October 28, 2020

The story behind Brazil’s 1970 World Cup win

Mexico 1970 is the brightest jewel in Brazil’s five studded crown. It is the benchmark for subsequent World Cups, the side against which other winners of the tournament are frequently weighed and found wanting.

The 1958 side are the only ones to have triumphed in Europe. They defended better and on a man-for-man basis they would come out on top when measured against their predecessors from 12 years later. But quite apart from their own genius, the 1970 team can count on a powerful advantage – television.

This was the first World Cup to be shown live in much of the planet, including Brazil. And even in black and white, those images in the fierce Mexican sunshine had a seductive, shimmering, other worldly quality. A connection was instantly made between two moments of human achievement – the magic of Brazil’s football and the first landing on the moon, another global TV event which had taken place a few months earlier.

Incredibly, there is a link. Brazil’s physical preparation specialists were well connected in the United States, and used data from NASA to get the team ready for Mexico. NASA had conducted research into human endurance in extreme conditions. This was to prove very useful for Mexico; the games took place in unrelenting afternoon high summer heat, with the additional challenge of altitude at Mexico City. 

With a full three months to prepare, Brazil were in superb condition. Time and time again they turned the screw in the second half. Of the 19 goals they scored in the tournament, 12 came after the interval.

The Brazil of 1970, then, were miles away from the cheap stereotype of a carefree gang hauled off the beach. The team was the outcome of careful planning and hard politics.

Part of the explanation for the failure of 1966, when the team fell in the group stage, was that Brazilian football had become a victim of its own success. The cities of Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre had grown, and were jockeying for position with the traditional centres of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In an age when the big stars still played at home, each region pushed hard for its own players to be part of the national team. The build-up for 1966 began with an unwieldy 44 players.

FA boss Joao Havelange took a bold and, on the face of it, unlikely decision. For the 1970 qualifiers he appointed Joao Saldanha as national team coach. Saldanha was not only more of a journalist than a coach, he was also a communist – at a time when Brazil was ruled by a hard-line, right-wing military dictatorship. But the new man knew his own mind. He began his first press conference by naming his first XI, plus substitutes, putting an instant stop to the intrigue.

Saldanha’s side breezed through an easy qualification group with Pele, who had been reluctant to play at another World Cup, back on board and determined to go out on a high. But into 1970 Saldanha was behaving oddly, perhaps feeling pressure from the dictatorship. His relationship with Pele deteriorated, and three months before the World Cup he was sacked.

His replacement – initially only the third choice – was Mario Zagallo, who as a hard-working left winger had been so important to the triumphs of 1958 and 1962. Then he had been a symbol of the quest to balance defence with attack, and now he played the same role as coach.

Saldanha’s side had been playing 4-2-4 – far too open to win in Mexico, thought Zagallo. And so, with surgical precision, he went to operate on the team. Piazza was dropped from centre midfield to centre-back, giving him more quality in defence and making space for the dynamic young Clodoaldo to come in and take some of the midfield strain off playmaker Gerson. 

Rivelino came in as a false left-winger, and the jigsaw was complete when Tostao recovered from an eye injury to take his place at centre-forward and dovetail sweetly with Pele. The rebuilt side could be seen – Zagallo is happy to see them – as a prototype of modern 4-2-3-1. One of the key ideas was that when possession was lost all but Tostao would drop behind the line of the ball, forming a compact block.

It also meant they created space for the surges of the secret weapon, right-winger Jairzinho. With pace, power and close control, Jairzinho blended superbly with the subtlety of Tostao and the superb decision-making of the latter age Pele. He ran at terrified defences and scored in every game.

The most important goal – in the opinion of many of the team – was the one that beat reigning champions England in a magnificent group game. The victory meant that Brazil topped the group and stayed in Guadalajara to face Peru and then Uruguay. England, meanwhile, went off to take on the Germans, losing in extra time. 

The tired Germans then took Italy to extra time before losing, which tired the Italians. The first half of the Brazil vs Italy final was an even game. After the break it was one-way traffic as Brazil cruised to a 4-1 win, taking possession of the Jules Rimet trophy as a prize for their third World Cup triumph.

The fourth goal, scored by right-back and captain Carlos Alberto, rightly sticks in the memory. It serves as a summary of everything that made the team so great. Tostao had the legs to run back into his own half and win the ball, and Clodoaldo danced his way through an exhausted Italian midfield. Jairzinho moved over to the left, a pre-planned move aimed at dragging his marker across to create space for Carlos Alberto. With glorious simplicity, Pele rolled the ball into the path of the captain, who fired emphatically home. 

Physical fitness, tactical intelligence, Pele at his most collective with a superb supporting cast – it all added up to the magic of Brazil at the 1970 World Cup.

Tim Vickery

Tim Vickery

Tim Vickery is a football writer based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He covers the South American game for ESPN, the BBC, World Soccer and others.

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