By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (April 7, 2006) — The decision of whom to play on the right wing during Brazil’s group matches in the 1958 World Cup should have been an easy one. Not because Garrincha was clearly superior, but because all of the people involved in the selection process preferred another candidate, Julinho.
Julinho was the one Brazilian who had covered himself in glory in the 1954 World Cup. His explosive pace, power, dribbling, and shooting had proven irresistible, which led to Fiorentina signing him after the tournament. Selecting players performing abroad was very uncommon, but he had done so well in Italy (he led Fiorentina to its first Serie A title) that João Havelange sent him a written invitation. Julinho expressed his desire to play for his country but nonetheless declined, because he thought it would be unfair to the players who had helped Brazil qualify for the finals.
With Julinho out of the reckoning, the choice was between Garrincha and the more conventional Joel.
Manager Vicente Feola did not want to leave Garrincha out of the opening match against Austria, but he was alarmed by his advanced scout’s (Ernesto Santos) claim that Austria would pack its midfield with as many as four players. Feola preferred to use only two, but Feola was going to ask both wingers to drop back when need be. No one doubted that the left winger, Mario Zagalo, would make the adjustment, but would Garrincha?
Paulo Amaral, who coached him at Botafogo, voiced strong doubts: “It won’t work, Garrincha will not follow your instructions. When we are discussing tactics at Botafogo, we tell him to go and play table tennis or something. He’s unpredictable out there. He’s capable of passing the ball when he has an open goal. Or shooting from an impossible angle. He just does whatever is going through his head at the time.”
Given these concerns, Feola opted for the more tactically-disciplined Joel. Brazil won 3-0, but did not play particularly well, and thus the issue resurfaced before the second match against England. The English, which had lost three key players because of the Munich air disaster, would not pack the midfield, but grave concerns were raised about how Garrincha would react to their physical style.
According to Ruy Castro, the author of the book Garrincha, Santos felt that England left back Tommy Banks was “the most perverse player he had ever seen play,” and claimed that his “game basically consisted of stamping on his rival’s heel and pulling him to the ground.” Feola thought about instructing Garrincha to pass the ball rather than try to beat Banks, but they knew he would not listen and feared that Banks would injure him for the rest of the tournament. As it turned out, Joel followed instructions in the first half and even had a shot cleared off the line, but he tried to round Banks in the second half and, sure enough, was violently upended by Banks.
Brazil, which had also played the first two matches without the injured Pelé, performed better, but still only managed a goalless draw. At this point, two players — the creative midfielder Didi and the leftback Nilton Santos — approached the coaches and asked that Garrincha be inserted into the lineup for the decisive group match against the Soviet Union. Much has been made of this story, but it probably was not as conspiratorial as it sounds. Didi and Nilton Santos had been committed to playing attacking football all along, which suggests that they would have included Garrincha from the first match, and they were the designated interlocutors between the players and coaches, which suggests they were expected to offer their views about tactics and personnel.
Be that as it may, Garrincha, along with the finally healthy Pelé, would start. The Soviets were considered among the favorites, legend had it they practiced for hours on end and used scientific methods to analyze tactics, so Nilton Santos approached Garrincha before the match and warned him, “Don’t let us down.”
Garrincha responded with a classic non sequitur. He pointed at the linesmen and said, “Look at that chap! He’s just like Charlie Chaplin!”
Feola instructed Didi to feed Garrincha the ball early and often to try to unbalance the Soviets. And the plan worked to perfection. Within 35 seconds Garrincha had made his poor marker, Boris Kuznetzov, trip over himself twice. A few seconds later, after inducing laughter by befuddling another defender, he rocketed a shot off the post. Within 15 seconds, Didi, Garrincha, and Pelé combined with a move that culminated with a Pelé shot crashing off the bar. Brazil played at the same tempo for the next two minutes, with Garrincha leaving defender after defender flailing, until Vavá scored after three minutes.
The Soviet keeper Lev Yashin actually congratulated the Brazilians after they scored and the 70-year-old French journalist Gabriel Hannot described it as the greatest three minutes in the history of football.
Even though Brazil only scored one more goal, matters did not improve much for the Soviets over the course of the next 87 minutes. Nothing was going to stop Garrincha. They changed defenders, used groups of defenders, committed fouls, and yelled at each other; it didn’t matter. According to Castro, “In one memorable incident, after leaving a defender on the ground Garrincha put his foot on the ball and with his back to the player offered his hand to help him up. He lifted the player up and then started to run again as if it were the most natural thing in the world.”
After the match, Garrincha claimed that he had no idea who was marking him — he referred to every defender he ever faced as João — and simply said, “I was hungry for the ball today.”
He had a similarly voracious appetite the rest of the tournament, especially during the final against Sweden. He set up Brazil’s first two goals and reached the Swedish bi-line a whopping 15 times. Brazil, largely thanks to him, became World Champions for the first time, but he was not terribly impressed. When he was told who Brazil’s opponents in the final would be, he said, “What? Already? What a rubbish tournament! The Carioca Championship is much better, you get to play all the teams twice.”
Before the match against the Soviets, Garrincha was visibly withdrawn and depressed, and even asked the team doctor whether he should be sent home. Not because he felt he deserved to be playing instead of Joel, but just because he was not involved. The opponent didn’t matter, the man marking him didn’t matter, and the tournament didn’t matter; what mattered was playing.
In the end, there’s no doubting the fact that Brazil’s emergence on the world stage had a lot do with organization, and with proper mental and physical preparation, but had Feola listened to the team psychologist, João Carvalhais, Garrincha would never have gotten his chance and Brazil might not have fulfilled its promise.