Colossus of the game

Brazil’s five World Cup titles and participation in every tournament ensures it will remain the most storied team for a long time.

“Brazil is not big on facts… It is a country built of stories, myths and Chinese whispers.” So wrote Alex Bellos, in his introduction to Futebol. Those myths and stories have penetrated our perception of Brazilian football too. The team is regularly associated with sorcery and deception. Brazil’s five World Cup titles and participation in every tournament ensures it will remain the most storied team for a long time.

Yet, Brazil’s success story, like all positive tales, finds its origins in defeat. Even now, the country’s loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final at home is recounted with much grief. As celebrated playwright Nelson Rodrigues noted, “Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima…” But one would do well to remember that this was also the tournament that, at times, saw the apotheosis of the so-called ‘Samba’ football. Indeed, after watching Brazil thrash Spain and Sweden, Brian Glanville was moved to write that the side played “the football of the future… tactically unexceptional but technically superb.”

Unfortunately, even though facts suggest otherwise, the cavalier and defensively fragile tag has stuck with Brazil. Hence, it’s important to dilute this perception of the Selecao.

In 1958, when Brazil won its first title in Sweden, the side only conceded four goals in six matches and those strikes arrived in the semifinal and final. At the 1962 World Cup in Chile, only five goals were allowed in as many matches.

The record improved in 1994, as just three goals were conceded in seven matches. And during Brazil’s last World Cup triumph in 2002, there were four goals against the side in seven games. The cumulative total reads: played 26 and conceded 16. By all accounts, that’s a fantastic record.

However, we are yet to mention Brazil’s most celebrated success on the global stage. At Mexico 1970, the men in yellow enchanted the world with an exhibition of football seldom seen later. The day after the national team had regained the world title, the Jornal do Brazil proudly observed, “Brazil’s victory with the ball compares with the conquest of moon by the Americans.”

Brazil scored a higher-than-usual 19 goals in six matches to evoke unabashed joy, while conceding seven times. Although the defensive record was relatively bad, it would be unfair to claim that the side was defensively fragile. Since the 1970 triumph has been valorised repeatedly, one suspects, the myth that Brazil can’t defend, has solidified as an accepted ‘truth’.

While 1970 stands as a pillar of ultimate joy, the significance of 1958 and 1994 should not remain understated. Only eight years had passed since the tragedy of 1950 when a 17-year-old Pele embalmed those wounds through six strikes at the tournament, two of them in the final against Sweden.

The successful campaign of 1994 is not regarded very highly for it was characterised by “defensive football.” Indeed, Brazil scored only 11 times in seven matches and required a penalty shootout to win the final. Yet, the victory remains as significant as others because it brought an end to a 24-year long drought that had borne painful failures, most notably in 1982.

* * * Striking it rich

Leonidas, the 1938 World Cup top-scorer, was described by Nelson Rodrigues as, "Full of the fantasy, improvisation, childishness and sensuality that have marked out all the Brazilian greats." Certainly, of all the kinds of footballers produced in Brazil, this one is valued the most. For the Brazilian public, there are very few sights more joyful than a player going past a defender with a dancer-like swivel of hips.

Garrincha was perhaps the best exponent of this idea. In the absence of the injured Pele in the 1962 World Cup, the winger undertook additional responsibility to lead his side to a successive title.

Garrincha... Star of Brazil's 1962 World Cup victory, in the absence of an injured Pele.-AP

Eight years later, Jairzinho scored seven times including once in the final to help his side's march towards immortality. Playing on the right, the `Hurricane' regularly burst forward to cause devastation.

The last two World Cup triumphs for Brazil saw strikers gain prominence. At USA '94, Romario struck five times to enter the pantheon of football. His most crucial contribution, arguably, was to score the winner in the 1-0 semifinal win over Sweden.

Although Ronaldo experienced crushing disappointment at the next tournament in France, he redeemed himself in South Korea-Japan four years later with eight goals. Two of those strikes came in the final against Germany.