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Mar 24, 2011

Brilliant Brazil's brush with greatness

On Sunday, Scotland play Brazil in a friendly at Emirates Stadium. The two countries were involved in a memorable game at the 1982 World Cup, where Brazil set new aesthetic standards but ultimately failed to marry style with silverware as their challenge ended with a thrilling defeat to Italy.

In the wake of Netherlands' World Cup final loss to West Germany in 1974, a defiant Johan Cruyff sought solace in the belief that "there is no better medal than being acclaimed for your style". To vindicate Cruyff, Total Football has become an aesthetic benchmark, as has the football employed by the Magical Magyars of Hungary, who were also vanquished by West Germany in the final of 1954. As a result, both are instructive examples in any debate of what constitutes greatness: silverware or style?

But perhaps the most important example of all is the Brazil side of the 1982 World Cup that failed to reach the semi-finals yet established a reputation for playing perhaps the greatest football the world has seen.

Zico, disgusted by defeat to Enzo Bearzot's more limited but far better organised Italy in the second group stage, called it "the day football died", but while Brazil's bold and liberated approach to the game expired, their freeform midfield becoming an anachronism, memories of that great side remain very much alive. Yes, Brazil lost the war in Spain 29 years ago, but they have definitively won the peace.

Their conquerors went on to win the finals in Spain, but it is memories of Zico, Socrates and the rest that persist, and exist in the collective memory. Nostalgia looks favourably not on the team that took the trophy home, but the team that entranced a generation of football fans, those dashing figures in yellow and blue, the greatest side never to win the World Cup.

It is tempting to suspect that the Brazil side of 1982 have had that greatness thrust on them in retrospect, and on repeated viewings of their cornucopia of great goals, but heading into the finals in Spain their capacity for fluid, brilliant, charming football was already evident. According to Hugh McIlvanney, writing in The Observer, Tele Santana's side were "the most gifted collection of footballers in the game ... [they were] the unmistakable nucleus of a great team".

Supplying the unique genetic material for that nucleus was a midfield of rare talent. The names roll off the tongue in luxuriant fashion: Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Cerezo, Eder. Shunning pragmatism and the demands of creating a rigid system, Santana instead entrusted his creative players with a freedom to express themselves as they broke free from the constraints imposed by predecessor Claudio Coutinho at the 1978 finals. No longer were Brazil seeking to ape their European counterparts by focusing on physicality: now, in the words of The Guardian's Patrick Barclay, Santana had shown them that Brazil "should refuse to consider plagiarising inferiors". Instead, they wrote their own chapter in football's history books.

Flamengo playmaker Zico - known as the 'White Pele', who would finish his career with 52 international goals in 72 appearances - was perhaps the iconic member of the side, in conjunction with Socrates, the elegant, politically-minded midfielder, who played with an unmistakeable mop of hair and full beard. Describing his life philosophy some years later, Socrates demonstrated the individualistic streak that made this Brazil side so spectacular. "There's a need, in the modern society, for people who instigate thinking, who don't accept the status quo," he said. "There's a fascination with people who question established ideas, like I do."

The apparent anomaly in this unique team was much-derided striker Serginho, who had only claimed a place in the side following injuries to Careca and Reinaldo. Former Brazil coach Joao Saldanha famously said following Serginho's substitution against New Zealand that "now the ball is round again", and the big forward has been variously depicted as unwieldy, awkward and out of his depth - essentially the Tony McCarroll to Definitely Maybe-era Oasis. However, even his role has been subject to some favourable revisionism in recent years. Clearly, this was a team of some talent.

They demonstrated as much in the first game of the 1982 finals with a 2-1 win over USSR in Seville, with Socrates opening his account when nipping away from two markers and unleashing a thunderous shot into the top corner from 25 yards. Brazil then won the game in spectacular fashion, Falcao's dummy allowing Eder to flick the ball up and volley home from outside the box. The watching millions knew something special was unfolding, with Barclay salivating over Brazil's "unrivalled capacity for producing the most imaginative play".

Scotland also had the audacity to take the lead though David Narey in Brazil's second outing, but again the South Americans responded in style. Zico's inch-perfect free-kick found its way into the very top corner, Jose Oscar Bernardi scored a routine header from a corner, Eder delightfully chipped Alan Rough and Falcao lashed one in off the post from 20 yards. It was a demolition job, with Eder's goal in particular wowing the world, and reducing Rough to begrudging acceptance. "It was a fantastic goal," the goalkeeper said. "Nothing I could do about it. At least he never beat me at my near post, so I'm quite happy about that."

Scotland manager Jock Stein, a man with such a rich legacy of success, even admitted: "It will be good for soccer if they win it. It is never easy to accept defeat but this one is different."

McIlvanney further expressed the belief that the Seleção were producing epoch-defining performances and succeeding, as all great sportsmen do, to push the boundaries of achievement. He wrote: "The hurt [Scotland] feel over the four goals dazzlingly inflicted on them by Brazil should be no more tinged with shame than the sense of inadequacy experienced by every golfer who has been buried under a flood of birdies from Jack Nicklaus, every fighter overwhelmed by Sugar Ray Robinson or all the Grand Prix drivers who have ever had Juan Fangio's exhaust fumes blowing in their faces. When you lose to the best, self-recrimination is a graceless irrelevance."

New Zealand were brushed aside 4-0 in the final group match - the highlight being Zico's outrageous scissor kick - while the first game of the second group stage delivered a comprehensive 3-1 win over rivals Argentina.

Italy had also beaten Diego Maradona's side, but by a smaller margin, so approaching the final group game against the Azzurri, Brazil required only a draw to secure a deserved place in the semi-finals. Italy had already been demonised for their approach against Argentina, giving this match a clear complexion of good vs evil. As Barclay wrote: "Brazil have shown signs of approaching the 1970 standard in this tournament ... people baffled by tactical struggles are finding it easy to relate to the beautiful simplicity of their play, which is a street game made into art. Set this against the moral bankruptcy of the Italians against Argentina ... and you have the reason why the international footballing community will be behind Brazil."

Setting aside moral and artistic concerns, Brazil were overwhelming favourites. Italy only reached the second round thanks to a higher goal tally than Cameroon, and in Paolo Rossi had an out-of-form striker who had failed to score in the tournament. Indeed, Rossi only completed a two-year ban for his part in the Totonero match-fixing scandal two months before the tournament and looked a man lost in Spain. That would all change in one of the World Cup's greatest games.

After just five minutes, Rossi headed in at the back post, and although Brazil replied with a goal of high art - Zico twisting away from his marker and playing a sumptuous reverse pass for Socrates, whose thumping effort drew a plume of chalk when it crossed the line - Rossi struck again before half-time thanks to a calamitous error from Cerezo, as the midfielder's stray pass rolled into the path of the Italy striker. The Brazilian was reduced to tears, only to be told by left-back Junior: "If you don't stop crying, I'm going to smack you in the face."

The farcical goal exposed what many had suspected: while Brazil's midfield was flirting with greatness, their defence certainly was not. Goalkeeper Waldir Peres had demonstrated as much when allowing a shot from USSR to comically slip through his fingers in Brazil's first game, but now their weakness was being exploited to the full. While Falcao levelled with a fine effort from the edge of the box, rounding off another lovely move, Rossi took advantage of some unconvincing defending from a corner to claim his hat-trick, and secure a 3-2 win for Italy.

Bambi's mum had been shot: Brazil, beloved by the world, had lost to the heirs of Catenaccio.

At least that was the perception from some, including a bitter Zico. "We played artistic football with beauty, all about goals and attacking," he said. "Italy were the opposite, completely preoccupied with stopping the other side playing." Italy coach Bearzot was not convinced that his had been a triumph of pure pragmatism: "There was some mean-spirited talk. Our third goal was scored after a corner with all the Brazilians in the area. I repeat: all the Brazilians in the area. Yet we were still accused of playing counter-attacking football."

What Italy's triumph did represent was the superiority of the organised system over the liberated individual. It showed that even arguably one of the most talented midfields of all time, allowed free rein to express themselves, could not escape the limitations imposed by their other team-mates and the demands of a team sport.

As Jonathan Wilson has noted in Inverting the Pyramid, it was a game that "lay on a fault-line of history ... it was the day that a certain naivety in football died; it was the day after which it was no longer possible simply to pick the best players and allow them to get on with it; it was the day that system won".

For Socrates, ever the thinker, this was also more than just a defeat, it was a repudiation of a philosophy. He lamented some years later in an interview with Four Four Two: "It may have been the last side to represent Brazil in a World Cup that epitomised the country. It was irreverent, joyful, creative, free-flowing. From that point onwards, the Seleçao became like any other first-world country national side."

In Socrates' mind, and many others', Brazil's team of 1982 remain the ultimate standard-bearers for beautiful football, giants of the game, irrespective of whether they actually won that trophy or not.

What happened next? Italy won the World Cup when beating West Germany in the final. Socrates, Falcao and Zico all returned for the 1986 finals but Brazil were eliminated at the quarter-finals by France.

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