Brazil had blown up on home ground in the final game of the 1950 World Cup. Four years later they lost their heads and brawled their way to a quarter-final defeat by Hungary in the infamous Battle of Berne. Might they never be world champions? Would they always be too brittle on the big occasion?
They were not among the main favourites for Sweden in 1958. Two years earlier, on a European tour, they lost 3-0 to Italy and 4-2 to England. They were second to Argentina in the 1957 Copa America. But at the start of 1958, Joao Havelange took over as boss of Brazil’s FA. This meant that, if nothing else, they were going to be organized off the field and well prepared on it. They travelled to Sweden with a back-up staff that was years ahead of its time – physical preparation specialists, doctors, a dentist and even a premature experiment with a sports psychologist.
In tactical terms, too, lessons had been learned from the pain of past defeats – especially the way in 1950 that Uruguay’s right winger Alcides Ghiggia had been able to breach their defence and win the game. Brazilian coaches, with input from Uruguayans and Hungarians working in the country, inched towards a new idea – withdrawing an extra player to the heart of the defence to provide extra cover. The modern back four was born.
With two centre-backs shielded by a holding midfielder, Brazil protected their goal with a formidable barrier. And the extra defender in the middle allowed the full-backs to move wider and push forward into the space in front of them. The basic template for Brazil’s golden years – three World Cup wins in four tournament between 1958 and 1970 – had been discovered.
After some haggling between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the twin power cities of the Brazilian game, the choice to coach the side was Vicente Feola, a portly, unprepossessing figure who had worked as assistant to Bela Guttman, the legendary Hungarian. Feola’s side started off their World Cup campaign with four clean sheets – they did not concede a goal until the semi-final. Such defensive meanness meant that the team derived full value from every piece of attacking brilliance. And as the tournament wore on, the genius began to flourish.
The first game, a 3-0 win over Austria, featured a goal from rampaging left-back Nilton Santos, pointing the way towards the future. But it was after the next match, a goalless draw with England, that the pieces started to fit together.
For the last group game against the USSR the combative Zito came into the heart of the midfield, freeing the brains of the side, playmaker Didi, to pull the strings with his superb range of passing. The new 4-2-4 system placed a heavy burden on the midfield duo – hence the importance of the left winger Mario Zagallo. Years ahead of his time, Zagallo carried out a double function. As well as his talented wing play he worked back tirelessly when the team lost possession.
This game, though, belonged to the man who came into the side on the other flank. There had been concerns that right winger Garrincha was too much of a loose cannon. He quickly showed that it was irresponsible not to pick him, destroying and demoralizing the Soviet defence from the kick-off. No player has ever made football look as much like a bullfight – in which no one dies but defenders are humiliated. Everyone knew what Garrincha was going to do: beat the full-back on the outside. But no one seemed able to stop this ‘angel with twisted legs’, as he was known, and he laid on both goals in a 2-0 win for brave centre-forward Vava.
Brought into the side at the same time was a skinny 17-year-old with a glowing reputation called Pele. He was not an instant hit.
As the quarter-final against a defiant Wales side stayed goalless, up in the commentary box Leonidas, the greatest player Brazil had produced up to that point, was adamant that Pele should be dropped. And then he won the game with a piece of magic, conjuring space where none seemed available in the penalty area and poking home. It was, he maintains, the most important goal of his career, taking Brazil into the last four and filling him with the confidence to try amazing things.
By now Brazil really were on a roll. Over the next eight years, while Pele and Garrincha were both on the field, they never lost a game – and won most of them in style. They finally conceded in the semi-final against free-scoring France. But in a time before substitutions the French were hampered by a serious injury to one of their defenders, and a second half Pele hat-trick helped Brazil to a 5-2 win.
The final was against the hosts, with the home crowd whipped up into a patriotic frenzy before kick-off. Sweden scored first. Previous Brazil sides might have crumbled. Not this one, with its organizational backbone and well justified confidence.
One of the most striking images is of Didi picking the ball out of the back of the net and calmly walking to the halfway line with it tucked under his arm, reassuring his team-mates as he went that this would be their day. Garrincha gave another show on the right wing, Vava was once more the cutting edge, and Pele grabbed the headlines with two more goals. His first, which made it 3-1 and in effect decided the game, is an all-time classic, Pele lobbing the ball over a defender before firing home.
The final score was 5-2, and in the course of a couple of weeks Brazil had gone from interesting but unreliable outsiders to one of the greatest ever world champions. Sweden 1958 is still the only time they have won the World Cup in Europe.