The great history of Brazilian football is inextricably linked with one Mario Zagallo. 'The Professor,' as he is known to his players, is a legend not only in his homeland but in virtually every outpost of Planet Football, having played a role in four of the five FIFA World Cups ™ won by the Seleçao. And yet, despite once sharing a locker room with such creative geniuses as Pele, Garrincha , Didi, Vava and Gilmar, Zagallo has often faced the wrath of dissenting voices who deem his style of management too defensive. If there is one thing that silences all the critics, though, it is the long list of honours El Lobo (The Wolf) has accumulated over the years.
Indeed, Zagallo's fingerprints on four FIFA World Cup trophies speak for themselves. A true icon of the Brazilian game, he won two of them as a player (Sweden 58 and Chile 62), one as national manager (70) and another as assistant manager (94). Only German legend Franz Beckenbauer in the history of world football can match Zagallo's boast of having been crowned world champion as both a player and a coach.
A great player in his day
Nowadays better known as a legendary manager, Zagallo first made quite a reputation for himself out on the pitch. In the early 1950s, he played amateur football for America Football Club and then Clube de Regatas de Flamengo, where he shone on the left wing. Whatever he lacked in physical stature, Zagallo compensated with exquisite technique and by always being the first man back to defend if his team lost the ball.
His emergence on the professional scene came in 1953, and with Flamengo, followed by Botafogo, Zagallo picked up five Rio de Janeiro State titles ( cariocas) before becoming an ever-present fixture in the Seleçao starting eleven from 4 May 1958 to 7 June 1964.
World championships and a new role
It was during Sweden 58 that the rest of the world discovered Zagallo and his illustrious team-mates. As the Seleçao headed to their first world title, he featured in a role rarely seen at a time when midfielders were expected to concentrate on defensive duties. Zagallo liked nothing more than moving forward to join the attack, and his runs from deep often ended with a Brazilian breakthrough. Along with Garrincha, he was Brazil's key to unlocking a defence and scored his side's fourth in the final against Sweden, before setting up Pele for the fifth.
By the time Brazil retained their world title in 1962, Zagallo had evolved into a genuine forward, prowling out on the left. His goal during the must-win match with Mexico in the group stage proved vital in booking the Auriverde a place in the quarter-finals, where his performances took on even greater importance as injury kept Pele out of the side. Zagallo finally called time on his playing career in 1964, but was back in the game just two years later, this time as a manager.
And it was in this new role that Zagallo really expressed his passion for the game, revealing a depth of tactical awareness the world had already seen glimpses of in his playing days. His first job was on the bench of his old club Botafogo, whom he led to two cariocas and two cup victories.
Success on the international stage followed soon afterwards, with yet another global conquest for the Seleçao, this time at the mythical 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico. Blessed with an exceptionally talented squad, Zagallo now looks back on the tournament as his "greatest memory as a manager."
It is easy to understand why. His side won all six of their matches, scoring 19 times in the process, but above all it was the sheer quality of their play that stood out. Football experts all tend to agree that Brazil's FIFA World Cup triumph was the most spectacular and unquestionably deserved of all.
Attacking backs and the beautiful game
Having such fantastic players at his disposal was a great place to start, yet the game-plan conceived by Zagallo himself undoubtedly made a difference in the end. His system was able to incorporate Jairzinho, Tostao, Gerson, Rivelino, Carlos Alberto and the incomparable Pele, a wealth of individual stars that Zagallo fashioned into a team.
Many in Brazil were sceptical that Pele and Tostao could play together, but Zagallo waved off their doubts. It turned out to be a masterstroke and, as if that were not enough, the licence to get forward he accorded full-backs Clodoaldo and Piazza proved a resounding success. It was the first time football had witnessed a 5-3-2 formation that could seamlessly transform itself into a 3-5-2 and back again.
Zagallo's system worked like a dream, granting freedom to individual genius within a well-drilled unit. Everything about the Brazilians' play was both efficient and pleasing to the eye, from the dribbling and powerful strikes of Rivelino to Jairzinho's explosive runs, from Gerson's drives out of midfield to the unparalleled inspiration of 'O Rei' himself.
The final against Italy provided the ultimate expression of their spellbinding abilities as an excellent Italian outfit were brushed aside. Pele opened the scoring with a ferocious header, Gerson fired in after being set up by Jairzinho, who in turn netted the third before Carlos Alberto added a memorable fourth, with Pele instrumental in the last two goals. On 21 June 1970, Zagallo therefore became the first-ever manager to win the FIFA World Cup having already experienced the honour as a player.
Beyond Mexico 70
Hungry for more success, Zagallo carried on coaching, picking up yet more titles with Fluminese and Flamengo. His next port of call was the Persian Gulf. He managed a Gulf Cup success in the Kuwaiti hot-seat, followed by a spell in charge of Saudi Arabia and then qualification for Italy 90 as manager of the United Arab Emirates.
Four years later, Zagallo was sharing his experience at the very highest level again, as the Seleçao's technical director for USA 94. Together with his protégé, national coach Carlos Alberto Perreira, Zagallo help steer Brazil to another world title after a dour final with Italy.
In 1995, Zagallo took over the reins from Perreira and set about preparing the national side for a potential fifth FIFA World Cup triumph. With midfield stalwart Dunga as his captain, and talented footballers including Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Taffarel integrated into the team, Zagallo took the Copa America back to Brazil in 1997 and arrived at France 98 with his charges hot favourites for the greatest prize of all.
It was not to be, of course, with the hosts inflicting a heavy 3-0 defeat on Zagallo's men in a final marked by the mysterious illness picked up by Ronaldo a matter of hours before kick-off. Zagallo's decision to play an unfit Ronaldo caused unrelenting controversy back home, as did the choice to leave behind outspoken but in-form striker Romario before the tournament had even begun.
Having overcome typically flamboyant Brazilian criticism and fairly serious heart arrhythmia problems, Zagallo is nothing if not durable, and one might even say he has become part of the furniture in the Auriverde set-up. That is certainly how it looked in November 2002, when Zagallo was the automatic choice to oversee the national side in a friendly against Korea Republic after Luiz Felipe Scolari had masterminded Brazil's fifth world title and stepped down.
A bronze statue of Zagallo now adorns the main entrance to the Maracana Stadium, but El Lobo is not content with settling for that. Highly superstitious, he sees himself as belonging nowhere else but on the Seleçao bench, where he sat alongside Carlos Alberto Parreira in the role of technical director during Germany 2006.
If he has become a symbol, though, Zagallo is hardly the shy, retiring type and makes sure his opinions are heard on the evolution of the beautiful game. "The current trend in modern football is to favour physical power at the expense of technique, which allows the managers of smaller teams to erase the gulf in quality with bigger teams and prevents talented individuals from expressing themselves," he maintains. "Muscle has overtaken skill, which explains why the traditional favourites in European football have encountered so many problems recently."
"But here in Brazil, we still love the same kind of football. My own approach is to set out a plan and then leave the players complete freedom. I'm not a dictator, and how could I be with players who don't need to be told how to play football in the proper spirit?"
Time clearly has no hold on Zagallo. As determined as ever, it is easy to forget that the aging man collected 37 caps as a player, winning 30 times with a mere four draws and three defeats. He has also coached the national side for some 154 encounters, 110 of which ended in victory, along with 33 draws for just 11 reverses - impressive figures that attest to the legendary achievements of Brazil and Mario Zagallo.
Despite his successes, Zagallo has often been criticised for his tactical choices. The indisputable quality displayed by the 1970 team shielded his system from the slightest reproach, but the 'defensive' mindset of the teams he coached alongside Carlos Alberto Parreira in 1994 and alone in 1998 provoked stinging attacks in the Brazilian press.
In those two FIFA World Cups, the Seleçao played in a classic 4-4-2 formation with two defensive midfielders - a concession to the principle that not losing possession has become the priority in the modern game. In Brazil, this was received as heresy and players like Dunga, Cesar Sampaio and Branco never really stirred the passion of the crowds. However, they all fulfilled crucial roles for Zagallo, who could point to results for all the justification he needed. And the Professor was one of the first managers to introduce attacking full-backs, a concept he has always remained loyal to - as the importance of Cafu, Leonardo and Roberto Carlos to the Seleçao's forward play in 1994 and 1998 stands to prove.