At the time it was hard to appreciate the significance of a passage of play that is such a common sight in the modern game. The second half of Brazil’s opening match against Austria at the 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden™ was four minutes old when, with the South Americans leading 1-0, Nilton Santos won a tackle in his own half and strode forward.

Reaching the halfway line, he then laid the ball off to Jose Altafini. It was then that the left-back did something truly remarkable for that time: instead of returning to his defensive position, Nilton Santos kept on going, advancing further and further into the Austrian half and asking for the ball as he went. Indeed, he went so far that when the return pass came he was in a position to shoot and score the second goal in his side’s 3-0 win.

“Back then fullbacks were all but forbidden to cross the halfway line,” he commented years later. “People said [coach Vicente] Feola was on the touchline shouting, ‘Get back! Get back! He’s crazy! He’s crazy!’ All I know is that when I scored, he just looked at me and said, ‘Well done.’”

It was not the first occasion on which a fullback had pushed forward into an attacking position, and it was not the first goal the player had scored for his country. That had come two years earlier. It was there, however, in the heat of a FIFA World Cup match, that the concept of the wingback was born, a player with a brief that went beyond merely defending.

“Football has changed and it’s a big business today, much bigger than it was in my day,” Nilton Santos explained. “But I don’t envy today’s fullbacks for the money they make. I envy them for the freedom they’ve got to attack.”

Going forward came naturally to Nilton. He had, after all, started out as an attacker. Yet when he joined Botafogo as a 23-year-old in 1948, club president Carlito Rocha planned to put his skills to use in defence. Though less than thrilled at the idea, the new signing agreed to make the switch to left-back.

There was hardly ever a match situation that caught Nilton by surprise. You just had to see him on the pitch for five minutes to see that he knew absolutely everything there was to know about football.
Zagallo on Nilton Santos

Unlike many defenders, however, Nilton Santos never suffered the knocks and injuries usually associated with manning the backline, something he was proud of: “The only operation I ever had was to have my tonsils taken out. I never injured my knees because I never went in for dirty tackles.”  

The class with which he played the game was not readily appreciated by some of the people around him, especially his coaches, unwilling to see their defenders play with such boldness. Legend has it that when the Botafogo player was called up to the national side for the first time in 1949, coach Flavio Costa took him to task for wearing boots with a rounded toecap. “There’s no defender playing in my team with boots like that, with no pointed toe,” he said. Nilton’s reply, when it came, was short and to the point: “I don’t kick the ball with my toe.”

Doubts about the left-back’s ability to read and play the game were soon dispelled and by the 1950s, when Brazil began to churn out star players at a dizzying rate, Nilton Santos had earned himself the nickname 'A Enciclopédia de Futebol' (The Encyclopaedia of Football), a moniker that no-one ever questioned.

“There was hardly ever a match situation that caught Nilton by surprise,” Zagallo, his former colleague on the left flank for Brazil and Botafogo, told FIFA.com. “You just had to see him on the pitch for five minutes to see that he knew absolutely everything there was to know about football.”

Garrincha influence
Nilton Santos had such an understanding of the game, in fact, that even when he was on the receiving end of one of the most legendary pieces of skill in the history of Brazilian football, he knew exactly how to react.

The incident took place during a Botafogo training session in 1953 when, as was usually the case, a group of youngsters lined up on the pitch for the last few minutes. Taking possession of the ball for the first time, one of the boys, stationed on the right wing, made a beeline for Nilton and promptly nutmegged him, to the stupefaction of everyone who saw the audacious trick.

Nilton took up the story: “When the session was over I spoke to Gentil Cardoso (the Botafogo coach) and said, ‘Listen, I don’t know if there’s any fullback who’ll be able to stop that right-winger, but I know I won’t. I’d rather be on his team. You’d better sign him fast before another club gets him’.”

The club took Nilton’s advice and signed the precocious youngster, who would give fullbacks the world over a torrid time for more than a decade. His name? Garrincha.

Associates in many a Botafogo trophy win and in two glorious FIFA World Cup campaigns with Brazil, Garrincha was something of a little brother to Nilton Santos. “They shared a room at team get-togethers and they were very close,” explained Zagallo.  “It was amazing to see how much Garrincha looked up to Nilton.”

Such was his admiration for Nilton that Garrincha, a heavy drinker, would never touch a drop of alcohol when he was in the presence of his mentor, who commanded his respect both on and off the pitch.

Nilton was a traditionalist with a simple, straightforward take on life, as he himself acknowledged: “Whenever we queued up to get our wages, I’d always think to myself, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting paid to play football, the thing I like doing more than anything else’.”

And it was something that the walking encyclopaedia did very well indeed, so well that he changed the very definition of the position of 'fullback'.

Describing his legacy to FIFA.com, Seleção star Zito, a team-mate of his in the 1958 and 1962 FIFA World Cup wins, was unequivocal: “When you played the ball as much as he did, the position didn’t really matter. When all’s said and done, Nilton Santos wasn’t a defender or a fullback. He was just a star, as simple as that.”