The Greatest Teams in Football History - Week Nine: Brazil (1970)

This is the ninth in a series of ten articles, released weekly, counting down the ten greatest teams in the history of football. The teams were selected based on the trophies they won, the cultures they created, and the impact they had on the game of football.

The Countdown:

10. Liverpool (‘75-’84)

9. Bayern Munich (‘67-’76)

8. France (‘98-’00)

7. Manchester United (‘95-01)

6. Real Madrid (‘56-’60)

5. Spain (2008-2012)

4. FC Barcelona (2008-2012)

3. AC Milan (1988-1994)

Brazil 1970

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The Brazilian National Team of 1970 is the greatest international football team in the history of the game. In any facet of play, they dominated. They had a front five of the best footballers to ever step on the pitch. They had a midfield and defense that had as much skill on the ball as any players that would come after them. And they had a nation of millions of fans who loved – who lived – every single dribble, pass, and shot right beside them. Combining these historical elements, Brazil became one of those rare teams whose legacy was recognized while they were still playing. 

Though Brazil had already won the tournament twice in 1958 and 1962, the 1970 World Cup stands alone as the most excellent performance by a national team in the competition’s storied history. The Brazilian’s dominated against fierce competition. The likes of England, Czechoslovakia, and Italy contained the world’s greatest players. Though Brazil drew its players from teams in their home country such as Corinthians, Flamengo, and Santos, their opposing countries contained players from Europe’s greatest club sides. The representatives of Real Madrid, Manchester United, AC Milan, and Juventus all stood in the way of Brazil’s path to victory. 

Along with featuring the globe’s most exceptional talent, the 1970 World Cup contained a series of firsts for the beautiful game. The tournament marked a moment of global expansion with Mexico becoming the first nation outside of Europe or South America to host the tournament. Similarly, technological advancement’s provided a first for television broadcasting of the World Cup. At last, fans from the four corners of the globe would have the chance to see the iconic blue and yellow jerseys of Brazil live in color. 

The 1970 World Cup, however, also marked the end of one of the game’s most celebrated traditions - the Jules Rimet Trophy, the original prize awarded to winners of the FIFA World Cup. At the tournament’s inception, the organizers agreed that should any country win three finals, they would be given the trophy to keep for the rest of time. After the final whistle blew in the final of the 1970 World Cup, Brazil became the last team in the then four-decade history of the competition to hoist the trophy high above their heads. In 1983, the trophy would be stolen from its case in the Brazilian FA headquarters, never to be seen again. Some say the 30 cm high statue of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike, was melted into gold bars. Others insist the trophy is in an antique store in Rio de Janeiro, waiting to be verified as the real thing. Regardless of its exact resting place, the Jules Rimet trophy met a similar fate as the 1970 Brazilian National team. 

Pele kisses the Jules Rimet Trophy

Pele kisses the Jules Rimet Trophy

For Pele and the ten Brazilian’s that took the field behind him, the goal was simple – to win. For their country, for their football, and for their legacy, the Brazilian’s won the 1970 World Cup in style, forever defining football as Jogo Bonito – the beautiful game. 

For Brazil, however, their run of greatness began in embarrassing failure. Four years earlier, Brazil was knocked out of the 1966 World Cup in the group stage. After beating Bulgaria 2-0 with goals from the old-guard representative Garrincha and his sidekick Pele, the greatest player of the era, Brazil suffered successive 3-1 losses to Hungary and Portugal. On the damp field of Goodison Park, Liverpool, the Brazilian side that had previously won consecutive World Cup’s was sacrificed before the knockout rounds. For the nation of Brazil, their early departure was more painful than their 1998 World Cup Final loss to France or even their 7-1 embarrassment at the hands of the Germans in Brazil, 2014. The members of the squad, however, knew they lacked any ability to compete with the quickly advancing European countries.

Right-back Carlos Alberto understood the collision of philosophies between South American and European football. He said, “Brazilian football isn’t violent by nature, so we didn’t know how to play hard like the Europeans. They played hard but fair – that wasn’t in our nature. From that point on, a plan was put into action that gave more value to our preparation.” 

Carlos Alberto and his fellow Brazilians spent the next four years taking a scientific approach to their practices. Physical fitness and diet were placed alongside set-piece routines and passing drills. After all, with the next World Cup being played in Mexico the Brazilians would have more to worry about than just the physicality of opposing sides – the Brazilians would have to battle the altitude. 

Carlos Alberto said of the specific preparation for Mexico, “We knew the next World Cup was in Mexico where we would have to play at altitude, and we knew – if we wanted to win the title – we would have to give more to our physical preparations.” 

The players, however, were not alone in their quest for victory. Like any great team, they needed a great manager. Getting such a manager, though, would prove difficult and even violent. 

After their disastrous performance in 1966, their manager, Vincente Feola, who managed his nation to victory in 1958 was dismissed. In his place was appointed Aymoré Moreira, the manager who oversaw the team’s success in 1962. Moreira could not get the team firing at the same rate as he had eight years before, however, and was soon sacked. The Brazilian FA was going to appoint its third manager in just three seasons. What was that man’s name? It was João Saldanha.  

Midfielder Rivellino said of the new manager, “Saldanha had his own style. In the qualifiers in 1969, he said, ‘this is my team. Players will only get dropped if they play really badly or get injured.’ So I think I only played once in the qualifiers.” 

Saldanha

Saldanha

Though Saldanha led Brazil to win all six of their qualifying matches, his tenure at the helm was not free from scandal. Remember, at the moment, Brazil was in the firm clutches of a military dictatorship that was being led by President Emílio Garrastazu Médici. Saldanha refused to play Médici’s favorite players and, doing the one thing worse than insulting the military dictator, considered dropping Pele from the starting lineup. 

Echoing Jose Mourinho, Saldanha had a short temper when it came to the press. Regularly, the Brazilian manager attacked journalists for criticizing his team selection and tactics. His major error came after receiving harsh criticism from Flamengo coach Yustrich. Being the stable, rational thinking man that he was, Saldanha decided to try to shoot Yustrich and went so far as to draw a gun on his criticizer. Yes, Mourinho is often criticized for being too harsh with his detractors but let’s be thankful he hasn’t pulled a gun on Martin Tyler or Juergen Klopp… yet. 

Sensibly, the Brazilian FA removed Saldanha from his post, replacing him with Brazilian legend Zagallo. Having won the 1958 and 1962 World Cups as a player, Zagallo brought a sense of swagger and confidence back to the Brazilian dressing room. Defensive midfielder Clodoaldo said of Zagallo’s appointment, “The previous team had been known as Saldanha’s beasts. Zagallo brought the team back together.” 

Along with his legacy, Zagallo brought tactical confidence to his position as manager. 

Zagallo

Zagallo

In the previous entry into the Greatest Teams list, AC Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi spoke about a realization he had that linked all great teams throughout history. He said, “I saw that all the great teams to be great had something in common. They all looked to dominate on the pitch – dominate play and control the game at all times.” 

Zagallo’s 1970 Brazil side inspired Sacchi’s critical observation. Zagallo’s significant changes to the lineup consisted of setting the team up in a narrow 4-3-3. Along with changing the formation, he moved Piazza, who had played his entire career as a midfielder, to the center of the team’s back four. Also, Zagallo put Clodoaldo and Rivellino back into the first team. Both played crucial roles in Zagallo’s demanding attack. 

Just as Sacchi’s Milan would use to dominate club football in the late ‘80s and Guardiola’s Barcelona would perfect in the late ‘00s, Zagallo’s team implemented the attackers as the first line of defense and the defenders as the first line of attack. When the team had the ball, all but three defenders would bomb forward, creating intertwining runs and executing individual skill. The results were magnificent. Zagallo explains, “Everyone tracked back and defended as a team and when we attacked – well – we attacked well. We played with Rivellino, Gerson, Pele, Jairzinho on the right-wing and our right-back Carlos Alberto joining the attack. Then Everaldo – our left back – Piazza, and Brito were left in defense.”

Carlos Alberto wore the captain’s armband for the duration of the tournament. His Santos teammate, however, was the competition’s main attraction. 

Having won the World Cup twice, Pele had become the most famous footballer on the planet. In 1970, however, Pele faced a challenge, unlike anything he had encountered in his historic career. Compared with his previous victories, 1970 appeared as a different competition entirely. He said, “In ’58, all I wanted to do was play. I didn’t have the pressure of people telling me I had to win or I had to play well. After playing in ’62 and being injured in ’66, 1970 was extremely difficult for me because there was a lot of pressure.” 

The scandal caused by Saldanha suggesting to drop Pele years earlier proved the scale of the Brazilian’s admiration. In the world of football, only Maradona compares with Pele in terms of their reverence from their fellow citizens and, even then, Pele experienced his own deification first. Pele was not Brazil’s greatest footballer, nor was he their most successful citizen. Today, Pele remains the God of his country. Though Christ the Redeemer overlooks Rio de Janeiro with outstretched arms, Pele rests his boot on the entire country, a symbol of their creativity, flamboyance, and success. And being the God of one’s country is not complicated enough, Pele achieved such status in the heat of a military dictatorship. 

“In 1970, Brazil had its own problems with a military dictatorship in power at the time. The political situation was rather confused. I thought about quitting. Havelanga, Brazil’s FIFA representative at the time, however, tried convincing me to play. I told him, ‘I’ll go, but it will be my last world cup,’” said Pele. 

A God amongst men

A God amongst men

On June 3rd, 1970, Brazil began their march back to the top of international football with a 4-1 win over their first group competitors, Czechoslovakia. Eager to display to the rest of the world how they had evolved from merely a fluid, fast-paced side into a physical and technical machine, the Brazilians pulled out all of the stops. The game, however, did not start as they planned. In the 11th minute, the Czechoslovakians took a surprising lead. The Brazilians were on the brink of collapse. Had all of their work to ward off the demons of the ’66 world cup been for naught? Soon, the Brazilians regained their confidence and their form. The highlight of the match came in the 24th minute when Pele won a free-kick just outside the oppositions box. Up stepped Rivellino. 

Carlos Alberto said of Rivellino, “technically, it is hard to even talk about how good he was. He played for Corinthians, which was the most popular team in Sao Paolo. The Corinthians fans loved him. They called him ‘the kid from the park’ – the little king.” 

Rivellino lived up to Alberto’s praise, striking Brazil’s free-kick at atomic speed, pinging around the wall and through the hands of the Czech goalkeeper. Twenty minutes into the second half, a looping forward cross from Gerson found Pele for his first goal of the tournament. Jairzinho followed Pele’s goal with two goals of his own, setting him on a streak that would see him score a goal in every single game of the competition. Jairzinho’s second goal became one of the best goals of the tournament – a weaving run down the right side of the Czech defense similar to Maradona’s “goal of the century” against England or Messi’s identical goal against Getafe. Regardless of their individual brilliance, Brazil showed everyone in the world why they were never to be ruled out. 

Their next opponents presented their most challenging competition of the entire tournament. Though the Brazilian’s silky football won the hearts of opposing nations, their opponents England had become one of the most despised teams in world football. Their brutal physicality and no-nonsense, direct attacking proved lethal four years earlier when they won their first and only World Cup. The English side that faced Brazil in June of 1970 was made up of many of the players who lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in Wembley Arena in 1966. Now, they had four more years of experience. Four more years to improve on their tortuous but successful football. 

Brazil vs. England, 1970

Brazil vs. England, 1970

With Brazil and England entering the match as competing for favorites to win the group, the stakes were massive. The victor would play their first knockout match in Guadalajara, the same location as the group matches. Not only would they not have to travel, but they would also remain in the low altitude stadium of Guadalajara, nearly 1,500 feet lower than the alternative stadium. Also, the losing team would have to face a problematic West Germany as opposed to a decent, but far less dangerous Peru. 

Pele and Bobby Moore Swap Jerseys After the Match

Pele and Bobby Moore Swap Jerseys After the Match

The match resembled chess more than football. The Brazilian fluidity kept stalling against the physical British backline. English defender Bobby Moore said of the game, “That game to me was probably the most outstanding international football match that I was involved in. The game itself was just everything you could expect from a football match.”

Having trained for the World Cup at high altitude practice facilities in Brazil to acclimate to the high altitude they expected in Mexico, the Brazilians were in superior physical shape to the rest of the competition. Playing in the low altitude of Guadalajara, the Brazilians played with an added boost. 

In the second half of the match against England, the Brazilian’s fitness paid off. In the 69th minute, after a brilliant run by Gerson, the midfielder chipped the ball into the center of the box. Receiving the ball, Pele unselfishly laid it off for the onrushing Jairzinho to lash into the roof of the net. The game ended 1-0. 

With the pressure lifted, Brazil was at their ruthless best against Romania. Two goals from Pele bookended Jairzinho’s fourth goal of the competition, granting Brazil a maximum of nine points from their three group matches. 

Their quarter-final matchup against Brazil placed them against South American rivals Peru. Though Brazil was the better team, Peru had an ace up their sleeve. Their coach, Didi, had played a critical role as a defender for Brazil in both the ’58 and ’62 World Cups. After leaving the pitch as a player, Didi had transformed into one of the best coaches in Brazil. Carlos Alberto emphasized the challenge of competing against a former teammate: “He knew exactly how we played. We knew how difficult it would be and it was difficult beating Peru even though we felt we were at a higher level than them.

Just 11 minutes after kickoff, however, Brazil could rest easy. This time, Rivellino was the hero. The left midfielder capitalized on a Peruvian mistake, sending Gerson’s resulting pass spinning into the back of the net with a grounded shot from the left edge of the box hit with the outside of his left foot. Four minutes later, Rivellino played Tostão into the box with a ball along the goal line that Tostão finished with a clinical shot from a tight angle. Tostão was yet another brilliant attacker in the Brazil lineup. His teammate, Felix, said of Tostão, “He was our best player tactically. He took on the two main markers, freeing up Pele and Rivellino. That’s what helped the movement in our team and, being so well prepared, no one could stop us.”

Though Peru responded with two goals of their own, they were powerless against the Brazilian front five. Tostão added another in the 52nd minute and then Jairzinho sealed the match with his seemingly required goal, scored in the 75th minute. This Brazilian attack was perhaps the most creative and lethal offense the game has ever seen and, in 1970, they played at the peak of their potential. 

Clodoaldo said of having such forwards on the team, “Jairzinho, Gerson, Rivellino, Pele, Tostão – to have a team with five aces like that – in a deck of cards you only get four. That national team had five aces that were all exceptional players. So, it was amazing to be able to play, look up, and see those five players in front of you. It was simply incredible.”

Brazil had secured a birth in the semi-finals. Though they had dominated all of the opponents they played, their confidence faced its toughest test against their fiercest rivals, Uruguay. Two decades before, in Brazil’s home stadium, Uruguay beat their big brothers in the World Cup Final. For Uruguay, the victory became an annual celebration on equal standing with their independence day. For Brazil, their defeat became an event of national mourning that was so damaging, their national team waited two years before returning to the field. When, at last, they did come back, Brazil arrived wearing new uniforms. They had swapped their traditional white shirts with the now iconic yellow and blue jerseys of modern Brazil. Even after winning two World Cups of their own, the Brazilian’s had not shaken the Uruguayan inferiority complex that haunted them for twenty years.     

Doomsday - Uruguay’s 1950 Victory Over Brazil

Doomsday - Uruguay’s 1950 Victory Over Brazil

As the match kicked off, the Brazilian’s nerves got the better of them. In the 19th minute, Uruguay took a shock lead. No matter how creative they played, the Brazilian’s just could not maneuver the ball around the tough Uruguayan defense. Also, the Uruguay head coach produced a moment of tactical genius. Noticing that Gerson was Brazil’s creative engine, the player through which the ball flowed to Pele, Rivellino, and Jairzinho, Uruguay’s head coach had a player man-mark the Brazilian number eight. By neutralizing Gerson, Uruguay had neutralized Brazil’s front five. 

In the 44th minute, Clodoaldo, the guardian of Brazil’s backline who sat in front of the two central defenders burst forwards. Commanding the team even without the ball, Gerson had demanded Clodoaldo to press up the pitch and split the Uruguayan defense. Clodoaldo executed his orders to perfection, sprinting into the box and volleying a bouncing cross past the outstretched Uruguayan keeper. 

After half-time, Brazil returned from the locker room determined to ward off the Uruguayan curse once and for all. With fifteen minutes to play, Jairzinho and Rivellino scored in quick succession with two perfectly placed finishes. 

In the closing minutes of the match, however, Pele shocked the world with one of the greatest moments of individual skill in the history of football. Though he did not finish the move with the goal, the brilliance and creativity of the play embodied the fun-spirited philosophy of the Brazilian team. Watch, below, as Pele proves that yes, God does exist - and he’s Brazilian.

The 1970 World Cup Final was set. Brazil was to take on Italy in front of over 100,000 Brazilian and Mexican fans at the Estadio Azteca. Italy was a dominant team. Just like Brazil, Italy had won the World Cup twice before in 1934 and 1938. Playing their trademark, defense-first football, Italy had survived to the final playing a system of man-marking that dominated the Mexicans 4-1 in the Quarter-finals and suffocated the Germans 4-3 after 90 minutes plus extra time. Against Brazil, however, Italy’s defensive system was bound to be exposed. The Brazilian’s were just too creative and fast-paced to be defended in a man-marking system. Their constant overlapping runs and blitzkrieg attacks of five skillful forwards would be impossible to stop. Also, having played 120 minutes in the Semi-final, the Italians were exhausted, unable to implement their ineffective system to its full potential. 

When the Brazilian’s stepped onto the Estadio Azteca, however, not every one of their players was thinking of how they would break down the Italians. Pele said, “I saw all of those Brazilians and Mexican’s with the Brazil flag shouting, ‘Brazil, Brazil, Pele, Pele.’ It just made me well up. I wanted to stop crying but I couldn’t. I tried to hide it because I was the oldest and most experienced player and I didn’t want the others thinking, ‘why is he crying?’”  

Brazil vs. Italy, 1970

Brazil vs. Italy, 1970

In a match that would inevitably cement their position in the Pantheon of football’s great teams, Brazil started the match in blistering form. Scoring the 100th World Cup goal in Brazil’s history, Pele opened the scoring. Literally rising to the occasion, the number ten sprung into the air to meet a towering cross, directing the ball into the net with a powerful header. Pele was no longer crying. Jumping into the arms of Jairzinho, Pele raised his fist in triumph. 

Zagallo said of Pele’s performance, “In ’70 it seemed that he prepared himself for an honorable farewell worthy of Pele. He had an incredible world cup and deservedly so because he was the greatest player in the world.”

Pele Celebrates the Opening Goal of the Final against Italy

Pele Celebrates the Opening Goal of the Final against Italy

Brazil’s excitement was cut short in the 37th minute when an error from Clodoaldo led to an Italian goal. Brazil had set out to control possession and force Italy to chase them, tiring out an already exhausted team. Though this strategy was responsible for the mistake that allowed Italy their goal, Brazil’s domination of the match paid off. In the second half, Brazil appeared to be playing with twice the players as Italy. 

In the 66th minute, Gerson struck a phenomenal ball across the goal from outside of the box, giving Brazil the lead for the second time that day. Just five minutes later, Gerson sent an inch-perfect, booming cross from the halfway line all the way into the Italian box. Pele cushioned the ball with his head, laying it onto the right foot of Jairzinho. Brazil’s number seven tumbled the ball past the Italian keeper, scoring his seventh goal of the tournament. Brazil was putting on a show. 

As the clock wound down, however, the Brazilian’s produced one last moment of magic – perhaps the most excellent team goal in the game's history. In a move that involved all but two of the Brazilian team, Clodoaldo found himself with the ball nearly ten meters behind the halfway line. In typical Brazilian fashion, the midfielder dribbled around four Italian players, skipping past them like a kid on a playground. Clodoaldo dished the ball to Rivellino who was waiting on the left flank, even with the center circle. Rivellino sent the ball quickly down the line to Jairzinho who softly controlled the ball with his inner heel and tore into the center of the field, laying the ball behind him to Pele. With the calmness expected from the living legend, Pele softly tapped a pass diagonally into the box. Without looking, Pele had set up his captain to finish the move. Carlos Alberto, who had run the entire length of the field entered the box at full clip, catching Pele’s pass with his right foot after the ball bounced into the air off of a divot in the turf. With time standing still, watching to see the move unfold to its inevitable conclusion, Carlos Alberto torched the ball at rocket speed into the far corner of the net. Perfection had been achieved. 

Though Brazil would win the World Cup twice more, they would never come close to reaching the level of skill that had just been witnessed. The 1970 Brazilian World Cup team had not lost a single game in either the qualifying matches or the final tournament itself. Though other nations like France and Spain hold positions on the list of the greatest teams of all time, no country has achieved a fraction of the dominance, confidence, and swagger Brazil displayed in 1970. Every goal was magnificent, every player was a world beater, and every moment was savored by the millions of Brazilian fans who knew that one day, their brilliance would reach its end. 

For all but three Brazilian players, 1970 marked the end of their international careers. After winning three World Cups and forever securing the Jules Rimet trophy for Brazil, Pele, the greatest footballer of his era and perhaps of all time, decided once and for all to hang up his boots. As is typical with all great teams that came before them and all that followed in their footsteps, their final moments together on the pitch are both their most memorable and most tragic. Looking at photos from the chaotic and overwhelming celebrations from inside the Estadio Azteca, these contrasting emotions are immediately apparent. Jubilation appears on the faces of Pele and Jairzinho while tears flood over Zagallo and Carlos Alberto. As the sun set on Mexico City on the 21st of June, 1970, a feverish riot of emotion and excitement broke out throughout Brazil. In the heat of a military dictatorship, football played the role of unifier – bringing the country together for a moment of complete, untainted joy. Together, the Brazilians celebrated their third World Cup victory and mourned the passing of perhaps the most excellent team in the history of football.

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