• Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

Brazil legend Mario Zagallo leaves enduring legacy after death


Football lost one of its all-time greats — one of the most influential figures in the history of the game — when Mario Zagallo died Friday at the age of 92.

If Pelé was the glamorous, magnificent symbol of Brazil‘s first three World Cup wins between 1958 and ’70, then Zagallo — as both player and coach — was the hard work behind the scenes, the one who balanced out the side and ensured that it made collective sense. And he can add a fourth World Cup triumph — he was assistant coach when they won again in 1994.

He was on military duty in Rio’s Maracana stadium on the fateful day in 1950 when Brazil lost the World Cup at home to Uruguay, already burning with ambition but scarcely daring to dream that eight years later he might be part of the team that would win the trophy. It took plenty of dedication — and lots of intelligence. He realised that he would never be good enough to get into the national team as a No. 10, so he went to play on the left wing, where the competition was not so fierce. He was not Brazil’s most naturally talented left-winger, but he had something none of the others could offer — the capacity to work back in midfield.

This was vital. Brazil were pioneering the back-four system, withdrawing an extra player to the heart of the defence to give them cover. With a front four — two wingers and a pair of strikers — this left them light in midfield. Years ahead of his time, Zagallo solved this problem.

When Brazil had the ball, he was an attacker. But out of possession he would funnel back in midfield, like a hyperactive “little ant” — his nickname. He was two players in one, a winger and a midfielder. This soon became normal, but it was revolutionary when Zagallo did it, and it was fundamental to the team — perhaps even more in 1962 than four years earlier.

After winning in Sweden in 1958, Brazil took essentially the same side to Chile in 1962. It was an old team, and Pelé was injured in the second game and played no further part in the tournament. Without Zagallo’s industry up and down the left flank, they would probably not have won that competition. And eight years later in Mexico, Zagallo was even more important to the cause.

His contribution to the famous triumph of 1970 has consistently been neglected. People have looked at the wonderful team and concluded that the players did it all themselves. This is a grave mistake. Zagallo stepped in at short notice to coach the side, and applied the same principles of his playing career to the task of winning the World Cup.

“I totally changed the team,” he told me when we went in depth on the subject in 2006. “I didn’t accept the idea of 4-2-4 [which Brazil were still playing]. There’s no way we could have won the World Cup using that system. We had to move forward.”

Not trusting his centre-backs, he moved Wilson da Silva Piazza into the heart of the defence, opening up space for the young, dynamic and classy Clodoaldo as the central midfielder. And in came Rivelino, who improvised on the left of midfield, in an adaptation of the double role of winger and midfielder that Zagallo himself had played so successfully.

The main idea, he stressed, was to stop the side being so stretched out and easy to play through.

“So,” he continued, ” we played as a block, compact, leaving only Tostao upfield. I’m happy to see the team in terms of 4-5-1. We brought our team back behind the line of the ball.”

This was years ahead of its time. Once again, Zagallo had managed to balance the desire to attack with the need to defend. Brazil in 1970 is often held up as a pinnacle of the possibilities of football, and this is as much the triumph of Zagallo as it is of Pelé, Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto and Rivelino.

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Success in Mexico in 1970 meant that Zagallo peaked early as a coach. He never had that tactical lead again. But he still stood out for the extraordinary force of his passion for the game and for the Brazil national team. He coached the team to the semifinals in 1974 and the final in 1998, and was the much-valued assistant to Carlos Alberto Parreira in the triumph of the 1994 World Cup, and also the huge disappointment in Germany in 2006.

Well into his 70s by then, it was probably asking too much. But when the chance came, he could not turn it down. I talked to Zagallo at length in 2006 about his history with Pelé, and the efforts he made, in vain, to persuade him to play the 1974 World Cup. Decades later, he was still almost incredulous that someone would pass on the chance to represent the country on such an occasion.

“The decision to opt out of the national team is not one I would make,” Zagallo said.

I pointed out that he would probably play even then if someone selected him. “I wouldn’t do too much running around,” he said. “But I’d play!”

He was a force of nature, and the global game is all the poorer for having lost Mario Zagallo.


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