“I idolised Zizinho more than any other player. His passing, shooting and positioning were frighteningly good. He did everything so well and he was the complete player. He could play in midfield or up front and he could defend well too. He was a brilliant header of the ball and there weren’t many who could dribble like him either. He was a born creator. And on top of all that, he wasn’t scared to play dirty. He could be tough when he needed to.”

Those words of praise, written by none other than Pele, encapsulate all that was good about Zizinho, or Thomaz Soares da Silva to give him his full name. The paean was one of many to be penned in honour of the legendary Brazilian attacking midfielder, a player who inspired a string of superlatives from anyone picking up a pen to describe his gifts.

In writing their glowing testimonies, Zizinho’s admirers would often resort to poetry in expressing their wonder at his repertoire of skills, as if he were an artist rather than a sportsman. Sadly for the modern-day football fan, there is no surviving footage of the man in action. All we have to remember him by are these glowing accounts.

Zizinho represented his country for a full 15 years, between 1942 and 1957, and was the figurehead of the team that came so close to winning A Seleção’s first world title at the 1950 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Uruguay would deny them in the final game of the tournament, the fateful Maracanazo, one of the most painful episodes in Brazilian footballing history. 

You’d think they’d go and ask Pele and Romario how we won the other World Cups. But no. It’s 1950 they want to talk about.

Zizinho on being nexorably linked with the Maracanazo defeat to Uruguay in 1950

Reflecting on that match years later in his autobiography, Master Ziza: Truth and Lies in Football, he wrote: “I couldn’t sleep that night. I dreamed that it was a nightmare and that it never happened.”

It was a footballing disaster that stayed forever with the people who witnessed and experienced it, Zizinho among them. He detested the days leading up to 16 July – the anniversary of the infamous 2-1 defeat – every year for the rest of his life, for it was then that the phone would ring and ring. On the other end of the line were news-hungry journalists, anxious for him to make yet one more comment about Brazil’s nightmare at the Maracana.

“There are always reporters who want to know why we lost to Uruguay,” he once lamented. “You’d think they’d go and ask Pele and Romario how we won the other World Cups. But no. It’s 1950 they want to talk about.”

Up there with the very best
Aside from appearing in the world finals on home soil in 1950, Zizinho helped his country win the Pan American title in 1952 and the Copa America in 1949, a tournament in which he scored a competition-record 17 goals, a mark that has yet to be bettered.

He spent the years that his international career spanned playing in Brazil for Flamengo, Bangu and Sao Paulo, at a time when there was no such thing as television for showcasing his skills to a global audience.

Such was his lack of wider exposure that there a case for arguing that the game has never seen such a talented player receive as little recognition of his gifts than Zizinho, a state of affairs not helped by Brazil’s failure to win the world title in 1950. Indeed, anyone discussing his contribution to the sport he graced is almost inevitably bound to mention the name of his most illustrious fan.

“There’s no doubt Zizinho would have been selected for the 1958 World Cup if he hadn’t decided to retire from international football,” wrote Pele in his autobiography, recalling the tournament in which he burst on to the international scene at the age of only 17 and helped Brazil win their maiden world crown.

Zizinho might not have been better than Pele, but he wasn’t worse.

Brazil coach at the 1950 FIFA World Cup, Flavio Costa

“It’s a shame, and he’ll perhaps always be remembered as the greatest Brazilian never to have won the World Cup,” added O Rei. “Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t around when television and videotape arrived. If he had, people would remember him a lot more than they do.”

Pele’s unqualified praise for his idol makes even more sense alongside accounts of the people who saw Zizinho in his heyday, such as Flavio Costa, who coached Brazil at the 1950 World Cup and uttered these famous words years later: “Zizinho might not have been better than Pele, but he wasn’t worse.”

Most people would disagree with that assessment, basing their argument on the fact that Zizinho never lifted the World Cup Trophy. For those who never saw him play or only caught the tail end of his career, which he spent with the unfashionable Uberaba and Chilean side Audax Italiano, such a comparison might even appear far-fetched.

In the years that followed his playing career, which he spent coaching and then working as a tax collector in Rio de Janeiro, Zizinho grew used to the fact that his reputation was based not on the number of admirers he had but on their standing in the game.

He bore it all without any hint of resentment or regret. According to his daughter Nadia, the man they called Zizinho lived out his final years a contented man. It was with Nadia that he spent his last hours, chatting with her at his home in Niteroi on the evening of 8 February 2002.

No sooner had they called it a night, than he put his hand to his chest and fell to the floor, the victim of a heart attack. He was 80 years old.

Nearly 250 mourners attended his funeral, a sizeable congregation but not one that reflected his talent for the game or the joy he gave the people who saw him play it, not that it really mattered. The surviving few who had seen him in his prime knew that day that Brazil had lost one of its greatest football stars of all time. Just ask Pele.