Zagallo: They said it would be impossible to field all those No10s

  • Mario Zagallo reveals he went mad at Brazil’s players at Mexico 1970
  • He raves about Jairzinho and Gerson
  • Who would have won: the class of ’58 or ’70?

If Pele is the Humphrey Bogart, and Rinus Michels the Martin Scorsese, then Mario Zagallo is football’s Clint Eastwood – a true virtuoso at both performing and directing.

The trailblazing winger hadn’t kicked a ball for his country one month before Sweden 1958 began, but somehow got Vicente Feola to denounce the age-old, flair-dependent Brazilian script and started every game, before helping Seleção retain gold Chile 1962. Zagallo was then the filmmaker as his all-star crew made cinematic gold at Mexico 1970.

The ‘Old Wolf’ nevertheless hunted more. If Katharine Hepburn could become the only person to touch an Oscar four times, he could do the same with football’s most prestigious prize. He duly lifted the FIFA World Cup™ for a still-record fourth time as Carlos Alberto Parreira’s insightful assistant at USA 1994.

On the 50th anniversary of the Azetca apogee of ‘The Beautiful Team’, the 88-year-old gentleman chatted to about that tournament, his playing days and more. Mr Zagallo, you started out as a No10 in a country awash with amazing No10s. Did having a greater chance of playing in the World Cup push you to convert into a left-winger?

It did. I always dreamed of playing for the Seleção in the World Cup. I was at the Maracana in 1950 (Zagallo was a soldier working security at the Brazil-Uruguay decider). I started out as a No10 at America. When I moved to Flamengo in 1950, thinking about playing in the World Cup one day, I decided to become a winger. That’s when my career took off.

One month before Sweden 1958 you’d never even played for Brazil. How did you not only go to that World Cup, but become Brazil’s starting left-winger?

Believing. Botafogo were playing in the Maracana and Paulo Amaral, the fitness trainer, told me I was being watched by the [Brazilian] coaching staff. This got me even more excited and I had a great game. That was the starting point for my call-up for the 1958 World Cup. There was a battle between Canhoteiro and Pepe at the start. They were the favourites. But what really worked in my favour was the switch from 4-2-4 to 4-3-3. Feola made that change because of me. When we lost possession, I was a midfielder. When we had the ball, I was an authentic left-winger. I won the battle with Pepe because Pepe played in a 4-2-4 the whole time. I didn’t – I had a double function. I was the reason that the Brazilian national team, for the first time, abandoned a Brazilian style and played in a 4-3-3. And we won the World Cup.

And an injury almost caused you to miss out on the tournament…

It was in the Maracana. The Seleção were training. It was two-touch [football]. I was in one goal and Pele was in the other. The ball caught one of my fingers and tore it. I went to the hospital. I even asked the [Brazil] doctor to not let me go to the World Cup, but he knew I had a big chance of being a starter, so he gave me 12 – almost 13 (Zagallo’s lucky number) – stiches and I stayed with the squad. I missed three games but in the last friendly before the World Cup, I came on and scored against Inter Milan. I didn’t know if I was going to play, but on the flight to Stockholm, Ricardo Serran, a great journalist from O Globo, came and sat next to me. He said, ‘You’re going to be a starter.’ Feola had spoken to him.

What do you remember most fondly from Sweden 1958?

The debut against Austria was important. We won 3-0 – Nilton Santos scored a goal. The media said that Feola ordered him to get back but that I shouted, ‘Go Nilton, I’ll cover you’. I was already doing my role in the 4-3-3. And in the Final, we were losing 1-0 against Sweden, we turned it round, I scored the fourth goal and I put the ball on Pele’s head for him to score the fifth. So I was involved in the last two goals that won Brazil our first World Cup.

You were appointed Brazil coach just 75 days before Mexico 1970 kicked off. What went through your head when you were approached?

It was everything I wanted. It was around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. When I was with Botafogo, the CBF officials turned up at training and I was told by our physical trainer, ‘Go over to that car. You’re being called to lead the Seleção’. The squad was already at a training camp. They took me home, I grabbed some clothes and off we went. It was what I wanted the most in my life. It was funny because when [Joao] Saldanha took over the Seleção the previous year, I took over his radio show, and when he left the Seleção, I replaced him there.

Gerson, Rivellino, Tostao, Jairzinho and Pele were all No10s for their clubs. Can you tell us about your decision to modify some of their functions and squeeze them all into the same team?
I’d won two World Cups with a 4-3-3. When I took over the Seleção, I had it in my head that’s what I was going to do. The changes I made were moving Piazza to play as a centre-back, bringing Clodoaldo into the team and managing to field all those No10s: Rivellino, Tostao, Pele, Jairzinho and Gerson. They said it would be impossible, in such a short time, to make them all gel, but we won the World Cup.

England had what many felt was improved version of the team that won the World Cup in 1966. Was that Brazil’s toughest test at Mexico 1970?
The game was really difficult, the most difficult one. But I was talking to Tostao and he thinks the toughest game was against Uruguay. Uruguay went 1-0 up and I was thinking about bringing on Paulo Cesar Caju and moving Rivellino into central midfield. But I got lucky because the player I was going to take off was Clodoaldo and he equalised in the 45th minute – just in time! I went mad that day at half-time. I went mad at the whole team. I told them they did not have to do anything different from what they knew how to, but that they weren’t doing that against Uruguay.

Who was Brazil’s best player at Mexico 1970?
Oooh, that’s really difficult. Jairzinho was exceptional at that World Cup. But you have to mention Pele, Tostao, Rivellino, Clodoaldo, Gerson. Gerson was the best No10, the best midfielder I’ve seen in my life.

You played in the 1958 team and coached the 1970 one. Which was the better side?
I don’t want to compare them. The two were unbelievable. However, the team of ’58 was really good because we had a sensational defence, a great midfielder and an attack with Garrincha, Pele and Vava. Oh, and we had Mario Zagallo on the left wing! (laughs)

Of your four World Cup titles, which meant the most to you?
It’s very easy to answer: 1958 as a player and 1970 as coach. I participated in seven World Cups and four Finals. The last Final was in 1998 when there was a problem with Ronaldo, the best player in the world. That was an incredible side – we shouldn’t have lost.

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