Best teams never to win a World Cup: Brazil 1982

Gabriele Marcotti continues his series profiling countries who performed exceptionally well at a World Cup only to, for one reason or another, fail to go all the way.

Having covered Brazil in 1950, Hungary in 1954 and Netherlands in 1974, Brazil and "the day football died" in 1982 are next.

Why were Brazil great in 1982?

This is the last Brazil side to properly live up to the stereotype. Whether you choose “jogo bonito” or “futbol bailado” or “samba stars” or whatever other dog-tired cliche that has been beaten to death over the years you care to mention, well, this was it.

This was the team that was so grotesquely and excessively talented and so committed to playing to Tele Santana’s ideal of the “beautiful game” that it existed on a different plane to their contemporaries. They could lose, but they could not be beaten. Except by themselves.

The hype was massive leading up to the tournament. Not only had they won all their qualifying games, they had also defeated Spain, the host nation, and West Germany, the reigning European champion ... twice. Many suggested this was a better team than when Brazil last won it all in 1970.

In terms of star power, it was hard to argue. Zico was arguably the best player in the world, though Diego Maradona and Michel Platini would soon challenge his crown. A classic No. 10 who followed his instincts around the pitch, he would end his career as Brazil’s fourth all-time leading goal scorer. Then there was Socrates, the qualified medical doctor and bearded Maoist who would later get a PhD in philosophy, but who dispensed assists and magic instead in this incarnation.

With them, Paulo Roberto Falcao, the hyperactive combination of athleticism and refined technique; Eder, the man whose shot needed a radar gun; and Toninho Cerezo, the skinny, chicken-legged virtuoso whom nobody could get near. And that was just the midfield. Though in truth, such was the fluidity and carefree style they affected, it’s a bit of a misnomer, but everybody attacked and occasionally somebody defended.

This side also had two glaring dead spots at goalkeeper (Valdir Peres) and centre-forward (Serginho): not a good thing in a brief tournament like the World Cup. Yet if anything it only added to the mystique and to the fear opponents felt. The way the team didn’t seem to compensate for their rather evident shortcomings made it seem as if Brazil was saying, “Yeah, they’re stiffs. But that’s OK. We only need nine guys to beat you anyway.”

The way they went a goal behind in each of their first two games against the Soviet Union and Scotland only added to the spectacle. Both scores were conceded following some absurd individual errors: against the Soviets it was Valdir Peres, against the Scots a collective defensive nonchalance. Both appeared as if they were saying, “Let us spot you the opening goal to make this more interesting.”

The Soviets, an outstanding side, were swept away in the second half, and the 2-1 scoreline doesn’t reflect Brazil’s dominance. The Scots -- who may have featured their best-ever side with the likes of Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness, Gordon Strachan, Kenny Dalglish (admittedly half-fit) and Willie Miller -- were pummelled 4-1. New Zealand were swatted away next 4-0. If Brazil hadn’t turned the game into an exhibition, they might have run up the score to double figures.

They advanced to the three-team second-round group with ease. Their first game was against Argentina, who had already been defeated by Italy 2-1 and needed a win to stay alive. Many saw it as an early final. Argentina were the reigning world champions and had added Maradona to the mix. Zico opened the scoring after 11 minutes and the script unfolded as expected. Brazil seemed to toy with an increasingly frustrated Argentina before adding two more in the second half. Maradona got himself sent off. A late Ramon Diaz goal made it 3-1. Never did the cliche “consolation goal” seem less appropriate. The “consolation,” if there was one, was losing to a team this good.

What went wrong?

Because of the better goal difference, Brazil only needed a draw against Italy in the final group game. Even back then, most managers would have adjusted their game plan accordingly, particularly against a team like Italy that had a counterattacking philosophy to begin with. But Santana didn’t believe in that.

Brazil did their thing. And while the romantic in you says it was right to do so, the fact is that it cost them the game. They streamed forward, and, after just five minutes, allowed Bruno Conti to go on an uncontested 30-yard run and switch play to the unmarked left-back, Antonio Cabrini. An accurate, unchallenged cross found Paolo Rossi who nodded it home.

The Selecao shrugged and moved on. They knew they would score and they did within seven minutes thanks to Socrates. Easy peasy. Too easy, because a lazy aimless pass from Cerezo -- the kind that makes you look like a genius or a fool -- fell to Rossi, who advanced and made it 2-1. Again, Brazil streamed forward, this time with a little more urgency and Falcao leveled matters.

An ordinary team would have tightened things up at that stage. But of course, they were in no way ordinary. They wanted to score again and they would do it their way, by making it look easy. Thus, a poor clearance allowed Rossi to seal his hat trick with 15 minutes to go. Brazil were going out. And at this point, even fate conspired against them, with Paulo Isidoro’s goal-bound late, late header prompting a save-of-the-century contender from Italy’s 40-year-old keeper, Dino Zoff.

It’s almost too easy to say they didn’t take it seriously enough, that they were overconfident, that their obsession with style and aesthetics over substance and common sense cost them. And it’s true. But before blaming Santana consider that there’s no shame in not just wanting to win, but wanting to win in the way you believe the game should be played.

What happened next?

Brazil began soul-searching again, divided between those who wanted a more European-style game and those who believed they should stick to Santana’s vision. They would oscillate between the two. Santana would return, together with much of the '82 team four years later in Mexico, but by that stage they were a spent force.

Zico called that game against Italy “the day football died.” As far as his vision of football is concerned, he was correct.