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Brazil’s 1982 World Cup team are feted as heroes but Zico claims Italy defeat scarred the game

It is lunchtime and Paulo Cezar ‘Caju’ is sitting in a bustling cafe in Leblon, an affluent suburb of Rio de Janeiro. He played for Brazil at the 1970 World Cup and tormented England’s defence in Guadalajara but now he is shaking his head. ‘I haven’t rooted for Brazil for years,’ he says. ‘I don’t like the philosophy. It’s too defensive. It’s pragmatic. No charm. No art.

‘Brazil played in 1982 and they lost but who cares? It was fantastic. Nobody talks about the 1994 side that won the World Cup. We don’t celebrate that. Brazilian football has paid a high price right until now for what happened in ’82 in terms of the quality of the football we play. The beautiful football has gone. It’s gone. It’s very sad.’

The next evening, a small group gathers round a table in Bar Lagoa, a few blocks from Ipanema Beach. Marcos Uchoa, a respected former sports journalist who is standing for election as a federal representative this autumn, was working at Galeao airport on the outskirts of the city when Zico, Socrates and their team of football gods returned home after their 3-2 defeat to Italy in the last game of the second group phase of the 1982 World Cup.

Next week will mark 40 years since Italy knocked Brazil out of 1982 World Cup with a 3-2 win

Next week will mark 40 years since Italy knocked Brazil out of 1982 World Cup with a 3-2 win

Crowds came to Galeao to acclaim them as heroes. There was no anger towards the team, no labelling of them as under-achievers. Just sadness and regret that a beautiful adventure had ended so abruptly. Uchoa looks back on that defeat and sees a result that was freighted with significance for the future of the national team and its philosophy of playing.

‘We were starting to sense an emergence from Brazil’s military dictatorship by then,’ he says, ‘but that result, in a match when Zico’s shirt was ripped to shreds by defenders, seemed to carry a message that culture is not important. It was a message that creativity could be destroyed by strength. And strength was the military.

‘It was on that day that, morally, we lost the role as custodians of beautiful football. We had four great midfielders in that team and we have never really had a great midfielder again. We became scared of creativity. It was the end of a golden era in Brazil. Our players started to leave for Europe and spent their best years abroad and we lost what made us unique.’

Follow the coast road out of Rio, beyond Ipanema’s golden sands and its footvolley courts, beyond the poverty of the sprawling favela of Rocinha, beyond the spectacular rock face of Pedra da Gavea, beyond the Olympic Park and its broken promises, beyond Barra da Tijuca, Rio’s version of Miami, and you reach Recreio and a small right turn off the Avenida das Americas.

Despite winning the World Cup, the 1994 Brazil side is held in lower regard compared to the 1982 side

Despite winning the World Cup, the 1994 Brazil side is held in lower regard compared to the 1982 side 

There is a gated condo complex called Dream Village, which is guarded by a tailor’s dummy in a sharp suit and sunglasses. The real dream village is next door. The soul of ’82 still burns brightly here.

Gaggles of kids play on the football pitches and a figure in Flamengo’s red, moulded into the shape of a player taking a free-kick, gazes down from the roof of the clubhouse. The teenagers on the pitch nearest the road are having fun, doing one-on-one drills against a goalkeeper. One boy runs up, shapes to shoot, then rolls his foot over the top of the ball, sitting the keeper on his backside, before rolling it into an empty net. The other kids whoop with joy.

Zico, who personified joy and beauty and escapism and exoticism for the generation of football fans that grew up in the age before globalisation, when everything became amorphous and familiar and accessible, is sitting in an upstairs room inside the clubhouse, chatting and laughing with some of the staff of his football academy.

He is revered in Brazil, admired not just for what he achieved as a player but for the way he conducts himself. At Flamengo’s headquarters in Lagoa, a statue of Zico, his arms held aloft in his trademark goal celebration, stands at the top of the stairs, welcoming visitors. When he went to Flamengo’s match with Cuiaba at the Maracana 10 days ago, the Flamengo Twitter feed posted a picture of him that just said: ‘The king is here’.

Next week, it will be 40 years since the Brazil of Zico, Socrates, Eder, Falcao and Junior lost that match against Italy in one of the greatest games of football that has ever been played. The post-mortem became a battleground for competing analyses but one thing it proved beyond doubt is that in sport, some things are more important than winning.

The team Zico graced is still regarded as the best team never to win the World Cup. They are cherished more than the champions of 1994 and 2002. In Brazil’s football iconography, Zico, who fans nicknamed the White Pele, is on a level with Garrincha, behind only Pele himself, still feted everywhere he goes.

Zico personified joy and beauty and escapism and exoticism for the generation of football fans that grew up in the age before globalisation

Zico personified joy and beauty and escapism and exoticism for the generation of football fans that grew up in the age before globalisation

‘I was proud of the way we played in Spain,’ says Zico. ‘A World Cup is the kind of tournament where you cannot make mistakes. That day against Italy in Barcelona, we made a lot of mistakes in one match against a very good team and we could not recover.

‘Italy had Scirea, Gentile, Zoff, Tardelli, Cabrini and Rossi, all Juventus players at a time when Juventus was one of the best teams in Europe. If Italy had played in the first group phase as they played against Brazil and Argentina in the second round, we would have been in different groups.

‘But there is no logic in football. They tied Poland, Peru and Cameroon and scored one goal in three matches but they blossomed at the wrong time against us. In a logical world, the final would have been Brazil and Italy.

‘People call us the greatest team never to win the World Cup and I can live with that. Neither Hungary in 1954 nor Holland in 1974 won the tournament and yet the way they played represented turning points in modern football. It’s good to be on the same level as Brazil 1950 or Hungary 1954. My father said Zizinho, one of the stars of the Brazil 1950 team, was the best player he ever saw. Ferenc Puskas played for Hungary in 1954 and did not win. It is something to be in the same bracket as those guys.

‘I carry no trauma for not being a world champion. Football is like that. There are many more people with reasons to feel traumas rather than me.’

Zico is a grandfather now and he says he has nine grandchildren and so if he gets two more, he will have a full team. That is why he still has to work, he laughs. And he says that when he gets home, he will have to hide the fancy biscuits that have come from England before the kids eat them. Joy still shines out of him and neither time nor what some still call the ‘tragedy of 1982’ has soured him.

The Brazilian team Zico graced is still regarded as the best team never to win the World Cup

The Brazilian team Zico graced is still regarded as the best team never to win the World Cup

He talks about great players who played in the old ‘No 10’ position, his position, and he laughs again. One of the first he mentions is Kenny Dalglish. ‘Sir Dalglish,’ he says, grinning. ‘Fantastic player,’ he says, breaking into English for the first and only time that afternoon. He says Scotland fans are the best and then he starts to tell a story about playing Scotland for Brazil and asks for the name of the goalkeeper he played against. It was Alan Rough.

‘We played against Scotland in a friendly at the Maracana in 1977,’ he says, ‘and we got a free-kick on the edge of the area. I saw where the goalkeeper was standing and so I put it over the wall and I scored.

‘When we played them at the World Cup in 1982, we got another free-kick on the edge of the area and it was Alan Rough again. So this time, I thought he would be expecting me to put it over the wall so I curled it round the wall instead. And he did not move.’

And so we are back in 1982 again when Zico was not a grandfather but a god in a yellow shirt and blue shorts, surrounded by other gods such as Eder, with his cannonball left foot; the captain, Socrates, intellectual, upright and imperious in midfield; Falcao, his foil; and Junior, a left-back rampaging down the wing and dancing jigs of happiness. Together, they symbolised everything we thought we knew about the rhythms of Brazil and its espousal of the beautiful game.

But their defeat by Italy marked the end of something. It may not have been the day football died, as Zico and Socrates said after the match, but it was the end of the idea that Brazil carried football’s flame. Back then, when we watched Brazil, it felt as if they had come from another planet, not just another continent. 

At the age of 69, Zico is a grandfather now and he says he has nine grandchildren

At the age of 69, Zico is a grandfather now and he says he has nine grandchildren 

Nineteen of the 22-man squad played for Brazilian clubs and their matches were not televised in the UK. We got glimpses of them when they came to play friendlies at Wembley, Ninian Park or Hampden Park but that did not stop it feeling like an epiphany when they exploded into the 1982 World Cup in a burst of beauty.

They did not excel in their opening game against Russia but the two goals Socrates and Eder scored in the last 15 minutes were probably the best two goals of the tournament. The winner came two minutes from the end when Falcao let a pass run through his legs and Eder flicked it up on the run and volleyed it past the goalkeeper.

There is no point going through all the highlights. Brazil at the 1982 World Cup was one long highlight reel, a celebration of individual brilliance and team synchronicity. It was a joy to watch. Brazil was still shackled by a military dictatorship but the way Tele Santana’s team played in Spain was the most beautiful statement of freedom of expression football had ever seen.

Zico was at the heart of it. He scored that free-kick in Brazil’s second game against Scotland, got two more, including a classic volley against New Zealand, prodded home from close range against Argentina after Eder’s vicious, swerving free-kick had bounced down off the bar, and played the pass of the tournament to put Junior through to score the third against a team featuring a young Diego Maradona.

And then there was the match against Italy. Brazil only needed a draw to go through to the semi-finals. No one thought they could lose. But their defending was shoddy and Italy, despite their travails in the first group phase, had just beaten Argentina and were grimly determined.

Zico regards Champions League winners Real Madrid as the best team in Europe today

Zico regards Champions League winners Real Madrid as the best team in Europe today 

Paolo Rossi put Italy ahead early. Socrates equalised after Zico had freed himself of the violent clasp of Claudio Gentile with a sublime turn and slipped a pass through to his skipper. Rossi scored again after an awful defensive mistake, Falcao equalised with a left-foot screamer and then Rossi completed his hat-trick after more defensive disorder and this time there was no way back. Even for Brazil. 

‘We were always behind,’ remembers Zico. ‘We only had, throughout that match, 20 minutes when we were not behind. The other 70 minutes, we were chasing Italy. Chasing, chasing. The third goal was our fault. It was not that Italy created a wonderful move. We conceded a corner needlessly and Italy scored from it. All the times I played for Brazil, we only conceded three goals once. On that day.

‘Will we ever see a team like that Brazil team again? Look, football has changed so much that my position doesn’t even exist any more. What’s the best team in Europe right now? Real Madrid. How does the No 10 of Real Madrid play? Not reaching the box. It’s Modric, Kroos and Casemiro in midfield. Where is the No 10? Where is Zico or Platini or Dalglish?’

Many mourned the defeat. In Brazil, the Sao Paulo newspaper, Jornal da Tarde, printed a famous front-page picture of a young Brazil supporter looking bereft as he stood in the stands at the final whistle. Again, there was no anger directed at the team. Just sadness. The bottom of the page was edged in black with only the date inscribed there, as if it were the date of a death.

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