El Negro sat on the far corner of the half-empty bar, sipping unperturbed from his bottle of Brahma Chopp, quietly going over the details of what had just happened. He was almost unrecognisable in his grey suit and pressed white shirt, short hair gelled back in the style of the other Negro, Andrade, twenty years before him. Four times. Four times, Negro. Qué barbaridad. He shook his head lightly as he contemplated the magnitude of the achievement. The frost on the bottle of beer soon turned into a dew that flowed, like tears, down the face of the green glass. And we’re but a little country, che, a tiny little country. Four times champions of the world, Negro. Can you believe it? And he couldn’t.
When he arrived there was hardly anyone in the establishment—just the owner behind the counter, listening to the radio. No, not even that. Not even listening, for there was nothing the radio could do or say to ease the pain lodged—entrenched—in the deepest core of his sensibility. There was nothing the radio could do or say to make him feel better and yet the owner of the bar didn’t even entertain the possibility of switching it off because this was the sort of pain—the sort of bereavement, really—that inevitably had to be experienced collectively, had to be shared with each other on perhaps the one day when foes ceased to exist—at least temporarily—as the entire country—even those in odious Sao Paulo—was gripped with a sense of confusion and disbelief, of solidarity and awe at the extent and nature of this calamity, and even at the fashion in which it had come.
So when El Negro entered the bar, fully suited and booted, clean shaven and hair carefully groomed in the style of José Leandro Andrade, the owner of the bar just sat behind the counter close to tears, absentmindedly not-listening to the radio commentary, so far abstracted in his own world—in his own grief—that he didn’t notice when El Negro asked with a thick Spanish accent uma cerveja por favor, nor did he register the dark thoughtful eyes—almost sentimental—that looked at him with a combination of sympathy and shame.
But by now the bar was getting busy as a steady crowd filtered out of the Maracaná and into the premises of the different establishments offering the apparent comfort of processing the disillusion in the company of strangers—a desperate attempt at catharsis that was as unhelpful as it was impossible to avoid. And so, amidst the woe and the how can it be, amidst discussions about the goalkeeper’s duty to cover the near post first and foremost and the weak counter-attacking tactics employed by the Uruguayans to unsettle the local eleven—o futebol não é jogado assim; mais que o futebol, os uruguaios jogaram na loteria—a few suspicious customers began to question the presence of the man in the grey flannel suit and the funny accent drinking Brahma Chopp by himself in the far corner.
Cuatro veces, Negro—¿te imaginás? Cuatro veces. Es sencillamente espeluznante, Negro. Espectacular. Four times now, the occasions in which his country had been able to claim the title of world champions. Four times—what a feat. Four consecutive times too, because Uruguay had not taken part in the previous two world cups played in Europe. Such a small country, Uruguay, and four times already it had been able to call itself champion of the world. Four times is not little. Four times is no mean feat. Uruguay, a large football pitch surrounded by small villages all around it. Four times world champions, and at least he had contributed to one of the triumphs. Outra cerveja por favor, and as soon as he asked for his fifth or sixth beer he could feel the weight of all the eyes in the world or at least all the eyes in that bar shifting in his direction and scrutinising him.
Você é um estrangeiro?, and the words came across more as a threat than a question. The first person to approach El Negro was a white man in a white shirt, beige slacks and a Panama hat. Você não é daqui and El Negro sipped impassively from the green bottle with the red label and the foamy German stein, not even looking up, eyes focused on the dew of his beer, still abstracted—mesmerised—by the dimension of his—of their—victory. No, he finally said, soy uruguayo and the Earth stopped spinning, and the Universe stopped expanding, and every single person in that room paused, gasped or held their breath because they were all already looking in his direction. Uruguaio? And what are you doing here? The question was oddly relevant. What in the world was he doing there? He should have been with his teammates, he should have been celebrating, he should have been recovering from the greatest exertion in the world. Instead he was drinking on his own in hostile territory and he simply could not explain why. He couldn’t explain what he was doing there, what had ever led him to this place, he couldn’t even tell what it was he was looking for, he had simply followed an instinct that had taken him there for no reason and without explanation. I’m here for the football, just like you I suppose. And despite the fact that Uruguay had just orchestrated the greatest upset in the history of the sport there was no defiance in the words he spoke, not even pride, just a plainly human form of empathy.
So what did you make of it? The crowd had quickly gathered around the foreigner and they now drank together. Bárbaro, che. Bárbaro. No words could describe what El Negro had made of it and he wouldn’t have known how to put it across to his interlocutors in the first place but the melancholy in the words he did speak resonated in the deflated spirits of the Brazilians at the bar, and to a man every single person understood that very moment that they were witnessing something special, something that was not only above and beyond the anger and the frustration that came with defeat but actually something that very obviously was also greater than the elation of victory: something unique that one day they would be able to tell their children and grandchildren.
And oh, if Jair had—but it wasn’t about Jair. And oh, if Ademir had—but it wasn’t about Ademir. And oh, if Friaça had—but it wasn’t about Friaça, nor was it about Schiaffino and it certainly wasn’t about Míguez. And slowly the crowd got frustrated, agitated with this calm and composed foreigner who thought the game had been about none of the players who played it. But there can be no denying that if Barbosa, and again El Negro interrupted the flow of the conversation and Don’t be blaming Barbosa, che, don’t be blaming Ghiggia—he could have crossed that ball instead of shooting and it still wouldn’t have made a difference at which point an infuriated Brazilian slammed his bottle of Brahma Chopp on the counter and So what did make the difference, Mr Knowitall!?
El destino, che. Ha sido todo cosa del destino. The crowd burst into laughter caught halfway between amusement and scorn but this impassive Uruguayan remained unperturbed, his face still as a sculpture, his attitude as serene as it was nostalgic. And when exactly did you figure out it was all written in the stars, forasteiro? El Negro took a long pause, had a swig from his beer, held the top of his nose with his left thumb and middle finger digging into the corner of his eyes as he contemplated the question. I realised when you scored that we could only win this game if God was on our side. If the game followed its natural dynamic we would have lost by three or four or five goals. That’s why I picked the ball out of the net and went to speak to the linesman—not because there was much to complain about but because if I was going to allow God to do His thing I needed to break the natural rhythm of the game. Jaws dropped as one by one as the people gathered around El Negro began to realise—speculate, really, at first—that this man had actually taken part in the final of the world cup. (Can you believe it? Are you sure? Were you there, at the stadium, watching? Do you recognise him? Do I recognise him? Are you kidding? Did you not hear what he just said? He’s the man who went to complain to the referee about Friaça’s goal. You mean the black player? He can’t be the black player—look at him! He isn’t even black—at least not as black as that black player was. Or is he? And If he went to speak to the referee he must be their captain. Think about it, a black man captaining the national side. Except he’s not that black, that’s why he could be the captain of the national side, because he is not that black, and in that grey flannel suit all ironed and with his face shaven and cleaned, and with his hair gelled all the way back he doesn’t look that black. In fact he doesn’t look black at all, just a little dark, and Look at him, sitting here among us, not boasting, not even celebrating, just talking, almost sad, like any other fan, just talking like another victim of what he calls el destino—would a regular black man do that? Would a Brazilian black man behave this way? I don’t think so! And If one did, if one ever did then he’d deserve to captain our national side. But I don’t think one ever will, because it takes a foreign black man to display this amount of dignity, it takes a better black man to be the captain of your country, a superior black man than the black men we have in Brazil.)
But the moment when I knew, when I really understood we were meant to win this game was when Ghiggia scored that goal and just the sound of that name, the reference to the Dreadful Moment was enough to send bodies shaking, to allow a sense of mourning to settle in the room. Not because we went ahead, there was still plenty of time for you to score, and the pain deepened, reinforced by the knowledge that even the enemy had been aware of the threat posed by Brazil’s firepower, but because of the silence that suddenly could be heard in the stadium, and not a word could be heard in the bar. Two hundred thousand people suddenly muted by the weight of reality—even the few dozen Uruguayans who might have been there. That silence, the loudest thing you will ever experience in your lives, that silence told me that destiny was on our side. I’m afraid I don’t know it all, mister, but I’ll gladly tell you my name: I’m Obdulio Varela, the captain of Uruguay’s national football team, and you can call me El Negro if you please—that’s what all my friends call me. By now the bar was sunken in a lugubrious atmosphere of awe and pain. I’m sorry we spoiled your party, you know, but I get a feeling we had little to do with it. Varela’s eyes were bloodshot, his voice cracking under the effects of the beer or the emotion. We could play that game one hundred times again, and ninety-nine times Brazil would come on top. Today was just the day when the toast did not land on the buttered side. El Negro threw his arms in the air. He was through, drained, almost devastated. A tear ran down his face but he did not bother drying it. He gathered himself, the tragic hero accepting his fate, paid his bill and made his way into the chilly Rio night. At the bar people would have clapped as he walked past them if they had found the strength to do so. But they didn’t. Instead, the only thing that could be heard in that place once he departed it was the deafening roar of silence.