Moacyr Barbosa’s Ball and Chain

 by John Cooper
by John Cooper

It was the 1950 World Cup. Brazil had enjoyed a run of high-scoring victories, having defeated Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1. The competition was organised in an unusual format, in which the winners of each group went into a final group stage to determine the overall winner. Brazil only needed a draw against Uruguay to be declared champions on their own soil, and everyone expected them to achieve it. The team was awarded congratulatory gold watches, and the Rio newspaper O Mundo declared them ‘world champions’ in advance.

79 minutes into the game, it was 1-1. Uruguay had equalised 13 minutes previously through a cross from the right wing, and it looked like their winger Alcides Ghiggia was about to pull the same move again.

The Brazilian goalkeeper, Moacyr Barbosa, stepped to the right, anticipating the cross. That one step cost his nation the tournament. Instead of crossing, Ghiggia shot towards the near post.

Brazil wept.

I don’t know what you make of football; whether you consider it of enormous importance, or you’re the kind of person who rolls their eyes and mutters ‘it’s just a game!’ But for many Brazilians, this was considered a national tragedy. And Barbosa was to blame.

Until his dying day, the goalkeeper was reviled by the public. He was banned from visiting the Brazilian training camp, lest he brought the team bad luck. On one occasion, some twenty years later, a woman in a marketplace pointed him out and told her child, ‘Look – that’s the man who made all of brazil cry!’

Shortly before his death in 2000, Barbosa said:

‘Under Brazilian law, the maximum sentence is 30 years. But my imprisonment has been for 50.’

I can’t imagine what it feels like to have the expectations of a nation weighing on your shoulders, or the hatred of a nation like a chain around your neck. The Apostle Paul writes,

‘Am I trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.’ (Galatians 1:10)

For Paul, there’s a vast difference between the approval that comes from God and that which comes from humans. Some imagine God to be a crushing taskmaster, setting standards we cannot achieve and condemning us the moment we fail. But in fact, it’s often the pursuit of approval from other people that can be a crushing burden. We measure ourselves against others. Our standards are fickle and changeable. We cannot shake the feeling that we might not be good enough.

By contrast, God’s standard is unwavering and His mercy unending. He loves us not based on our own merits, but because He is, Himself, Love. And through His self-giving sacrifice He removes our inadequacies and empowers us to live lives that are pleasing to Him.

His invitation through Jesus is a comforting one,

“Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest […] For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

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