Gérson: the brain of Brazilian football

Gérson: the brain of Brazilian football

The Brazil team that lifted the 1970 World Cup has been regarded by many aficionados as perhaps the greatest collection of footballing talent assembled under national colours at a major tournament. Not only was there an abundance of star players, each capable of turning a match in favour of the Seleção with a moment of magic, but they also combined to produce outstanding team performances, sometimes subsuming individual glory for the greater good; not in any collectivist manner, but with a joy and exuberance that reasserted an affection for jogo bonito. It was the sort of team that allowed all who hold a passion for the beautiful game to believe again.

Of course, there were stars. Pelé is the name that alway comes to the fore as the first among equals when considering that particular heady vintage of Brazil’s footballing talent. Then there was Rivelino – he of the cannonball shot. Tostão led the line with elegance, but an almost brutal grace. This tournament also saw the arrival of Jairzinho’s burgeoning talent, and then there was the imperious captain of the ship, Carlos Alberto, who netted the signature fourth goal in the final against Italy to usher his crew over the line to glory and eternal fame.

There was one player, though, who, despite some describing as the brain of the team, is often counted among the lesser of some very bright lights. Nothing could be much further from the truth. He was the glue of the team, the conduit through which so much of the play flowed. He pulled the strings that made the others dance to that irresistible Samba rhythm. The player in question is the short, slightly balding midfielder, Gérson de Oliveira Nunes, popularly known – when his contribution is recalled, that is – merely as Gérson. 

Born in the winter of 1941, the player who would much later earn the nickname of Canhotinha de Ouro (Golden Left Foot) always seemed marked out by fate to become a footballer. Both his father and uncle were professional players, with the former also a close friend of the legendary Zizinho. It was a pedigree that he would honour with distinction.

As a precocious teenager, Gérson joined Flamengo, where his ability quickly became obvious as he was rapidly boosted through the levels and into the first team. The ability to transition play from defence to attack with one pass, or to hold the ball and control the game, prompting and probing, and to know when and how to select and execute each option, are exquisite gifts, only granted to a select few players at the very highest level. Here was a player who displayed that ability, and with a maturity that belied his tender years.

At this early stage of his career, it was a talent that caused many to compare the youngster to Didi who was, at the time, the fulcrum of the Seleção. It was the highest of accolades. Although lacking any searing speed, his ability to think ahead was the epitome of the old maxim that the first five yards of a player’s pace is in his head.

To execute such a playbook, however, requires not only the ability but also the self-confidence and belief to recognise that you have the talent to do so. There was no problem with that particular requirement; one thing Gérson didn’t lack was self-belief. It was a trait that he carried well beyond his playing days, and this confidence in his own ability and reluctance to be placed anywhere but at the highest levels would shape much of his career.

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Less than 12 months after making his club debut, he was invited to strut his talents on a wider stage when selected for the nominally amateur Brazil team that contested the Pan-American Games in 1959. The following year, he was part of Brazil’s Olympic team that travelled to Rome. He scored four goals, but Brazil fell at the group stage. By this time, it was clear to both club and national manager that he was a gem in the making – a rare talent.

Back at Flamengo’s Ilha do Urubu stadium in Rio, the club’s Paraguayan manager, Fleitas Solich, had selected Gérson as the team’s primary creative influence. It was a move echoed by national coach Aymoré Moreira, who called up the young starlet for the national team which made the short trip to Chile to defend their world title that had been the crowning glory of Pelé’s coming out party four years earlier in Sweden. Any hopes of sharing in the Seleção’s second consecutive triumph, however, were dashed by a knee injury. As Pelé, Garrincha et al lifted the crown again, he was left at home. It wouldn’t be the last time injury dealt a cruel blow to Gérson’s career.

In four years with Flamengo, the young midfielder played over 150 league games for the Rubro-Negro, netting an impressive 80 goals. For a player primarily deployed in a playmaker role, it was a more than impressive tally. Despite such success and acclaim from the fans, however, Gérson’s determination to improve saw him leave the club in 1963.

The previous year, Flamengo had been pitted against Botafogo in the Rio Championship final. It was a high-profile match, and a chance for the youngster to show off his skills. Fearing a demolition job on his team by Botafogo’s star player Garrincha, Gérson’s manager detailed him to sacrifice his attacking role and instead concentrate on a man-marking job on their opponent’s ‘Little Bird’.

It was a tactic akin to the one Helmut Schön deployed when tasking Franz Beckenbauer with man-marking Bobby Charlton in the quarter-final of the World Cup in 1970. Beckenbauer was a much more experienced exponent of the game, however, and in his second World Cup finals at the time. Whereas he completed Schön’s requirements, and then went on to turn the game in his team’s favour when Charlton was substituted and Schön removed his defensive shackles, it was a far more difficult task for the much less experienced Gérson.

It was, in fact, a task beyond the best defensive players in the world, as had been illustrated in two World Cups. To no-one’s great surprise – perhaps excepting Flamengo’s manager – despite gamely trying to stick to his manager’s plan, it was an impossible job for so young a player. Botafogo went on to win the game 3-0, and Gérson’s influence on the outcome was fleeting at best.

It was a situation that infuriated but hardly surprised the young player. It also led to him deciding to reject an offer of a new contract with the club the following year. Instead, he opted to join his conquerors. The old saying ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ may well have been on his mind, and for the next couple of years, he would play alongside Garrincha for the Fogão, until the Little Bird flew the nest to join Corinthians.

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The move across Rio to join Botafogo was one any young aspiring Brazilian footballer would surely have liked to make. At the time, the club had the most celebrated squad in the country. As well as Garrincha, Didi – the player many had chosen to compare Gérson’s style to – Nílton Santos and Mário Zagallo were all adding flames to the creative fire. Any talented player worthy of a place alongside such luminaries would surely flourish, and so it was with Gérson. The club won the Rio-São Paulo Championship the following two years, and the Rio Championship in 1967 and 1968. The latter year also saw the club claim their first national honour, lifting the Brazilian Cup as they beat Fortaleza in the final. 

The period saw a flowering of Gérson’s talent, but again the international arena did little to enhance his prestige. With two successive world titles behind them, Brazil journeyed to England for the 1966 tournament full of hope and expectation of landing the most celebrated of hat-tricks in the home of football. It wasn’t to be.

While Alf Ramsey’s wingless wonders ensured that Jules Rimet was gleaming for the home fans, Brazil were forced to abandon all hopes of legitimate victory, beaten and battered by a brutality that descended into barbaric treatment akin to Alexander Pope’s oft-quoted malevolence of breaking a butterfly upon a wheel. Although it’s certainly true to say that Gérson did not play well in the tournament, it’s perhaps little wonder. Four years later, he would put matters straight.

In 1969, Gérson ended his time with Botafogo and moved to São Paulo. It had been a triumphant time with the club. In a shade under 250 league games, he had recorded just short of a century of goals, all but maintaining the impressive strike rate he had brought with him from Flamengo. But for such illuminated company, with a collection of star forwards all looking for a place on the scoresheet, it could have been an even better record. The following year, in his third attempt at a successful World Cup, he would add the crowning moment to his now glittering domestic career, although initially it seemed as if injury problems would limit his chances again.

Unsurprisingly, Gérson was selected for the opening game of the tournament against Czechoslovakia. Just past the hour mark, with Brazil 3-1 ahead after falling a goal behind, Gérson was forced to leave the game and missed the final two group encounters – against England and Romania – before returning for the quarter-final against Peru. The two games he had missed had resulted in victories by the odd goal, with the encounter against England a particularly tight game.

With the midfielder back in place, though, the Seleção began to stretch their legs. A 4-2 victory in the last eight was followed by a 3-1 win in the semi-final against Uruguay. In the final, of course, Brazil put on a tour de force performance to defeat the Azzurri, after being pegged back when an error in the Brazilian defence allowed Roberto Boninsegna through to equalise Pelé’s opening goal.

The bright opening to the game leading to Pelé’s opening headed goal seemed to suggest that Brazil would sweep aside the weary Italians, who had battled themselves to a standstill in a slugfest 4-3 semi-final win against West Germany. It was a game that seemed to betray the defensive inclinations of manager Ferruccio Valcareggi’s Catenaccio strategy, but enthralled the watching millions.

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When the Internazionale player brought the Azzurri level, however, the expected Brazilian carnival was stalled. Boninsegna had rained on the Seleção’s parade. Perhaps this wouldn’t be the Mardi Gras weekend most had been expecting. The equaliser punctured Brazil’s confidence, and as self-assurance drained from the pre-match favourites, it lifted the Italians.

Sometimes the best team in the tournament doesn’t win the World Cup. Just ask the Hungarians in 1954, when Sepp Herberger’s West German team defeated Ferenc Puskás and the Magical Magyars 3-2 in the final having lost 8-3 to the same side in the group stages. Brazil needed a player who could re-energise their game, someone with the belief to shrug off this slight delay and strike up the band once more. They had one.

As time went on, Brazil began to establish dominance of the game again, regaining composure and confidence, and at the centre of their play, encouraging and cajoling, probing and passing, controlling and directing, was Gérson. An increasingly prominent figure in the centre of the midfield, the brains of the team had produced a way back to control the game, and it was somehow fitting that, just past the hour mark, it was the midfielder who fired Brazil back into the lead, and on to glory. At the end of the game, with so many eyes on Pelé and Carlos Alberto, few noticed the diminutive midfielder overcome with the emotion of the greatest achievement in world football.

After 75 league games for São Paulo, Gerson made his last move, joining his favourite boyhood club Fluminense. He would stay with the Tricolor for two brief years, playing 57 league games and netting just five goals as his powers waned.

Age and a series of injuries eventually brought his career to an end in 1974. He had played 533 league games for his four clubs, scoring almost 200 goals. On the international stage, he had worn the Canarinho shirt in 85 games. Sixty-one of those were victories, and only 19 had resulted in defeat. In those games, he had scored 19 goals, but none probably meant as much as the strike that restored Brazil’s lead in the 1970 World Cup final. His final game for the Seleção came in July 1972; fittingly a victory, 1-0 against Portugal.

After retirement, Gérson was still very much in the public eye, although not always for the best of reasons. Later suggested to have been the result of bad advice, he took part in a commercial for a cigarette company in 1976. In Brazil, there’s a widespread disregard for laws and social imperatives, with the traditional approach being to get away with things if you can. In the commercial, Gérson’s tagline promoting the Vila Rica cigarettes was, “I like to take advantage of everything, right? You too take advantage!”

Whether by design or accident, the phrase was looked upon as an endorsement of a lack of morals leading to bribery and corruption, often termed as the ‘Jeitinho Brasileiro’ (Brazilian Way). Later, Gérson would declare that this had never been his intention and that he regretted taking part in the commercial.

He also fell out with long-time teammate Pelé over the latter’s list of his 125 Greatest Footballers, arguing with considerable justification that he – and a number of his teammates from the 1970 World Cup squad – should have been included on the list. To have a list of the supposed best 125 players of all time and not to find himself included riled his still strong self-belief and confidence.

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He visited a local radio station and symbolically ripped up a piece of paper representing Pelé’s list, declaring, “I respect his opinion, but I don’t agree. Apart from Zidane, Platini, and Fontaine, I’m behind 11 Frenchmen? It’s a joke to hear this.”

Neither was he shy about putting some of the new generation’s superstar Brazilian players firmly in their place. Talking to Fox Sports, he disparaged opinions that Neymar would get a place in the 1970 World Cup team. Although one of the finest players of his era, and of late the subject of the most outlandish transfer fee, Gérson seriously doubted whether the Paris Saint-Germain player would have been able to claim a berth in the starting line-up ahead of Jairzinho, Pelé, Tostão, Rivelino, or indeed, himself.

“There wouldn’t be a space for Neymar,” he adamantly declared. “In whose place would he play? He can’t take Rivelino’s spot. Nor Pelé’s. Would he come in for Tostão? For Jairzinho? There wouldn’t even be room in midfield for him.” As if to emphasise the point, he even denied the modern superstar a place on the bench. “We had Caju, too, an enormous talent,” he went on to say. “He played a lot in midfield or as a number 10. He was pure talent. He was brilliant wherever you put him – and he was a substitute. I don’t even know if Neymar would have a place on the bench in that team.”

Neymar has currently scored 52 goals for Brazil, leaving him just two behind Romário and 10 astray of top scorer Ronaldo. At just 25, it seems highly likely that the PSG player will end up comfortably at the top of the tree if he stays healthy. Perhaps Gérson’s judgement was a little awry on this one. Given the success and celebrity of the 1970 World Cup team of Brazil, though, perhaps that’s excusable. After all, it was said some time ago, and Neymar still has some way to go to emulate the international glory achieved by the 1970 World Cup squad.

The man with the golden left foot now commentates for radio in his hometown of Rio, calling games in his inimitable style. The player who provided the link for the club teams he played for across his career, and in 85 games for the Seleção, now provides the link between the game being played out in front of him and the listening fans. Despite having players of the calibre of Neymar in the current national set-up, there are many Brazilian fans who would willingly turn the clock back to have Canhotinha de Ouro back in a Canarinho shirt once again, rather than commentating on players who are perhaps not his equal.

Gérson de Oliveira Nunes was a once-in-a-generation player, with both massively fortunate and unfortunate timing to his career. To have been part of a club side such as Botafogo with the stars sparkling around him must surely have been a delight, and to be given the opportunity to display his talents in a Seleção squad that won three World Cups in four tournaments surpasses the dreams of any schoolboy. 

Against that, though, there is a question that arises. In any other generation, would the midfield talents of Gérson have received a great deal more recognition? Away from the dazzling skill of Pelé, would his light have been allowed to shine even more brightly and be recognised for doing so? Who can say? Perhaps if so, it may even have got him onto his former teammate’s list. It’s a place well deserved for the player who was the brain of such an outstanding team.

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

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