In surveys aimed at finding the best team ever, Brazil’s 1970 side usually tops the list. Whether they deserve such status is open to debate — man for man, their predecessors in 1958 were clearly superior and remain the only Brazil side to have won the World Cup in Europe. The 70 boys, though, had the crucial advantage of television: their World Cup was the first to be broadcast live around the world.
But wherever they stand in the pantheon, the greatness of the 1970 side is beyond dispute. Far more interesting than their exact ranking are the factors that made them great. Here, the quest for truth needs to strip away the layers of one myth inside another — the idea that Brazil is some happy-go-lucky land of people forever doing the samba on the way to the beach and that, like some carnival in boots, the 1970 side reflected this with a reckless disregard for defence and an approach that considered having fun to be more important than winning. Some surprisingly intelligent people have allowed themselves to be seduced by such nonsense. Here the coach, Mario Zagallo, and the centre-forward, Tostão, explain what really made that side so good.
The first piece I wrote for World Soccer magazine was a profile of a Brazilian goalkeeper of German extraction. It was, I foolishly argued, the perfect combination – some German defensive steel to balance the Brazilian attacking flair. A glance at the record books would have been enough to expose my error. In 97 World Cup games Brazil have let in 88 goals. The (West) Germans, meanwhile, have played two more games, and conceded 29 more goals. The Brazilians had no need to import defensive ideas from anywhere. Their own have worked well enough.
I was not the first to fall into this mistake. Nor was I the last. The myth that Brazil are a bunch of samba swaggerers with a disregard for defence is powerful and attractive. But it’s not true. It is the case that Brazil have been blessed with the most outstanding and devastating individual attacking talent, of which Pelé is the most obvious example. But this alone is never enough to guarantee victory. In a low-scoring game such as football, in which defending is so much easier than attacking, a team must be proficient both with and without the ball.
A major part of the story of Brazilian football is the search to find a balance between attack and defence. No one exemplifies that quest more than Mario Zagallo. He was Pelé’s teammate and he was Pelé’s coach — the former in the World Cup wins of 1958 and 1962, the latter in 1970. In both capacities he played a key role in helping the brilliance of Pelé to shine. As tireless left winger or as astute team builder, Zagallo always believed that a side is not made up of attackers and defenders, but of players, all of whom, respecting their individual characteristics, could make a contribution whether the team was on the ball or trying to win it back.
Even bearing in mind the fact that he was dubbed ‘the Little Ant’ in his playing days, he seems almost incredibly small and frail for a man who figured in two World Cup finals. He had a health scare in 2005, and lost weight as a result. But the passion for the game burns as strongly as ever. He talks with the same shine in his eyes about modern players as he does when he reflects on the start of his career, over 55 years ago.
I was 17, in the youth team of América [a traditional Rio club, since fallen on hard times] and I played the whole year in the No 10 shirt, and I thought, “I’m not going to get anywhere. Because of the number of players that Brazil produces, I’ve got no chance of getting into the national team playing in this position. I’m going to change position, I’m going to play at Number 11,” because Brazil didn’t have so many left wingers. I was there at the Maracanã at the final of the 1950 World Cup on military service watching the game against Uruguay, when Brazil lost. Chico was playing on the left wing. I thought big and looking back I can say that I achieved my objective, but I never thought at the time that eight years later I would be champion of the world playing on the left wing.
· But you had to change your style of play in order to get there?
I could dribble as well. I liked to take men on. But when I moved to Flamengo it wasn’t what [the renowned Paraguayan coach] Fleitas Solich wanted from me. Solich prohibited me from dribbling. In training at Flamengo every time I went on a dribble he whistled for a free kick. So I developed a new style. I changed my characteristics for the good of the team, and ended up carrying out a function that was more tactical, not appearing so much to the public for my individual quality, but having an important role in the team. So I dribbled less and carried out a double function — a left winger when we had possession, and helping out in midfield when we lost it. And when Feola took over the national team [Vicente Feola, who was appointed in the run up to the 1958 World Cup], I was called up for the first time. He was looking for a player with those characteristics and I had been carrying out this double function from about 1954.
In the build up to the tournament the press were always saying I would be the one to be cut from the squad. I stopped listening to the radio, watching TV and reading the papers so that it wouldn’t affect me.
There were two other players in my position who were candidates to go to the World Cup, Pepe, with his cannonball shot and Canhoteiro, an excellent dribbler. But they were players who operated in 50 metres, they didn’t drop back like I did. I was different. And because I was different I went to the Cup. I had the opportunity to play in the warm-up games; they had dental problems. I did well, scored twice on my debut against Paraguay and I gained ground and ended up going to the World Cup. So in 1958 under Feola we were playing 4-2-4 with the variation to 4-3-3, with the extra man in midfield being me. We were considered the underdogs in our group. Maybe we surprised the Europeans with the way we played. We kept ourselves protected when we had possession of the ball.
In December 2005 Zagallo was in the audience in Rio de Janeiro when the Germany coach Jürgen Klinsmann gave a lecture on his preparation for the 2006 World Cup. Klinsmann said that finally his country was producing defenders who were able to operate in what he termed “a modern back four”. But there was nothing modern about it to Brazil or to Zagallo. Faced in domestic football with the problem of coping with fantastic strikers, Brazilian coaches in the 1940s found the old three-man defensive unit of the W-M system inadequate. So an extra defender was pulled back into the heart of the defence. The full-backs were consequently pushed out wider, and began to see that they had space in front of them along the touchline into which they could push. This has been the basic template for Brazilian football ever since.
The culture of Brazilian football is to play with a right-back, two centre-backs and a left-back. There has been a move towards three centre backs recently. We even won the World Cup in 2002 playing that way. I don’t like it. I always say that we don’t need to copy anything from anyone. He who copies, needs something, and if we’ve won the World Cup five times, it’s because we don’t need to copy.
· Brazil’s defensive system showed its worth in Sweden in 1958. They kept four consecutive clean sheets, not conceding a goal until they reached the semi-final.
We always had a spare man at the back. When the opposition played with two central strikers then our holding midfielder would drop back into the space between them. With just one out-and-out striker one of our centre-backs marked and the other was spare. Always having a spare man meant that we weren’t running risks.
· So there was a well-defined collective context into which Pelé was able to fit in and shine?
Exactly. If he had fallen into a weak team, then even being an exceptional player he wouldn’t have won the cup or stood out so much. The collectivity is fundamental. No one wins on his own.
· Did you know much about him before the World Cup?
Me and all the other players from Rio only knew Pelé when he was called up to the Brazil squad. That’s when I met him. There was no national championship in those days. He had hardly played in Rio. We didn’t know him.
· There must have been some concern about his age?
There was. We talked about it. “Who is this kid? If he’s here it must be that he’s good, there has to be something special about him” — that kind of thing. In the training sessions we started to have a look at him. Right away we could see that he had great ability. So we weren’t worried about him: he was showing us on the field that he had wonderful technique despite his youth. But then he got injured in a training game against Corinthians, and he wasn’t fit to play until the third game of the World Cup, against the Soviet Union.
· The player he replaced, Dida, was your team-mate at Flamengo, where he was a legend. Why didn’t things come off for him in Sweden?
Dida went to the World Cup injured. He could run but he couldn’t strike the ball properly. His foot was injured. The team grew during the course of the championship, not losing its characteristics but adding new things. The pieces just fell into place with Pelé coming in, Zito for Dino Sani, Garrincha for Joel, and even Djalma Santos who came in at right-back just for the final in place of De Sordi, and after playing just one game was considered the best right-back of the tournament. We got better during the tournament. The team developed an understanding. I didn’t have that many opportunities to exchange passes with Pelé. He played with the No 10 shirt, but operated more on the right, not on the left closer to me. It was [the centre-forward] Vavá who drifted more to the left. But I remember the fifth goal against Sweden in the final — I had the ball, Pelé stuck his hand up, from the left wing I put the cross in for him and he headed in the fifth goal. And during the course of the championship Pelé began to accumulate his prestige.
· A year later you both played in Argentina in the Copa América, or the South American Championship as it was known then. Brazil played six games, but you only appeared in the first three. Why was that?
I was on the way back after an operation on my knee. Nowadays it’s an operation which is much less complicated, but in those days it meant opening up all of the knee [he rolls up his trouser leg to show the scar] and I wasn’t physically 100%.
· It was Pelé’s only Copa América, and it ended very controversially...
That’s right. It was played on a league system. We took on Argentina in the last game needing a win to be champions. It was 1-1, and as we were scoring our second goal the ref blew his whistle for the end of the match, so the goal was not given.
· Pelé finished the tournament as top scorer. Was he already a more potent force than he had been the previous year?
He was more experienced and his football had grown. Physically stronger, technically better, better in the air, his entire capacity had improved.
· He was now a marked man. How did he cope with this?
The great player has to know how to lose his marker, drag his marker around, find a place on the field where he won’t be marked so tightly, because if the defender follows him then it opens up a space for someone else. And Pelé dragged his marker away from his zone of action, and as a consequence he was able to pick up the ball and bring it forward. He was intelligent; he knew it all. He knew how to deal with this situation.
It was around this time that I remember that there was a defender bearing down on me and with just the slightest touch on the ball I took him out of the game. And Pelé came up to me and said, “You’re intelligent.” It was not a dribble that looked anything wonderful or caught the attention of the public, but it was a touch that was enough to beat the defender. And Pelé was looking, paying attention, learning. Pelé was extraordinary. He was complete, right foot, left foot, in the air, calm enough to kill the ball on his chest because as he was killing it he was already adjusting position for the shot. He even played one-twos off the legs of his opponents! The calm that other players have in midfield, he had inside the penalty area. That sums him up.
· In the opening game of the 1962 World Cup you and Pelé scored the goals in the 2-0 win over Mexico. But then he was injured in the next game and played no further part in the tournament. Do you think that Chile could have been Pelé’s greatest World Cup, as Mexico 86 was to Maradona?
If he hadn’t have suffered the injury, it is obvious that he would have been at a different level. More mature, with more experience and technical quality, but still young. So we have to give credit to the man who replaced Pelé, Amarildo, who had an excellent tournament — he didn’t buckle under the pressure even though he was replacing the best player ever; a real show of the strength of Brazilian football.
· It’s just as well that you had made a complete recovery from your knee injury because, in the absence of Pelé, 1962 has gone down as the tournament of Garrincha, for his individual brilliance, and of Zagallo for his tactical importance. Is it really true that Aymoré Moreira [who had taken over as coach from Feola, when he fell ill] didn’t want you to come back and work in midfield?
It’s true. Aymoré Moreira in fact didn’t want me to drop into midfield into a 4-3-3. In the training sessions he kept stopping the game and telling me, “I don’t want you to drop deeper. I want you to stay up field.” And I said “OK,” and when it came to the game I would carry out my function, dropping back and providing some cover for our left-back Nílton Santos, who was 37 at the time. Second game, same thing. He didn’t want me to drop and I did it — not through disobedience, but because that was the way I’d become used to playing. Then came the third game, and I did it again and by the fourth game he had changed his mind: “Look Zagallo, get up and down, carry out your double function,” and that’s the way it was.
He was a good coach, but he preferred an old-fashioned attacking winger. If I’d played that way it would have dismantled our entire system of play, a system that had won us the World Cup in Sweden, and was going well for us in Chile too.
There’s another story from that tournament, of Bellini and Mauro [the towering centre-half Bellini was the team captain. Mauro was his reserve, both as centre-back and as captain]. I know it’s true because Mauro told me. Bellini had been injured. Mauro took his place in all the friendlies, but on the day of the first game Aymoré said to Mauro, “You’re not going to play. I’m going with Bellini.” And Mauro said, “I’ve played all the warm-up games. I didn’t complain about being reserve in 58. Today I’m the first choice and I’m not giving it up.” And Aymoré said, “Fair enough, I wanted to see your psychological state,” and Mauro played. If he had kept his mouth shut he wouldn’t have played. Aymoré was a good coach, but he lacked strength of command.
· And then eight years later you had to show strength of command, when in the run up to the 1970 World Cup you were appointed coach. Your last game for the national team as a player was against Portugal in 1964. The team line-up makes fascinating reading; Carlos Alberto Torres, Brito, Joel, Gerson, Jairzinho and Pelé all played alongside you. It’s half the 1970 team. Was it difficult to command a group in which so many could remember you as a teammate?
I had the advantage of having won the World Cup twice and I also had a string of titles to my name as a coach. Many had played with me, but the only one who had been my teammate in the World Cup wins was Pelé — many of the others had already played under me at club level. It was easy to command, because the players saw and felt that I had the strength of personality to make the changes that I thought were necessary. I imposed myself — and this kind of leadership in front of the group is fundamental, even if you’ve participated in this group before as a player. I did some tactical training sessions, and the players analysed my work, because players know. They can tell when the quality of the work is good.
· João Saldanha [the previous coach] had fallen out with Pelé. Was that the reason that he lost his job?
Saldanha was ousted for a number of reasons, and one of them was Pelé. The problem between them started in Rio Grande do Sul, when Brazil were preparing to play Argentina and Saldanha on the blackboard gave a confused presentation — this is what the players told me afterwards — and Saldanha said that Fischer played in the midfield [Rodolfo Fischer was one of Argentina’s principal strikers at the time]. Pelé put his hand up and said, “I know a bit about this because Santos have been playing against teams from Argentina and Fischer is a centre-forward, not a midfielder.” This started a clash between the two and for this reason Saldanha started spreading the story of Pelé’s problem with his eyesight. He said that Pelé was going blind, and couldn’t play.
· How did you deal with this? I remember you once telling the story of the first training session you did with the team when Pelé said to you “leave me out of the team if you want, but don’t play dirty with me.” What did he mean by that?
He was saying that he didn’t want me to do what Saldanha had tried to do to him. Saldanha was saying that he was blind — he wasn’t. It was dirty. So he came to me, put his arm round me and said this. And I said to him, “I’m not crazy. The team is going to be you and 10 more.” So he’s immediately sure of his importance. He wasn’t shaken by what had happened, but for me, that move against Czechoslovakia, in the first game of the World Cup, when he tried to score from his own half, was his way of responding to Saldanha, his way of showing that there was nothing wrong with his eyesight. I’ve never asked him about it, but that’s my way of thinking. I remember watching him in the centre-circle, hearing the thud as he kicked the ball and thinking, “What on earth is he doing?” and then following the trajectory of the ball, watching the keeper scurry back! It was an act of genius.
He prepared as never before to play a good tournament in 1970. For it to be his high point. He’d been injured at the start of 1958, and at 17 he wasn’t quite the Pelé he went on to be. In 62 he was injured in the second game and he was injured again in 66. So 1970 was his chance to show his genius. So he really prepared to show his football. With Santos he played all over the world, but with the national team, the event that really made his reputation was the World Cup in Mexico.
· So he was using the competition to make a statement of his worth. Were you ever worried that personal project might interfere with team?
No, because his influence was collective. He made things easier for the others, because he attracted the marking. So his desire to show his talent was something completely natural. And he was always a good teammate, he was always concerned with things he thought were not correct from the collective point of view. I’ll give you an example from 1970. We were in our base in Mexico and our base was behind bars and the public were on the other side of the bars. The players kept on going over to sign autographs and Pelé called a meeting with all the players and coaching staff, and said, “Look, we’re here to win the World Cup, and I’m feeling that our attention is not properly focused because all the time we’re going over to sign autographs and have our photos taken and this is not good, and we have to change our way of thinking on this.”
So both on the field and off it he was exceptional. At the end, after we had beaten Italy in the final, he came over to me, gave me a hug and said, “We had to be together to win the World Cup for the third time.” It was the best Pelé with the national team. A kid in Sweden gave signs of genius, and in Mexico he fulfilled all that promise and closed the book with a golden key. And I had the privilege to see it all from close up, as player and coach, and as friend.
· Why, then, was he never captain?
It wasn’t his thing. Some players don’t like it. He was never interested in wearing the armband. He had his fame, his prestige, what did he want to put an armband on for? I don’t know, but maybe that’s the way he looked at it. He never asked to be captain.
· Why was the captain Carlos Alberto Torres, and not Gerson, who seems to have been the brains behind the team?
It could have been either, but Torres already was the captain, and so I kept it that way. It could just as well have been Gerson. He was the player that I most identified with. From working together at Botafogo I could just make a gesture to him from the touchline and he would change things, like a coach on the field. He was the one that I trusted most.
· Was Torres best for motivating Pelé, since he was the club captain at Santos? Was this a way of avoiding possible friction?
I never thought about it that way. You may even be right. But Pelé was miles above all of this.
· So the team was Pelé and 10 more. But, in the short time available you made plenty of changes to those 10. Did you know what you were going to do as soon as you took over?
I totally changed the team. I took over without a fixed idea of what I was going to do — but I knew there would be a lot of changes, because I didn’t accept the idea of 4-2-4. Saldanha had been using 4-2-4. Years earlier Saldanha had been my coach at Botafogo. But he wasn’t really a coach. He was a journalist, and as a coach he didn’t have much idea. There’s no way we could have won the World Cup using that system. If in 1958 we were already moving towards 4-3-3, how could you go back to 4-2-4 in 1970? We had to move forward.
· Piazza was moved from midfield to centre-back. Why was this?
We had either Joel or Fontana there. I didn’t have too much faith in them. Piazza had already played in the position, and dropping him to the defence gave me more quality in the team. It gave me two things: tranquillity at the back and it also created room for Clodoaldo in midfield. Under Saldanha, Rivelino and Clodoaldo were both on the bench.
· But Rivelino didn’t figure as a starter in your initial plans. You started off thinking in terms of Paulo Cesar Caju [also known as Paulo Cesar Lima] on the left wing.
No doubt about it. He was the best left winger I’ve ever seen.
· So there would be no place for Rivelino?
That was the big problem, a pleasant problem. But Paulo Cesar wasn’t in good form, didn’t play well in the warm-up games, the crowd in São Paulo were booing him and for the game against Austria I decided to leave him out and put Rivelino in. I liked what I saw, it worked well in some other friendlies we played and so I left it like that.
Then there was Tostão. That was a change that was made along the way. First, there was the problem with his retina. Second, he played in the same position as Pelé, coming from behind, so normally I would have him on the bench. We had lots of players in that position. I let go two attacking midfielders — Zé Carlos and Dirceu Lopes — and brought in two centre-forwards — Dario and Roberto Miranda — because we hadn’t been playing with an out-and-out centre-forward. My idea was to use Roberto up front. That’s what I tried first. I then decided to experiment with Tostão up front. I didn’t think it would work, but I wanted to have a look.
But there was the question of his vision. An opthamologist told me that Tostão had been on a roller coaster without feeling anything, so he was OK. He suffered a haemorrhage there in Mexico. He went to Houston and I wanted a response. I said, “Doctor, I need to know because my career is at stake: can he play or not?” And the doctor said that it hadn’t affected his vision and he could play. His eye looked awful. When I went to speak to him I controlled myself and made sure to look only at his good eye in order not to affect him psychologically. And he was fantastic in that World Cup.
· He was the only player you left up the field. Do you accept the label of 4-5-1 for that team?
I do. Because we played as a block, compact, as you say leaving only Tostão up field. Jairzinho, Pelé, Rivelino, all tracked back to join Gerson and Clodoaldo in the midfield. I’m happy to see the team in terms of 4-5-1. We brought our team back behind the line of the ball. We didn’t want to give space for the Europeans to hit us with quick counter attacks. Our team was not characterised by strong marking. Our method of defending was to position ourselves in zone, cover the space and not carry out man-to-man marking. If we had gone with high-pressure marking then by the second half we would have run out of gas. So we saved our energy, dropped back, and then when we won possession the technical quality of our team stood out.
· The game against England must be one of the best remembered group matches in the history of the World Cup.
It was the best game of the tournament. It was a high-class game of chess. We won 1-0. We could have lost 1-0. It could have finished 1-1.
· But because it was a group game, you could have lost it and still gone on to win the cup. Against Uruguay in the semi-final the situation was different. Lose and you’re out. There’s all the stuff about 1950, which was only 20 years before, and you go a goal down. That must have been your most dramatic game of the tournament...
That whole week the press had gone crazy talking about Brazil-Uruguay in 1950. I got fed up with it, even threw a reporter out of our team camp. Pelé and I were more or less the only ones old enough to remember 1950. It didn’t seem to bother Pelé. In the dressing room before the game Pelé was asleep and the players were saying amongst themselves, “Shhh, let him rest, because he’s our pride and joy.” But the climate had an effect on the team, which didn’t play well in the first half. I was going to make a change at half-time and then Clodoaldo scored just before the break and saved himself, because I was going to take him off, withdraw Gerson to defensive midfield, bring Rivelino inside to his normal club position and bring on Paulo Cesar Caju to play on the left wing. But the team scored, and in that fraction of a second everything changes.
At half time I hardly mentioned the tactical part. I was yelling that Uruguay were crap, that they had nothing to offer, I disqualified them as a team, to raise the spirits of our side, so they could go out and play a better second half.
· Italy didn’t seem to worry you too much in the final...
We had a huge advantage in our physical preparation. We had trained for 21 days at altitude — in those days there was time for this type of preparation. We did 21 days because we were aware that scientifically this would stay in the organism of the players. We then went down to Guadalajara, where we played all our games until the final, but we knew that if we made it to the final then that altitude preparation was still inside the players. No one else had done it. So Brazil had prepared for altitude even though we only played one game there.
· Rivelino told me that during the course of that tournament, played in intense heat, he never once went over to the touchline to drink water. It made him realize that he was in perfect condition.
Exactly. Our physical preparation was excellent — we won most of our games in the second half.
· So Brazil had a tactical lead, and also a lead in terms of overall physical preparation. Did you know that as late as 1962 England went to the World Cup in Chile without a doctor?
It’s hard to believe something like this. What an amazing lapse! We’re considered a third-world country, but way back in 1958 we had what we call a technical commission — a whole back up team of specialists working together.
Nowadays our sports doctors are really good. I can say this with confidence because many of our players, when they get injured they leave Europe and come back and have their treatment here because there in Europe sometimes the procedures are not adequate. Our medical back-up is the best. We might be behind in some other areas, but we’re ahead in this — and we’re ahead in terms of the individual quality of our players. This is still the secret.
Everything that is evolution we have to accept. Records are broken in swimming and athletics and of course this physical evolution is also part of football. But in football it’s left an expression that I don’t like — “don’t let them play.” A mediocrity of a player can prevent a star from playing. It’s just the case of a coach singling out a player and putting a man on him to follow him wherever he goes. He won’t be able to play. And if the guy is well-prepared physically, he doesn’t even need to be a good player. It’s force against reason, force against technique. Happily, we still have good games despite this physical evolution that has taken place within football, which I don’t like. I liked to have space, I liked to see intelligent moves, because there was much more quality and quantity. Now we still have good moves, we still have quality, but in less proportion. That’s modern football. There are still some great games. But it’s not what it was. Happily, though, skill and technique still make the difference. If the opponents have two excellent players, we have four. So we can tip the balance even with the physical evolution of the game, even in this football of “don’t let the opponent play.” This is fundamental.
· Brazil went 24 years without winning the World Cup after Pelé’s retirement. Could he have played in the 1974 World Cup?
He could have played in West Germany. But there were factors off the field and he didn’t want to play. Of course I wanted him. If we’d had him in the team the result could have been different, especially against Holland [effectively the semi-final, which Brazil lost 2-0]. But he got a better offer, he went off to do advertising work for Pepsi, I think. I respect his choice — he was giving priority to the financial side of things. We never know what the future will bring, so I respect his choice, but I would have loved to have had him in the team in 74. I would have used him in the same position as always: it would have been Pelé and 10 more again. Does he regret it? It’s a very personal question that I can’t answer for him. I see it as a financial question — an advertising contract gave him the opportunity to earn a lot more. I can’t interfere in the personal life of the player. But the decision to opt out of the national team is not one that I would make.
· You would still play today if you were called up!
I wouldn’t do too much running around, but I’d play!
Few would dispute that Garrincha was the greatest to have lined up alongside Pelé. Similarly, there seems little doubt that Tostão was the brightest: the entire career of Pelé’s Mexico 70 front partner was an excellent illustration of the claim that “the first five yards are in the head.”
Tostão’s was a relatively brief career. The eye problems that almost kept him out of the 1970 World Cup forced an early retirement, after which he turned his back on football for two decades while he devoted himself to medicine. The pull of his first love was hard to resist, though, and in the mid-nineties he returned to football, using his intelligence and experience to dissect the game with surgical precision as a media pundit.
Now chubby and owlish, it is hard to credit that he was a World Cup-winning centre-forward. But he is as mentally quick off the mark as ever, as he proves twice a week in his newspaper column, required reading for anyone interested in the Brazilian game. In conversation his words are punctuated with wisdom, insight and lovely, gentle laughter. There was plenty of all three when we met in Belo Horizonte, his home city, where half a century earlier he first set eyes on Pelé.
I went to see him when he played here with Santos in 1957. I think it was even before he had been called up by the national team. I was only 10 at the time and I went with my father, who loved football and knew a lot about the game. And we were amazed at all the wonderful things he did, this kid of 16. I remember a quick one-two with Pagão, and then as the keeper came out, Pelé chipped the ball over him.
And then, of course, I was glued to the radio during the 1958 World Cup. And afterwards I saw a lot of Pelé, because I watched Santos when they were on TV or when they came to Belo Horizonte I would go to watch Pelé play. He used to do things from another world. This was the time when he was truly at his peak. The best of Pelé was not in the 1970 World Cup. When young people watch tapes of Mexico they’re disappointed. I’ve seen this with my own son. He got together a group of friends, all of them crazy about football, to watch tapes of those games and afterwards some of them were saying, “Pelé was very good, but he wasn’t all you’ve cracked him up to be.” But they hadn’t seen the early Pelé, the thinner Pelé of 1958-64. After that he bulked up, put on muscle, was stronger, conserved his technique but got heavier and lost some of his mobility. The best Pelé was between 58 and 64.
· And it wasn’t long after that that you were in the squad with Pelé, when you were called up at the age of 19 to go the 1966 World Cup....
It was a big thrill. I was in the same squad as some of greats from 58. I’d listened to their games on the radio and watched them from the stands. By this time, though, they were all at the end of their careers, with the exception of Pelé. This was one of the mistakes that were made in 66, choosing players who could no longer operate at that level. I’d seen them all at their best and I was able to separate things — the Garrincha I played with was not the same thing as the Garrincha of 1958. Pelé, though, was still Pelé. I was fascinated watching him in training and I picked up many things from him. I also saw that he wasn’t selfish, that on the field he was aware that his teammates were important for him. He never showed contempt for a colleague, he was a team player. He liked to be just one of the group. He didn’t like to be treated as the star.
The team came here to Minas Gerais [the state of which Belo Horizonte is the capital] to train and play a match against Cruzeiro, my club. My dad went along to watch and when I introduced him to Pelé he broke down and cried with emotion; it was as if he was in front of his god.
Our preparation for that tournament was full of political considerations. We went round training and playing in different cities to attend political interests. And too many players were called up — 44! That was political as well; Brazilian football was dominated by Rio and São Paulo but it was beginning to spread out. The Mineirão [Belo Horizonte’s giant stadium, a copy of the Maracanã] had just been inaugurated, and there was a political consideration — “let’s call up someone from Minas” — and that someone was me. But no one thought I’d make it to the World Cup. I was young, from outside the Rio-São Paulo axis and I played in the same position as Pelé. But I did well in training, and I was given a game — so that they could say that I’d had a chance — and I played at centre-forward, not my usual position, away to Sweden, in a side together with Pelé and Gerson. I scored two goals and Brazil’s performance improved. I even hoped that might become the team for the World Cup. But it was all change again for the next game and I went back to being Pelé’s reserve. But that Sweden match got me in the 22.
Because I was Pelé’s reserve, I only played in the game against Hungary, when he was unfit. And we were soundly beaten, then lost again against Portugal and were knocked out. We didn’t have a team — one side played in one game, another side played in the next and both Hungary and Portugal had excellent teams at the time. So I travelled home, feeling very sad, thinking about giving up the game. It was a period when I was defining myself. Was I going to be a doctor or a professional footballer? The disappointment of 66 re-awoke thoughts of going back to my studies because football wasn’t worth it. It was a time when I would have started university. But when I arrived — well, for Minas Gerais it was wonderful to have a player in the World Cup, whatever the result. I was the first Mineiro player from a Mineiro club to go to a World Cup. So there was a big party, and a street parade in my honour and it encouraged me to carry on.
· And soon afterwards you must have been very glad you did. In December that year Cruzeiro won the Taça Brasil [a forerunner of the Brazilian Championship] beating Santos, Pelé and all, 6-2 in Belo Horizonte, and 3-2 in São Paulo...
They were two spectacular victories. Nowadays it’s nothing special for Cruzeiro to beat Santos. Cruzeiro are recognised as a big team. But in those days it was like a team from the countryside beating the best in the world.
· It must have been a bad moment for Pelé — the disappointment of the World Cup, and now this.
We were celebrating in the dressing-room and someone, I think a reporter, arrived with a crown and put it on my head and the photographers snapped away. There it was in the papers the next day with the headline, “Tostão, the new king of football.”
I didn’t want to go out to the street, I felt so ashamed of the photo. I felt like a usurper of the throne, a phoney. If Pelé had been just another good player then I would have felt fine, justified in calling myself the best. But it wasn’t because of one game that Pelé stopped being the king, the best player in the world. I knew my limits. I was a top player, but I wasn’t Pelé. Pelé was so much better — the difference was so vast! No one dared to put themselves on the same level.
· Even so, you had the scene to yourself for a while, because Pelé didn’t play for Brazil again until 1968, and you were playing and scoring. When he came back, did you return to being Pelé’s reserve?
Until João Saldanha took over. He called me over and said, “What’s the problem with you playing?” And I said, “I don’t have a problem, apart from the fact that every coach seems to think of me as Pelé’s reserve.” And he said, “From now on that’s over. You’re the first name on the team- sheet, ahead of Pelé” — I’m sure he was joking — “and another thing; you can play badly, and it’s no problem. You’re staying in the team. It’s you and Pelé up front. Take it in turns, with one of you staying up and the other dropping. Sort it out between yourselves.” And it worked. In the World Cup qualifiers in 1969 I was top scorer.
Saldanha liked me. Even today I wonder if Saldanha liked me more for my football or for my way of thinking [Saldanha was a communist, and therefore a curious choice to coach the national team of a country ruled by a right-wing military dictatorship]. At the time I had made a few statements saying that my idol was Dom Helder Camara, the Bishop of Olinda who was being persecuted for speaking out against the dictatorship.
· How much of a part did politics play in Saldanha’s downfall?
It’s never really been clear. For me, there was a clear political intention to get rid of him. I don’t know if this intention turned into anything organised. There were rumours — this never came out in the papers, but this is what we heard — that Cláudio Coutinho [a future coach of Brazil, who was on the coaching staff in 1970 and was also a military officer] had gone to Brasilia to meet some of the authorities and from there had come the idea to get rid of Saldanha. There’s no doubt that the power wanted him out — after all, there were a number of military officials together with the team.
One day Saldanha turned up drunk at the team base. It was a day off, and he went straight to bed to sleep it off, but it came out in the papers and it looked bad. And he had his deliriums. He was a fantasist. He was the type of person who loved to talk, he would make things up, create his fantasies and then believe they were true. I mean, he said that Pelé had a vision problem! Pelé was just a little short-sighted. Saldanha took a fact and built it up out of proportion. Perhaps he made this one up to create some conflict and have a reason for leaving the job.”
· But the one with the vision problem was not Pelé — it was you! [In October 1969 a ball smashed into Tostão’s eye, detaching his retina. His career was in jeopardy and there seemed little chance that he would make it back in time for the World Cup even if he did recoover. He went to Houston, where he was operated on by the Brazilian specialist Roberto Moura].
And if Saldanha hadn’t been in charge I wouldn’t have made it to the World Cup. On the day I travelled to the US for the operation, Saldanha, who loved his bombastic declarations, went to the airport. He was surrounded by reporters, and he said, “I’ll wait for Tostão right up to the moment in the dressing-room when I have to hand over the team-sheet.” And the journalists were saying, “He’ll have to train. He won’t have time to recover.” And Saldanha said, “He doesn’t need to train!” And for two months I trained on my own. The only one who didn’t follow that spectacular, scientific four-month training schedule was me. But when Saldanha left and Zagallo came in, I was already back in full training with the ball.
· How did the change of coach affect you?
Two things changed. Zagallo entered with the line that “Tostão is Pelé’s reserve.” And also he wasn’t sure that I had recovered. I’d gone eight months without playing. At that moment everyone thought I was out of the World Cup. But he kept me in the squad. He thought there were too many midfielders, so he dropped Zé Carlos and Dirceu Lopes and brought in two centre-forwards with the characteristics he was looking for, Dario and Roberto Miranda. He preferred a traditional centre-forward, fixed in the area, with Pelé coming from behind. So he gave Roberto and Dario a chance up front. This was fine by me — I was still getting my fitness back. “Let them play now,” I thought, “while I’m preparing.”
And Zagallo was mistaken. The style of Roberto or Dario was not right for that team. Pelé, Gerson, Rivelino, they didn’t need a striker who would basically wait for the ball to arrive to shoot at goal. They needed a different type of player, one with my characteristics, a player of movement, technique and quick thinking to combine with them.
· Otherwise it would have been like Serginho in 1982, a striker not speaking the same language as his midfield?
Yes, that type of striker was lost with that type of team. Zagallo saw this and decided to try me out, but without much conviction that it would work. Before a training game in Mexico he came up to me and asked, “Do you think you could play up front without dropping back? I know it’s not your normal style, but what do you reckon?” And so I went out and did it. And I knew that with Pelé and Jairzinho bursting forward, very quick, goalscorers, very strong physically, aggressive, I knew that with technique, dribbles and passes, my style would work. Straight away everyone could feel that it was right, the parts were fitting, the quick one-twos were flowing. That hadn’t been happening before. At the end of the game they all came up to me, Gerson, Pelé, Rivelino. No one said anything — no one wanted to be so presumptuous in front of the coach — but I felt the message they were sending me with their body language: “You’re in.” And in the dressing room Zagallo came up to me with a big smile and said, “Congratulations, you did well,” and I knew I would start the competition in the team.
But I almost lost my place. In the second game, against England, it was tough, and there were few chances to combine moves with Pelé. I looked over and saw Roberto Miranda warming up and I thought, “He’s coming on for me.” I’m sure that gave me the stimulus to try an individual move and I went on a dribble that helped set up the only goal — looking at the tape I admit I fouled Bobby Moore with my arm. But we scored, and even though Roberto came on for me afterwards, it was then that I sealed my place in the side.
· But the eye was still a worry...
The coaching staff were concerned, because I suffered a haemorrhage. My eye was all red. Gerson was terrified! So they hurriedly sent for Roberto Moura from Houston. He came down, examined me and said there was no problem, I could play. So he was there, invited by the Brazilian federation, watching the games, and at the end when we had won the World Cup I presented him with my medal.
· What was it like being Pelé’s attacking partner?
Lots of centre-forwards were shown up when they played with Pelé: you could quickly see that they weren’t good enough for the national team because they couldn’t keep up with him. His thinking was so quick and he could — still can — look in a very imposing way. He played a lot with looks and gestures. He moved a lot to throw off his marker. When the central midfielder had the ball he would feint to burst forward and then drop to receive the ball. Or he would feint to drop and then burst. With a glance he would try to communicate to the centre forward what he was aiming to do. It was all done in just a fraction of a second.
I could follow him. This was my strength. In fact I had much more intelligence and speed of thought than technique. I often imagined doing things on the field that I wasn’t capable of pulling off, because I didn’t have the speed or the skill to do them. But I thought quickly — and this is what Pelé needed. When he glanced at me I already knew what he wanted; when he was going to give it first time, when he was going to change position. You had to follow his thinking. Pelé liked to play with a partner; he depended on this. He created the moves, but he needed a partner to help. He grew up like this, with Pagão and then Coutinho at Santos.
Everyone in Brazil tried to play like Pelé and Coutinho. In those days the main form of attack was the exchange of passes through the middle, short passes, quick one-twos. It needs rapid thinking and precision passing. With the passage of time the marking got tighter and there weren’t so many great players. This is one of the reasons Brazil went so long without winning the World Cup — trying to play like Pelé and Coutinho without Pelé and Coutinho. Nowadays Brazilian football doesn’t do it anymore. It’s quick moves down the flanks followed by crosses. The old style is progressively disappearing. Pelé wasn’t a player to operate as teams do today, with the striker on his own in the middle. If you put Pelé in this scheme he would have problems.
· Come the next World Cup, in West Germany in 1974, Brazil had to find a new attacking partnership. You had already retired from the game, and Pelé refused to play. Why do you think he did it?
For me — and I’ve been criticised for writing this — the main reason he didn’t play was vanity. Vanity and ambition are characteristics of anyone who achieves great success. In every game he played he wanted to prove that he was Pelé. When things were going badly for him on the field he got more worked up, he shouted more, called for the ball more. He needed to give everything. He was a fighter. Of course he had bad games, but he didn’t have prolonged bad spells.
In the run up to 1970 there was a lot of speculation that Pelé was on the way down. He was only 29, but at the time that was considered older than it is today. Pelé perceived this feeling and totally dedicated himself, did everything he could to play well so that he could end on a high note. He wanted to leave no doubts about his place as the best player in the world. So in 1974 I think he was thinking, ‘I’m not going to play because I’m not going to risk my name and prestige.’ It’s a common attitude among great sportsmen. It can be criticised, but it’s understandable. Pelé is extremely preoccupied with the prestige of Pelé. Even today you can see this. When a player appears who could get there near him, he doesn’t like it. He wants to re-enforce the idea that no one can take his place.
· One of the curious things about Brazilian football is the fact that many players — like you, like Pelé — play using nicknames. This must have some use in separating the public from the private. In your case, for example, when you wanted to withdraw from the limelight you could stop being Tostão, and instead be Dr Eduardo Gonçalves de Andrade. How do you think Pelé has administered the separation of Edson Arantes do Nascimento and Pelé?
He says that Edson is separate from Pelé, but I don’t see it. The only one that exists is the public Pelé. He doesn’t suffer the anguish of living the conflict between the man and the myth. It’s one of the reasons he can adapt so well to the world of conferences and so on. The great idols often lead a life of big conflicts, they suffer from a loss of identity, and Pelé — this is my construction — doesn’t have this loss of identity. He adapted from the age of 15 to becoming a public figure. He passes the impression of never going through depression, anxiety, anguish, sadness as a consequence of loss of identity. He’s happy, well adapted. He’s always smiling and upbeat. You never see him bad tempered. He loves being Pelé.
I think this loss of identity was one of the reasons for Diego Maradona’s drug problem. Deep down his problem was depression, of being unable to be Maradona. It opened thousands of doors, but it was a burden for him. Maradona is much emotional than Pelé. Pelé is more rational, everything is measured, planned. When he makes a statement it’s usually designed to have an effect. Maradona creates confusion because he doesn’t measure anything. When Pelé is 80 he’ll be worried about his image. Maradona doesn’t care about that. He wants to be himself. If he wants to take his shirt off, off it comes. He’s more human and true to himself in this aspect. Pelé is more calculating. Not in the Machiavellian sense — he’s a good person, but he’s very rational about everything.
· You criticised Pelé over an incident in 2005 in which he took his son Edinho to be interned in a clinic to fight his drug problem...
I was angry with him. Even there he couldn’t separate the public from the private. His son has a serious problem, this should have been a private thing, but there are 500 microphones there, everyone filming Pelé, who is trying to pass the image of a father worried about his son. The man Pelé doesn’t come through. It’s Pelé the myth, Pelé the publicity billboard. That’s what he is now — an advertising man. He does it very well. He’s the Pelé of the business! He behaves well, he sells products. He’s admired everywhere, but there’s always a distance, because everything he does is planned. He goes to Japan and says that Japan are in with a chance of winning the World Cup, that Nakamura is as good as Ronaldinho.
· What did you think of that strange list of great players he put together for Fifa?
I thought it was ridiculous, because afterwards he confessed that it wasn’t his real opinion. It was a classic example of how he works inside the rules. And he admitted it with an attitude of, “well, it’s part of the game.” It made me angry — not because he left me out, but because he admitted that it was a thing of political convenience, drawn up to please this country or that country, as if this was normal. It’s the biggest example of how he’s an advertising man.
· Wasn’t it strange that he included so few of his teammates?
It’s the vanity thing again. Coutinho deserved to be on the list more than me. I played with Pelé for a short space of time. Coutinho spent a decade giving show after show. It’s as if Pelé was saying, “Coutinho wasn’t a great player, he was my supporting cast.” But Coutinho was a spectacular player, who deserves to be more famous and isn’t because all the attention fell on Pelé. Coutinho could really play, he was much more than supporting cast, and Pelé should have acknowledged this.