Brazil's team uniforms were stained beyond recognition. The white shirts (blue polo collars and blue trim at sleeve bottoms) were soaked with sweat, as you would expect following a 90-minute soccer match. For 78 of those minutes, the sweat was your ususal, run-of-the-mill variety, the type produced by physical exertion. Then the impossible happened. Eleven minutes before full time, the Uruguayan right-winger, Alcides Ghiggia, eluded Brazil's defense and scored, giving Uruguay a shocking 2-1 lead. At that point, Brazilian players broke out in flop sweat, the type common among stage actors, produced by a paralyzing fear of embarrassment. Of course, this exceeded embarrassment. Later in his life, the Brazilian defender Bigode wouldn't contemplate suicide because he was embarrassed, but rather because he was despised by an entire nation.
The white shorts (blue stripes down the sides) and white socks (twin blue bands at the cuffs) were stained green and brown, but this was no ordinary grass and dirt. Until Ghiggia scored, the field was sacred ground. Brazil built this stadium, the Maracanã, for this tournament, the 1950 World Cup. It was the largest stadium in the world, and a crowd somewhere between 170,000 and 210,000 showed up on July 16. They did not come to see the game. They came to see Brazil celebrate winning the World Cup after the game. The game itself was a mere formality. Brazil had beaten its last two opponents by a combined score of 13-2, while Uruguay had struggled against the same two teams. Plus, Brazil had beaten Uruguay 5-1 a year before in a different competition.
"We always think about the story behind the jersey. The storytelling is just as important as the object."
Prior to kickoff, cities all across Brazil had a carnival atmosphere, with singing and dancing in the streets. Rio's mayor addressed the players, congratulating them on their inevitable success. The morning edition of O Mundo ran a headline declaring Brazil world champions. A band composed a victory song, "Brasil Os Vencedores," and stood ready inside the Maracanã to perform when the perfunctory match ended. As kickoff approached, a crowd equalling almost 15 percent of Rio's total population began singing inside the Maracanã. The din of noise increased in the 47th minute when Friaca scored for Brazil. Because of the quirks of the 1950 World Cup format, Brazil could draw against Uruguay and still win the tournament. So, Uruguay would now have to win the match outright by scoring twice within 53 minutes. When the Uruguayan player Schiaffino tied the match in the 66th minute, the crowd lost some of its enthusiasm, but everyone knew that Brazil only needed 24 minutes of competent defending to win the World Cup.
In the 79th minute, Ghiggia did not simply score, or even win a match, or even win the World Cup. He desecrated sacred ground. The Eden of the Maracanã became a hellscape. The name "Maracanã" instantly, and permanently, became synonymous with a national tragedy still known today as the Maracanazo, or "Maracanã blow."
The white uniforms were stained with that, too.
In the years to come, the stains on the shirt would spread, deepen, and become corrosive. Much of the blame for the Maracanazo fell to the goalkeeper, Barbosa, and two of his defenders, Juvenal and Bigode. While Bigode contemplated suicide, Barbosa somehow obtained the woodwork from the goals. In 1963, a full 13 years after the game, Barbosa gathered his friends at his house for a barbecue and set the posts on fire. The exorcism failed. Shortly before his death in 2000, Barbosa said, "In Brazil the maximum penalty is 30 years, but I have served 50." In the book Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson recounts the story of a woman shopping with her son in 1970. Seeing Barbosa, she pointed to the former keeper and told her son, "Look at him. He's the man who made all of Brazil cry." Indeed, on the day of the Maracanazo in the city of Bauru, the retired footballer Dondinho wept in his home while listening to the game on the radio. Dondinho's nine-year-old son, Edson, came in from playing in the street after all the adults in the neighborhood―who had just moments earlier been singing and dancing―suddenly went silent. Edson had never seen his father cry before. "Don't worry, Dad," he said, "I'll win a World Cup for you." The boy would make good on his promise a scant eight years later as 17-year-old phenom called Pelé. But even Pelé could not cure the malady of the Maracanazo, which the Brazilian writer Nelson Rodrigues termed "our catastrophe, our Hiroshima." Even after their deaths, Brazil scapegoated Barbosa, Bigode, and Juvenal, all of whom were black. Almost all stories about the Maracanazo account for the possibility that the players' persecution and ethnicity were not coincidental. In that light, the Maracanazo sunk even lower, incorporatiing the racism that had been roiling since well before 1888, when Brazil became the last country in the western hemisphere to outlaw slavery.
The white jerseys were stained with that, too―all of it.
Aldyr Garcia Schlee was 19 years old when he designed the camisa canarinho, which the Brazil national team still wears. Before the 1994 World Cup began, Jon Michaud wrote in The New Yorker, "The most recognizable symbol of Brazilian soccer—and therefore of Brazilian identity—is the canary yellow jersey worn by the national team, and by millions of supporters around the globe."
The 2014 World Cup was held in cities throughout Brazil. The home country advanced to the semifinals in the city of Belo Horizonte. If Brazil beat Germany, they would advance to the championship match in Rio de Janeiro at the Maracanã, with a chance to finally atone for the Maracanazo. Germany had other plans, and destroyed Brazil 7-1. After the match, the Estado newspaper called the result "the darkest moment in Brazilian footballing history" and demanded that the disgraced players never wear "the sacred uniform" again.
The USA defender smashed the ball away from the American penalty area. On the other side of midfield, the American forward Carin Jennings ran alongside the sideline, tracking the ball as it took two high bounces. A Brazilian defender closely marked Jennings, until the American stopped on a dime and lightly tapped the ball behind her. The momentum of the Brazilian player carried her forward, giving Jennings space. Jennings lifted her head and looked toward the opposite sideline, finding her target. Smacking the ball with her right foot, she sent if flying across the width of the field. The pass was perfectly timed with a run from April Heinrichs, who sprinted through a gaping hole in Brazil's defense. The ball bounced in front of Heinrichs just outside Brazil's penalty box. She didn't have a defender within three yards of her, but the keeper Meg was charging fast. Heinrichs dipped her shoulder to the left, the way a kayaker might plunge an oar into river rapids to quickly slow and change course. Heinrichs slightly drifted into the ball's path. Just as the ball touched the grass, Heinrichs hopped off her left foot while striking a volley with the inside of her right boot. For a split second, she was suspended in midair―both arms straight out to the sides for balance and legs scissored. Before the ball settled into the net, Heinrichs was on her feet again, running back towards midfield to celebrate with teammates.
The USA won the match 5-0 and went on to beat Norway in the championship match.
During the entire tournament, the United States women's national team (USWNT) wore jerseys donated by a US boys youth squad.
Such was the state of women's soccer in 1991.
The athletes in the 1991 Women's World Cup played abbreviated 80-minute games. As Heinrichs would later tell Sports Illustrated, “They were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out if we played 90." Heinrichs and her teammates fed themselves on $10 per diems, avoiding the local Chinese cuisine that compromised American digestive systems. When the USA defeated Norway in the championship match, team-captain Heinrichs did not technically raise the first Women's World Cup trophy. The tournament was actually named the FIFA Women’s World Championship For The M&Ms Cup. Only after the tournament proved successful, with an average match attendance of 19,615, did FIFA retroactively name it the Women's World Cup.
Heinrichs retired after China. In 1998 she became the first female player inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in the US. She served as an assistant coach for the USWNT for the next two Women's World Cups. In 1999, she was at the Rose Bowl when Brandi Chastain's penalty kick wrapped up a second World Cup for the host-country USA in front of 90,185 spectators. Chastain celebrated by pulling off her jersey (manufactured specifically for the women's team) to reveal a black sports bra. She fell to her knees, clutching her shirt in her right hand. The image of Chastain's celebration appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Newsweek, becoming so iconic that a topless Will Ferrell parodied it on the cover of LIFE. In 2003, Heinrichs coached Chastain and a World Cup newcomer called Abby Wambach to a third-place finsih. Afterwards, Heinrichs moved onto consulting for the USWNT. On July 5, 2015, the USWNT became a dynasty, winning its third Women's World Cup. To mark the occasion, The New York Times reached out to Heinrichs. The reporter wanted to know how the sport had progressed since 1991. Remembering the $10 per diems and borrowed jerseys, Heinrichs described the first Women's World Cup as "a cause, a passion." Five days later, the USWNT paraded through Lower Manhattan amid a blizzard of ticker tape.
The next year, Heinrichs visited the FIFA World Football Museum to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the China tournament. She saw her captain's armband and winner's medal neatly mounted alongside the boys youth shirt that she wore during 80-minute games, in pursuit of the M&Ms Cup. The cause and passion had been worth it. When I visited the museum, Andreas and I stood at the Heinrichs installation and talked about women's football in America. After high school, Andreas left his native Germany to play soccer at the University of Central Florida. The men's team was good, Andreas told me. Still, the women's team drew bigger crowds.
In 1991, the USWNT and the 11 other teams that gathered in China were the canaries in the coal mine. When Heinrichs left her feet in a moment of exquisite control and imagination―arms straight to the sides for balance and legs scissored―she proved, much like the tournament as a whole, that women's football could fly as a sport.
In 1998, Zinedine Zidane played in his first World Cup. Things did not start well.
In the group stage, Zidane received a red card and a two-match ban for stepping on a fallen opponent. He returned from suspension for the quarterfinal against Italy, which saw Les Bleus oust the Azzurri. In the semifinals France faced Croatia and won 2-1. This win secured France’s first-ever appearance in a World Cup final. Throughout the tournament, Zidane had helped organize the midfield and dictate build-up play, but he hadn’t scored a goal, and while he had stamped on an opposing player, he had yet to leave his stamp on a game.
All that was about to change.
France was the host country of the 1998 World Cup, and 80,000 people packed the Stade de France for the final against Brazil. In the 27th minute, France’s Lilian Thuram won possession of the ball around midfield and ran down the right sideline into Brazil’s half. The Brazilian left-back Roberto Carlos eventually slowed down Thuram, but the French midfielder Christian Karembeu joined the attack. The two French players played a one-two pass that sent Karembeu into a pocket of space deep in Brazil’s half. A flustered Carlos scrambled past Karembeu for the ball and sloppily kicked it out of play, surrendering a corner kick to France. On the ensuing set piece, Emmanuel Petit delivered an inswinging ball towards the near post of Brazil’s goal. The ball zipped over the head of a leaping Karembeu towards Zidane.
France’s preparation for the corner hadn’t included any choreographed movement. Zidane didn’t make an elaborate run to free himself from the man marking him. He simply jumped above the Brazilian defender Leonardo and allowed the speeding ball to thump off his forehead toward the near post, past the goalkeeper. Zidane celebrated by running towards the stands behind the goal. He hopped up onto a short billboard, branded by Canon, that separated photographers from the field of play. Facing the crowd, Zidane stood on his tiptoes and raised his arms to the sky. On the television broadcast, Jon Champion called, “Liftoff for France!” It was also liftoff for Zidane. France won the match 3-1. It was France’s first World Cup trophy after 68 years of frustration. Paris celebrated by projecting Zidane’s face onto the left side of the Arc de Triomphe under the message “Merci Zizou.” Later in the year Zidane won the Ballon d’Or, acknowledging him as the best footballer in the world, and he was named FIFA Player of the Year for the first time. (Zidane would receive the award twice more before retiring.) To date, only eight players have won the World Cup, the Champions League, and the Ballon d’Or―and Zidane is one of them. In 2004, Pele named him as one of the 100 greatest living players.
As a player, Zidane is closely associated with two plays. In 2002, his Real Madrid club progressed to the finals of the Champions League against Bayer Leverkusen. Roberto Carlos, Zidane’s old nemesis from the 1998 World Cup, also played for Madrid. In the 45th minute, Carlos ran into space up the left wing, closely marked by a defender. Back closer to midfield, Real Madrid's Solari played the ball in front of Carlos. Without breaking stride, the sprinting Carlos lobbed an audacious pass high overhead towards the top of the penalty area to Zidane, whom Carlos had spotted in his peripheral vision. Zidane twisted his torso as you might wind a a music-box ballerina. As the ball descended, his hips swung open and his weaker left foot struck sweet. On its way to goal, the ball swerved left to right and. . . soccer creates space within space, but it also creates time within time, instances when the present slows . . . it dipped just under the crossbar, out of the diving keeper's reach. The goal is widely recognized as one of the best in the history of the Champions League. Then, of course, there was the 2006 World Cup. A 34-year-old Zidane led France to the final in his last game as a footballer. Back in the 1998 final, Jon Champion had described Zidane as “calm amid the clamor.” In 2006, Zidane lost his head, specifically by using it to strike the chest of the Italian defender Marco Materazzi. The headbutt has become synonymous with the name “Zidane,” and it is easily his most memorable World Cup moment. By that point, Zidane was a living legend, with all the awards and trophies and respect of the footballing world, and here he was completely losing his composure under pressure.
The 2006 headbutt is immortal. But I prefer the 1998 header, when Zidane took his first steps toward immortality.
Speaking to the media after the game, Maradona said he scored the goal "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” The Argentina midfielder was being cheeky. “A little with the head of Maradona” meant two things: (1) that the ball had at least grazed his head before illegally bouncing off his left hand and landing in the net, and (2) he used his head by disguising the illegal handball as a legitimate header, thereby outfoxing the referee. “A little with the hand of God” also had a double meaning: (1) Maradona was attributing godliness to himself, and (2) God Himself had interceded in the match to allow the goal to stand. Just as He had previously done to Saul of Damascus, God temporarily blinded the referee. The English players had seen things clearly enough, though. They protested vociferously after the play. Maradona’s teammates also noticed the infraction and assumed the goal would be disallowed. Maradona remembered having to tell his teammates to play along and help him celebrate the “goal," yelling, “Come hug me or the referee isn't going to allow it."
The media immediately seized on Maradona’s turn of phrase and christened the goal "the Hand of God." On its face, an illegal goal seems more in line with the trickster Norse god Loki than Maradona’s conception of god, Jesus Christ. But maybe Maradona was onto something. In his autobiography, Maradona wrote, “Although we said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War, we knew that a lot of Argentine kids had died there, that they had mowed us down like little birds.” Maradona was referring to what the English-speaking world widely terms the Falklands War, a two-month conflict in 1982 that allowed Margaret Thatcher to intoxicate conservatives with memories of empire. In their own small way, Argentina was able to honor the dead and reaffirm its national pride by smiting the English where it mattered to them most: on the football pitch. The match also had some happenstance that one could easily mistake for providential symmetry. The Maldives War occurred in 1982, four (4) years before the England match. And four (4) minutes after Maradona scored the Hand of God, he scored the Goal of the Century, widely acknowledged as the best individual-effort goal of all time. He dribbled for 10 seconds, covering 60 yards and eluding six English opponents, including Peter Reid, whose autobiography describes recurring nightmares of chasing Maradona against a headwind. Those Argentines who listened to Victor Hugo Morales’ commentary on Radio Continental Argentina can on doubt still envision Maradona running, as if on an eternal field of victory. “Maradona forever,” Morales called. “Genius! Genius! Genius! He’s still going! Gooooooooooool.” And because they could not see Maradona, those listeners would be forgiven for mistakenly picturing him in the albiceleste.
Argentina’s signature shirt with white and sky-blue vertical stripes is emblematic of the national team, so much so that the same word, albiceleste, can refer to either the team or the shirt. It seems almost unfair that at his most sublime, Maradona wore Argentina’s dark-blue second jersey. Of course, he had some memorable moments at the 1986 World Cup in the traditional albiceleste, although none would compare to the Hand of God or the Goal of the Century.
During the 2018 World Cup, Maradona cot himself into trouble for his antics in the stands, thanking God for a Messi goal and flipping double birds to Nigerian supporters as the spirit moved him. Back in 1986, his penchant for drama was captured in a moment in the final match against West Germany when the opposition goalkeeper collided with Maradona and the midfielder flew through the air as if shot from a cannon, arms outstretched and body nearly horizontal to the ground. This wasn’t diving. The contact was real, but Maradona, as always, had a way of gilding the edges of every moment.
In his book Why Soccer Matters, Pelé wrote, "I scored 1,283 goals, and only two or three were bicycle kicks.” It's strange, then, that Pelé is so closely associated with this particular move. He scored a couple of bicycles while playing for Santos, his Brazilian club, one during a Brazil / Belgium exhibition match, and another with the New York Cosmos towards the end of his career. In the 1981 film Victory, Pelé performed the kick while playing the part of a POW in a Nazi camp. But like the movie, none of the games in which he scored a bicycle were particularly noteworthy.
By contrast, in the 2018 Champions League, Cristiano Ronaldo scored an incredible bicycle kick, and in the final of the same competition, Ronaldo's teammate Gareth Bale scored another. In 2011, Wayne Rooney netted a bicycle goal while playing for Manchester United in a game against archrival Manchester City. All these goals were sensational and meaningful. People will always remember Ronaldo’s bicycle, but the move will never be synonymous with him as a player. We remember David Beckham for a lot of things, some of which actually involved football. Specifically, Beckham is known as a free-kick maestro, hence the phrase “bend it like Beckham.” This is for good reason. Beckham scored 65 free kicks in his career. Pelé just had a few bicycles, all in forgettable games. So why is the move so closely linked to him, to the extent that people often incorrectly believe that he invented the move?
The short answer: We associate Pelé with the bicycle kick because he did it like no one else. Long answer: We remember Pelé for his bicycle kick for the same reason I remember him in a Santos shirt.
When Ronaldo scored his bicycle this year, we saw it repeatedly via 360-degree video replays in high definition. Broadcasters annotated the footage with blocky “futuristic” typeface and bleep-blop robot sound effects, all of which detailed the height of Ronaldo's jump, the degree of his leg in relation to his torso, the velocity of the preceding cross into the box, the speed of the ball when it left Ronaldo's foot, etc., etc., etcetera. For Pelé , we have gritty video footage of him bicycling for Santos and the New York Cosmos. The 1965 Belgium kick is mostly lost to time. There is no video or radio broadcast. I have yet to find a description of any portion of game play. We only have a pair of photographs taken from different vantage points. Both images are compelling, but only one captures Pelé at his most elegant. In the photo, Pelé's back is horizontal to the ground. He hangs suspended in midair, having just struck the ball. His right leg is at a 90-degree angle to his hips. His arms hang below his torso, ready to brace his reentry to earth. His neck curls forward, chin to chest as he watches the ball leave his foot. The ball itself hovers as a white moon above his forehead. To Pelé's left, an opponent hops off the ground with both feet, arms straight to his sides, eyes closed. To Pelé's right, a teammate is bending his torso forward into a half crescent, puffing out his chest and pushing his hips forward, apparently attempting to chest down the aerial pass that Pelé has just plucked from the sky after flipping onto his back. That’s it. No 360-degree images. No Sportscenter anchor misappropriating street slang with self-perceived coolness while actually sounding more like a narc at a house party. No bleep-blop.
In our story "An American Myth," Pierre Lupesco asked, “How do you define soul in a suit? I don't even know if the words have been invented yet. The fact is that you can see it. You feel it.” The same goes for bicycle kicks. Ronaldo's bicycle kick was stunning, but images of his suspended body don’t remind me of the Barcelona Chair or Farnsworth House, whereas Pelé's Belgian bicycle does, at least for me. In a similar way, the last 30 years of NBA Slam Dunk Contests have brought us Vince Carter’s through-the-legs windmill, Dwight Howard doing a Superman wardrobe change inside a phone booth, Gerald Green blowing out the candle in a cupcake positioned on the back of the rim, and Blake Griffin jumping over an automobile. But still nothing compares to Michael Jordan gliding from the foul line in 1988. Jordan’s dunk was simple but resonant. Blake Griffin’s dunk was a fantastic spectacle, but spectacles exist outside of us. When you see Jordan or Pelé in flight, the beauty of their movement seems to originate―somehow, impossibly―from within ourselves.
The Belgium photo is by far the best-known image of Pelé doing a bicycle kick. I wonder if its ubiquity and expressiveness contributes to the conflation of the kick with Pelé himself. The image so perfectly captures what Pelé brought to his sport that we identify him with it. And as for my thinking of Pelé in the white shirt of Santos, the photo is in black and white. Pelé wears the camisa caraninho of Brazil, but the bright yellow appears white on film. And so this photo, which speaks so truthfully about Pele in so many ways has, on at least two counts, deceived us.
After viewing the collection of historic jerseys in the basement of the FIFA World Football Museum, I return to where my tour started. In the foyeur, a colection of 211 contemporary jerseys, which the museum refers to as "the rainbow," are arranged in a curved glass display, organized by color. Before we say goodbye, Andreas tells me about the rainbow.