I often plan ahead what articles I want to write, but more often than not, the ones I actually put up are ones that come to me on the spur of the moment. So it was with this one. I was originally going to post an article about Marcelo, but I was having a frustrating time writing it – I didn’t feel like I was saying anything different than what you could read in the comments section the past few months.

Similarly, I had always intended for the next “Selecão Classics” article to cover the 1970 World Cup final. But this weekend, while looking for something else on YouTube, I found the 1958 semi-final vs France in its entirety. I knew I had watched the match before, but I had less a memory of it than I did the final vs Sweden, or the famous Group Stage match against the USSR where Pele and Garrincha first made their awe-inspiring debuts. But within 10 minutes of watching the game, I knew I had to write about it.

It’s a very entertaining match, especially the first twenty minutes or so, and I urge all of you to take the time to watch it whenever you can.

One disclaimer for this article. The match, obviously, is in black and white, with no commentary, and while I know all the Brazilian players on the pitch, it can be sometimes rather hard to tell them apart, especially when they are the same color. Regrettable, but true. Numbers are often impossible to make out, and though while knowledge of each player’s assigned position is helpful, it is far from definitive. Because of the distinctive way that certain of the players moved, like Didi, Garrincha, and to a lesser extent Pele, watching their footwork was often the surest way of deciphering who was doing what. But I make no claims of 100% accuracy. Some of the moves I describe could be using the wrong names. If anyone sees a mistake, feel free to point it out. Fifty-three years removed from the game it is covering, this article is certainly not advertised as a definitive analysis.

Background

The 1958 World Cup stands as both the beginning of an era and the possible apogee of all Brazilian football. Never before or since would a team score more goals in a World Cup. Never before or since would a team score more goals in a final. It saw the introduction of Brazil’s two most famous sons, the seventeen-year-old Pele and the small, crook-legged Garrincha. It fulfilled both all of Brazil’s early expectations, and a created a host of whole new ones, ones that haunt the Selecão and its supporters to this day.

Like all new beginnings, this one was rife with turmoil. Still haunted by the disaster of 1950, and the uninspiring, brawl-filled exit of 1954, Brazil was in the midst of both a tactical and preparative revolution. We’ll start with a brief examination of the tactics.

Ever since 1950, the Brazilian press and the Brazilian public, then as now given over to hysterical overreactions whenever something goes wrong in football, had blamed defensive inadequacies on the national team’s inability to capture a World Cup, which was supposed to have been a given all the way back in the late 30’s. There were calls in the press and by certain experts to abandon the fantasy, playfulness and improvisational flair that so marked the Brazilian game up to that point. Joao Lyra Filho disdainfully proclaimed that “flashy trim lends artistic expression to the match, to the detriment of yield and results,” and his comments were echoed by many. Yet Brazil and Brazilians, despite perhaps agreeing whenever witnessing a loss, could never fully embrace this idea. The answer lay not in a stylistic change, but a formational one. The old W-M, the most common formation of its day, which in modern terms could be described as a 3-2-2-3 (which looks like a W and an M from the attacking end of the pitch) was slowly being morphed at club level and later in the national team into a 4-2-4. The revolutionary thing here was the four men at the back – a tactic that Brazil pioneered.  Thus when manager Vicente Feola was appointed manager of the Selecão, instituting the 4-2-4 was less an innovation and more a confirmation of this new philosophy.

Brazil had gone through three different coaches in Feola’s wake, after finishing third in the 1957 Copa America. Feola is in an interesting character himself, but for this article, suffice to say that he made two decisions that forever changed the Brazilian national team. First, he implemented a new focus on preparation that remains in place to this day.   Second, he called up Pele and Garrincha.

Feola had officials scour Sweden, the site of the World Cup, for over twenty different locations to select his training base, then had every woman who worked at the team hotel replaced to minimize distractions for his players. He created an extensive support staff for the first time, including a doctor, dentist, trainer, psychologist, and even a spy of sorts to gather information on the other teams. Players were not allowed to smoke or to talk to the press. This emphasis on preparation, especially physical preparation, has been present with Brazil from that point on, and the results are obvious: the Selecão, for whatever other flaws it might sometime exhibit, is almost always the most fit, the most in shape, the most ready to endure the sprint of a tournament, even after most of its players have come directly from the grueling marathon of a club-season.

The selection of Pele and Garrincha is perhaps obvious in retrospect, but playing them was less so. Neither played in the first match against Austria, which was won 3-0, and they were similarly absent in the 0-0 draw against Britain. To guarantee progression, they needed a win versus the USSR, and it was only after veteran stars Didi and Nilton Santos approached Feola and urged him to insert the young virtuosos that their place in Selecão history become assured. The voice of Didi must have carried particular weight; he was the best Brazilian player in the world, and perhaps the best to have ever played up to that point. Neither Pele nor Garrincha scored, but their presence spurred the team onto heights it had not yet reached. In the opening exchanges alone, both Pele and Garrincha hit the post before Vava scored with only three minutes gone. So breathtaking was the start that some called it, “the best three minutes of football ever played.”

The team struggled to beat Wales 1-0, with Pele the deciding factor, but it was against France that the team finally took real flight, and it is here where our story begins.

The match

The two sides lined up with Brazil playing 4-2-4, and France playing the W-M. The Brazil squad was as follows:

Brazil 1958

Tactically, the two most interesting things of note are the four at the back, the defensive platform that allowed rather than inhibited Brazil’s attackers to play with such freedom, and Mario Zagallo’s positioning. Nominally a left-winger, Zagallo was more than comfortable tracking back to help in defense, or to play in the midfield as part of the build-up, and so Feola’s Brazil could become a kind of prehistoric 4-3-3 at a moment’s notice. Pele, Vava, and Garrincha were neither interested in or instructed to provide any defensive help, and with Didi so often pushing high up the pitch, and fullbacks Nilton Santos and Di Sordi’s (star right-back Djalma Santos was on the bench) looking to drift forward, the team, inevitably, was vulnerable to counter-attacks. This threat was alleviated by one simple fact – Brazil might concede, but they were certainly not going to concede more than their opponents.

The game began with Brazil showing their intent immediately. Within the first two minutes, Zito played a long-ball to Pele, who passed to Zagallo, who returned the ball to Pele. Pele played a one-touch pass to Nilton Santos, who returned the favor with a through-ball into the box. Pele shot wide. A sensational beginning, but better was to come within the next ninety seconds.

In the fourth minute a sloppy pass out of the back was intercepted by Garrincha. The winger was immediately tackled, but the ball fell back to Didi. A one-touch aerial pass from the midfielder fell to the wide-open Vava, who chested down in the box and slotted home. Brazil 1, France 0, and only three minutes had gone by. The word “breathtaking,” like all adjectives, can be over-applied, but in this case the word is warranted. It was a breathtaking start for Brazil. There was a brief celebration, and then it was back to work.

Brazil continued to attack. The action shifted to the right. Didi casually sombrero’d his man with a dinked pass to Garrincha, who played the one-two back with Didi. Garrincha tore off down the wing, then crossed to Vava. Only a poor touch prevented the forward from shooting, and likely scoring, again.

Three things are apparent with Brazil at this point. First is the one-touch passing. Almost every player on the pitch was an adept passer, and an extremely willing one. Only with Garrincha do you ever get a hint of selfishness, but even there it’s only a hint. Their passing, it must be said, was helped by a French defense which began the game playing far too respectfully and timidly.

Of more practical application nowadays was the spacing and movement off the ball. Players almost never clumped together, and were consistently making runs into space, moving diagonally away from the dribbler to create passing angles. This constant churning is what made all the one-touch passes possible – there was almost always a person to pass to. A far cry from Mano’s Brazil, hallmarked as it’s been by players standing around, or clumping together in the midfield. Again, there’s no doubt that in 1958, Brazil was helped by the conspicuous lack of pressing, but fundamentals are eternal, and in terms of movement and spacing, Brazil was superb.

The match was being played at an incredibly fast tempo. There was no feeling each other out, and with France down an early goal, both sides wanted to attack.

France equalized in the 9th minute thanks to Just Fontaine, who scored an incredible 13 goals in the tournament.   France won the ball in the midfield, and Brazil were slow to pick up the individual runners. If I’m being charitable, I’ll say that the Brazilian defenders were more concerned with closing off passing angles than aggressively tackling the dribbler or marking the off-the-ball runners. In truth, I think it was more a case of over-casualness. Fontaine made an off-the-ball run into the box, with center-backs Bellini and Orlando both slow to react. Di Sordi was nowhere to be seen, and it was an easy thing for Fontaine to round the diving keeper Gilmar and blast into the open net.

There was no sense of frustration on the part of the Brazilians that they had given up an early lead. This is perhaps a case of “hindsight analysis” but it seemed to me that, as the team were intending to score more goals anyway, conceding this early was not something to be concerned about.

By twenty minutes, the initial dazzle of the Brazil attack began to dampen a bit. France no longer looked as intimidated and did a better job closing on the ball. Brazil was still able to play some wonderful passes, but they were given less time than before and the resulting pressure meant that poor touches often caused attacks to break down. On the other hand, the initial casualness shown by the Brazilian defense had also waned, and French attacks were quickly halted and possession re-established. Another interesting takeaway here is that the ball was almost never cleared out of defense, but almost always played out. This was possible because of the space available in midfield. While France ostensibly had more men in midfield thanks to the W-M versus the 4-2-4, in actuality the Brazilian attackers occupied so much attention that Didi and Zito could often stride forward with the ball unopposed, and in addition Zagallo dropped back when needed.

A sample of Brazil’s attack can be seen below. This is not a specific example, just a common template the team often used. Didi would advance the ball, then pass to Vava. Meanwhile, Garrincha and Zagallo would make overlapping runs behind the defense. Vava would pass to Garrincha, or Pele would pass to Zagallo, and the wingers could either shoot or pass back to Vava or Pele for them to shoot. All these moves were initiated extremely quickly, with almost no hesitation, and the result was that France often looked off-balanced, ball-chasing. But they defended stoutly and no goals were conceded for the longest stretch of the match.

Brazil 1958 move

Things turned sour for France in the 36th minute. Vava and French captain Robert Jonquet collided. Jonquet was carried off the pitch, where his leg was massaged for a couple of minutes. It was obvious that he was in agony, however he had to continue, because substitutions were not allowed under any condition. He was to receive an injection at half-time but it did little good; he was effectively useless from that point on and could be seen hobbling around the pitch in frustration. After the tournament, it was revealed that he had broken his fibula.

Talk about a different time period.

In general, football in the day before cards could be a wild affair. Very, very few fouls were called in this match, even after hard tackles or pushing and shoving. Players almost never dived, and rarely complained. But as Robert Jonquet proved, injuries were both common and severe.

With France effectively down to ten men, things became easier for Brazil. It was only three minutes later that the lead was regained, thanks to a tremendous strike from Didi. It was a ferocious hit with his left foot from between the halfway line and the box, streaking by the keeper into the upper-right corner. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what the build-up was because it’s at this point that the video cuts out and is spliced with another video, an old recap of the match.

The teams went into the half 2-1. Didi was the best player on the pitch in the first half, and Vava was not far behind. Pele and Garrincha had been relatively quiet, but this was to change. The Santos star was about to explode.

2nd HalfPele nets a hat trick

The most impressive thing about Pele in the first half was his unselfishness, especially for a seventeen year old. While he was almost as good a dribbler as Garrincha, he wasn’t quite as sharp on the ball in this match as you would expect. Where he excelled was integrating himself in the team. Pele loved playing 1-2s and did so almost constantly, or else provided simple but effective layoffs for Zagallo or Vava so that the ball was always moving forward. Actually, if I were to compare him to a modern player, I’m most reminded of Messi. Pele did not dribble the ball in a fashion reminiscent of Ronaldo or Ronaldinho, using a bag of tricks to get by his man, but more glided with the ball the same way Messi does, like the ball was attached to his foot with a string. Similarly, the two players are both unselfish and excel and passing the ball to teammates in order to create for themselves. It’s not a perfect comparison by any means, on behalf of either player, but certain similarities are there.

That gliding wasn’t shown to best effect in this match, but in the 2nd half his finishing ability certainly was. It began in the 52nd minute. A long spell of possession had come to naught, but at last a deflected shot fell to (I think) Vava on the left. Vava’s cross was completely miss-timed by the keeper, and the ball fell right onto Pele’s left foot. All that remained was a simple tap-in. 3-1 Brazil, and the match seemed over.

Over for France, but not for Brazil. Minutes later saw an entertaining passage of play. Garrincha tried to beat his defender on the right. He was tackled but was able to keep the ball. Instead of going forward, he reset and circled back so he could try again. This time he won by going toward the goal line, then cheekily slipping a pass between two defenders to Pele. Pele back-heeled it to Vava who should have had an easy goal, but his shot was too casual and deflected off the keeper’s leg. It was a display of both the brilliant improvisation and over-casualness that Brazil was known for.

In the 64th minute, Pele struck again. Di Sordi released Garrincha down the right flank. Garrincha beat his man, dribbled to the right edge of the box, and crossed to Pele. Pele chipped laterally to Vava, but the forward’s shot was blocked. The rebound fell to Pele, who slammed home past the keeper with his right foot, which was impressive as he was leaning awkwardly to his left.

Brazil continued to attack. France continued to look vainly for the counter, and it’s at this point that a discussion on defense might be warranted.

Pressing was almost completely unknown at this point in time, and it’s the time a dribbler has on the ball that most denotes the old game from the modern one. Defenses were designed to collapse inward away from the dribbler, creating a kind of funnel that would cut off obvious passing angles, specifically aerial ones, which much of the European game was built around. The downside was that it allowed both the dribbler and off-ball runners to proceed unmarked. In addition, while defensive formations were beginning to adopt more sophisticated techniques, defensive organization as we would think of it today was absent. Part of the problem was fitness – it takes quite a lot of energy to press, and in the days when most of the players smoked and knew nothing about nutrition, that energy was often just not there.

Brazil’s defense at the 1958 World Cup was no exception to any of this, but they were still ahead of their time defensively.   As previously mentioned, they were the first World Cup team to adopt the back four, specifically to address the defensive concerns from earlier in the decade, and many of Feola’s decisions were made with defense in mind. He played Di Sordi at right-back for most of the tournament instead of the more adventurous Djalma Santos; he inserted Zito into the starting XI after the first two matches because of his stamina and ability to cover for Didi (though Zito was no mere destroyer); and he initially held off on playing Garrincha and Pele, partly because of their youth, partly because of Garrincha’s temperament, and partially because the likes of Joel and Altafini were perhaps more defensively conscious. Even Nilton Santos, the original attacking fullback, had to focus on his defensive duties first; Feola was not averse to screaming at him from the touchline if he felt his left-back was getting too far forward. In a tournament known for its attacking play, Feola had to overcome his own instincts before deciding to set his team loose. For most of the competition, Brazil didn’t concede a single goal. Only France and Sweden (two marvelous attacking teams in their own right) were able to score on them, but by then it was too late; Brazil’s offense was in full flight.

Against France, Brazil seemed to adopt the attitude that offense is the best defense, and they kept up the pressure. In the 75th minute, Pele completed his hat trick. It was a lightning fast move begun by Didi, who passed to Garrincha, who send a skimming through-ball into Pele on the edge of the box. Pele expertly used his knee to control the bounce, then volleyed with his right foot (with a defender practically in his lap) into the left corner of the net, past a diving Claude Abbes, the French keeper. It was careless marking from France, by today’s standards, but that shouldn’t detract from the skill and finishing ability Pele displayed, especially as a 17-year old. For such a young teenager to score a hat trick against a quality opponent on such a huge stage speaks volumes about a man who, in later days, is more famous among younger generations for his mouth than for his foot.

France continued to search for a goal for honor’s sake. In the 77th minute Gilmar tipped a thunderous strike over the bar, and at this point Brazil began to relax. Instead of attacking, they began playing keep-away with the ball, creating passing triangles in the midfield, especially between Zito, Zagallo and Pele.

France was able to draw one back thanks to the solo efforts of Roger Piantoni, who made a mazy run from the halfway line all the way to the edge of the box, keeping Bellini and Orlando off balance before slicing a left-footed shot into the bottom right corner. French celebrations were appropriately muted. The game began to die down, save for the irrepressible Garrincha who hit the post in the 85th minute. Soon the match was over. Brazil won, 5-2, a thoroughly comprehensive beating and one of the finest in their history. All that stood between them and their first World Cup was Sweden, who would prove similarly hapless in the final.

Conclusion

Analyzing any match from this time period is difficult, as the science of the game has advanced so much. But it’s still a joy to watch so many great attacking players at once, all playing so unselfishly and with such versatility. The big lessons you can learn from watching this team is their obvious joy in picking out passes for each other, their movement off the ball, and their tremendous spacing, which often made the pitch look much bigger than it actually was.