We’re not going to talk about that goal.
Great as it was, incomparable as it was, it’s frustrating to me that most of the articles eulogizing Carlos Alberto have focused almost exclusively on that one goal. Here and there you might see a few more words spared for his club career, or a brief summary of his coaching CV, but there’s been very little discussion about the player himself. Maybe a passing reference to being the first attacking fullback (which we already know is untrue), but that’s all.
That’s unfortunate, because Carlos Alberto was far more than just that goal. Even if he himself was happy to accept it as his defining moment, O Capitão was no mere flash in the pan. No mere comet blazing briefly across the sky; herald, perhaps, of the greatest display of attacking football in history. No mere exclamation point, popping up only at the end to bang in the greatest goal by the greatest team in the greatest World Cup. Even if to the rest of the world it might have seemed that way.
No, Carlos Alberto was much more than that.
There was a time when the World Cup was the one opportunity for people to see how football was played beyond their horizon – not to mention who played it. Just as the brightest stars in the night sky (Sirius, Canopus, and Alpha Centauri) can be seen only in the southern hemisphere, there was once a time when the brightest stars in the footballing firmament were also confined to shining below the equator.
Except, of course, every four years, when those stars left their orbits and went nova.
For Carlos Alberto, this fact likely inhibited his legacy. He was a victim of terrible bad luck, being wrongly passed over in 1966 (in favor of the great, but aged, Djalma Santos) and then injured in 1974. As a result, he was only able to play in one World Cup – but what a World Cup it was!
So who, exactly, was Carlos Alberto?
The answer: he was a do-everything dynamo.
He was a deep-lying playmaker operating from the wing.
Playmaking from the Right Wing
The 1970 team – besides being a collection of demigods – was what you’d get if Rembrandt, Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, and Leonardo da Vinci all collaborated on a painting. There were playmakers all over the field. But while most people can rattle off names like Pele, Tostao, Rivelino, Jairzinho, and Gerson easily enough, it’s often forgotten that Carlos Alberto (the right-back!) did just about as much playmaking as anyone. In fact, many of his more famous teammates often deferred to him, trusting that he’d deliver the ball to them in a more advanced position.
This was especially true in the England match, which will be the focus of this article.
In my opinion, England were nothing less than the toughest opponent Brazil faced during the tournament. One could certainly argue that Italy was a superior team, but by the time they reached the final, they had very little juice in their legs . After a fairly even first half, Brazil were able to run rampant in the second.
But against England, the Seleção faced a number of formidable obstacles. For one thing, there was the heat. It was brutally hot in Guadalajara that day, and both teams suffered. Second, of course, was England itself. I’m no expert on English football, but I’ve read that many people at the time considered their 1970 side to be better than the Wingless Wonders of 1966. Regardless, this was not the England we all know today. Forget the usual stereotypes of hoofing the ball forward, blood n’ guts running, and brawn over brain. This England team liked to keep the ball on the ground, and they did it very well. They were very comfortable in possession, enjoyed intricate passing patterns, and fielded technically skilled players in every third of the pitch.
They were also captained by Bobby Moore.
Pele once said that Bobby Moore was the greatest defender he ever faced, and when you watch this match, you can see why. The man was a titan at the back. He read everything. Brazil came at him in waves only to be dashed again and again against the English rock. Pele tried to beat him with clever first touches, only for Moore to snuff them out. Tostao and Rivelino tried to dance their way past, only to be thrown back. Jairzinho tried to race past him, only to be stopped in his tracks. It would not be until 1994, when the unstoppable force that was Romario met the immovable object that was Baresi, that Brazil would face such a singularly great center-back.
The final obstacle was the absence of Gerson due to injury. As discussed briefly here, Gerson was both the brain and the beating heart of that 1970 team. In his absence, Zagallo turned to Paulo Cezar Lima. Caju, as he was affectionately known, was a wonderful player, and one of the underrated greats of Seleção history. But he was more a dribbler than a passer; more an out-and-out attacker than a deep-lying playmaker, and against England he stayed mostly on the left wing. In truth, he was one of Brazil’s better performers on the day, but he could not replace what Gerson provided.
Rivelino was perhaps the most natural alternative. And while he did drop deep into Gerson’s position, his instinct was always to get forward. Pele and Tostao also frequently took turns dropping back into Brazil’s half…something they may have done anyway with Bobby Moore breathing down their necks. The two geniuses could operate anywhere, of course, but this type of movement suited England just fine, as it placed their most dangerous adversaries into far less threatening positions.
Thus, it was to Carlos Alberto that Brazil often turned to when it was time to advance the ball. In fact, you would frequently see them rotate the ball specifically to the left just so that it would end up at Carlos Alberto’s feet.
Having Carlos Alberto function as the supply line to the forwards was handy for three reasons:
1. It enabled Pele, Tostao, and especially Jairzinho to receive the ball higher up the pitch, in space, where they could then focus on lightning-fast combinations instead of having to slog their way through 60 yards of stout English defending.
2. The English midfield was both skilled and hardworking. They liked to swarm whoever had the ball (especially Pele.) But they weren’t accustomed to pressing someone as deep as Carlos Alberto. This game him time to pick out passes, calm the oft-frenetic pace of the game, and allow Brazil some breathing space. (Note Pele’s absolutely fabulous control in the gif below. He stopped the ball dead with his thigh!)
3. One area where England simply couldn’t compete with Brazil was sheer athleticism. Carlos Alberto was such a good passer that it enabled Pele and Jairzinho (the latter especially) to make lung-busting runs on the flanks. This was critical, because throughout the match the one area England looked consistently vulnerable was on the wings, where Jairzinho (on the right) and Paulo Cezar (on the left) routinely burned their markers. Note that this is the complete of opposite of Brazil’s defense, which was relatively sound on the flanks but mushy in the middle.
The best example of this is nothing less than one of the most exciting moments in World Cup history:
It’s interesting to watch Carlos Alberto from a modern-day standpoint. He is listed – for good reason -as one of the great attacking fullbacks of all time, but the description applies to him differently than most of his successors. Most of the great attacking fullbacks were known either for their thunderous overlapping runs (think Cafu, Josimar, or Maicon), because they were so adept at dribbling the ball out of defense (think Roberto Carlos, Djalma Santos, or even Marcelo) or because of their crossing prowess (Jorginho, Roberto Carlos.) In short, we think of them as attacking fullbacks because they got so far forward.
Carlos Alberto certainly got farther forward than other fullbacks of his day, but in truth he almost never made it as far as the final third. He was attacking in a purer sense: his PASSES were what LAUNCHED attacks. The only truly good analogue I can think of is Junior, who was of course one of the greatest passers of all time. But Junior was really a converted midfielder who never truly convinced as a defender….and here is where we get to what made Carlos Alberto special.
“And here’s Carlos Alberto…the pick of a rather suspect Brazilian back line.”
So said the English commentator during the World Cup final. (I can’t remember his name and didn’t have time to dig it up.) It was an accurate statement. For as much as the 1970 team are lauded as the greatest international side of all time, they fielded some very shaky names in defense. Left-back Everaldo was decent, but center-backs Piazza and Brito were often out of position, late in the tackle, or just plain confused. Goalkeeper Felix, meanwhile, was more than capable of gaffes, though he acquitted himself fairly well in the final.
In Carlos Alberto, though, Brazil had a towering defender who:
Outran and outworked the opposition:
And who could almost always be counted on to snuff out the danger:
As we know, Brazil has produced many great attacking fullbacks, but very few of them were truly great defenders. Nilton Santos was, as was Jorginho. Cafu probably qualifies due to his incredible speed and work-rate. Most of the others were capable, but inconsistent.
Carlos Alberto definitely qualifies.
While I awarded Cafu the right-back spot in my All-Time XI, it was mainly due to his amazing longevity. As I said then,
I think Carlos Alberto’s performance in 1970 is simply the best two-way showing by any Brazilian fullback in World Cup history. He’s the definition of a great two-way player.
At his peak, though, Carlos Alberto is my pick for greatest Brazilian right-back of all time. No other right-back was as influential or valuable as he was in 1970.
So rest in peace, Carlos Alberto. You were no mere exclamation point; you were a dynamic two-way player who filled multiple, desperately-needed roles. Above all, you were much more than just that goal. In a constellation of supernovas, you were a star who burned just as brightly as all the rest.