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Gone was the efficient but uninspiring Cláudio Coutinho, the coach who had led Brazil four years previously where suspicious circumstances saw them resigned to third place following Argentina’s comprehensive thumping of Peru – a circumstance which the pragmatists would argue was unfair and undemocratic – but that the purists would argue was just as a result of the ‘fútbol total’ on display from the hosts, with romantic César Luis Menotti being influenced by the revolutionary Dutch coach Rinus Michels and, ironically, Pelé’s Brazil.
In Coutinho’s place stood Telê Santana, Fluminense legend and winner of five regional league titles in Brazil. An extremely offensive-minded coach, Brazil were paired with the Soviet Union, Scotland and New Zealand in the first group round, whom they beat by an aggregate score of 10-2, before putting another three past an uninspired Argentina in the second group stage.
With Sócrates in commanding form, Seleção needed just a single point in the final match against Italy to confirm their place in the semi-final. When such a pre-match circumstance evoked painful memories of the past, when Brazil needed just a draw inside the Maracanã against Uruguay in 1950 to win the Jules Rimet trophy on home soil, the final act was also eerily similar.
Despite their opposition leaving a lot to be desired, drawing all three of their first group games before narrowly edging past Argentina, Italy were no pushovers. An almost unbreachable back-line that had managed to nullify the attacking threat of Diego Maradona and Mario Kempes in the previous match on paper provided the perfect foil. In essence it pitted the unstoppable force versus the immoveable object. Brazil’s attack vs Italy’s defence. Although unbeknownst to the South Americans, it was Italy’s attack that would steal the headlines.
Having come to prominence four years prior in Argentina, Paolo Rossi had established himself as one of the World’s best strikers. An extremely efficient centre-forward, his excellent positioning and prolific eye for goal bore resemblance to Italy’s all-time top goal scorer Gigi Riva, while his quickness and technique paved the way for more technically gifted ‘Azzuri’ marksmen, with Roberto Baggio following ten years later, and Francesco Totti after him.
At a packed Sarrià stadium in Barcelona, despite public expectations to the contrary, Italy took the game to Brazil. With less than five minutes on the clock, Antonio Cabrini’s cross from deep was met by the head of Rossi at the back post. Waldir Peres was left with no chance from the effort at such a close range as Brazil inexplicably fell behind. What was unanimously Italy’s’ strongest asset, it was quickly established that for all of their irresistible attacking exploits, defending was one aspect of the game that the Brazilian’s never fully mastered.
Having grabbed their early lead, Enzo Bearzot instructed his side to do what everyone had expected them to – Claudio Gentile was assigned to man-mark Zico, and the Italians sat back to preserve their lead.
In hindsight, despite their defensive frailties, the one main hindrance to this Brazilian side was probably their lack of a true number nine. Serginho, who led the line in all five of their games in Spain, finished his career with eight goals from 20 games, while Éder, deployed as an outside left but often deputising as a striker, would finish his with eight in 52. Midfielders Falcão and Cerezo were among the finest in their positions, while the sides main attacking inspiration came from playmaker Zico – considered at the time the world’s best – and the intellectual Sócrates.
When Gentile’s detainment kept Zico out of proceedings, Sócrates found himself isolated and unable to propel Brazil forward as he so often had. Despite his equaliser putting them back in control of the group, they never seemed to have control of the contest.
When the true quality of the Italians was realised Brazil knew that they would be no pushovers. Although the majority of the game was unfolding outside the Italian box, their defence could not be breached. Brazil’s lack of wingers meant they could not stretch the play which suited the narrowness of their oppositions defence, while long searching balls from deep towards Rossi and Francesco Graziani were giving Brazil’s unconvincing backline food for thought.
On twenty five minutes Cerezo attempted to find left-back Júnior inside his own half. The pass was poorly disguised and underhit which allowed the opportunistic Rossi to step across the awaiting defender and win possession. The quick turnover left the striker one-on-one with Peres, an opportunity which he was never going to turn down.
When Brazil’s economic growth between 1975 and 1981 began to stagnate under the presidency of João Figueiredo the country was plunged in to yet another crisis. Since gaining its independence from Portugal in 1822 the rate of GDP growth in Brazil failed to meet that of its population. The one escape from cataclysm for its people was always football. From Leônidas Da Silva in the late 1930’s to Pelé and Garrincha in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a sense of entitlement always surrounded the Seleção.
But here loomed another question of identity. Irrefutably the best side in the world, with two of the world’s best at their peak, they wound up trailing 2-1 to a side playing agricultural football predicated on a tight defence and an isolated, two-manned attack.
As the clock began to make an impact desperation set in. For the final half hour Brazil began to throw bodies forward in increasing number in search of the equaliser that would take them through. Juninho advanced forward down the left flank and found Falcão. He was greeted with a wall of dark blue when receiving possession, but an excellent run from Cerezo dragged two defenders with him and pried open just enough space for Falcão to shift the ball inside and unleash a powerful shot to level the game for a second time. Over the course of play it was probably deserved, after all Brazil had controlled the ball and a vast number of proceedings, but minutes later the Italians responded again.
A rare second-half foray forward resulted in a corner which Bruno Conti swung in. It was initially dealt with but not cleared as Marco Tardelli rifled his shot towards goal. It was goal bound but toward Rossi and Graziani, who both swung a boot at it. It was Rossi that connected to secure his hat-trick and put Italy 3-2 to the good.
Rossi’s inclusion in the final squad was controversial, not because of his talent, that was undeniable, but because he had spent much of the previous two seasons side-lined with injuries. Having ghosted through the first four games without registering a single strike, here he was repaying his coach with a hat-trick, setting them on their way to the semi-finals.
For all of Brazil’s innate quality, their irresistible attacking prowess, the momentum had well and truly shifted as it was Italy who would score for a fourth time, only for the referee to disallow the goal, replays showing incorrectly. In the dying moments, with the result appearing set in stone, the Italian spotlight shifted from the mercurial Rossi to goalkeeper Dino Zoff, at the tender age of 40, as he pulled off an otherworldly save to deny Oscar.
The full-time whistle sounded confirming Italy as semi-finalists in Spain where they would go on to claim their third world title, while Brazil, against all the odds, had been defeated.
The Italian victory highlighted not the quality of Rossi and Gentile and company in defence, but the naivety of the Brazilians. Even when level their game was still an attacking one, too open and too expansive against opposition as efficient as the one they were up against.
A tragédia do Sarrià (The Sarrià tragedy) sparked the biggest identity crisis in Brazilian football since the defeat to Uruguay in the final game of the 1950 World Cup. They played a more attractive style of football and had the vastly superior players, but had been outmanoeuvred by the more organised Europeans.
The result fundamentally changed Brazilian football and its attack-minded philosophy, with their successes in 1994 and 2002 the result of a more pragmatic, cautious approach. This defeat proved the end for Brazil’s beautiful game. This was the end of o jogo bonito.