On the face of things, Brazil and the USA could barely be any further removed in terms of their footballing history and heritage – the South Americans boast five World Cups, eight Copa Americas and two Confederations Cups to their northern cousins relatively meagre haul of four Gold Cups – yet the two countries, who meet on Sunday in what will be a historic Confederations Cup final in Johannesburg, actually have closely intertwined histories in the game.
The Selecao have hit the pinnacle of the world game in the States, who conversely recorded one of their finest ever results in Brazil. Indeed, the South Americans could almost consider themselves something of a footballing ‘big brother’ to the USA, guiding the development of the game in a country where baseball, basketball and an altogether different type of football rules. Yet the Yanks, very much considered a ‘lesser’ footballing nation over much of the globe, despite this maiden appearance in a major final, have also helped to mould Brazilian football folklore.
Hitting The Heights
Nearly six decades ago, back in 1950, Brazil hosted their first ever World Cup finals. Although the event will be remembered in the South American state for the Selecao’s defeat by Uruguay at the final hurdle – “our Hiroshima”, according to Nelson Rodrigues, a Brazilian journalist – the finals were also the scene of the USA’s most significant footballing moment, until last Wednesday, of course.
On June 29, 1950, the United States, a side drawn largely from St. Louis but captained by Scottish-born Ed McIlvenny, took the field against an English side heavily fancied to win the tournament. Incredibly, Joe Gaetjens wrote himself into the history books by scoring the only goal of the match, seven minutes before half-time.
Defeats against Spain and Chile would ultimately see the Stars and Stripes eliminated at the group stage, but their one victory was a tremendous success, considering their previous seven matches had all ended in heavy defeats.
Brazil, in Group 1, marched proudly on to the second group stage by virtue of victories over Mexico and Yugoslavia, in addition to a 2-2 draw against Switzerland. A 7-1 win over Sweden and an equally remarkable 6-1 success over Spain meant the Selecao only needed a draw against Uruguay in their final match to secure the title.
But their near neighbours would lift the Jules Rimet trophy if they could muster an unlikely win. In front of a full to bursting Maracana – there were reportedly 199,954 people in the titanic ground – Friaca gave Brazil the lead, but the entire country looked on in shock as Juan Alberto Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia turned the match on its head in the final 24 minutes.
The country was left in a state of shock.
“People drenched in their own pain,” noted Carlos Heitor Cony in Alex Bellos’ book ‘Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life’. As the author states, “Uruguay, Italy, England, West Germany, Argentina and France have all won World Cups in their own country. Brazil remain the only world champions never to have won as hosts.”
But Brazil are also the only nation to have won the gong outside of their own continent, including, of course, in the USA in 1994. Led by Romario, Bebeto and Dunga, the Selecao ended a 24 year drought in which the World Cup title had not belonged to the country for which the game is a national obsession more than any other.
True, the vintage of 1994 may have been more efficient than flair-packed, but they played their part in reintroducing ‘soccer’ to a North American audience, retracing a trail that greats such as Pele and Carlos Alberto had blazed in the 1970s, as they helped pioneer the game in the country.
A League Of Their Own
Pele, arguably the greatest player of all-time, raised the profile of the game greatly in the USA when he joined NASL (the predecessor to the MLS) side New York Cosmos on a permanent basis in 1975 (although he had previously played intermittent matches for them). A triple World Cup winner, Pele may have been past his prime, but he would score 31 times in just 56 appearances for the club.
In his third final year as a Casmos player in 1977, Pele was joined by fellow World Cup winner Carlos Alberto. The pairing of one of the game’s greatest exponents combined with the Jules Rimet-lifting captain proved an irresistible combination and they went on to win the NASL championships, sparking a real period of dominance from the Cosmos.
Ultimately, the NASL would die because of several factors, most notably expansion. However, the presence of Pele and Carlos Alberto had ensured that football now possessed a spot in the American sporting psyche, helping to raise the enthusiasm and energy for the successful World Cup ’94 bid, which effectively conceived the MLS.
Women’s football has experienced similar difficulties to the men’s game in the USA, with the Woman’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) league going under in 2003. Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) was conceived in 2007 and, surprise, surprise, boasts a wonderfully gifted Brazilian, Marta, as its showpiece player.
Featuring for the LA Sol, the 23-year-old forward is widely regarded as the finest female player on the planet, winning each of the last three FIFA World Player of the Year awards. An asset like this can only be of benefit to the sport in the country.
Although there are no longer male Brazilian superstars playing in America, the MSL, no longer needs such showpiece players to raise enthusiasm for the game, although another Beckham figure would, of course, not go amiss. But the very fact that the USA now has a self-sufficient league is testament to just how much the game has grown and how popular it’s become in the world’s most powerful nation.
Brazil has nurtured American football culture somewhat, providing their cousins with stories and stars from which to base their game. But the USA’s rise to prominence in recent years, and most notably their ascent to the Confederations Cup final, beating a record breaking Spanish side along the way, has proven that they are now a footballing force ready to stand on their own two feet.
The history of these two nations on the football pitch will likely continue to be inextricably linked as fate has pitted these cousins against each other in the USA’s first ever major final. There will, however, be no fraternal niceties exchanged once the referee’s first whistle has blown on Sunday evening.
Robin Bairner, Goal.com
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