Pelé celebrates his goal against Italy in the World Cup final, Mexico City, June 21, 1970 (Photo: Alamy)
FOR JUST A FRACTION OF A SECOND, all of Arena de São Paulo went awfully quiet when there was no need to do so. This was at the opening game of the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the ball was but rolling listlessly somewhere near the half-line (Brazil still trailing 0:1 to Croatia at this point in the 28th minute) when, suddenly, as if a spell had been cast or they were trapped in a moment of shared sixth sense, 62,103 spectators experienced the equivalent of the silent, slow-motion effect often observed in the movies just before a bomb goes off. Later, we would find out that it wasn’t just the stadium that felt this moment of mute mystique, the rest of Brazil—glued to its TV sets—did too. It perhaps was the proverbial calm before the storm.
For, during this inexplicable lull, Neymar, Brazil’s flamboyant No 10, had picked the ball up by the half-line—an action from a position yet very benign. But a moment on, as the noise returned, Neymar began an unexpected run from the centre of the field on his right foot, tapped the ball left on sighting traffic and pulled the trigger from way, way outside the Croatian box. Kicking with his wrong foot and a little too early, it initially seemed as if Neymar had shanked it. But the rolling ball kept rolling, past a thicket of legs and then past a diving goalie, only to knock against the left post and deflect in the right way. Now there wasn’t a quiet corner to be found in a vast country.
In celebration, all of São Paulo quaked. The match resumed at 1:1 (and would eventually end with Brazil winning 3:1), but immediately after the equaliser the chaos in the stands and on the streets didn’t dial down in decibels for a couple of remarkable minutes. Domingo, the bartender of Kina da Vila, a pub in central São Paulo that I visited after the match, summed up that feeling of ecstasy best when he said: Aqueles dois minutos foram os melhores de nossas vidas (Those were the best two minutes of our lives). “To be alive in this city as our No 10 scores Brazil’s first World Cup goal on home soil after 64 years,” Domingo added in Portuguese while pinching himself, “No one can take that away from me.”
The last time Brazil had hosted a World Cup was so long ago that even the grand old greats of Brazilian football, Garrincha and Pelé, hadn’t yet worn the yellow-and-green. Quite like that 1950 edition, this quadrennial in 2014 too would end in disaster; but this would only make the Brasileiro, the man on the street, mythicise his national team’s exploits away from home that much more. And none got more mythical or legendary than when Pelé and Garrincha combined for the first time in their lives to give the football-loving Brazilian a reason to embrace the sport at a spiritual level. It takes us all the way back to the group stages of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the last country to which the Seleção arrived trophyless, where they took on the Soviet Union in Gothenburg.
“From the kick-off, Garrincha fired himself like a missile into the Soviet defence. After forty seconds of dribble after mesmerizing dribble, he shot at the post. Before sixty seconds, Pelé also hit the woodwork, from a Garrincha pass,” writes author Alex Bellos is Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life: “The onslaught of the opening three minutes, ending with a goal by Vava, showed an audaciousness and skill that had not been seen before in international football. They are considered by many as Brazilian football’s greatest three minutes of all time.” Of all time, until Brazilians like bartender Domingo exchanged three minutes of unseen folklore for two minutes of something more tangible, experienced and homemade in 2014, even if the modern game wasn’t quite as pretty.
The word most frequently associated with Brazilian football is beautiful. Bonito. This perhaps wouldn’t have been the case had Garrincha and Pelé not set the precedent, for their style came with great substance too; not once did Brazil lose a match when the two of them played together. And in tandem they won Brazil their first two World Cup trophies—in Sweden 1958 and Chile 1962. Although they were both born poor and formed a fearsome strike force, the resemblances end there; their personalities, on and off the field, were different as night and day.
Garrincha, or Little Wren, was a master dribbler who played for the joy of the game. Born with one foot considerably shorter than the other, bow-legged Garrincha moved in audacious angles, all the while controlling the ball between his bent feet. A story goes that once he dribbled past three defenders and the goalkeeper, only to make a U-turn at the mouth of goal to dribble past them again. Itch scratched, he promptly walked the ball between the poles and smiled at the crowd. Money made so little sense to him that he did not open a bank account—currency notes rotting away where Garrincha had carelessly tossed them: cupboards and fruit bowls. He died in squalor, a year before he turned 50.
Pelé, 82, on the other hand, played with the tunnel-focus to score goals. If counting each of his 1,279 career goals gave him happiness while playing, counting (and further accumulating) his riches has kept him ticking in the life after he hung up his boots. Building Brand Pelé has made him quite a divisive figure in his own country. Still, as polarising a figure as he may be, Pelé did play a central role in handing Brazil a third World Cup trophy in Mexico 1970 (the country’s first in Garrincha’s absence), and for that he will always be respected.
Nothing was more mythical than when Pelé and Garrincha combined for the first time in their lives to give the football-loving Brazilian a reason to embrace the sport at a higher level
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So much so, that in October 1999, a flashy new Mercedes was targeted by two armed robbers at a traffic light in São Paulo. But when one of the gunmen noticed who the passenger was inside, he lowered his weapon, apologised to Pelé and walked away. A year later in September 2000, yet another Mercedes driven by a World Cup-winning legend was stopped and forced into at a traffic light in Rio de Janeiro. The great Romário, however, had to walk back home—minus his car, wallet and mobile phone.
Romário, scorer of five goals at and winner of USA 94 (Brazil’s first since Pelé’s retirement) was after all a part of something that was altogether unimaginable until it happened—a flairless Seleção. This was by design, planned meticulously by their defender-captain Dunga, partly to counter the heartbreak caused by Brazil’s most attack-minded team in history, which was led by the bearded, chain-smoking, left-leaning mastermind who was aptly named Sócrates.
At Spain 82, a draw against Italy would have sufficed to take Sócrates’s team of ultra-offensive players to the semi-finals. And deep into the second half, Brazil even came from behind to make it 2:2. But Sócrates’s philosophy was that football was a platform to entertain (they had at this point scored 15 goals in five matches at the edition) and played only to be won, so he refused to sit back and defend. Soon, Paolo Rossi scored a third for Italy on the counter and the beautiful game in its purest form was lost forever. Or, as Sócrates later put it: “Football as we know it died that day.”
Because a defensive, winning Brazil is far less cherished than an attacking, losing Brazil (ask Romário), a nation readily embraced Ronaldo and his exploits at France 98—Brazil’s greatest World Cup tragedy away from home. At 21, the boy known as O Fenômeno (The Phenomenon) was already the best player in the modern game of power football, yet Ronaldo seemed to be cut from the same silken cloth as his great Brazilian predecessors; somehow, he had Sócrates’ presence, could dribble like Garrincha and shoot like Pelé all at the same time. But Ronaldo’s legend has something even greater than all those qualities—a redemption story that spanned over exactly two World Cups.
It is the most dramatic of all Brazilian tales, one that rises from a mud-covered reputation and ends with salvation. Simply and hastily told, this is what happened: hours before the final of the 1998 World Cup against hosts France, Ronaldo, Brazil’s top-scorer, suffered from a convulsive fit. He looked pale when he lined up at the Stade de France, but his teammates looked paler—some of them even having stopped him from swallowing his tongue or having wiped foam from his mouth. France won 3:0 and back home in Brazil, Ronaldo was made to answer in front of a parliamentary committee two years later. “Why didn’t we win?” an upset Ronaldo huffed at the hearing, “Because we conceded three goals and lost.”
Leading up to 2002, the physical stresses in Ronaldo’s life were perhaps worse than the mental ones. Both knees were operated on, forcing him to beg Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari to take him, despite his limp, to the World Cup in Korea-Japan. Scolari caved and great theatre was performed real-time and without a script: Ronaldo toe-poked the only goal of the semi-final against Turkey, further aggravating his knee, which he decided to take attention away from in the most comical manner before the final—he shaved exactly half his skull. The cunning worked, as the media, his teammates and Scolari focused on his face and not his worrisome legs. So, a man with a ludicrous mat of hair above his temples went on to score both goals in the final and lift a trophy he was due four years earlier. Smiling with a prosperous paunch and a full head of hair many years later, Ronaldo said: “It was practically a miracle.”
Few have occurred since, even though all of Brazil together prayed for one after Neymar was kicked in the spine and ruled out of the 2014 World Cup campaign before the semi-final. Perhaps even a miracle wouldn’t have saved them after just half hour at Estadio Mineirao, as a Neymar-less Brazil trailed 5:0 to Germany (losing 7:1 to the eventual champions). That semis defeat came to be known as the Mineirazo, or the Agony of Mineirao, a mocking tribute to Maracanãzo, Brazil’s original agony of losing their last match (there was no final) of the 1950 World Cup to Uruguay on their most hallowed turf, the Maracanã Stadium in Rio.
On the morning of the final between Brazil-slayer Germany and Brazil’s old enemy Argentina, I hailed a rare taxi on the deserted streets of Rio. Where to, asked the driver. “Maracanã,” I said. Without batting an eyelid, he deadpanned: “Why? What’s happening there?” For, this too is part of Brazil’s mystique. In football’s spiritual land, not only had a home World Cup all but ended two days before the final, the curtains dropped without Brazil once having played in their shrine, the Maracanã.