Vicente Feola: A controversial innovator
© Getty Images

For someone who did more than enough to attain hero status in Brazil, Vicente Italo Feola has a curiously controversial reputation in his home country. The former national team coach, so it is said, had a very open-minded and laid-back approach to his job, so much so that he would allegedly let his older players run the team and sometimes appeared to be taking a nap on the bench.

Having guided A Seleção to their first FIFA World Cup™ win at Sweden 1958, Feola was undoubtedly successful. Yet in Brazil at least, he is remembered just as much, if not more so, for the disastrous campaign he oversaw at England 1966, when the then reigning world champions crashed out in the group phase.

When you consider that Feola spent 16 years at the top of his profession, taking some of the biggest and most profound decisions ever made in Brazilian football, the popular view of him as a happy-go-lucky yet sleepy-eyed character is hard to believe. Yet over the years, that perception of him, one reinforced by the national side’s catastrophic showing in England, has outweighed the facts, unfairly so in the view of some of the people who worked with and under him.

“Virtually everything that’s said about Feola comes from tittle-tattle in the Brazilian press,” the legendary former Brazil player and coach Mario Zagallo told FIFA.com.

Zagallo is well-qualified when it comes to discussing Feola. In the run-up to Sweden 1958 he was contesting the left-wing slot with Canhoteiro and Pepe. Though Zagallo lacked their technical ability he offered something they could not: the willingness to track back and defend when he was not in possession, a new development in the game at that time.

Brazil had used a traditional 4-2-4 formation up till then, and without much success,” continued Zagallo. “In 1958 I ended up being an important player for Feola, who had me pushing forward when we were in possession and then tracking back into midfield to support the left-back Nilton Santos when we weren’t. I’m very thankful for his philosophy on the game. He didn’t just come to me and say ‘Play like that’, but he’d seen what I was doing at Botafogo, and that was the first real tactical shift in Brazilian football.”

The big stage
By the time he took Brazil to glory in Sweden, Feola had already acquired a vast amount of coaching experience at Sao Paulo, the club he once played for. Though he described himself as a terrible player, Feola would have far more success in the dugout. And it was during the course of his first four spells in charge of Sao Paulo, which extended over a period of 20 years, that he played a fundamental part in the emergence of Leonidas da Silva, one of the greatest names the Brazilian game has ever produced and the leading goalscorer at France 1938.

“It was Feola who insisted that Sao Paulo should sign me from Flamengo in 1942,” recalled the flamboyant centre forward in an interview with the newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo, given shortly after Feola’s death in 1975. “And when I wanted to give up playing in 1947, he told me I should carry on. I took his advice and ended up winning the Sao Paulo state championship in 1948 and 1949.”

I’m very thankful for his philosophy on the game. He didn’t just come to me and say ‘Play like that’, but he’d seen what I was doing at Botafogo, and that was the first real tactical shift in Brazilian football.
Mario Zagallo on the tactical innovation of Vincete Italo Feola

As an assistant coach to national team boss Flavio Costa, Feola was also on duty for O Maracanazo, the fateful final game of the 1950 FIFA World Cup Brazil against Uruguay, a match the hosts only needed to draw to clinch their first world title but which ended in defeat before a disbelieving Maracana crowd.

Feola had acquired no shortage of experience therefore by the time, in 1958, that Brazilian FA delegation chief Paulo Machado de Carvalho put him in charge of the largest and best-organized coaching team ever assembled for the national side.

Yet the very fact that he was the first head coach to have a team supervisor, fitness coach, doctor, manager, dentist and psychologist working alongside him led some to imply that he lacked authority.

Decision time
Indeed, that view became so widely held in Brazilian football that the tactical revolution spearheaded by the 1958 team was attributed not to Feola’s visionary take on the game but to a supposed meeting of the squad’s senior players, a meeting that bordered on mutiny.

Legend has it that after Brazil’s opening two games in Sweden – a 3-0 defeat of Austria and a 0-0 draw with England – Didi, Nilton Santos and a group of other leading players got together and forced Feola to make two changes for the decisive final group match with the USSR. In came Garrincha and Pele coming into the team at the expense of Joel and Mazola, thus assuming their places in football folklore.

“It’s a lie. There was no meeting,” said Zito, a member of the 1958 side, in conversation with FIFA.com. “It was Feola’s decision, and he made it after the team doctor, Hilton Gosling, said Pele was fit to play.”

Feola changed our entire system, and put everyone in different positions so that nobody could tell who was who or how Brazil were going to play.
Zagallo on Feola dealing with press interest after introducing Pele and Garrincha

That version of events is one that O Rei himself confirmed in an interview with FIFA.com. Having picked up a right-knee injury following a heavy tackle by Ari Clemente in a warm-up match against Corinthians, the 17-year-old Pele nearly missed out on the trip to Sweden altogether.

Taking up the story, he told how Feola and Gosling approached him before the meeting with the Soviet Union: “Dr Hilton came up to me and said: ‘You’re fit’. Then Feola said: ‘You’d better get ready then, because you’re going to play.”

“He was Feola’s golden boy,” said Zagallo by way of confirmation. “I’d never met Pele because he’d never played at the Maracana. But Feola had seen a lot of him when he was the coach at Sao Paulo.”

Zagallo also had the inside story on why Garrincha was brought into the side along with Pele: “Joel was my team-mate at Flamengo and we shared a room at the team hotel. After the second game he said to me: ‘Zagallo, my knee hurts.’ And I said to him: ‘Hey, if you say anything, you’ll lose your place in the team.’ But he insisted: ‘I know, but I can really feel it. I’m going to say something.’ And that was that. In came Garrincha.

“Speak to the journalists and they’ll tell you even today that the players really did have a meeting because they reported it. But I was there, staying in that hotel, and I didn’t see anything.”

Zagallo added: “We had a training session the day before the game against the USSR, whose training ground was right next to ours. The press just wanted to know about Pele and Garrincha playing together, so Feola changed our entire system, and put everyone in different positions so that nobody could tell who was who or how Brazil were going to play.”

A high and a low
The rest, as they say, is history. A Seleção went on to win all their remaining matches in Sweden, playing an increasingly expansive game and becoming the legendary side so closely associated with Pele and Garrincha.

Consigning their reputation as also-rans to history, Brazil became known for their beguilingly successful brand of football and retained their world title four years later in Chile. Feola would have been in the dugout then too but for recurring health issues triggered by his weight problems and a weak heart, which caused him to close his eyes on many occasions, feeding his reputation for being fond of a mid-game nap.

From that point on Brazil fans have come to regard any FIFA World Cup campaign not ending in glory for A Seleção as a failure. Feola’s last appearance on the biggest stage of all in 1996 is a case in point.

Brazil’s chances were hampered from the start by political upheaval and overconfidence. Their preparations for the competition were nothing short of disastrous, involving a huge amount of travelling and the call-up of no fewer than 47 players from all over the country for the pre-tournament training camp. Though there were many reasons for Brazil’s poor display in England, most of the blame was heaped on the team’s rotund, open-minded and easy-going coach, a man the detractors said was incapable of raising his voice. 

The maligned Feola can be seen as a victim of the very high expectations Brazilian fans have of their national team, accustomed as they have become to so much success. Yet ironically, that success began with Feola, the coach who above all else was the first to lead Brazil to the pinnacle of world football.