Hello, and welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. With no sport on the TV, we’re doing things a little differently this week. First, we have an update of how football clubs and players are handling the forced stoppage, then we go back to 1958 for a little treat: looking at the three minutes that changed world football forever. Enjoy your read!
The show must NOT go on
With football completely paralyzed, players quarantined and tournaments canceled, the sports pages of the Brazilian press have been left almost blank. The coronavirus pandemic has rightly taken precedent over everything, and football clubs are beginning to do their bit to help out.
Stadiums. The Brazilian Health Ministry has predicted that the country’s public health system will collapse by the end of April, with a huge demand for beds and respirators. As a result, there have been plans made to set up a number of temporary field hospitals, and some of the country’s biggest football clubs are lending a hand.
In São Paulo, the big four clubs—Corinthians, São Paulo, Palmeiras, and Santos—have offered up their training centers and stadiums to be used by the health authorities, and the previously municipal-owned Pacaembu stadium is already being kitted out with hospital beds to receive patients. Bahia are doing the same, as are Athletico-PR in Curitiba.
Finances? One of the big worries in Brazilian football is regarding the potential loss in revenue felt by the clubs during this exceptional stoppage. At the best of times, teams in Brazil are just about financially operational. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, several clubs—with the likely exceptions of Flamengo and Palmeiras—will soon have difficulties paying the wages of their staff and players. There is a risk of sponsors pulling out, and revenue will tumble thanks to the lack of gate receipts. Unless these clubs are already in a reasonable position in terms of cash flow, we could be looking at the financial decimation of a huge number of top division sides.
The three minutes that changed world football
During the coronavirus pandemic, you’ll understand if we have some trouble coming up with ideas for up-to-date sports stories. As a result, I have decided to share some excerpts of sports writing I have done in the past, either previously published or tucked away on my computer’s hard drive. This week, we go back to 1958 and the three minutes that changed world football.
The match kicks off and the Soviets try to construct an attack down their left flank. They are among the favorites to win the 1958 World Cup, unlike today’s opponents Brazil. Their possession is short-lived and a poor pass from winger Anatoli Ilyin is intercepted by 17-year-old forward Pelé, who gets his first touch of the ball in World Cup play. Brazil quickly move the ball to the right to Garrincha, who traps it and slows the tempo of the game. He advances down the right side and takes on the USSR’s veteran left-back Boris Kuznetsov. Without looking at the ball, Garrincha feints one way, then another, before leaving Kuznetsov for dead. He hesitates, and goes back to beat the defender a second time before darting infield towards goal. The Soviet defense is unable to stop him and his rasping shot hits goalkeeper Lev Yashin’s left-hand post.
Seconds later, Garrincha has possession once again in the same area and once again he beats Kuznetsov. Instead of shooting, Garrincha crosses the ball for Pelé, whose shot rebounds off the crossbar. The Soviets do what they can to stop the onslaught, but Brazil steal the ball back a third time. Elegant midfielder Didi strolls through midfield and USSR defender Yuri Voinov comes to meet him. After a beautiful feint, Didi releases center-forward Vavá with a lofted through pass using the outside of his right boot. The pass is so perfectly disguised that the Soviet defense is left stationary. Vavá moves through on goal and scores, giving Brazil a 1-0 lead. The Swedish crowd bursts into incredulous applause, they have just witnessed something remarkable.
It was at the 1958 World Cup in the Nya Ullevi stadium in Gothenburg that Brazil changed football forever in the space of three minutes. They had won their opening match of the tournament—a comfortable 3-0 victory over Austria—but after a frustrating 0-0 draw with England, Brazil needed to avoid defeat in their final group game against the Soviet Union in order to remain in the competition.
Brazil’s coach Vicente Feola decided to make some changes to his starting eleven. Santos captain Zito played ahead of Dino Sani in midfield; bowlegged winger Garrincha replaced Joel and Santos’ sensation Pelé started in attack, with Dida dropping to the bench. Legend will say Feola’s hand was forced after Didi, Bellini and Nílton Santos—three of the squad’s more senior players—confronted the coach and demanded the inclusions of young prodigies Garrincha and Pelé. The truth, however, appears to have been far simpler. Joel picked up a knock in the match against England, Dida had been nursing a foot injury for some time, and Pelé had just recovered from his own knee problem.
Nevertheless, due to the number of references made to this pre-match meeting between Feola and three senior members of his squad, it is likely that it did in fact take place. Nílton Santos—accustomed to Garrincha’s genius after many training sessions at Botafogo where the two were team-mates—was said to have vouched for the winger’s quality and his potential to undo the Soviet defense. “Joel is a good player, he’s dedicated, lively, tenacious. But we need a Garrincha to surprise these gringos. Without Garrincha, I don’t think we will be able to break through some of these European defenses.” This would not be the first time Nílton had stuck up for Garrincha.
Brazil’s desperation to win the 1958 World Cup saw the CBD assemble a technical committee of experts to accompany the squad, including doctors, a dentist, and psychologist João Carvalhaes. Before leaving for Sweden, all selected players underwent rigorous examinations to determine their health and mental capacity, which included blood tests, dental exams and a psychological evaluation from Dr. Carvalhaes. Unlike the rest of the technical committee, Carvalhaes had no interest in football and his methods were based on the racial determinism that existed in Brazilian society in the 1950s and still lingers today. He deemed a number of the non-white members of the squad mentally unfit to play, most notably Pelé—”obviously infantile”—and Garrincha, whose test scores led Carvalhaes to classify him as “mentally retarded.”
Nílton Santos, foreseeing that Garrincha would fare poorly in Carvalhaes’ examinations, pleaded that the winger be given a pass. “There’s someone here who is perhaps unable to correctly answer even the easiest of these tests. It’s Garrincha. Please, doc, have patience with him. Even if he gets everything wrong, pass him. Pass him, because we’re really going to need him at this World Cup.” Nílton’s plea was successful, as though Dr. Carvalhaes continued to warn against his inclusion in the starting eleven, Garrincha boarded the plane to Sweden. Three weeks later, he was to start the match against the Soviet Union.
Brazil went on to beat the Soviets 2-0, with Vavá doubling their lead in the second half. The scoreline flattered the USSR, with Brazil registering a grand total of 36 shots on goal over the 90 minutes. Feola’s side advanced to the quarter-finals and eventually won the tournament, but in those three opening minutes against the Soviets, Garrincha, Pelé, and Didi rewrote the definition of beautiful football. Influential French journalist Gabriel Hanot called them the “most fantastic three minutes in the history of football.” From the stadium, Cândido de Oliveira, a reporter at Portuguese sports daily A Bola, cooed that “after today, I never need to watch another game of football.” USSR coach Gavril Kachalin was so blown away by Brazil’s performance that he decried all his formerly held tactical beliefs and rebuilt Soviet football in Brazil’s image. “[Brazil in 1958] was a football concerto. Before and after them, there is nothing.”
Four years previously, Gustáv Sebes’ Hungary side captivated the world with their never-before-seen fluidity, speed, and teamwork, but what Brazil brought to the table in 1958 was something different. It was an enthralling blend of artistry, deception, technique, and improvisation, now known Brazil-wide as futebol arte.