Every footballer dreams of lifting the World Cup. Some achieve this goal, and others sit in the rarefied air of winning it on multiple occasions. Mário Zagallo is in a league of his own though when it comes to conquering the footballing world. He won it twice as a player before repeating the feat twice more as a manager and assistant manager respectively. Four times a world champion, it’s greedy by all accounts.
The great Brazilian’s fingerprints are indelibly stamped across his country’s World Cup history, and therefore stamped across the finest World Cup history there is. His first winner’s medal came as part of the famous Brazil side of 1952.
Pelé scored twice in the 5-2 victory over Sweden and Zagallo marked the final with a goal of his own. Four years later he collected his second medal, but unlike most sporting stories reaching the pinnacle of his profession is only the beginning of Zagallo’s tale.
Zagallo ended his playing career with Botafogo in 1965 and would go on to manage Fogãoa a year later. His talent translated to winning the Taca Brasil and a pair of Rio State Championships and Guanabara Cups in his first two years in the job. At the same time, the Brazilian national team was experiencing something of a malaise.
An astoundingly gifted group of players were kicked, body checked and ultimately dumped out of the 1966 World Cup. The manner in which opposition teams targeted Brazil was nothing short of shocking. Yet there was an underlying sense that such a rudimentary tactic should not destabilise what was supposed to be the finest team on the planet.
Pelé in particular had been on the receiving end of some dreadful challenges against first Bulgaria and then Portugal. The great Brazilian proclaimed he would never play at a World Cup again, but would thankfully renege on the statement.
The Brazilian FA turned to Zagallo who had been a fine player – and one who could combine Samba flair with gritty steel. He was charged with transforming Brazil’s fortunes but after brief stint in charge from 1967 to 1968 he turned his focus back to Botafogo.
Two years later, in 1970, and with his tenure at Botafogo now over, Zagallo returned to the most coveted and pressurised managerial job in Brazilian if not world football. True to form he won the World Cup the same year, with his tactical astuteness and attention to detail proving to be vital in Brazil’s success in Mexico.
Zagallo took his team to Guanajuato for a 21-day training camp. The location was at a similar altitude to Mexico City where the World Cup final would be held. It played an important role in getting a team of undoubtedly gifted players into the best physical shape of their careers. While physicality was indispensable to Zagallo he also had a keen tactical brain, which would be instrumental in taking Brazil back to the summit of the game.
The Seleção had qualified for the competition playing 4-2-4 – a formation Zagallo felt was out of date and would leave them exposed at a major international tournament. He would instead utilise a 4-3-3 – the same formation with which Brazil were victorious in 1958 – and brought the mesmerising talents of Rivellino into midfield.
Rivellino had been the odd man out in previous Brazil teams and struggled to hold down a place in the starting line-up, but under Zagallo he would become central to their success. Vitally, he could not only cause damage from the left but his sheer presence allowed more room for Pelé to work his devastating brand of brilliance.
It was a decision that Pelé himself regarded as completing arguably Brazil’s greatest team. Along the way to the final Brazil first bested world champions England in the group stage. It was a scintillating game between two world-class sides and Brazil came out narrow 1-0 winners.
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Zagallo in 1974
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Brazil’s biggest hurdle en route to the final though came in the semi-final and was a match played as much in the mind as on the pitch. The 1950 World Cup final will forever be remembered among Brazilian’s as the tragedy of the Maracanã. That day Uruguay produced one of football’s all-time great upsets to take the World Cup from Brazil in their front room.
A nervy first half saw the scores tied at 1-1 and Zagallo’s team talk would turn the tide. A rejuvenated second-half showing led to a 3-1 win – and the ghosts of 1950 had been exorcised. The final would be an altogether more comfortable occasion as Zagallo’s attention to detail made it one of the World Cup’s most one-sided finals.
Played at over 2,000 feet above sea level, Zagallo’s side finally reaped the rewards of their three-week pre-tournament boot camp. They were fitter, stronger and overall better than their Italian opponents and Brazil stormed to a 4-1 victory.
The fourth goal in the game, which was scored by Carlos Alberto, is one of the most replayed and talked about ever. From the steady build up play to Pelé’s languid, perfectly paced pass, and the exquisitely timed run and thumping finish it was the ideal way to crown Zagallo’s greatest managerial achievement.
Zagallo went on to take Brazil to the 1974 semi-final before having further success with Al-Hilal and Kuwait. He then took the United Arab Emirates to their first ever World Cup at Italia 90. Zagallo’s ability to work with the finest football talent as well as inspiring players to overachieve is perhaps his finest asset.
During this same period Brazilian football went into hibernation as the glories of 1958, ‘62 and ‘70 faded into the ether. They hadn’t been beyond the semi-final since that night in Mexico City and would once more call upon Zagallo’s expertise in 1994.
Zagallo returned in America like a great time traveller arriving to impart forgotten knowledge of how to win upon lesser football minds. Carlos Alberto Parreira was the man in charge and turned to Zagallo as his assistant. In a more structured Brazil side – with Dunga patrolling the midfield but with sprinkles of gold dust in Romário and Bebeto – Samba football would again reign supreme.
Having played out a goalless 120 minutes with Italy in the final Roberto Baggio stepped up to take a penalty to keep the Azzurri’s hopes alive. Italy’s player of the tournament skied his attempt and handed Brazil their record fourth title. Staggeringly, Zagallo had collected a medal in all of them.
Despite being the assistant manager, Zagallo’s influence is well documented within the 1994 team. The World Cup victory led to a renaissance in Brazilian football, which Zagallo would be at the helm of for the proceeding four years.
His biggest task was to lead the national side as they set out to defend their title in France after winning the Copa América and Confederations Cup in 1997. Those tournaments in ‘97 represented a huge year in the international career of a young Ronaldo. He plundered nine goals, including a hat-trick in the Confederations Cup final against Australia, and was ready to star at the World Cup the following year.
In France, Brazil were resplendent as they scored 14 goals en route to the final. Ronaldo was responsible for four of them and looked set to replicate the electrifying performance of 1997 in the final at the Stade de France. Of course, it wasn’t to be. A seizure on the morning of the final left a cloud of doubt hanging over El Fenomeno’s place in the team. Ultimately Ronaldo played, but a Zinedine Zidane-inspired France strolled to a deserved 3-0 triumph. While Ronaldo and co. would go on to rule the world in Japan and Korea four years later Paris would be Zagallo’s final meaningful act as manager of Brazil.
The true brilliance of the man from Maceió only really becomes clear when you consider the timescale in which he achieved his success. France 1998 came 40 years after he first won the World Cup as a player and 28 years after he matched that achievement as a manager.
Zagallo is born of the qualities that have made Brazilian football so addictive over the years. Football is in his blood, samba rhythms tap from his toes, tactics churn in his brain and he has an insatiable appetite for success and an innate ability to win.
At five foot six inches tall he is diminutive in the extreme, but Mário Zagallo sits comfortably as a goliath of the game.
By Harry Gray. Follow @Hgray55