The birth of Brazil at World Cup 1958

The birth of Brazil at World Cup 1958

BRAZIL CAME TO SWEDEN IN 1958 with a great deal of expectation behind them. It was the sixth incarnation of the World Cup; the Seleção had played in every previous tournament, but had not managed to lift the famous trophy. There had been every kind of exit: first-round, quarter-finals, semi-finals and defeat at the final hurdle. Sweden would be different.

The 1950 World Cup was still ingrained in the nation’s collective conscience. Eight years had passed, but the disappointment had been impossible to shake off. Everyone knew the story and its significance resonated far beyond the realm of football.

The ‘Maracãnazo’ has its own place in Brazilian culture. It represents crushing and shocking disappointment; something almost unbelievable. The outcome of the deciding match of the fourth World Cup was set in stone in the minds of the estimated 200,000 expectant fans packed inside the magnificent Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Preordained glory beckoned: with the tournament a round-robin format, Brazil only needed a draw to be crowned champions on home soil. Newspapers had been printed declaring them champions. A carnival preceded the match. All that was left was the game itself. 

Uruguay made sure the result was all but the assumed formality. They harnessed their underdog status to great effect, stunning Brazil with one of the biggest upsets in sporting history as the game finished 2-1. Brazil’s tiny neighbour had won their second title. The Brazilian nation had four years in which to vent their disbelief and mourn.

Switzerland was the host nation in 1954 as Brazil set about rectifying the events of the previous tournament. The group stage was negotiated safely before they met the much-fancied ‘Magical Magyars’ of Hungary in the quarter-finals. The Hungarians had scored a remarkable 17 goals in their two previous games. What resulted was one of the most violent games in World Cup history.

‘The Battle of Bern’ saw widespread pandemonium, three red cards, two penalties and six goals – four of which went in favour of the Europeans. It finished with a 4-2 score line, plenty of ill feeling and fighting in the tunnel. Two sides previously admired for their skilfulness and attacking football had provided a kick-fest and Brazil returned home without glory and nursing bruises.    

Another four years passed before the Seleção would get their chance at redemption, but in a most unfamiliar setting. Brazil and Sweden both play in an iconic yellow kit. They have played each other seven times in World Cups – the most common fixture in finals’ history. But that is where the parallels end.

The two countries, cultures, history and traditional footballing styles are in complete contrast. One is the standard-bearer of South America; the other the height of everything it means to be European.

The vibrancy of Rio de Janiero to the order of Stockholm. The humidity of the jungle to the stillness of the forest. The flare of Brazil to the functionality of Sweden. A stark contrast in every sense, but one which illustrates the appeal of the World Cup. A true clash of continents.

Although in some ways similar to Switzerland four years previously, many aspects of Brazil’s trip to central Scandinavia was alien to them. All of the travelling party plied their trade domestically in Brazil and only four of the squad remained who had suffered a beating in Berne. The opposition would certainly be different to what many of the younger players were used to.

An approximate population of 70 million people had produced the finest 22 footballers to travel 10,000 kilometres to bring back glory. There would be no colossal stadiums, packed to the brim with partisan support; rather medium-sized unspectacular viewing platforms often separated from the pitch by running tracks and filled with the polite, white middle classes.

Sweden at this time was a country of just seven million people. There had been no voting to choose the hosts – they had lobbied successfully at the FIFA congress in 1950 to secure the prestigious competition. A World Cup was obviously a huge undertaking and there had initially been worries about the stadia.

Stadiums in neighbouring Norway and Denmark were on standby to host matches, but neither side eventually qualified. Instead small, picturesque regional centres whose populations could comfortably fit inside their stadiums hosted group stage matches. Town such as Boras, Uddevalla and Sandviken do not stand out on a map of Sweden, but in 1958 these pristine microcosms of European society played host to some of the world’s greatest footballers.

In modern tournaments players are provided with every commodity possible to improve their chances on the field. Major sides even had their own custom-made training centres built in Brazil for last year’s World Cup. Games have become media circuses, complete with every kind of fanfare imaginable. However, at the playoff between Wales and Hungary on June 17, 1958, in the Swedish national football stadium in Stockholm there was a recorded attendance of just 2,823. It may be hard to envisage now, but the scale, atmosphere and general feel of the Sweden ’58 was particularly understated.

Despite the somewhat incongruous setting, 1958 was a watershed occasion for football. It was the first World Cup to be broadcast on television, meaning fans from all round the globe could finally watch the best players compete. Established stars such as Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Raymond Kopa and Lev Yashin had their platform on which to perform. Others used it as a springboard from which to leap into the public consciousness. Just Fontaine and Garrincha both dazzled, but it was undoubtedly a 17-year-old Pelé who stole the show.

Nothing was left to chance in A Seleção’s preparation for the 1958 World Cup. They came into the tournament as favourites, with the competition expected to be provided by West Germany and first-timers the Soviet Union. Further World Cup disappointment did not bare thinking about.

To ensure that they had the best possible chance of victory, scientific preparation and scouting took place. The team also brought a great deal of additional staff to Sweden. Alongside the coach Vincente Feola was a supervisor, a doctor, a dentist, a psychologist, an administrator, a scout and a trainer. The most famous anecdote which illustrates the team’s determination to win concerns the doctor, Hilton Gosling, who had to choose the team’s hotel. Rumour has it that after considering location and proximity to training facilities he asked the chosen hotel in Gothenburg to replace female staff with men, so that the players would not be distracted.

Psychiatrist João Carvalhaes did not have a footballing background, and he was tasked with assessing each of the players to determine mental strengths and weaknesses.

Whether this really had much effect on the overall success is debatable, especially as Pelé and Garrincha – two of the stand-out performers – were highlighted as weak links. It does show, however, that Brazil were willing to think outside the box in order to finally achieve their dream.

The team itself was one lined with quality. The defence was the most experienced area with captain Hilderaldo Bellini flanked by Djalma Santos and Nilton Santos. Midfield was marshalled by the immensely talented Didi, with attacking flare provided by Pelé and Garrincha and goals scored by Vavá. It proved a devastatingly effective combination and remains on par with Brazil’s legendary squad of 1970.

An appreciative and plentiful crowd watched on as Vavá scored two goals in a victory against the Soviet Union in Gothenburg in the final group game.

It was a sign of the Seleção’s talent and their intent to go all the way. Next, Pelé’s first goal saw off Wales in the quarter-final. His overjoyed celebration of running into the net after the ball drew laughter from the local spectators. Western Sweden had been treated to some sparkling performances, but the best was saved for the semi-final in the capital. Free-scoring France were dismantled, with Vavá and Didi scoring before a second half Pelé hat-trick sealed the game 5-2.

Brazil had made the final. They would play the hosts, who had beaten both the Soviet Union and West Germany to make the game in Stockholm. They were undoubtedly favourites, but could home advantage inspire the Swedes? With both teams accustomed to playing in yellow a draw was completed to decide who would need to change kit. The hosts won meaning blue kit was purchased and the badges sewn on from their original yellow jerseys.

Everything appeared to be ready, but first Brazil had another detail to iron out. It needed to be perfect. June 29, 1958, in Stockholm was a long way both from July 16, 1950, in Rio, but another Maracãnazo-style defeat simply could not happen. Any advantage the Swedes could have, no matter how small, needed to be addressed. Brazil complained about the Swedish cheerleaders and they were banned for the game. There we no distractions.

Four minutes into the game Sweden captain Nils Liedholm – who would later find fame as a legendary manager in Italy – opened the scoring. The crowd of 50,000 applauded politely; excitement took over the uniform spectators. Could it happen again? Brazil responded strongly, with Garrincha terrorising the defence down the right-hand side. Two of his crosses were netted by the prolific Vavá before some Pelé magic made it 3-1. Mário Zagallo scored when Sweden failed to clear a corner to give the Seleção a three-goal lead. The hosts managed another consolation before Pelé wrapped up the win with a header. 5-2: they had won. Tears flowed as Brazilian history had been made in the Råsunda stadium. The players honoured the hosts by carrying a Swedish flag around the pitch before Bellini lofted the trophy above his head triumphantly in a now familiar pose.

A 17-year-old had scored five goals in two games at the sharp end of the tournament. He had played without fear and helped Brazil lift the curse of the Maracanã. Pelé’s wonderful talent had been seen for the first time, on the biggest stage in the world and Sweden centre-back Sigvard Parling clearly appreciated his special gift, stating: “After Pelé scored the fifth goal I didn’t want to mark him anymore. I just wanted to applaud him.” However, they had been anything but a one-man team. The whole side’s unrelenting desire to attack and fearlessness in front of goal was the highlight of one of the greatest World Cups.

Brazil had become the first team to win a World Cup outside of their own continent and are still the only team from outside of Europe to have won a European-based World Cup. The thousands of miles travelled, stark cultural differences and the occasional oddity failed to throw them off course. Perhaps the modest surroundings and distance from demanding fans helped. The mild climate of southern Sweden had provided the perfect setting for a juggernaut of world football to be born.   

The 1958 World Cup winning squad left an indelible mark on world football. Brazil’s style of attacking football, the open, fluid 4-2-4 formation, and Pelé’s introduction would alter the course of football. They would dominate the international game over the coming years, with the majority of the side forming the team that won the World Cup in Chile four years later. Brazil may have competed at five World Cups before 1958, but they were born in the unlikely nation of Sweden.

By Felix Keith  @felixkeith

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