From beauty to beast: Brazil’s transition from 1970 to 1974

From beauty to beast: Brazil’s transition from 1970 to 1974

IT WAS AT THE ESTADIO AZTECA with a mesmeric swipe of his right boot that the late Carlos Alberto added the final flourish to the beauty which was Brazil’s coronation as world champions for a third time at Mexico 70. Four years later Brazil relinquished their by now tainted crown in Dortmund, at the Westfalenstadion. Amidst scenes of on-pitch violence and off-pitch rancour, the images of Luís Pereira’s reckless challenge on the Netherlands’ Johan Neeskens, and his crowd goading reactions after his sending off are almost as iconic as the images of Carlos Alberto at the Azteca.

The distance travelled from the 1970 to 1974 World Cups proved to be an evolution which was nothing short of startling for the SeleçãoFor all the hazy colourised shimmer of Brazil at the 1970 World Cup finals, there are degrees of hidden myth which go hand-in-hand with the widely sold concept of the all-out attack philosophy of Mário Zagallo’s immortal side.

The popular theory is one which paints a picture of a squad of footballing artisans, a collective where each component was dedicated to the stylish forward propulsion of the ball, a dedication which at times threw defensive caution to the wind. The 1970 World Cup final is as much cherished and celebrated for Carlos Alberto’s remarkable crowning glory of a fourth goal as it is for the goal which earlier in the game put Italy on parity at 1-1, when Brito gifted Roberto Boninsegna his equaliser. The aura of a carelessly defensive yet ruthlessly artistic entity was cast in stone forever.

It is an aura which doesn’t fit Zagallo comfortably, however. Zagallo’s Brazil was arguably as expressive as it was by chance, rather than design. With the natural attacking intent of players such as Pelé, Jairzinho, Tostão and Rivellino, there was a gravitational pull at play. Zagallo was blessed with the personnel he inherited from the volatile and complex João Saldanha, when he was handed the job of leading his national side just months before the tournament was due to kick off.

Saldanha was a remarkable figure; a footballer turned journalist, via a short but fruitful spell in charge of Botafogo, the club he also represented as a player. Despite a decade away from active coaching, Saldanha had taken on the role as national coach in 1969, in a turn of events which legend has it was prompted by Saldanha’s incessant criticism of João Havelange and the CBF. Havelange, the CBF president at the time, is purported to have given Saldanha the job in the hope that wider media scrutiny would lighten somewhat, given one of their own now had the top job.

Rather than fall flat on his face, Saldanha led Brazil to qualification with ease, winning all six games and conceding just two goals en route to the finals – both of those goals coming during a 6-2 victory over Colombia. Zagallo didn’t just have a wealth of attacking talent on his hands post-Saldanha, he also had a solid defence to work with.

Zagallo, despite being an attacking player himself, was a man who was inspired in a coaching capacity by the experiences of the man who entrusted him with a place in the Brazil side for the 1958 World Cup final. Vicente Feola would leave a lasting impact upon Zagallo, an impact which imparted to him just how important defensive cohesion was.

When Zagallo went to Sweden he did so with just three senior international appearances under his belt, all of which had been gained during the warm-up games for the finals. It wasn’t just the 17-year-old Pelé who was new to such exalted levels of football. Feola’s Brazil wasn’t a closed shop, a personal fiefdom to the experienced figures of the post-1950 Brazil, but one which was infused by the exuberance of youth and a lack of fear, a fear which had haunted the previously established players.

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Zagallo had much to thank Feola for. Approaching the age of 27, he had all too often been overlooked at international level. While Zagallo’s was a belated introduction to the side, he grasped the opportunity with both hands, also going on to play in the 1962 final victory over Czechoslovakia, under Aymoré Moreira.

The year 1958 had seen the successful culmination of a national obsession. The emotional pain of 1950 had been a heavy load to carry, while Switzerland 1954 had ended with the overly physical nature of The Battle of Berne in the quarter-finals against Hungary. Zagallo wasn’t involved in Switzerland, but he absorbed from home the increasing suspicion of European muscles being flexed as a perceived answer to Brazilian flair.

Feola coaxed the beauty of 1958 out of his players from a vaguely tentative start to the tournament, going on to produce a remarkable flourishing, which came to the fore in the semi-final against France and then the final against the hosts. From the violence of Berne to the blossoming of Stockholm was a brave and vindicating step.

Retaining their title in Chile four years later was largely a work of art, but one which ran alongside a renewed physical approached from opponents to blunt them. When Pelé was the victim of a number of uncompromising tackles during the group game against Czechoslovakia, it spelt the end of the tournament for him.

When Feola returned to lead Brazil back to Europe for the 1966 World Cup in England it was to be a chastening experience, and one which left the observing Zagallo with yet more distrust of those perceived European philosophies of heavy-handed containment. Pelé was once again hacked out of the tournament and, just as in 1954, Hungary were a prime nemesis, this time alongside Portugal.

When Zagallo led Brazil to glory in 1970 it was as brave a step as the one taken in Sweden 12 years earlier. In the wake of 1966 it would have been understandable had Brazil gone into Mexico 70 with a suspicion and wariness of what was to confront them. The quality of attacking talent at Zagallo’s disposal, the favourable climate, and the sense that it was Pelé’s last stand on the biggest stage of all, combined to override the drive for a greater Brazilian physicality, to pre-empt the threat of the type of challenges they had faced in England four years earlier. Zagallo was arguably swept along by the powerful currents of Mexico 70.

When Brazil arrived in West Germany they were a side that hadn’t played a competitive game since the 1970 final. With the South American Championship being sidelined beyond 1967 until its return in 1975, Zagallo had been left with too much thinking time prior to the 1974 World Cup.

In West Germany, Zagallo was also shorn of most of the side which had swept to victory at the Azteca four years earlier. Rivellino and Jairzinho might have remained, but Pelé arrived in the country not as a player, but instead one-part cheerleader and one-part ghost on the wall.

The void which was left by Pelé might have been better coped with had Zagallo had the services of Gérson, Tostão and Carlos Alberto available to him. While time had caught up with Gérson, injury had robbed Zagallo of both Tostão and Carlos Alberto. Just seven members of the 1970 squad would be part of the 1974 squad. Jairzinho and Rivellino were the only players in the starting line-up from the 1970 final to make the trip to Europe for the defence of their title.

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A heavily restructured squad, added to by Zagallo’s expectation for an overtly physical European show of intent, all meant that Brazil took a very different approach to the 1974 World Cup to the one they did in Mexico.

An awkward approach was taken to the opening group stages. Drawn with a better Zaire side than is universally given credit for, Brazil were clearly uneasy with the added presence of two dangerous European opponents in the shapes of Yugoslavia and Scotland. A tentative opening goalless draw against Yugoslavia was marked by Brazil operating a shoot-on-sight policy, as if too scared to swarm forward in high numbers, perhaps caught within the fear of falling for the threat of the counter-attack. Brazilian reticence, however, simply encouraged Yugoslavia to become more expansive themselves as the game moved into the second half. The woodwork and a goal-line clearance ultimately saved Brazil’s blushes.

Brazil then largely stuck to the same template against Scotland. Marginally more effusive on the front foot than they had been against Yugoslavia, it was still a game which saw Brazil far too eager to shoot from distance. Again it was a game where Brazil survived scares at the back. Another goalless draw and concerns for the ability and mentality of the world champions was gaining pace.

It left Brazil needing goals against Zaire – the minimum requirement being to eclipse the two-goal margin of victory which Scotland had had over the Africans. Contrary to popular belief, Zaire were not the naive entity they’ve so often been painted as. Having stubbornly restricted Scotland to a 2-0 scoreline, the Leopards had at least partially used the Yugoslavia game as a protest against their own government. The 9-0 loss was as much provoked by stories of government officials pocketing bonuses which the players had been promised, as it was their widely perceived rudimentary grasp of the sport.

When Brazil faced Zaire, they were faced with opponents who were energised by a series of sinister threats from Zaire high political office. Zaire’s players were informed in no uncertain terms that they were not to concede any more than three goals, should they wish to avoid the consequences of the displeasure of their nation’s dictator, Motubu Sese Seko.

When Muepu Ilunga famously broke from a defensive wall at a Brazil free-kick to clear the ball down field, before a Brazilian player had made it active, late in the game with his side 3-0 down, he did so not with a lack of knowledge in the rules of the game, but rather in desperation that a fourth goal was not to be conceded.

Having narrowly navigated their way into the second round group stages, the hope had been that Brazil would grow into the tournament. Another uptight performance brought a 1-0 victory against East Germany, while the Netherlands were simultaneously defeating Argentina 4-0.

This was, however, followed by Brazil’s best performance of the tournament so far, during the 2-1 victory over Argentina. With the Netherlands defeating East Germany 2-0, it meant that in a World Cup without traditional semi-finals, there would be a definitive deciding game with a place in the final up for grabs. In Dortmund, Brazil were left with the unenviable task of needing to beat the Netherlands to reach the final.

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Zagallo and Brazil’s hand would be forced in one way or another. With Pelé voicing eve of game concerns over Zagallo’s footballing conservatism and claiming that Brazil were essentially out of character, the press was largely imploring the tournament’s need for a Netherlands victory. For the sake of the beautiful game, it was being suggested that the reigning champions had to be eliminated. In the four short years since Mexico 70, the game had been turned on its head.

It would be an ill-tempered abdication as world champions for Brazil. Undone by a combination of their own zonal marking, a wider self-expression of footballing anger and the sheer brilliance of Rinus Michels’ total football. Zagallo and his side had no answer to the beauty of Johan Cruyff and the Netherlands. They were dissected from both left and right for the goals which settled the tie.

Luís Pereira’s 85th minute sending off symbolically marked an end of Brazilian footballing innocence, an innocence which had slipped at an astonishing pace throughout the decisive encounter. Even within a more robust era of the game, Pereira’s dismissal could easily have been preceded by the sending off of either Zé Maria for a rugby tackle on Cryuff, or an off the ball assault by Marinho Peres on Neeskens, the man Pereira would lunge at to earn his own premature end to the game. Marinho was eventually booked for a blatant body-check on Wim Janssen, while Rob Resenbrink picked up an injury which subsequently ruled him out of the final with West Germany.

While the Netherlands showed they had the steel to trade blows with Brazil, for each physical bruise Michels side departed the game with, Brazil could match them with a damaging set of aesthetic bruises which were laid bare for the world to see. Zagallo and Brazil had trod a fine line between self-preservation and frustration which simply exploded in their face. Their journey from beauty to the beast was complete.

A late easing of the shoulders came during the third-place playoff, yet even that was of little solace to Zagallo and his nation, as Poland took them on with a total lack of fear, deservedly winning the game 1-0.

Post-1974, Brazil were left with a great deal of soul-searching to do. Osvaldo Brandão oversaw a humbling Copa América loss at the Maracanã to Peru in 1975, a loss which left big question marks over Brazil’s status as South America’s pre-requisite standard-bearer of skill and flair upon their continent.

There would eventually be a reunion with the beautiful game for Brazil, firstly through the tragic Cláudio Coutinho and then in a much more celebrated fashion with Telê Santana, whose dedication to open and attacking football should really have led to glory at España 82.

It was, of course, the near misses of Coutinho and Santana which ultimately brought the conservatism of Zagallo back to a position of influence. Along with Carlos Alberto Parreira, he would break the 24-year World Cup drought for Brazil in 1994 and go on to reach the final again in 1998.

They were, however, achievements which belonged to a new version of Brazil, one which seemed more chiselled and smoothed off at the edges, a Brazil which was far less Brazilian than the purists would have liked. You could argue that Zagallo’s attempts to shift Brazilian emphasis in 1974 was too much too soon, yet elements of his vision came to fruition some two decades later to World Cup-winning effect.

Ultimately the shift from the beauty of 1970 to the pre-emptive measures of 1974 were too seismic for both the Brazilian psyche and football itself. It was a shift which perhaps offers the reason why it took 24 years for World Cup success to be achieved once more. As Brazil lurched back towards the samba-inspired ethos of Coutinho and Santana, then onto the European stylings of the late 1980s and early ’90s, it eventually took close on a quarter of a century beyond Mexico 70 for Brazil to find the right balance between the new and the old footballing worlds. Unwittingly, Zagallo was perhaps simultaneously the root cause of the World Cup winning drought, and the remedy.

By Steven Scragg. Follow @Scraggy_74

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