They had ruled the world for eight years. Their playing style had fans and media purring, and few would have had anything but praise for their players and their impact on the game of football. Then came spectacular failure, and the applause soon turned to humiliation and mockery.
Apart from the number of hegemonic years, Brazil's plight in 1966 and Spain's in 2014 have a lot in common, but the Selecao's darkest hour can serve as a blueprint for Vicente del Bosque's side to pick themselves up -- or even reinvent themselves.
After dazzling the planet and taking the 1958 World Cup by storm with a team on which a 17-year old Pele wasn't even the most famous player, Brazil announced themselves as a proper force to be reckoned with. The Selecao had already made an impression 38 years earlier with a surprising third place finish at France 1930, which was spearheaded by the great Leonidas da Silva, Brazil's first superstar footballer on and off the pitch. (You can still buy "Black Diamond" chocolate bars in groceries all over the country.)
Yet they failed to build on that success. They lost the 1950 tournament at home. Then they got outplayed and outclassed four years later by Hungary, and finished their campaign with a massive fight that got even reporters involved.
Then came their win in 1958 and successful title defense in 1962, when even Pele's injury in the second match wasn't enough to prevent them from becoming the first side since Italy (1934-38) to win back-to-back World Cups -- a feat unrepeated since. It was more than natural that Brazilians felt proud and looked forward to a third successive assault at the Jules Rimet trophy in England; the original World Cup trophy was to be retained by the first country to win it three times. Hindsight is always 20-20, but one can definitely look at the Selecao's success as the beginning of a plunge into an abyss.
Brazil became so powerful in world football that even the president of their Sports Confederation started entertaining some very ambitious thoughts. In the Selecao, Joao Havelange saw a great stepping stone to the FIFA presidency, then held by Englishman Stanley Rous. In fact, Havelange made Brazil's 1966 campaign into a huge PR exercise, instead of the usual preparation for a serious sporting event.
In those days, the technological advancements of the 21st century would've sounded like witchcraft, but even so, football had come a long way since 1958. Tactically and physically, the game had evolved in Europe, and the writing had been on the wall as early as in April 1963. After a much-needed reshuffle -- the 1962 squad was the oldest Brazil have ever sent to a World Cup -- the Selecao toured Europe with their newcomers and could not have looked more exposed. They suffered four defeats, including a 3-0 rout by Italy and a 5-1 drubbing against Belgium.
Panic soon followed, and Havelange brought back Vicente Feola, the manager who won in 1958. The Selecao used this nostalgia as an instrument of hope, but it didn't change the fact that instrumental players looked well past their primes. Garrincha was already 33, and his alcoholism was finally starting to take its toll. It didn't help, either, that years of physical abuse at the hand of opposition had pretty much crippled the winger. Even Pele, who was 21 by the time Brazil won their second World Cup, had already showed signs of being jaded, thanks to the excruciating number of games he had played for his club, Santos, who were never shy of touring the corners of the world in search of generous match fees.
Never a man to stand up to the men in charge of Brazilian football, Feola acquiesced and let the political lobby dictate the Selecao's preparations for England 1966. What followed was mayhem: a four-month period in which 44 players worked together until the very last moment and played fierce friendlies against themselves in cities across the country.
Then-rookie Tostao remembers a scenario of chaos. "A month before the World Cup, nobody had any idea about who was going to play," he said. "The training was a joke, and we were being paraded for photo ops everywhere. The team was peppered with 1958 and '62 veterans that had been called up just for their names. Garrincha could barely walk."
Gone was the meticulous preparation of 1958, when Brazil excelled in fitness and logistics and pioneered the incorporation of professionals such as team dentists and a podiatrist -- to make sure not even ingrown toenails would be a problem. When it came to the field of play in 1966, Brazil were naked. After a 2-0 win over Bulgaria, the last match Pele and Garrincha played together (they never lost a Selecao game together), Brazil were steamrolled by Hungary and Portugal. It became clear to the players that Brazil had been caught napping by European opposition. The Selecao would have to make up for time wasted admiring their own belly buttons, as the Brazilian saying goes.
"That World Cup raised the bar in terms of athleticism, and the Selecao didn't know how to cope," said Carlos Alberto, who missed the final cut for 1966. "Two years after the World Cup, we played West Germany in Stuttgart and still weren't up to their fitness standards."
Tostao remembers the game for other reasons. Although he agrees with his former teammate on how Brazil lost the battle in 1966, it was the tactical inbalance that alarmed him more. "We had stopped in time after 1962 and expected the world to simply do the same," he said. "But when we arrived in England for the World Cup, we could see that the Europeans were playing in a much more compact and organised way than us."
As we all know, Brazil would wake up and smell the coffee after the 1966 fiasco -- it remains the last time Brazil didn't clear the group stages in a World Cup. The different approaches in 1966 and 1970 made it seem like 40 years had passed between the two tournaments, instead of just four. Even team shirts were redesigned to prevent collars from accumulating sweat in the Mexican heat, and each player's kit was made to order. Above all, Brazil did not fear changing their system and incorporating the European focus on fitness into their existing skills. It comes as no surprise that the legendary 1970 side won all six games of their games in the second half.
On July 21, 1970, Pele and Co. raised the Jules Rimet trophy for the third time. Brazil had been knocked from their perch in embarrassing fashion at the previous World Cup, but their humility and self-reflection were key in their ability to climb right back to the top.