Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Greatest Part III: 1970 Brazil

Known simply as one of the greatest teams ever, the squad Brazil sent to the 1970 World Cup still lingers in the minds of soccer fans around the world. Displaying a stereotypical attacking flair, Brazil took this almost to the point at which naivety supplants a realistic desire to win.

Indeed, they toed the line that straddles idealism and realism, choosing to win, but doing it with a style that few World Cup squads have matched in the years since.

Theirs was a victory for the pre-systemic age, with a squad full of eccentric talents who preferred fluidity to solidarity. No World Cup winner has allowed so many goals since Brazil leaked seven in 1970, but that was missing the point. With such an emphasis placed on attack, defending their own net was nearly an afterthought.

Defeating Italy 4-1 in the final (held in Mexico City’s Azteca stadium), it was the beginning and the end of imagination all at once.

“I don’t choose the President’s ministry and he doesn’t choose my forward line”

The aftermath of Brazil’s demise at the England 1966 World Cup was bitter. Following the victories in ’58 and ’62, success had strictly become a measurement of World Cup trophies. Since Brazil had not only failed to win, but foundered in a particularly un-Brazilian first round exit, the backlash was predictably harsh.

Pele, by now a hero in Brazil and two-time world champion, had been so discouraged by the cynical tackling he’d endured in ’66 that he retired briefly from playing for Brazil. Yet the man known simply as El Rey decided to give it one last try in the World Cup’s first ever visit to Mexico in 1970.

Even with the great Pele on board, Brazil’s team was still in disarray. Coach Joao Saldanha was as outspoken as he was controversial. He accused Pele of not playing defense and even challenged military dictator Emilio Medici publicly. 

After cutting forward Dario (a presidential favorite) he responded to criticism by angrily saying “I don’t choose the president’s ministry, and he doesn’t choose my forward line.”

After losing at home to Argentina (who actually failed to qualify in 1970), the conveyer belt to his removal was engaged. A final outburst (remarkably insulting Pele once more) was the last straw and he was removed.

To lead the team, Brazil hit on a masterstroke, selecting the recently retired Mario Zagallo. Formerly a versatile winger and a teammate of Pele’s in ’58 and ’62, Zagallo quickly realized that his role was one of overall management, not specific tactics.

Whereas Saldanha’s approach to team selection had been reactive (in trying to combat the physicality of 1966) Zagallo went the other way entirely:

“What this team needs are great players, players who are intelligent. Let’s go with that and see where it takes us.”

It led to one of the most sensational explosions of style and offense in the prestigious history of the tournament.

The greatest World Cup team of all time

Zagallo’s decision to go with as much skill as possible created a fascinating team layout, filled to the brim with talent above any other measurement. It was the kind of dream team that so many rich owners have tried to recreate in recent years.

Typical of a Brazilian team in that era, Felix was a pedestrian goalie. Though some of the goals he conceded weren’t his fault, his presence was more of a passenger anyway, considering the firepower playing in front of him.

At left back, Everaldo was as defensive a presence as a Brazilian outside-back can be (meaning that he still created on offense, just not as much as usual.) This allowed his right-sided counterpart, Carlos Alberto, to shuttle forwards and backwards on a regular basis (a tactic which was to have formidable results.)

Central defense for Brazil was a typical partnership. Wilson Piazza, a former midfielder, stepped back into the defense to become the quarto zagiero  (‘fourth defender’), capable of starting attacks instantaneously.

His partner, Brito, was a classic center back at 6’2” and his aerial presence prevented more direct teams from counterattacking over the top.

In the midfield, things got interesting. Clodoaldo had been brought in at the end of Saldanha’s tenure (arguably his finest managerial decision) to play as an all action central midfielder whose energy and constant movement cancelled out the occasional lapse in judgment.

Alongside him, Gerson was a much more cerebral center midfielder, able to pull the strings like an early forerunner to Xavi.

Rivelino, himself a classic central attacking midfielder (what Brazilians call the ponta de lanca), was stationed out left. Though this was theoretically a disadvantage (since it was an unnatural position) it inadvertently solved a defensive problem that would have otherwise been exposed.

As Everaldo attacked significantly less than a usual Brazilian outside back, Rivelino’s tendency to sit deeper and act as another playmaker helped defensively to prevent a gap developing between the defense and the midfield.

While the left side did not have a traditional winger, the right side was completely different. Nicknamed ‘Furacao’ (meaning ‘Hurricane’) due to his explosiveness off the right wing, Jairzinho added a directness to the attack that proved indispensable.

That left the center forwards. No one would ever have accused either Tostao or Pele of being traditional target men.

Both were accustomed to dropping off the front line and finding space in front of the opposition’s center backs. This seemed to create a sense of redundancy (which could have been problematic.)

Yet both were also very intelligent players. And in the age before two holding midfielders became a normal practice, their fluid style worked. Swapping roles seamlessly during the flow of play, they ended up complementing each other quite proficiently.

Futebol arte vs. futebol de resultado

After much speculation, Brazil ended up breezing through what could have been a problematic group stage. In their first group game, they came from behind against Czechoslovakia 4-1 with Pele just missing a chip shot from centerfield (he eventually did score).

The second game came against defending champion England. It was a classic contest where the English simply couldn’t generate a goal but played magnificent defense.

The English goalkeeper, Gordon Banks, denied Pele’s header on what has been called “the Save of the Century.” Added to this, the gallant Bobby Moore, whose iconic history included being captain of England’s only World Cup winner, broke up Brazilian attacks with his characteristically placid demeanor.

It took a moment of pure magic from first Tostao (dribbling by three men), then Pele (applying a perfect first touch and layoff), with finally Jairzinho emphatically depositing the ball into the roof of the net. Brazil held on to win 1-0.

In their last group game, Romania was swept aside by a seemingly bored Brazil (who conceded two poor goals in a 3-2 win).

The second round was more of the same, as Brazil hid some sloppy defending with an onslaught of offense. A solid Chilean team was thrashed 4-2. Uruguay (who had been a specter for Brazil since winning in the 1950 final) bore witness to another Brazilian comeback (3-1).

The final was accurately billed as futebol arte (football art) vs. futebol de resultado (football for the result.) It was Brazil’s mercurial flair vs. Italy’s methodical defense.

After all, the Italians had become synonymous with defensive soccer after unleashing Catenaccio (which means ‘door-bolt’) on an unsuspecting world.

They were a shrewd team, who lured opponents into the Italian side of the field, hoping to exploit an over-commitment with a quick counterattack. Theoretically a dangerous tactic, it was born out of the knowledge that they always had a spare man in defense (the Libero).

As the final kicked off before a crowd of over 107,000, the tone for the game’s flow was set quickly. Brazil, a side who craved possession, dominated the ball and the pace. The Italians, content to defend, were further inhibited from pressing on defense because of the sapping heat and altitude of Mexico City.

Fittingly, it was Pele who struck first for the Brazil. His goal proved once and for all his versatility. The diminutive star rose above his much bigger marker at the back post to nod in a perfectly placed header (Brazil 1, Italy 0.)

It’s interesting in retrospect, but had Pele not scored early to give Brazil a lead (or, more importantly a deficit for the Italians) then the complexion of the final could have been much different. In forcing Italy to attack, the game became much more open.

Of course, the Italian equalizer was attributed more from careless Brazilian passing than anything else. Still, Roberto Boninsegna took full advantage of Clodoaldo’s horrible back pass (which put the Italian poacher through on goal) and the game was once again deadlocked (1-1).

Yet instead of making further inroads, the Italians were content to defend. As Pele noted:

“The Italian team made no effort to attack but retreated to their normal defensive game, and it gave us the chance we needed to recover our spirits and our morale.”

The Italians made no major tactical changes at halftime, content to continue with a strict man-marking system. They also made absolutely no effort to press the Brazilians, allowing the South Americans a continued monopolization of possession.

With such a feeble approach, the Italians put the onus on Brazil to dictate the final score. The Brazilians were more than happy to oblige.

Gerson, the clever center midfielder who the Italians had allowed so much space, eventually found the go-ahead goal. Drifting forward unchecked, he seized possession and cut left, unleashing an unstoppable blast into the far corner (2-1).

Their lead regained, Brazil looked more and more assured. And it was Gerson who was again pivotal in creating the third goal. His adventurous free kick found Pele perfectly, who headed (also perfectly) into ">Jairzinho’s streaking path at the far post (the ball bundled in, but it was still a goal, making the game 3-1).

The result was, for all intensive purposes, no longer in doubt. The World Cup was won. Yet instead of simply trying to end the game (and retain possession) they added one final goal.

The finest team goal in World Cup history…and the aftermath

Clodoaldo (Gerson’s rapid partner in central midfield) had all but forgotten about his costly back-heel that resulted in Italy’s first half goal. In a microcosm for Brazil’s general team attitude, they were not bowed down by misfortune (even when self-inflicted).

Thus it was with the youthful Clodoaldo that the move toward Brazil’s fourth (and finest) goal originated. Walking through a vaunted Italian midfield, he shook off four defenders before finding Rivelino on the left who quickly released Jairzinho further up-field.

The Hurricane, popping up now on the left, took advantage of Italy’s man marking system. In switching flanks, he drew the Italian Captain and left back (Giacinto Facchetti) out of position. It was a space that Pele claims the Brazilians knew would be there:

“We knew that Italy was marking man to man, and that Fachetti, the left back, was following Jairzinho. So whenever Jairzinho strayed from the right wing there was a space there—which we called ‘the avenue’.”

Earlier attempts to exploit ‘the avenue’ had failed, but this time the Brazilians gauged it perfectly. Jairzinho spotted Pele in the center (the latter having dropped deep in a seamless switch with Tostao). El Rey received the ball, swiveled to face goal and then…hesitated. 

And hesitated some more....before finally rolling the ball to his right into a seemingly empty space.

In that exact moment, the 90 million viewers watching from all over the world (for the first time in bright, vivid color) realized that which the spellbound Italians finally did. With differing reactions, they each saw Carlos Alberto charging in from the right flank, completely unmarked.

This was the moment when Brazilian fluidity truly triumphed over Italian rigidity. And Zagollo’s decision to go with skill over muscle was able to take full advantage. Carlos Alberto, a fullback with skills like a forward, applied a thundering finish which still stirs heartfelt reactions from even the most unattached observers.

It was a fine end to a glorious victory. True to their image, Brazil had scored when they should have defended (and the goal was fittingly adventurous). To the chagrin of every non-Italian fan, the game finally ended and Carlos Alberto, the captain, gratefully clutched the Jules Rimet trophy.

Brazil had once again proved that force of personality could overwhelm the system. Yet even in the greatest ever triumph of a non-systemic team, the age of simply “selecting the most talented players and letting them play” was ending.

Since 1970, Brazil’s future champions (in ’94 and ’02) have played much more defensively. And with the exception of Argentina in 1978 or France in 1998, no other winning team has even come close to the same attacking mentality.

Yet 1970 Brazil remain a bridge from the old soccer world into the new. As the first team to win a World Cup broadcast in color, they’re status was immortalized immediately (with a quickness that foretold the coming globalization).

And as a team composed of many ethnicities, they represented the hope of a future where traditional barriers could be overcome. Taking no short cuts, they achieved greatness through pure class.

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