As the second favourites to win the 2010 World Cup after Spain, Brazil are used to the pressure that comes with the eyes of the world being upon them. No other country on earth’s identity is so closely associated with football, yet much of the mythology that surrounds the Brazilian national team stems their failure to win the tournament that they hosted in 1950. It was this national trauma that was to provide the inspiration for what would become the most successful international team on earth, both stylistically and tactically. As such, the story of how Brazil won the 1958 World Cup began eight years earlier, in Rio de Janeiro.
The 1950 World Cup was supposed to be Brazil’s grand entrance into the modern world. After fifteen years, democracy had returned to Brazil after fifteen years with the coming of the Second Republic in 1945, and the brash confidence of this new Brazil was to be displayed in full with the arrival of the first World Cup finals in twelve years. Work had started on the Maracana stadium in 1948, with 1,500 workers constructing the vast bowl. Brazil qualified with comfort for the final group stage of the tournament (the 1950 World Cup is the only World Cup ever not to have had a formal “final”), and two crushing wins – 7-1 against Sweden and 6-1 against Spain – left them needing only a draw from their final match against Uruguay to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy.
What happened on the 16th of July 1950 at the Maracana has scarred the Brazilian psyche to this day. In front of a crowd of 199,954, a world record for a football match that exists to this day, Brazil took the lead two minutes into the second half through Friaça, a goal which should have all but secured the trophy for the host nation. Uruguay, however, came back with an equaliser from Juan Alberto Schiaffino and then, with eleven minutes to play, a winning goal from Alcides Ghiggia that crept in at Brazil goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa’s near post. The silence, they say, was deafening. At full time, all that anyone could hear were the celebrations of the Uruguayan players and the handful of visiting supporters that had managed to get into the stadium.
Shortly before his death in April 2000, Barbosa commented that, “”The maximum punishment in Brazil is 30 years imprisonment, but I have been paying, for something I am not even responsible for, by now for 50 years”. Indeed, he died penniless and, as late as 1993, was banned by the Brazilian Football Association, the CBF, from commentating for a television station on a national team match. Brazil’s loss in that match, however, was about more than just one mistake by the goalkeeper. It was about complacency and an outdated tactical formation that couldn’t cope with the way that Uruguay played.
Superstition, however, also played its part in the reinvention of Brazilian football. The team had played until the 1950 World Cup in white with blue trim, but this kit was considered by many to be tainted by its association with the World Cup disaster. A newspaper, Correio da Mañha, launched a competition to design the national team a new kit based on the colours of the national flag. The winning entry, designed by a nineteen year old illustrator from the south of the country called Aldyr Garcia Schlee, remains the kit that Brazil uses to this day. Yellow shirts with green trim, blue shirts with white trim, and white socks. A design classic.
Tactically, though, Brazil still had to change, and their fortunes didn’t seem to have changed very much in 1954, when they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Hungary by four goals to two in a match so thuggish that it became as “The Battle Of Berne”. Even qualification for the 1958 tournament in Sweden wasn’t straightforward. Countries in the CONMEBOL region were divided into groups of three and Brazil were drawn to play against Venezuela and Peru, but Venezuela withdrew from the competition, leaving a two-legged play-off between Brazil and Peru for a place in the finals. The two sides drew 1-1 in Lima, before a nervy 1-0 win at the Maracana in the second leg saw Brazil edge through.
The big tactical change didn’t come, however, until shortly before the 1958 tournament itself. The “W-M” formation, which had been created by Herbert Chapman in 1925 as a response to a change in the offside law, had been Brazil’s style of choice in 1950 and 1954, but a 4-2-4 formation had been used with some success in Brazilian club football, most notably at Palmeiras and Santos. It was a looser system than W-M and it required wingers to drop back and work as midfielders or defenders, but it seemed to suit the mindset of the Brazilian players. It encouraged team-work and co-operation, as well as improvisation. It also helped that the best of a new crop of brilliant young players were particularly suited to such a system.
The final changes to the infrastructure of the Brazilian team came just a couple of months before the start of the tournament, when Joao Havelange was appointed as the President of the CBF. His first job was to appoint a new coach, and he brought in Vicente Feola, who had spent the previous twenty years at Sao Paolo. More important than this, though, was Havelange’s appointment of Paulo Machado de Carvalho as the manager of the national team. Machado left nothing to chance in his new position. Nicknamed “O Marechal da Vitória” (the Marshall of Victory), he introduced a nutritionist, a psychologist and a dentist to the squad, and each of these had their effect. The doctor, for example, was aware of the libidinous tendencies of his players, and had the female staff at their base near Gothenberg replaced with men. The dentist noted that the poor state of the players’ teeth (many of whom were from highly impoverished backgrounds) could have a distracting effect on their performance on the pitch, and fixed whose that needed it. Nothing was left to chance.
The two players that would go on to define the 1958 and 1962 World Cups, Garrincha and Pele, though, missed Brazil’s first two matches against Austria and England. Their opening match saw them beat a tepid Austria team 3-0, and the second match gave Brazilian supporters cause for some degree of concern – they were held to a 0-0 draw by a patchwork team that had lost three key players in the Munich Air Disaster, which had occurred earlier that year. What happened next is hotly disputed. According to folklore, the players revolted a demanded that Pele and Garrincha be allowed to play in their final group match against the Soviet Union, but it was repeatedly refuted by the players concerned.
No matter whose decision it was, playing Pele and Garrincha proved to be inspired. Within the opening minute, Garrincha and Pele had hit the post and the crossbar. After three minutes, Vavá gave them the lead, and he scored a second in the second half to send Brazil through to the quarter-finals. Signs of Brazilian nerves were still evident, though in their quarter-final performance against Wales, in which a single moment of virtuoso brilliance midway through the second half was enough to give them a 1-0 win. In the semi-finals, they were paired up to play a free-scoring France side that had scored seven in their opening group match against Paraguay and four in their quarter-final against Northern Ireland. Just Fontaine gave Brazil a shock when he equalised Vavá’s early goal for Brazil, but a hat-trick in twenty-three second half minutes from Pele helped Brazil to a 5-2 win and set up a Stockholm final against the host nation, Sweden.
Not all of Havelange’s planning had gone completely perfectly. Brazil had omitted to take a change kit to Sweden to them, and the blue shirts that they wore for the match were bought from a Stockholm sports shop on the morning of the match and had badges hastily sewn onto them. In the opening stages of the match, they seemed out of sorts, to the extent that they even conceded an early goal to the hosts, scored by Nils Liedholm of AC Milan after four minutes. By this time, however, the self-doubt that had been the curse of the Brazilian team since the day of the 1950 World Cup final, had all but completely dissipated. Sweden’s lead lasted all of five minutes before Vavá levelled from close range, and he scored again before half-time to give Brazil a 2-1 lead going into the second half.
Swedish hopes of getting back into the match were dashed when a brilliant individual goal from Pele extended Brazil’s lead ten minutes into the second half. Mario Zagallo added a fourth midway through the half and, although, Agne Simonsson pulled a second goal back for Sweden with ten minutes to play, a last minute header from Pele made the final score 5-2 to Brazil. At the end of the match, the Brazilian players did their lap of honour whilst carrying a huge Swedish flag. The rebirth of Brazilian football had begun in style.
Or had it? There are some that say that Brazil never really recovered from the shock of losing that 1950 final to Uruguay and that, no matter how many times they win the competition (even with the superlative performance of 1970), no tournament win will ever fully compensate for losing the trophy in front of their own fans. It might, however, be possible that this feeling is finally starting to fade. 1950 was sixty years ago now, and the number of people that can remember that day with any clarity is starting to fade.
In addition to this, the chance to finally lay that particular ghost to rest might just come in four years’ time, when Brazil hosts the tournament for the second time. It will be too late for the likes of Barbosa (and, indeed, for Garrincha, whose untimely death in 1983 came at the end of a troubled life after injury cut his playing career short), and such darkness sits uncomfortably at the heart of Brazilian football. What the changes made by Brazil during the 1950s demonstrate, however, is the extent to which changes can be made to the football culture of a country in the pursuit of victory. Getting it right, however, is a tricky business and Brazil were fortunate to have such an outstanding crop of players maturing in time for the 1958 World Cup. There can be no doubt, though, that Brazil did get it right in 1958 and, over fifty years on, their stranglehold on being football’s most biggest draw doesn’t look like diminishing any time soon.