K E I R R A D N E D G E R E P O R T I N G
—- Elmo Cordeiro lives in Belo Horizonte. He remembers the last time the World Cup came to town, in 1950. Elmo also remembers the greatest shock in the history of the World Cup, when the United States beat the joint favourites England 1-0.
He has a very good reason for remembering: Elmo was the ballboy* behind the netting in which The Goal was scored.
Now 78, Elmo was born in Niteroi, Rio state, but moved at 14, with parents, five brothers and a sister when their father headed south searching for work.
Father was out every day selling leatherware so Elmo found a job of his own. He became an office boy for the company which was building the stadium commissioned for Brazil’s hosting of the first post-war World Cup finals.
Anything connected with football, he devoured. He remembers that Italy came to the 1950 World Cup with a team hastily rebuilt after the Superga air disaster a year earlier which wiped out the entire squad of champions Torino. He reels off the names of some of their international victims: Bacigalupo, Ballarin, Maroso, Mazzola, Menti, Gabetto.
Then he reels off the names of their Azzurri successors who came to the World Cup: Moro, Parola, Mucinelli, Mari, Boniperti, Fattori, Furiassi, Capello.
Belo Horizonte had been awarded three matches at those finals: Switzerland v Yugoslavia, England v United States and Uruguay v Bolivia.
All were to be staged at the new stadium which, rebuilt lately for a second time, is known as the Estadio Independencia. Owned originally by now-faded 7 de Setembro FC it is home now to America.
“Tickets for the World Cup were very expensive,” says Elmo. “I could not afford any so, myself, I was not expecting to see any of the games. But then, two days before the first match here, my boss invited me to be a ballboy. Surprised? I was amazed. It was as if I had won the lottery.”
World Cup ties were very different from the highly-commercialised, media-packaged ‘products’ of today.
Elmo says: “All the matches started at 3pm. There was no lighting. No-one gave us ball boys any special kit to wear. We just turned up in our usual T-shirt and long shorts, the same as we would wear around the place most days.
“The teams all arrived at the ground at noon. They were no luxury team buses, like today. The players all came to the ground in a fleet of taxis. They did not exchanges shirts at the end of the match, either. They just took them off, the shirts went for washing and they put them back on again for the next game.
“Also, there was none of the security you see today at matches. Just the normal police. No-one worried about fans fighting back then; a football match was something peaceful.”
So Elmo took up his station for that first match.
“The Swiss were very closed-down, very defensive,” he says. “We called their tactics the verrou. But they didn’t work. Yugoslavia won 3-0. I remember they were all very well-worked goals, too. A lot of clever passing.
“Yugoslavia were a great team. I thought they should be favourites to win the World Cup and that Brazil would have to play very well to beat them later in the group.”
Elmo remembers having been impressed the most by Yugoslav captain Rajko Mitic. Then he adds, wistfully: “I don’t remember the names of the other players. They were difficult names except I think they all ended in ‘-ic.’”
In fact, Yugoslavia later lost 2-0 to Brazil in Maracana; the Brazilians scored their opening goal after only four minutes when the Slavs were down to 10 men because Mitic needed patching up after gashing open his head on a jagged steel bar as the teams headed up out of the half-built stadium.
Substitutes did not exist in those far-distant days.
One of Elmo’s party tricks is remembering team line-ups. He grew up, after all, in an era when winning teams were picked again and again, when rotation of players was unheard-of and the starting line-up did not depend on the vagaries of 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2-1 or any such numerical complication.
Thus he remembers the England team which played the second of Belo Horizonte’s World Cup ties on that fateful June 29. Elmo reels off the names as if all one word: Williamsramseyastonwrighthughesdickinsonfrinneymortensenbentleymannionmullen.
Later he reels off the Brazil team, and Uruguay and then even the 1953 Hungarians of Ferenc Puskas who beat England 6-3 at Wembley: Grosicsbuszanskylantosbozsiklorantzakariasbudaikocsishidgekutipuskasczibor.
Elmo pulls himself back to 1950.
“We didn’t get paid as ballboys,” he says. “If you like, we were the first volunteers. I remember there was a problem with the officials of all the different delegations who had come to watch the match. Some refused to sit next to others for their own political reasons. It was a mess. But in those days we didn’t all have the media we have today so no-one ever knew anything about it.
“We thought England were the kings of football then. They put together 40 or 50 passes at a time without the Americans ever touching the ball. It was just as though they always expected to win easily without having to try too hard.
“I remember Mortensen had a chance on the edge of the goal area and gave it straight to the American goalkeeper. Maybe they were too complacent. That was how they played. Then, after the US scored, they woke up but it was too late.”
As Elmo remembers it, the US were awarded a throw-in. Walter Bahr hit the ball goalwards and Haitian Joe Gaetens threw himself forward and deflected it past keeper Bert Williams and into the net behind which Elmo was crouching.
“It was a counter-attack and it was the only attack I can remember the US having. Otherwise they defended all the time,” says Elmo. “I can still see the look on the face of the England goalkeeper. He twisted his head around with a look of total astonishment on his face. He looked lost, disbelieving.
“It was just an instant’s poor defending: a moment of defensive foolishness. It meant I had a very quiet afternoon as a ballboy because all the action was down in the other half of the pitch.
“At the end of the game the England players were very cool about it: very British, just as you would have expected. If it had been us, with our Latin temperament, we would have been crying, upset, everything.
“But for the England players it was as if they had just switched off and, maybe, were thinking already about the next World Cup.
“I have to say the US team did not make great celebrations either. The people who cheered the most were the Brazilians fans because we thought England going out of the tournament gave us a better chance of winning the World Cup.”
Elmo estimates the crowd for the match at 17,000 though no-one was certain because fans entering the stadium were counted ‘by hand’ without futuristic gadgetry such as electronic turnstiles.
He had one more match, Uruguay’s 8-0 thrashing of Bolivia. The scoreline was nothing unusual for those days. Bolivia were thrashed regularly by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Elmo recalls it as a very violent game with most of the violence coming from the victorious but ruthless Uruguayans.
Suitably inspired, Elmo grew up into a useful player in his own right but how useful no-one would ever know. A broken leg ended his young career, he passed an examination to enter the civil service and began work in the local offices of the federal government.
He never played football again and, even 60 years later, refuses to discuss one of the most upsetting times of his life.
Amarelinho – a friend and former player who works in the marketing department of America – says what Elmo will not: that he was an ‘old school’ attacking centre-half comparable with Danilo, who took that role for Brazil in 1950.
As a boy, growing up in Rio and Belo Horizonte, Elmo’s hero had been Zizinho, great inside forward in Brazil’s team at the 1950 World Cup. But, says Elmo: “Pele was the best player I ever saw, the most complete. He could use both feet equally well and he was good with his head too.”
Foreign players he admired included Puskas, Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks, Franz Beckenbauer, Ladislao Mazurkiewicz and Bobby Charlton. Of them all, it is Charlton whom he admires the most for the character and personal strength of will to climb back up into an aircraft after the devastating experience of losing so many team-mates in the Munich air disaster.
Elmo has not attended a ‘live’ match since the Minerao was shut down ahead of its redevelopment for the return of the World Cup to Belo Horizonte. He still watches avidly on television and has decided views about today’s players.
“Machines!” he exclaims. “Most of them now are built like the Incredible Hulk. The way they go for the ball. They’re not afraid. It’s like they would kill each other.”
Amarelinho chips in: “The physical fitness of players now has changed everything. In our day we had time to think, time to play our football. We would run maybe 4km a game. Now they run 10 or 12km a game so there is no space on the pitch any more.”
Elmo is dismissive of today’s coaches, even newly-restored Brazil boss Luiz Felipe Scolari: “They are all without a clue. I don’t think any of today’s coaches really know what must be done if something goes wrong and they have to change tactics during a game.”
Neymar he likes but worries that too much responsibility rests on the shoulders of the South American Footballer of the Year. Elmo says: “Pele was wonderful but he also had players around like Coutinho, Pepe, Gerson, Jairzinho who could help him and support him. Neymar has no-one who can do that.”
How good is Neymar? Elmo and Amarelinho both agree: “The Confederations Cup and the World Cup will define him. Either he will become great or his career will come crashing down.”
And will Brazil win the World Cup? Elmo will go no further than offering: “Well, playing at home we have to be the favourites . . .”
Then, wisely for a veteran who remembers 1950 so clearly, he leaves his sentence hanging in the Belo Horizonte air.
** A ballboy in Brazil is called a gandula after Bernardo Gandulla, an Argentinian reserve player with Vasco da Gama in the late 1930s. Gandulla’s commitment to fair play was such that, whenever the ball went out of play, he would retrieve it not only for his own team but also for the opposition.
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This article is also in the current, February, edition of World Soccer magazine, now on sale!
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