevertheless, Sweden had deserved their place in the final round. Due to the three-team format, beating Italy 3-2 in Sao Paulo had all but confirmed their place in the final round providing they didn’t lose to Paraguay. Despite a comeback from the South Americans, Sweden would draw the match 2-2 to join Brazil and Spain for the defining group stage.

Uruguay were the last nation to reach the final round. Incredibly, La Celeste only needed to defeat minnows Bolivia in order to qualify. Again, late withdrawals from the competition played a major role in creating a farcical situation FIFA have been quick to avoid in future editions of the World Cup. Scotland had been one the first nations to decline the chance to participate after coming second in the British qualifying group to England. Stating that they would only take their place in Brazil if they were to win the British group, finishing as runners-up to the Auld Enemy was not enough to warrant their debut World Cup appearance. Turkey would withdraw soon after, citing financial reasons for their declination. FIFA scrambled to invite other nations to Rio, to fill the four groups with four teams as had been planned. Both Portugal and Ireland refused before France accepted and took their place in Group 4. However, less than a month before the tournament began, the French FA took the decision to remove their side from the competition. The primary reason was the extensive travel required between matches with relatively short preparation time. Nevertheless, Uruguay and Bolivia would still compete with the former heavily defeating their South American neighbours 8-0 in Belo Horizonte. Uruguay had entered the tournament with the peculiar record of being unbeaten at World Cups following victory in 1930 and a refusal to participate in 1934 and 1938. With only one match played before the final round, La Celeste could boast a physically fit squad free from the fatigue other nations had endured.


Invigorated by a raucous home crowd, Brazil would begin the final round in impressive fashion. A thumping 7-1 victory over Sweden confirmed the favourites tag most of the world’s press had placed on the samba nation. 138,000 spectators were confirmed as being inside the Maracana to witness the tie, with many press reports claiming that in fact 187,000 were present to see the thrashing. Following Spain and Uruguay’s 2-2 draw in Sao Paulo, the future tie between the former and Brazil was to be billed as the match which would decide the destination of the Jules Rimet trophy. Despite holding the impressive Spanish to a credible draw, incredibly there is little recognition of the potential threat posed by Uruguay. Brazilian fans were expectant, this was to be the year in which their nation rose to become the greatest on Earth, at least in terms of football. Home supporters had seen themselves living and breathing every second of the World Cup. They kicked every goal, headed away every clearance and each time the opposition managed to score, they felt the pain. For this reason, it is perhaps unsurprising that 53 fans inside the Maracana would receive medical attention during the match against Sweden. 28 would even take injections to calm themselves down after being ‘over-emotionalised’. The ‘needle’ match had set the tone for later matches within the group of death.

Four days later, the four nations would meet once again for the second round of fixtures. Brazil would face Spain, and Sweden would hope to eradicate their embarrassment as they took on Uruguay in São Paulo. The Dundee Evening Telegraph was quick to inform its readers as to the possible outcomes the group could produce if results went certain ways. Much of the speculation was mounted on the Brazil - Spain match in Rio. A draw or win for Spain could have eventually led to a triple team play-off following the final group fixtures and a win for Brazil was to all but confirm their status as World champions. Brazil would be at their devastating best in front of 153,000 spectators inside the Maracana, winning 6-1 to end Spanish hopes and put them within a draw of lifting the World Cup. The selecao’s forwards had hit their peak at the right time. Ademir added his 8th of the competition, while forwards Zizinho and Chica continued to add to the scoresheet. Such was the confidence in Brazil’s performances, many believed the World Cup to be ‘in the bag’ and ‘almost certain’.

At the same time, Uruguay were facing the test from Sweden. Sweden had led 2-1 until the 77th minute when Oscar Miguez added the first of a late brace. The Swedish challenge was over but Uruguay, with three points to their name, were still in with a chance of winning their second World Cup. There is little doubt that those in Brazil and abroad had underestimated the challenge of La Celeste and this perhaps worked in their favour. The pressure was off Uruguay and entirely on the shoulders of the selecao. Despite their low ranking, Uruguay still retained a ‘famous mystique’ and could boast a squad full of experienced internationals including Alcides Ghiggia and future Serie A superstar Juan Schiaffino. For all of the host nation’s passion and love of football, the same could be said for Uruguay. Despite being dwarfed by its South American neighbour and with a 1950 population of only 2 million people, football was intrinsically linked to the sky-blue nation. Indeed, football has played an important role in the country’s national identity. Emerging victorious in 1930 had further cemented the place of soccer in Uruguayan society. Football had become something the nation could be proud of and a true cultural expression.

Despite the unfamiliar and strange final group format, previous results had effectively made the match between Brazil and Uruguay a final and Spain’s meeting with Sweden, a third place play-off. Newspapers from Brazil and abroad would focus solely on the host nation before the final clash of the 1950 World Cup. The Sunday Post would comment on the wild excitement of the Brazilian public in anticipation for their side’s forthcoming victory. The piece would continue to note the Uruguayan ‘super-optimists’ who had chalked on them ‘Uruguay 6 Brazil 0’. In Brazil, defeat was inconceivable. Sao Paulo’s Gazeta Esportiva would even write, ‘Tomorrow we will beat Uruguay’ and another newspaper, O Mundo, would go one step further proclaiming ‘Here are the World Champions’. Underneath the headline sat a picture of the Brazilian squad.

Supporters would clamour for tickets like no other match in football history. On the day of the final, there were reports of riots in Rio from those who had missed out on seeing their side on the grandest stage of them all. Such spontaneous fits of rage had been seen earlier in the competition after Brazil’s draw with Switzerland, and even in victory, fireworks and rockets had led to injuries to supporters and players alike. ‘Semi-final’ hero Chico would require medical attention after being struck by a projectile whilst celebrating his second goal against Spain. The pressure on the selecao to succeed was immense. Furthermore, the arrogance of the press had only served to galvanise Uruguay. So much so, La Celeste captain, Obdulio Varela would buy 20 copies of O Mundo and scatter them on the bathroom floor of the team’s hotel. Varela would even instruct his side to trample and urinate on the newspapers in a display of disgust at the disrespect shown.

A crowd of up to 200,000 supporters would fill the Maracana ahead of kick off. In FIFA’s official records, the attendance is shown to be 173,830 but this was merely the paid attendance on the day with many more entering the stadium free-of-charge. For a country so famous for its Carnival, the Maracana would offer a similar atmosphere as euphoric fans ‘were jumping for joy as if they’d won the World Cup’. Uruguay would indeed face more than just XI players, but an entire nation. Feeling the pressure before kick-off, La Celeste inside-right Julio Perez would even wet himself before kick-off. As with a number of highly anticipated finals in football history, the game itself would take its time to truly get started. The first half would end goalless, perhaps surprising for many who had assumed Brazil would continue their impressive goalscoring form. Level at half-time, the psychological advantage was swinging in favour of Uruguay as doubt crept into the players and, more importantly, the supporters.

Any sense of trepidation was seemingly eradicated just two minutes after play resumed, however. Friaca would find the bottom left-hand corner to put the selecao ahead and send the Maracana into pandemonium. The floodgates were expecting to open. The 200,000 spectators inside the stadium could start to celebrate - Brazil were to be World Champions. Friaca’s goal had an incredible impact on the game for two reasons. Firstly, upon the ball nestling into the corner of the net, Brazil, perhaps understandably, began to relax. Furthermore, with seemingly nothing to lose, Uruguay would also step up their game in response. Alcides Ghiggia would recall the words of Varela, ‘Our captain said, “Look lads, we've got to go for it,” and so we started to attack, attack, attack.’ In the 66th minute, Schiaffino would level the game, firing the ball into the top corner after Ghiggia’s low cross. Silence would fall upon the Maracana. The anxiety demonstrated at half-time had returned and yet even with a draw Brazil would win the World Cup.

With the scores still level and the game still seemingly under selecao control, FIFA President, Jules Rimet would leave his place in the grandstand to make his long journey down to the pitch where he was due to hand the trophy to the winning captain. Assuming the winning skipper to be Brazil’s Augusto, he had tailored his speech to suit the home audience. However, with just eleven minutes to play, Ghiggia once again broke down the right, before striking the ball into the bottom left-hand corner of Brazil ‘keeper Moacir Barbosa’s net. Beaten at his near post, the selecao stopper would be instantly blamed for the goal. Incredibly, Uruguay led 2-1. This was not supposed to happen, it was not part of the script. Brazil were to be world champions, not Uruguay. Yet, against all the odds, La Celeste had taken the lead with just minutes to play. The silence which had accompanied Schiaffino’s earlier goal, returned. The Brazilian players were deflated and supporters were left ‘dumbfounded and bewildered’. Unable to offer a credible response, English referee George Reader would bring the game to a sombre conclusion soon after.

The Belfast Telegraph would write that ‘Rio had been plunged into gloom’ upon the final whistle. It would continue to note the death of one supporter from shock listening to a broadcast of the game. Fits of hysteria would be common on the streets of Rio following the dramatic climax with health workers kept busy by over 170 cases from within the Maracana. Uruguay, on the other hand, would revel in victory. Remarkably, their tiny country had won the World Cup for a second time. It was reported that three Uruguayan fans back home had died due to sheer excitement upon hearing the final result. Rimet’s speech was never to be used and the formal presentation most had expected was scrapped as fans raced to escape the hell they found themselves in. Discreetly handing the trophy to Varela, La Celeste would begin their lap of honour to a nearly deserted Maracana.

The stadium’s announcer would even forget to inform the crowd of the result in the group’s other final game between Spain and Sweden. Comfortably winning 3-1 in front of only 11,000 in Sao Paulo, Sweden would finish third, with their Iberian counterparts ending the tournament in disappointing fashion. Both nations, however, would grow and evolve their sides over the next decade with Sweden even hosting the World Cup in 1958. Spanish football would become the focus of European club football throughout the 1950s as Real Madrid swept all before them to win the first five European Cups. Even in defeat, both nations would find a way to build on the foundations they had laid. Brazil would need to do something similar if it was to avoid a repeat of the Maracanazo (the agony of the Maracana). The coming decade would be a time for Brazilian football to reflect on the debacle in 1950 and rethink critical elements of their game.

The nation had been embarrassed. Such a defeat could never truly be forgotten and the scars would indeed be permanent. First to go was the white kit which the selecao had adorned throughout the competition. Discarded as unpatriotic, the search for a new colour would seek to promote the country’s true identity to the world. Eventually adopting the instantly recognisable yellow and green in 1953, the healing process was about to begin. Furthermore, 1950 had seen a young generation of Brazilians intent on reclaiming their nation’s pride over the coming decade as new blood like Zagallo, Garrincha, Vava and of course, Pelé, were gradually introduced into the squad. For all the eventual disappointment, the 1950 World Cup had been incredibly successful for FIFA. A wonderful competition full of goals and without a single dismissal, it created a positive image for the sport and the tournament which was still in its infancy. It had proven that nothing in football was certain, that even the greatest of teams could be toppled, even in the most unlikely of scenarios. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the final group stage format was dropped in subsequent editions of the tournament with a definitive final that competing sides would have to win in order to lift the trophy. A true ‘group of death’, football would never be the same again.

This piece was written by Ben Jones - Follow him on Twitter @Benny_J or @TFHBs



Belfast Newsletter

Hartlepool Daily Mail

Sheffield Daily Telegraph

Leicester Daily Mercury

Shields Daily News

Aberdeen Press and Journal

Sunday Post

Bradford Observer

The Scotsman

Leicester Evening Mail

Dundee Evening Telegraph

Gloucestershire Echo

Gloucester Citizen

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer


William D. Bowman, The World Cup as World History. pp.58-59

John Foot, Calcio

José Eduardo de Carvalho, History of World Cups

L. Bizzozero Revelez, The Palgrave International Handbook of Football and Politics, p.558

Alex Bellos, Futebol

Tony Mason, Passion of the People? Football in South America, p.81

Matthew Evans, ‘The Complicated Relationship Between Brazil and its Goalkeepers’, These Football Times, 16 October 2017

©The Football History Boys, 2022


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