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'50 Teams That Mattered'
If Uruguay's World Cup victory in 1950 had been Brazil's darkest hour, it could be argued that 1970 was their brightest day. Playing with a creative freedom rarely equalled, the Brazil squad of Mexico '70 is one of football's greatest ever. A combination of a solid work ethic helpfully mixed with some of the greatest footballers of all time playing at the height of their form, saw Brazil truly become the entertainers of world football.
Since 1950's watershed Brazil had gone on to win the World Cup twice. In 1954 they had crashed out to Hungary after the ‘Battle of Bern' in the quarter-finals. Learning from the outstanding Europeans, Brazil adapted the revolutionary 4-2-4 system to fit their own ambitions and in 1958 triumphed for the first time. Didi, Vavá, and Garrincha emerged as standout performers in the tournament as Brazil played with a swagger and rhythm that would go on to become their trademark.
That World Cup also hosted the debut of a player who at the time was the youngest ever to take part in the tournament. Named Edison Arantes do Nascimento, he would become known the world over by his nickname - Pelé. After two wins and a draw in a group containing the highly fancied England, Brazil qualified to play a quarter-final against Wales. Having made his debut in a group game against the Soviet Union Pelé scored the only goal to put Brazil through. In a crushing semi-final performance Pelé and Brazil outscored the other high-flying team of the tournament France. The game finished 5-2, Pelé with a hat trick took the man of the match award. In the final against hosts Sweden Brazil finished with another 5, Pelé with another 2. For the first time Brazil lifted the trophy the whole nation had been longing for them to win.
By 1962 and the finals in Chile, Pelé was widely acknowledged as the best player in the world. Brazil moved to a loose 4-3-3 after losing their young talisman after only two games to injury. In Pelé's absence Garrincha became their standout player yet again and Brazil went through the tournament relatively untroubled. A 3-1 victory over England in the quarters, then a 4-2 victory over Chile in the semi took Brazil to a final against Czechoslovakia. Having played out a 0-0 draw in the group already, Brazil were not about to let the Czech's have their measure again. Pelé's replacement Amarildo scored an equaliser before Zito and Vavá added a second and third to triumph 3-1. Once again Brazil were champions.
1966 had been an aberration for the aging Brazil side. With many of their real star players past their prime and political pressures dictating some aspects of the squad, Brazil failed to qualify from their group. Pelé was kicked out of their first game against Bulgaria and missed the next against Hungary due to injury. Still struggling but with Brazil needing to beat Portugal to qualify, Pelé was rushed back. The game would be remembered for two goals from perhaps one of the only players in the world who could rival Pelé's talent – Eusébio of Portugal. Brazil lost 3-1 and Pelé left the field bruised and battered once again. After his treatment Pelé vowed never to play at a World Cup again, thankfully for Brazil he would go back on the statement just four years later.
By the time the tournament came to Mexico in 1970 Brazil were blessed with a new generation of great players. Pelé may have been the highest profile member of the squad but those around him were also supremely talented. Captain Carlos Alberto, midfielder Gérson and Pelé himself made up manager Mário Zagallo's inner circle of ‘Cobra's'. Zagallo was a World Cup winner in '58 and '62 as a player and was relatively new to the job as the finals approached. His predecessor João Saldanha left after citing political pressure to pick certain players as unbearable. Zagallo trusted his players to debate and add to his plans for each game and between them they came up with the fluid 5-3-2 formation that could slip into a 3-5-2 easily. Tactically Brazil continued to change and adapt their system throughout the tournament to suit the opposition they were facing. Subtle changes and new roles were made and created to fit the likes of Tostão, Rivelino, Clodoaldo and Jairzinho around Alberto, Pelé, and Gérson. As tactically astute as they were talented on the pitch, the Brazilians became a formidable proposition for anyone drawn to play against them.
Several other factors seemed to be falling in Brazil's favour as the World Cup approached. Played in absolutely blistering heat, some of the European sides would wilt in the sun. Mexico '70 was the first World Cup to be broadcast in colour around the world by satellite and as a result several concessions had to be made. Whilst it may have been the best time to kick games off for European television schedules, starting at midday meant many games were played in over 100 degrees of heat. When you added the temperature to the fact three of the five stadiums were over 7,000ft above sea level making oxygen scarcer than many teams would have ever experienced before, the pace of the games had to slow to reflect the conditions. Brazil's passing game and natural acclimatisation suited the enforced tempo perfectly.
Even the ball seemed to favour the Brazilians. A lighter version – ‘the Adidas Telstar' – replaced the older, heavier brown and orange balls. Now made of white hexagon and black pentagon panels stitched together, the ball was easier to see on television and far easier to head.
Mexico '70 was destined to be a tournament of firsts. Perhaps introduced as a reflection of the conditions, the World Cup would play to a new law that allowed two substitutions per team in each game. Also referees were now equipped with both yellow and red cards to deal with serious foul play during a match. With expectation at record levels and the world watching live and in colour, the finals kicked off with sixteen teams spread across four groups. Brazil joined Europeans England, Romania and Czechoslovakia in Group 3. Drawn into the same group by chance, the Brazil versus England game would see the two tournament favourites meet earlier than the final many were predicting.