IN THE 68TH MINUTE, Júnior, the marauding left-back, cut infield, ran towards the area and then played a nonchalant pass with the outside of his boot. With the Italian defenders dropping back to keep an eye on the players further forward, Falcão shimmied this way and that to create space before lashing a left-foot shot past Dino Zoff and into the far corner. Italy had led from the 25th minute, when Toninho Cerezo’s careless square ball let in Paolo Rossi for his second of the game, but with just over 20 minutes remaining, Brazil were on their way to the semi- finals of the 1982 World Cup.
“That was the moment we should have shut up shop and said, ‘Let’s get players behind the ball and everyone defending’,” said Serginho, the oft- criticised centre forward, in a documentary on international football’s greatest teams. “And I’m sure Italy wouldn’t have scored against us. We lacked intelligence. That’s the best word.”
Luizinho, the centre-back, tells a similar story. “I remember in that game, Oscar and I shouting at the full-backs [Leandro and Júnior] to stay back when it was 2-2. But they wanted to win the game. Our coach, Telê, wanted to win the game. To be honest, I don’t think we played with enough humility. We all lacked humility, from the management to the players. We had two chances to hold on to the draw and we went for the win instead.”
Seven minutes after Falcão’s goal, the 15th that Brazil had scored in five matches in Spain, an Italian corner was cleared only as far as Marco Tardelli on the edge of the penalty area. His mis-hit shot found Rossi in acres of space in the six-yard box. The denouement was inevitable. In the quarter hour that remained, a defence immaculately marshalled by the legendary Gaetano Scirea repelled every Brazilian effort to find a third equaliser. And just like that, the dream was over.
“That team was football in its purest form,” said Júnior. “If Brazil had won, I think other national teams would have copied us and our style. But that didn’t happen. Whoever wins is doing it right. And as Italy won, everyone wanted to copy Italy.”
But it wasn’t just a dream that died on July 5th, 1982, at the Estadi de Sarrià in Barcelona. A style of play was jettisoned too, and replaced by more pragmatic, some would say colourless, methods. When Brazil won the World Cup in 1958, they did so scoring 16 goals in six matches. In 1970, the team widely considered the greatest ever, put 19 past their opponents in six games.
It wasn't just a dream that died on July 5th, 1982, in Barcelona. A style of play was jettisoned too and replaced by more pragmatic, some would say colourless, methods
Those that argue that such numbers were the result of mediocre defending have no clue what they’re talking about. In 1970, Brazil’s toughest game was against an England side that had Bobby Moore in imperious form. A video of his performance in that game could still be used as a training manual for aspiring defenders. In the semis, Brazil beat Uruguay, who had conceded one goal in their previous four games. The team they overwhelmed in the final? Italy, masters of the defensive arts.
Even in 1982, Brazil didn’t have it all their own way. The Soviet Union, denied two penalties, kept them at bay for 75 minutes. It needed magical goals, from Sócrates and Éder, to give Brazil the points. Scotland too took the lead before being brushed aside by Zico’s banana free kick, Éder’s impudent chip and Falcão’s precise drive into the corner. Argentina were seen off with the help of an Éder free-kick that nearly broke bar—Zico tapped in the rebound—and a marvelous team goal that Júnior finished off.
With defeat, however, the narrative was distorted. “We all look back on that game with great sadness,” said Éder. “It didn’t just change Brazilian football. It changed world football. All the Spanish newspapers said the World Cup was over when we were knocked out.”
“We didn’t win, we didn’t even reach the semi- final,” in Éder’s words, “And it’s not just in Brazil, the whole world remembers our team from 82, and that makes us so happy.”
After the game, when Telê Santana, the coach, walked in for the press conference, hundreds of journalists gave him a standing ovation. But more than three decades on, Santana is a symbol of failure in a world increasingly obsessed with the bottom line. “I’d rather coach a team than a group of great players,” said Jose Mourinho in an interview. “Italy was a great team, with a square, pragmatic, objective coach.”
Brazil weren’t the only story of that World Cup though. The first tournament to feature 24 teams, Spain 1982 offered us the first hint that there was more to football than Europe and South America. There had been stray instances earlier—North Korea upsetting Italy in 1966, Tunisia holding West Germany in 1978—but it was in 1982 that the new order really began to make its presence felt.
Algeria beat both West Germany and Chile and were eliminated only as a result of the disgraceful complicity between the Germans and Austria. Cameroon drew each of their three games, including against Italy, and exited the tournament only on the basis of goals scored. What many of those teams lacked, however, was the tactical discipline to control games.
That began to change as the world’s finest players made a beeline for Europe’s leagues. South Korea’s Cha Bum-kun was one of the Asian pioneers, while Rabah Madjer, who scored for Algeria against West Germany, would go on to score the winning goal in a European Cup final. African football, with its best players now playing across the Mediterranean, took its next big step in 1990, as Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions reached the quarter-finals, losing to England only in extra time.
In 1994, driven by the need not to repeat the mistakes of the past, Brazil were almost unrecognisable from the entertainers of an earlier generation
Nigeria would have emulated them, if not for a late, late goal from Italy’s Roberto Baggio in the round-of-16 clash at USA 94. The Nigerians upset Spain four years later, but as with their predecessors from Cameroon, they were let down by lack of discipline and discord behind the scenes. Asia’s big moment came in 2002, as South Korea, the co-hosts, reached the semi-finals, even if some of the refereeing decisions that went in their favour against Spain and Italy left much to be desired.
That was the year Brazil won the World Cup for a fifth time. Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho provided sprinklings of stardust as they scored 18 goals across the seven games, but the style of play was almost European, based on excellent organisation, a sound defence and midfielders who worked hard with and without the ball. Gilberto Silva and Kléberson were excellent at breaking up play and feeding the ball to that exceptional front trio, but no one would ever have accused them of being in the Sócrates-Falcão-Cerezo class.
Still, they were an improvement on the 1994 champions led by Dunga. By then, after 24 years without the trophy and driven by the need not to repeat the mistakes of the past, Brazil were almost unrecognisable from the entertainers of an earlier generation. Romario and Bebeto up front provided flair and goals—just 11 across seven matches—but the workmanlike midfield with Dunga at its heart was far removed from fantasy.
And Brazil weren’t the only ones. Pace and power became the primary concerns for most coaches, with the maverick playmakers increasingly sidelined. The most ludicrous example of that came in 1998, when Daniel Passarella refused to pick Fernando Redondo for the Argentina squad. The heartbeat of a wonderful Real Madrid side, Passarella left him out allegedly because Redondo, a liberal who had been uncomfortable with the idea of playing under Carlos Bilardo—another win-at-all-costs coach—as well, wouldn’t cut his hair.
France, whose Euro 1984 side were almost as good to watch as the 82 Brazilians, also went the dour way. The 84 midfield of Michel Platini, Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana and Luis Fernandez was as good as any Europe has seen, and Platini—the captain and talisman—scored nine of the 14 goals (in just five games) as France swept to the title. But when France finally won the World Cup 14 years later, they did so with a target man, Stéphane Guivarc’h, who would have struggled to hit a barn door.
Time will tell if Tite does away with the handbrake and lets the attacking quintet run riot as they did in 1970 and again 12 years later
That side, of course, had Zinedine Zidane, but in most cases, teams didn’t risk fielding more than one such ‘luxury’ player in the XI. The idea of Brazil-1970-like attacking options—Pele, Jairzinho, Gerson, Tostao and Rivelino—was almost unthinkable.
But after three straight World Cups won by European teams, the tide may finally be on the way out. Spain in 2010 and Germany four years later were hardly boring to watch, producing some sensational displays on their way to the trophy. But both played a system that came naturally, and with the personnel perfectly suited for it. A Brazil or an Argentina, when they tried to imitate them, usually floundered. At his Barcelona peak, Lionel Messi was surrounded by Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez and Neymar. The Argentine national team has Ever Banega in midfield. Xavi, he isn’t.
African nations too have disappointed in recent years by trying to fit their players into a tactical straitjacket that doesn’t fit. Cameroon and Nigeria were so frightening a generation ago because they allied pace and power with the trickery of men like Cyril Makanaky and Jay Jay Okocha.
The biggest transformation has been in Brazil, humiliated 7-1 by Germany on home turf four years ago. Under Dunga, they often played dire football, what Argentine great Jorge Valdano once referred to as ‘shit on a stick’. But under Tite, you can see glimpses of the old Brazil. The coach who was mentored by Luis Felipe Scolari, another of the pragmatists, cut his teeth in his homeland instead of following the gravy train to Europe. And in Tite’s sides, you can see the best of both worlds.
The defence and midfield have a solidity that is the envy of many European sides, and the attacking options are capable of playing Samba football. Where four years ago, the onus was squarely on Neymar, the load now is shared with the likes of Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho. Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, not even likely to start, is as complete a forward as any.
Marcelo on the left brings back memories of Júnior and his rampaging runs, and in Allison and Ederson, Brazil have two goalkeepers of the highest quality. Since Tite took charge after the Copa America debacle in 2016, Brazil have won 15 and drawn three matches. The only loss was in a friendly against Argentina, who they thumped 3-0 in the World Cup qualifiers.
Time will tell if Tite does away with the handbrake and lets the attacking quintet run riot as they did in 1970 and again 12 years later. For some, there is more at stake than results. Sócrates, who passed away in 2011, was convinced that there was more to Brazilian football than victories and trophies. “I come across as football’s Che Guevara, don’t I?” he said in an interview with FourFourTwo 18 months before he passed away. “I notice that. There’s a need, in the modern society, for people who instigate thinking, who don’t accept the status quo.”
“There’s a fascination with people who question established ideas, like I do. I wish much more people had that attitude,” he added. “I measure success by the experiences we live; and to play for a side like that  is like dating the woman you’re in love with.”
We’ll soon find out whether the inheritors of that magnificent legacy are imbued with the same romantic spirit.