With Brazil's homecoming for the World Cup mirroring that of ESPN FC correspondent Fernando Duarte this summer, we asked him to share some of his strongest memories of the Selecao in an essay series, 'Growing Up Brazil."
It had been a wonderful couple of days in Paris. That particular afternoon in May, days before the 2006 UEFA Champions League final, stood out thanks to some hilarious jokes fired by former Brazil and AC Milan legend Jose Altafini, whom I was interviewing for a piece on his recollections of the Seleção's maiden World Cup victory in 1958.
The conversation had already veered to classic moments from both countries that Altafini, known in Brazil as "Mazzola," had represented -- he also amassed a few appearances for Italy and even played for them in Chile 1962. It was then that Mazzola simply nodded towards a grey-haired gentleman emerging from one of the makeshift TV studios in the bowels of the Stade de France.
"You might be interested in talking to that fella," he said, rather casually.
My blood froze. "That fella" had aged but the years had done nothing to the assassin smile that, almost 24 years on, remained so paradoxically enchanting and vile. Paolo Rossi was there, a couple of meters away from the nine-year-old boy-turned-writer whose dreams he had broken up. Ten years of sports journalism prepared me for many things and I have always been proud of keeping it cool during most encounters with iconic figures. The few exceptions were always tied to the events of July 5, 1982 at the Sarriá Stadium in Barcelona.
The date refers to one of the most sensational football games in history, a description not limited to Brazilian and Italians. It was on that hot Catalan afternoon that Rossi had the game of his life, scoring a hat-trick in the epic 3-2 win that took the Azzurri to the World Cup semifinals at the expense of one of the finest groups of players the Seleção had ever been able to rely on.
The squad boasting Zico, Sócrates, Falcão, Éder, Toninho Cerezo and Júnior was beaten, having bedazzled the world during their four previous matches that summer. To many people it was a freakish result, although that notion is tad unfair to the quality of opposition Brazil faced on that day. To many Brazilians, it was the equivalent of the day one finds out that your Dad is not actually the world's strongest man.
While I had long since known that muscle power wasn't Seu Marcos' outstanding attribute by the time the 1982 World Cup rolled around, it hurt to see him as dumbfounded as many of the adults who had religiously gathered round the TV set at my maternal grandmother's house in Niterói in order to follow the tournament.
After 90 minutes in the Sarriá, a torrent of expletives were fired around the living room by grown-ups who had just witnessed what can only be described as a pity of a result. With crossed arms, my father remained silent. But his eyes had welled up. It would take me 21 years to see it happen again, this time for happier reasons -- my wedding ceremony in England -- though the 1982 image still strikes me.
For many Brazilians, the 1982 squad was a symbol of times where Brazilians did not have a lot to cheer for. Still under military rule -- even though current president General João Baptista Figueiredo's government was by no means arresting and torturing dissidents like his predecessors -- the country faced dire times. The economy was in tatters after decades of irresponsible expansionism at the hands of the Army technocrats and the 1980 oil crisis; it would not take long for Brazil to be virtually bankrupt, forced to rely upon an International Monetary Fund rescue package attached with draconian conditions that would hold back economic growth for 25 years.
The football wasn't much better. Although the Brazilian Championship at the time still saw the vast majority of talent playing domestically in the form of great squads such as Zico's Flamengo, Socrates' Corinthians and Eder's Atlético Mineiro, the Seleção had endured two World Cups of dullness.
While many other countries would hardly view successive top-four finishes in 1974 and 1978 as abject failures, Brazilians sneered at the bureaucratic and somehow "militarised" way those teams played, as much as Argentina's still unexplained shenanigans in 1978 had cost the Seleção a place in the final against Holland. They had been humbled by Rinus Michels' "Clockwork Oranje" in Germany '74 and patriotism rather than reason would guide claims that Brazil still played the best football on the planet.
But then came Tele Santana, unveiled as Seleção manager in early 1980. He was chosen by the Brazilian Football Confederation not only as somebody that could reap the benefits of a vintage crop of skilful footballers that had emerged since 1978, but also as somebody quite the opposite of his predecessor, Army captain Claudio Coutinho.
Unlike Coutinho, Santana had been a footballer. And a good one, too: in nine years for Fluminense, he netted 165 goals and still ranks as their third-most prolific scorer of all time. Santana's only problem as a player was bad luck: he was a right-winger in the 1950s, a period in which Brazil boasted talents such as Julinho, Joel and a certain Garrincha on that side of the pitch. As a consequence Santana's Seleção career had been limited to one cap; he wasn't even able to enjoy it, as he had to pull out of a Seleção friendly against Portugal due to injury. Still even opposition fans, impressed with his talent and fair play, respected him. Also, Santana had never sent off in his 12-year professional career and would later demand the same behaviour from his players.
While in his first competition in charge Brazil were beaten by Uruguay in the the final in Montevideo, the "Mundialito" (a tournament celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first World Cup), a subsequent 4-1 drubbing of Germany was a promising sign. That same year the Seleção toured Europe and in the space of a week beat England, France and the Germans once again -- this time, defeating the latter in a 2-1 victory in which goalkeeper Waldir Peres saved two penalties from Paul Breitner, who reportedly had never missed a spot-kick before that match.
And so the Seleção, with their attacking line-up in which even centre-back Oscar fancied going forward, was back to bossing Europe's finest. Better: at a time when Brazilians were shouting for democracy after almost two decades of dictatorship, the national team symbolised the push from freedom with their attitude to art above discipline.
Of course that has been romanticised and at nine years old, yours truly here could not care less about the political woes, let alone the fact that one of the stalwarts of that team, Socrates, had specialised in shows of public dissidence that included a rebellious player-power system at Corinthians. But finesse on the ball and public catharsis had resulted in forms of mobilization that Brazilians had not seem for a long time: streets were painted and decorated as if the country all of sudden had gone back in time and returned the monarchy to power.
People were happy and confident: apart from a hiccup in their World Cup debut against the Russians where two masterpiece goals didn't disguise nerves in a 2-1 win, Brazil coasted in the next three matches, highlights by an emphatic 3-1 defeat of Argentina that was capped by Diego Maradona getting a red card after losing his cool. Surely they would prevail against a Italy team that had been the scorn of that World Cup, failing to win a single match in the group stages and relying upon a striker who had spent almost two years away from the game thanks to a suspension for involvement in a match-fixing scandal. That striker was Paolo Rossi.
As we all know now, the writing was on the wall. Mediocre as they were in the matches against Peru, Poland and Cameroon (whom they had only edged to qualification thanks to goals scored), Italy were far from pushovers. Eight players, Rossi included, had been part of the previous World Cup where they finished after a hard-fought playoff match against Brazil.
In a conversation with the legendary Paulo Roberto Falcão for my book on Brazil's most famous World Cup defeats, he told me how his Seleção teammates ganged up on him with jokes about the quality of Italian football. "They would say it was easy to play in Serie A, but I did warn the Italians were much better than they seemed," reminisced the former AC Roma player. Also, in manager Enzo Bearzot they had a tactical geek who developed a 2.0 version of Italy's famous "catenaccio." They knew how to close down opposition. Finally, there were worries about the vulnerability of Brazil's right side, where the absence of a winger and cranky rotation system between Socrates and Zico made it tempting for opponents to exploit.
Italy duly did, scoring after only five minutes as Antonio Cabrini escaped down the unguarded right side corridor and crossed a perfect ball for a Rossi header -- his first goal in a World Cup many Italians thought he should not have attended. The tone was set: Brazil would chase back the game, needing only a draw to qualify to the semifinals, but Rossi would always find a way to score another one. Just before the final whistle, 40-year old Italian goalie Dino Zoff saved a Oscar header on the line, which just made the comedown even worse.
For days I couldn't even think about that game without a sense of sadness that has never really left me. I remember rooting desperately for Germany in the final only to see the Azzurri lifting the trophy for the first time since the 1930s, joining Brazil as the only triple winners at the time.
Years later I would have the chance to personally find out that some of protagonists that day at the Sarriá hadn't moved on either. During a legendary drinking session at a non-descript Leeds pub in 2004 -- the year Socrates engaged in a bizarre promotional tour in England -- he confessed that he had never dared watching a replay of that match.
Falcão needed to launch a book with his memories of the tournament in 2012, an attempt to exorcise some ghosts. Zico never really came to the terms with one of the side effects of that result in Barcelona: the death of the brave naivety that had helped Brazilian football through the years. Although the class of 1982 is revered back home with a deference never reserved for more successful incarnations of the Seleção, their approach to the game was trumped by the "European organisation" that would ironically bring bigger returns 12 years later in 1994, when Brazil won their fourth World Cup.
What you read above flashed before my eyes on that day in Paris, 2006. I had the choice of pretending Rossi wasn't there -- nobody apart from Altafini and I would have known. Instead I got up, introduced myself and had one of the most thrilling conversations of my professional career. In some moments I felt Rossi was almost apologising for making a whole nation cry -- he felt really uncomfortable to know of his nickname, "the Executioner of 1982."
Rossi also spoke of how taken aback he was by the hostile reception he had in a visit to Brazil in 1989 -- he was kicked out of a cab by the driver who knew who he was, and a "masters" match in Sao Paulo that almost turned into a riot when the crowd pelted him with whatever was at hand.
It didn't prevent him from having another go a few decades later, taking a part in an ingenious TV ad where he walks into a barbershop in Brazil as is recognised by the barber, who still does his job; the barber, by the way, is played by José Carlos Villella Junior, who became famous in Brazil after his tearful face at the Sarriá was printed on the cover of a newspaper and became the symbol of that defeat to Italy.
When we finally said our goodbyes, Rossi's assassin smile had turned into a much less painful memory -- it was never a cruel show of teeth, mind you; there was a touching air of incredulity is his facial expressions after each of the six goals he scored in that World Cup to earn the Golden Boot. We shook hands and a few months later in Germany 2006 would quickly wave at each other during the build-up for Italy's decider against France. It was the last time I saw him.
Rossi still shows up in my memories of the "Sarriá Tragedy" as 1982 became known in Brazil. I still lose it over that World Cup every once in a while. But I have forgiven him.