Brazil 1982: the most gifted but ultimately flawed midfield in history

Brazil 1982: the most gifted but ultimately flawed midfield in history

Taken exclusively from the Brazil issue of These Football Times magazine, this article is featured as part of our World Cup coverage. Consider supporting our free online and wholly independent journalism by ordering a copy of the magazine – you’ll end up with a timeless special and help keep our content accessible for everyone.

Barcelona, 5 July 1982, 19:15 CET. In the bowels of the Estadi de Sarrià, men are sobbing uncontrollably while some are just vacantly staring, too numb to comprehend what has just happened. In the stands above, men, women and children are sobbing uncontrollably too, their stares just as vacant, too numb to comprehend what has just happened. All around the world people are helpless to hold back

their anguish, many struggling to focus, too numb to comprehend what has just happened. The only sanctuary from this melancholic pandemic is the Mediterranean country of Italy.

The reason for this global outpouring of grief? Brazil had just been knocked out of the 1982 World Cup at the hands of the Azzurri. But this was no ordinary Brazil team; this was a side that captured the hearts and minds of football fans all across the world. They were the greatest side of their generation, a team that forms an unholy trinity with the Mighty Magyars of 1954 and Johan Cruyff ’s Total Football side of 1974 as the three best sides never to win the World Cup.

The Brazilians lined up for the 1982 finals to a soundtrack of samba drums and rhythmic dancing cascading down from the stands of the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. Enthusiasts, pundits, writers and tactical experts have pondered over manager Telê Santana’s formation and selections during the tournament, the most common conception being a 4-2-2-2 formation relying on the full-backs to provide width and two holding midfielders providing cover for two attacking midfielders who supported the front two.

At times the almost chaotic and cavalier commitment to attacking football was presented as a 2-7-1 formation, with two centre-halves staying back, while the full-backs provided width to a midfield five, leaving just a lone striker at the top of the formation.

So with essentially a fluid 4-5-1 formation assembled, the tournament favourites could begin their campaign to reclaim their world title. The only immediate problem was that Toninho Cerezo still had one game left of a three-game ban, having been sent off in a qualifier against Bolivia. Santana decided to bring in Roberto Falcão to replace Cerezo and start with Dirceu alongside Paulo Serginho.

Falcão – the ‘Eighth King of Rome’ as he had been coronated by Roma fans – didn’t join Santana’s squad until May after the Serie A season had finished. A deep-lying playmaker, he had been named Brazilian footballer of the year in 1978 and 1979. Falcão’s transfer to the Old Continent severely limited his appearances for Brazil. Indeed the midfielder didn’t play for the Seleção between 1979 and 1982.

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He was one of the last players to join the 1982 World Cup squad and only played in the final two warm-up games prior to the opening fixture against the Soviet Union. However, Santana saw Falcão’s organisational ability, leadership and considerable European experience as a more than suitable replacement for Cerezo for the opening game.

Cerezo was also an alleged holding midfielder, though the Brazilian interpretation of that role would appear to differ greatly from exponents of the European game. He was essentially a deep-lying playmaker with a wonderful range of passing. Santana had already managed Cerezo during the midfielder’s 11-year stay at Atlético Mineiro and was fully aware of his technical capabilities as well as his physical attributes. Cerezo was often described as having two pairs of lungs, such was his athletic ability to cover the entire pitch.

If Falcão and Cerezo were supposedly the defensive elements in the Brazilian midfield, the attacking components contained a predominantly left-sided winger who could strike the ball so hard he was nicknamed O Canhão (The Cannon), the best player in the world at the time – the ultimate fantasista in a team of fantasistas – and a captain who was also a qualified doctor, a political thinker and a symbol of Brazilian democracy.

Éder was the only player in that midfield who offered any natural width. He was a player with exceptional physicality, incredible strength and power, but was neither quick nor displayed any real desire to work hard for his team. What he did have was incredible skill and technique in his left foot. Éder was a player who could bend the ball with the inside and outside of his foot, with one Brazilian commentator claiming he could “make a football turn 90 degrees with one strike of his left foot.”

Zico was widely acknowledged as the greatest player in the world going into the 1982 World Cup, having been voted South American Player of the Year in 1981 and 1982. He was a classic number 10 and regarded as the second-greatest Brazilian footballer of all-time after Pelé.

The Flamengo legend was technically perfect. He could link the play between midfield and the strikers, he could pass equally well with both feet, and he also had incredible vision. Allied to this, Zico was a prolific goal-scorer and free-kick expert. The Brazilian number 10 was the ultimate exponent of creative inspiration within Santana’s team.

Finally, to the leader of this mesmerising quintet. Sócrates was a passionate nationalist, who at a young age had put his football career on hold to complete his training as a doctor. A deep thinker and intelligent man, he described himself as an anti-athlete, such was his lifestyle and penchant for cigarettes and alcohol.

What was never up for debate was Sócrates’ technical ability. He could play anywhere on the pitch, had incredible balance and poise, and made the game look so simple with his elegant grace and sublime skill. By 1982, Sócrates had developed an almost telepathic understanding with his international teammates.

Order  |  Brazil

He was also a giant of a man both physically and metaphorically. With his impossibly long legs which were never afforded the protection of shin pads, Sócrates had made a career by dictating the pace and style of his side’s play without ever having to physically over-exert himself. For the 1982 tournament, he led by example, changing his lifestyle and committing to the training and physical conditioning prior to the start of the World Cup. The captain even gave up his beloved cigarettes in the lead up to, and during, the entire competition; no mean feat, bearing in mind he would puff his way through two packs a day.

And so, to that opening game against the USSR in the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, Seville. With Cerezo only an impotent spectator in the stands, Santana’s team made a stuttering start. The Soviet Union took the lead via a speculative shot which appeared to travel straight through Waldir Peres. For all the artistry and talent at Santana’s disposal, their inexperience at major tournaments looked to be stifling their creativity.

With 15 minutes left the skipper stepped up, side-stepping to the right before dropping a shoulder, stepping again to the right and unleashing a thunderous strike into the top corner. Sócrates had finally ignited the Seleção’s World Cup campaign.

The samba beat in the stands increased its rhythmic volume and tempo, trying to cajole another piece of brilliance from their side. With two minutes left Isidoro, a half-time substitute, rolled the ball to the right-hand side of the Soviet penalty area, where Falcão casually allowed the ball to run through his legs without even looking behind him.

Éder appeared from off camera and, without breaking stride, flicked the ball up with his left foot and struck a dipping volley with the same left foot, a shot so powerful it nearly ripped the net away from the goal-frame. 2-1, game over, and the nerves were gone.

Falcão had been a revelation in replacing Cerezo, leaving Santana with a decision to make; and so the fantasy midfield of Brazil’s 1982 team came into being. What is startling is that prior to Brazil’s next game against Scotland, this improvised midfield quintet had only played together in one recognised fixture, and that was only for 20 minutes from the hour mark in the final warm-up game against the Republic of Ireland. From what followed you would never have known.

Against Scotland, they once again conceded first, but from the 18th minute onwards, the Brazilian side played football with an aesthetic beauty in its build-up play as well as an irreverent swagger with the way in which they put the ball in the net. The Seleção’s midfield was a rotating carousel operating at a carnival – it was loud and vibrant, and had the entire planet waiting and wanting to enjoy the ride.

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The midfield five just floated around the pitch, interchanging positions at will. The players rotated around the pitch almost as much as the rolling ball, which was caressed across the vibrant green surface under the floodlights. If one had looked down on the pitch from above it would have been akin to looking through a kaleidoscope, with pieces of yellow, green and blue plastic rotating and tumbling in a nonsensical manner.

Then suddenly the most beautiful pattern would emerge, and you would hold it with your eye and in your mind, before it disappeared and the apparent disarray of the component pieces returned. This was how the beautiful game was supposed to be played. The Scots were dispatched with four goals of differing brilliance. The Brazilian midfield had turned football into an art form, and for the rest of the world, the game would never be quite the same again.

International minnows New Zealand were dispatched the way of the USSR and Scotland. In their pre-match talk, the New Zealand coach commented to the players: “We [John Adshead and assistant coach Kevin Fallon] have seen them play twice and at any one time in the game the only ones who will remain still would be Waldir Peres and Serginho. All the rest are so mobile they could be anywhere at any time.”

The pace and accuracy of the passing was a joy to behold. It was not the short tiki-taka style of play associated with modern-day Barcelona; this was 10, 15, 20-yard one and two-touch passing. Every part of the foot was used to keep the ball moving or drop it off into the path of a willing runner. The carousel was proving to be an increasingly popular attraction. The second round pitched Brazil into another group alongside holders Argentina and a stuttering Italian side who had only managed three draws and two goals in their three group games.

Brazil just continued where they had left off. Argentina and the emerging talent of Diego Maradona were no match for Santana’s team. Éder sent a 35-yard free kick swerving three different ways before crashing against the underside of the crossbar. Zico, a player in perpetual motion, followed up the rebound. Next up, elongated outside-of-the-foot passes released the ‘holding’ Falcão in the infamously vacuous wide-right position, who crossed for Serginho to score the most English of far-post headers.

Finally, as if to emphasise their contempt for traditional formations and rigid playing structures, Zico picked up the ball 30 yards out from the Argentine goal and threaded the most perfect of passes, taking out four Argentinian players, and allowing Júnior, the left-back, to run through and calmly place the ball under the advancing Ubaldo Fillol. Júnior celebrated with the crowd, moving his feet and dancing to the rhythm. By now the carousel was practically spinning off its axis such was the pace and severity of its rotation.

And then to the final group game against Italy. Due to the Italians only beating Argentina 2-1 the draw was good enough for Santana’s men, but that was not his philosophy. The game was there to be won; at any rate, why should they fear the Italians?

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What followed over the next 90 minutes is ranked as one of, if not the greatest, World Cup matches. Italy took the lead. Ironically that vacuous space on the Brazilian right which was so eagerly filled by the nearest player when in possession, was wide open when the Azzurri won the ball. Time and space allowed a perfectly whipped ball to be finished by Paolo Rossi after five minutes. The response was swift and incisive.

Sócrates and those impossibly long legs strode into the Italian half, flicked a 15-yard pass into the path of Zico, who turned his man-marker, the malevolent Claudio Gentile, with a deft back-heel. Sócrates accelerated beyond Zico and received the return pass from the number 10. The captain left the Italian defence in his wake and fired the ball past Dino Zoff at his near post.

The most audacious and sublime one-two had undone the Italians in an instant. A white cloud burst from the goal line as the ball fizzed past Zoff. It was like a firecracker had gone off in the Italian goal. John Motson called it “a goal that sums up the philosophy of Brazilian football.” A poorly-judged pass from Cerezo allowed Rossi once again to score past Peres and leave the Brazilians needing to score to progress. Such was Cerezo’s grief at what he had done, that Júnior had to threaten to “hit him in the face” if he didn’t stop crying.

The second half saw a continuous wave of Brazilian attacks, while the Italians, masters of defending a one-goal lead, were happy to counterattack. Eventually the pressure told, as Sócrates cut inside and rolled the ball to Falcão. Cerezo, who was everywhere on the pitch desperate to make amends, ran around the back of him to create the overlap. Cerezo took Antonio Cabrini, Marco Tardelli, Gaetano Scirea and the entire crowd behind the goal with him. Falcão instead pushed the ball to his left and rifled the ball past Zoff; 2-2, and Brazil were at this point going through to the semi-final.

Like the structure of any Greek Tragedy, the tale was to be epic, with its prologue setting the scene and the story being played out over three episodes. And so the third and final Italian contribution saw Rossi secure his hat-trick and push the Brazilian side towards elimination. For all the Seleção’s magic and inspiration, it was a goal too far to recover from. The carousel had finally stopped turning and the world went into mourning.

To debate the tactical naivety, the misplaced passes or poor marking is to defile the purity of the football played by Brazil’s 1982 side. Telê Santana had told his distraught players in the dressing room: “The whole world has been enchanted by you. Be aware of that.” The Brazilian coach received a standing ovation from over 300 members of the press as he walked into the room for the post-match press conference, acknowledgement indeed for what Santana and his team had given to the world.

During their five games, Brazil had scored 15 goals and seen seven different outfield players score. But it wasn’t about the number of goals or the numerous sublime and artistic ways they found to put the ball in the net. It was about their philosophy, their imagination, their style, their grace, their instinct, their love of the beautiful game, all played to a pulsating samba soundtrack.

Sadly the mesmerising quintet never played together as a unit for Brazil again. They had been brought together through circumstance and only shared a pitch for four games and 20 minutes. But the memories and emotions those five exceptional players produced will reverberate through the rest of time.

By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44

For more great stories on Brazilian football and its favourite sons, order your copy of the Brazil magazine.

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