When the 11-year-old Paulo Roberto Falcao turned up for a trial organised by Internacional of Porto Alegre in 1964 he had 300 other boys with him for company, four of them team-mates from the Juventus youth side, based in the nearby suburb of Canoas.
Such mass events are a typical occurrence at Brazilian clubs, and when the youngsters assembled for a kickabout, one of the Inter coaches ran the rule over them, deciding in a matter of minutes whether they had what it took to start training with the club’s youth sides.
The coach in question was Jofre Funchal, who shortly began the task of turning away the many young hopefuls who had not made the grade. When it came to assessing Falcao, however, Funchal had little doubt in his mind, striding up to the player's older brother Pedro and announcing: “O alemão (The German) has passed with flying colours.”
“The German” is a common moniker in Brazil for anyone who is remotely fair-skinned or fair-haired, and in the case of the aspiring Falcao it proved to be an appropriate one. That distant day marked the beginning of the career of one of the greatest players Brazil would ever produce, a player who combined great flair and an eye for goal with tactical astuteness and the ability to organise the teams he played for from withdrawn positions, not unlike Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, another hugely accomplished No5.
The role Falcao performed during his career bore little relation that of modern-day wearers of the No5 jersey. He was in fact one of the last of a cultured breed of deep-lying midfielders whose main function was not to run their socks off, close down opponents, win the ball back and lay it off to the nearest team-mate.
Stationed just in front of the defence, the multi-talented ball player became Internacional’s orchestrator-in-chief, the instigator and catalyst for virtually everything Os Colorados achieved during his spell with the club from 1973 to 1979.
It was like I was playing two World Cups at the same time.
The leader of one of Brazilian football’s greatest dynasties, Falcao inspired Inter to five state championships and three Brazilian titles, the Porto Alegre outfit becoming the first club to achieve that feat since the inception of the Brasileirão in 1971. The highlight of those national league successes came in 1979, when Internacional went the whole season unbeaten, a feat yet to be matched in Brazilian football. And such was their consistency that only once in Falcao’s six years in the club's first team, in 1974, did they finish outside the top four.
Though a difference of opinion with national team coach Claudio Coutinho led to him being left out of the Brazil squad for the 1978 FIFA World Cup Argentina™, Falcao was by that time universally recognised as “the greatest Brazilian midfielder of all time."
Not known for lavishing praise on anyone, even Tele Santana was moved to express his admiration after watching Falcao guide his side to victory over Internacional de Limeira back in 1979. Speaking to reporters as he left the stadium, the then Palmeiras coach said: “I saw a player produce the perfect performance today. Falcao won the game."
Joy and sorrow on the big stage
It came as no surprise when three years later Santana named Falcao as his first-choice midfielder in the Brazil squad for the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain. Excelling once again from his deep-lying position in a side not exactly short of stellar talent, Falcao won the adidas Silver Ball and announced himself to a global audience, heightening his profile by scoring the best-remembered goal of his illustrious career.
That strike came in a truly unforgettable second-phase match against Italy, when, with his side trailing 2-1 and time running out, the classy midfielder cut inside two Italian defenders on the edge of the box and unleashed an unstoppable drive past Dino Zoff. An equally memorable celebration followed. It was, after all, a goal that had put Brazil’s brilliant band of entertainers, one of the most popular sides in the history of the game, on the brink of the semi-finals.
Falcao’s career highlight proved to be in vain, however, with Italy’s arch-poacher Paolo Rossi completing his hat-trick seven minutes later to send the Brazilians crashing out.
Falcao retains vivid memories of that stunning defeat and the sudden switch from ecstasy to agony: “I really wanted to win that World Cup because I’d been left out of the team in 1978, and I wanted to prove I had what it took to be a first-choice player in the national side. That’s why I celebrated my equaliser so much. It was like I was playing two World Cups at the same time.
“When the match was over,” he continued, “Bruno Conti came up and gave me a hug and, though we'd agreed to it beforehand, he couldn't even bring himself to swap shirts. He felt so sorry for me that he looked like he was the one on the losing side. So I took my shirt off, stuck it in his hands, and walked out of the stadium with the Italy shirt, in tribute to my friend and to the country that welcomed me into its arms.”
The king of Rome
Conti and Falcao were by that time team-mates at Roma, the club the Brazilian had joined from Internacional in 1980, just after Italian football had lifted its restriction on the signing of foreign players. Under the legendary Swede Nils Liedholm, Falcao made an instant impression in his first season, helping I Giallorossi to the Coppa Italia, and then catapulted himself into the Italian jet-set by inspiring Roma’s title win in 1982-83, their first scudetto in 41 years. Such triumphs led to the Brazilian import being dubbed “The Eighth King of Rome."
His reign came to an end in December 1984, and at the start of the following year Falcao made the final move of his playing career, joining Sao Paulo and doing enough in the months that followed to earn a trip to the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico, albeit as a substitute.
His departure from Roma came at virtually the same time as Liedholm’s. As a mark of his appreciation Falcao sent the Swedish coach his shirt, via club masseur Victorio Baldorini, with a note attached to it: “Boss, I’m returning the shirt that you gave to me when I arrived here. I can’t do it in person because I know that we’d get emotional. I’d like you to keep it as a reminder of our friendship.”
Though the two never spoke about it again, when Falcao bumped into Liedholm’s son Carletto while commentating at Italy 1990, he asked him if his father had received the shirt. “Nobody was allowed to touch it,” came the reply. “He treasured it like it was a precious stone.”
Liedholm Sr knew very well what he had in Falcao – a deep-lying midfielder who was so much more than that, a special player who broke the mould and whose like has rarely been seen in the game since.
Did You Know?
After working as a commentator Falcao returned to the game as a coach, taking on the Brazil job in the wake of the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™. He left the post the following year, after defeat to Argentina in the final of the Copa America.
He continued his coaching career at Mexican club America and then his beloved Internacional, before taking up the reins with Japan in 1994.
Between 1996 and 2011, Falcao was a commentator for Brazilian TV channel Rede Globo and a contributor to the newspaper Zero Hora and the radio station Radio Gaucha. He related his experiences in the book Histórias da Bola (Football Tales).
He made an unsuccessful return to the dugout in 2011, taking charge of Internacional for 19 games before moving on following their elimination from the Copa Libertadores.