The Maracana is Brazil’s national stadium. It’s also cursed ground.
This is where Brazil suffered the greatest failure in its footballing history, losing the final of the 1950 World Cup to Uruguay. The hosts wore white shirts in that contest. The result was so traumatizing, they never wore them again.
The game is remembered in Brazil as the Maracanazo (‘the Maracana Blow’). That word is now used throughout Latin America to describe any massive upset.
This tournament has, in large part, been sold as a unique opportunity to exorcise a 64-year-old disappointment.
With that in mind, there are two ways to consider what we saw here on Saturday evening during Colombia’s 2-0 victory over Uruguay.
Blindly optimistic way – with their nemesis eliminated, the mission is half-accomplished. Realistic way – considering how that happened, the mission is nearing disaster.
In steamrolling the semi-finalists from four years ago, Colombia proved they are the finest form team in this tournament. Brazil will face them in the quarterfinals in Fortaleza on July 4th.
That gives us all a week to build Colombian talisman James Rodriguez into the most obsessed-over young talent in the game.
The 22-year-old arrived already widely heralded as the breakout star of this tournament. A sizable group saw him as the MVP to date.
But what he showed here on Saturday was the raw material from which legends are built.
Missing their focal point in Luis Suarez, Uruguay arrived determined to defend. Colombia spent most of the first half-hour frustratedly pouring themselves against a line of Uruguayan defenders.
That went on until James tired of it.
In the 28th minute, the ball was lofted in toward the Uruguayan goal. Once again, a man in blue was there to head it away. It pinged toward a Colombian at distance. He hoofed it back in speculatively.
James was standing outside the penalty area with his back to goal – about 25 yards from the net.
As the ball was still approaching, he took the time for a quick peek over his shoulder. That’s what made what happened exponentially spectacular – he planned it.
The Colombian took the pass down with his shoulder and began to swivel. Just as the ball was about to hit the turf, he picked it out of the air with his favoured left foot.
Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera was in perfect position. The ball is 22 cm in diameter. James had perhaps a 24 cm window in which to place it.
From that distance, while simultaneously trying to control an awkward pass with his chest, turning and striking, he managed it.
The ball skimmed the top of Muslera’s outstretched fingers, hit the underside of the crossbar and caromed down into the net.
This was a score for the ages. Regardless of your rooting interest, this was a single piece of brilliance that brought hundreds of millions of us out of our seats. It was a global moment.
When first I saw it live, I thought, ‘Goal of the tournament’. After ten more views in slow motion, I thought, ‘One of the ten best goals in World Cup history’. Twenty or so more views, and I’m thinking it may just be one of the greatest goals ever scored, full stop.
On this stage, you’d have to reach back to Dennis Bergkamp in 1998 to find a strike of similarly brilliant technique.
Given the occasion, given the pressure, given what was at stake, this was the announcement of a generational talent.
James would score a second – a poacher’s goal from five yards – but he declared himself in that one instant.
In order to rid themselves of the spectre of the Marcanazo, Brazil will have to overcome this young man.
Based on the way they limped through the second half of their own game against Chile on Saturday, it’s difficult to see how.