This article is a part of the 30 day Special Series from Football Bloody Hell devoted to the World Cup 2018.
Brazil 1982. Football beyond enthralling. The epitome of compelling beauty. Wizards on grass. Playing with seamless ease and fluid understanding. It was an adamant style of football: attack, entertain, don’t betray the game, don’t compromise. The dogma of Telê Santana.
He took charge of the Seleçāo in 1980. Brazil was then transitioning from its military rule to a freer time. General elections for state governors were held for the first time since 1964. It was a time of hope and optimism. Dreams of a better future no longer scoffed off. Brazil’s football mirrored the nation.
Each 90 minutes was one of celebration. Countless adventures towards goal. Yellow shirts soared forward at every opportunity, whilst the team’s legendary midfield zig-zagged the ball forward. Éder, Zico, Sócrates, Falcão, and Cerezo were all-star men in their respective clubs. Together? Simply formidable. Santana quickly recognized the true calibre of his squad. It was a golden generation, true to the word. In 1980, years before the World Cup, he told his players, “You’re all here because you’re the best players in the country, so get to know each other on the pitch.”
In the two years after, Brazil visibly played out Santana’s thinking on the field. Clean football, technical, precise, each player with unmatched craft working as a shape-shifting collective. Capable of playing it short and of exploiting large spaces, untouchable dribbling, unstoppable one-twos, a goal felt likely whenever a yellow shirt was on the ball. And they came from everywhere. Long shots, freeckicks, lobs, near and far, all were on display to the public’s joy.
Brazil waltzed through the qualifiers. They played three more games versus European opposition and beat Germany, England, and France on foreign soil. The side gleamed with confidence and belief, in their style and their chances. The players upped their preparations as they sought to become the most dazzling champions since Brazil 1970. The captain of the side, Sócrates, was a man transformed. Not a gifted athlete by any means and a heavier smoker, the midfielder dropped his addiction and pushed himself forward, galvanising the team in process. 1982 was the only time Sócrates played 90 minutes in every game.
The tournament had kicked off in Spain. Brazil were in a group with the USSR, Scotland, and New Zealand. Fans of all nations lined up to see the famed artistry of the Seleçāo. Tales of their football had spread worldwide and disappointed none when televised. In their first two games, Brazil went down 1-0, but came back to beat the USSR and Scotland with dreamy, emphatic goals. Confidence in the camp was growing, and sadly some already saw themselves lifting the trophy.
Hubris is chronic. From a drop to an ocean, it spreads like a virus. After being drawn in the second group with Argentina and Italy, it was no denying that Brazil found themselves in the group of death. The Brazilians were naturally motivated to face their arch rivals in sky blue and white, but felt falsely confident at their chances of beating an unimpressive Italy.
Against Argentina, Brazil peaked. They were facing the reigning World Champions, and the players raised their efforts in response. Brazil triumphed in the match. Three stunning goals secured a 3-1 win. The contrast in levels was stark. Brazil never seemed inferior, or even comparable, to the Argentinians. Their opposition felt it too and a young Diego Maradona was awarded a red card for his aggression.
Then came Italy. In knockout football, nothing matters more than the upcoming 90 minutes. No heroics of matches past will hold bearing on its outcome either. And Brazil’s premature conviction of historic glory in premium fashion came it an abrupt stop.
Brazil seemed too lax. Italy’s Paolo Rossi scored the opener within five minutes. Sócrates soon equalised, but one poor pass at the back, from Toninho Cerezo and the Italians were back in front from another Rossi goal. It took Brazil all match to find the equalizer, finally netting it in midway through the second half in signature style.
It was a game of mixed emotions. All Brazil needed was a draw and they would be through to the semi-finals, but the players seemed incapable of playing for anything less than a win. The centre-backs Luizinho and Oscar repeatedly begged their fullbacks to stay back, but after two years of bombing forward and playing as virtual wingers, Júnior and Leandro couldn’t settle down.
There was a different type of heartbreak when Rossi scored his hat-trick goal, and the one that would eventually knock Brazil out. It was the goal that made the whole world weep. Headlines, in different lands and different tongues, read, “Football is over! Football has lost!” At the press conference immediately after Brazil’s elimination, all 300 journalists stood to applaud Santana’s vision and his legendary team. Upon the squad’s return to Brazil, there were no jeers or jibes to blame them, just thousands of gracious fans waiting patiently at the airport hoping to leave with some form of memorabilia from the real-life wizards.
It’s a shame that the winning style is the one that sees its replication. The pragmatism that the Italians introduced in 1982 with their vicious Catenaccio continues to shape modern tactics. But the mystic brilliance of Brazil’s fluid football is yet to resurface.