When Juscelino Kubitschek became president of Brazil in 1956, it signalled the beginning of a new era. It was a time of growth and optimism, exemplified by the ambitious Plano de Metas, a plan to endow the nation with new infrastructures, including the building of a whole new capital city, Brasilia. The slogan in vogue at the time was that Brazil would advance “fifty years in five”.
To what extent the government made good on its development promises is up for discussion, but at least in one area – football – the end of the 1950s witnessed growth that was worth more than half a century. And the symbol of this growth was compressed not into five years, but into five short minutes.
Up to the opening exchanges of the match against the Soviet Union, the third match in the group phase of the 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden™, A Seleção were little more than a team that played some pretty football and showed potential. There were no great pretentions. Until the first few minutes of that game nobody talked about Brazil in terms of a world power or the guardians of a particularly charismatic brand of football. It is not unrelated that, until that game, the side had never lined up in a competitive match with two of the greatest players in their history, Pele and Garrincha.
In the 3-0 victory over Austria and the goalless draw against England the duo had been backups to Mazola and Joel respectively. Selecting both players in a key match where the group leadership was at stake was akin to an official proclamation of what Brazilian football would come to signify. Things would never be the same.
“It was a fantastic game, especially the opening minutes,” enthused left winger Mario Zagallo. “I’m not ashamed to say that for those minutes I was nothing more than a spectator on the pitch. The ball didn’t leave the right flank where Garrincha, Pele and Didi were. It was beautiful. And the Soviets had no answer,” he told FIFA.com.
Zagallo was referring to the bombardment of the mythical Lev Yashin’s goal. First it was Garrincha, the centre-forward, dribbling past his marker and smashing the ball against the left post. One minute later it was Pele, who controlled the ball and hit the woodwork again. Another attack was immediately launched, with Didi finding Vava who beat the onrushing Yashin to make it 1-0. Three minutes had been played. Sixty seconds later and Vava was a whisker away from scoring the second, latching onto a marvellous piece of play by Garrincha. And that was it. Suddenly the world was in awe of Pele, Garrincha and A Seleção. Those five minutes were enough.
The team that had finished runners-up in the 1950 World Cup was long gone, and there were survivors from Brazil’s 1954 campaign. A Seleção had been revamped, but to start with it was difficult to say whether it had improved, let alone improved drastically. The Soviet Union were big favourites to win the group, with stars such as Yashin and Nikita Simonyan, who had helped the country become champions at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. The USSR had also drawn against England and beaten Austria in their first two matches.
In the midst of the Cold War, when the soviet communist state put great emphasis on sporting success, the West looked upon the USSR as a force of nature, rather than a football team. Opinions such as “they are huge”, “they train like maniacs” and “they are superhuman” were commonplace at the time. Zagallo himself freely admits it. “The Soviets’ training camp was around 200 metres from ours, and our building had a second floor. Before the game I watched from above as those red shirts ran tirelessly in the morning, then ran tirelessly in the afternoon. I thought to myself, ‘oh my Lord, don’t these guys do anything but train? How is it possible?’”
But propelled by a skinny bandy-legged right winger wearing the No10 shirt, the youngest player at the tournament at just 17, Brazil overcame that hard-running and physically powerful machine with the minimum of fuss. At least that’s the way they made it look.
“The day after the game the USSR players, who were staying next to us, came to congratulate us,” Djalma Santos said in conversation with FIFA.com. “We were having dinner and the Soviets arrived, all dressed in suit and tie. Garrincha remarked: ‘Who are these “giants”?’ ‘Brother, they’re the Soviets. We played against them yesterday,’ I said and the astonished Garrincha replied ‘My word, every one of them is a beast!’”
There were another 85 minutes to go after that whirlwind start. For most of the game Brazil remained well on top, attacking Yashin’s goal and creating chance after chance. In the first half Pele, who later admitted in his autobiography how nervous he was, missed two clear chances to score. They almost proved costly.
“In the second half the Russians came at us strongly, but our defence held firm,” writes Pele in his memoirs, before describing the second goal. Another marvellous dribble by Didi allowed Vava, lying on the floor, to score his second. “The tension only ended for good when Vava scored his second. It was a relief. We celebrated so much that in the scrum Vava hurt himself and had to have treatment on the sidelines for several minutes. But we’d done our job. We were in the quarter-finals.”
The lead actors
It is not difficult to choose them. Two youngsters got their opportunities and would never again be considered reserve players. A lot of rumours surround the selection of Pele and Garrincha for this match. Legend has it that the squad veterans, such as Zito, Nilton Santos and Didi had campaigned for their inclusion in the team. But subsequent interviews do not back up this view.
“There were doubts about Garrincha," Djalma Santos said. "We went to Italy before the World Cup, and played against Fiorentina. Garrincha got hold of the ball, dribbled past their centre-back, sweeper and goalkeeper. He got to the goal-line and stopped. The ’keeper came running back and he back-heeled it into the net. The head of the delegation, Carlos Nascimento, said it showed he was not ready to play in a World Cup, because he was still kidding around."
But the injury to Joel, who had been the regular starter, precipitated matters, as explained by Zagallo. “Joel played with me for Flamengo, and we roomed together. He came to me and said, ‘Zagallo, my knee is hurting.’ I told him if he missed the game he wouldn’t get back in the team. ‘I’m feeling it a little. I’m going to tell them,’ replied Joel.”
As for Pele, it wasn’t a question of the exuberance of youth. He was recovering from a knee injury. O Rei himself talks about it in his autobiography. “In the last training session before the game Garrincha and I were the starters. I knew everybody would be looking at me, so I was concentrating hard, but I was desperate to impress. I picked up the ball near our goal, ran up the left, and when I was in an attacking position I began to feel my knee.”
“But there was another obstacle. As part of our preparation our psychologist Dr. Joao Carvalhaes carried out tests on us. We had to draw pictures and answer questions. I’m not sure if he was ahead of his time or if he was just a bit weird – or both. But he concluded that I was immature and lacked a fighting spirit. He was also against the inclusion of Garrincha. But fortunately the head coach Vicente Feola followed his instinct. He turned round and said: 'You may be right, doctor, but you don’t understand the first thing about football. If Pele’s knee is okay, he’s going to play.’”
For the second time in their lives, after the friendly against Bulgaria one month earlier, Pele and Garrincha played together for Os Verdeamarelhos. It was the start of a run lasting eight years and 40 games during which Brazil never lost with the two in the side, drawing four and winning the other 36 matches.
What they said
“Pele was Feola’s golden boy. I didn’t even know him. I met him for the first time when the squad got together because he had never played at the Maracana. In those days there was only the Rio-Sao Paulo tournament, there was no national championship. He played once in Rio but didn’t stand out. But Feola was the Sao Paulo coach and he knew the kid. As soon as I saw him in training and in the matches I realised he was special. I understood straight away what all the fuss was about.”
Zagallo, left winger of Botafogo and Brazil in 1958
“Garrincha is truly frightening. I’ve never seen anyone like him.”
Gavril Katchalin, USSR coach, speaking after the match