Just four minutes had been played in the Final of the 1958 FIFA World Cup™ between Brazil and hosts Sweden at the Rasunda stadium in Solna, when Nils Liedholm struck to put the home side in front. After the ball nestled in the back of the net, Brazilian midfielder Waldir Pereira – better known as Didi – unhurriedly fished it out and tucked it under his arm before walking slowly but deliberately back towards the centre circle.
In his relaxed body language and serene manner lay the message Didi wished to pass on to his shocked team-mates. Reflecting the coolness on the ball he showed throughout his stellar career, Didi made it clear there was no need to rush, no need to panic; provided they kept their heads, Brazil's talent would see them through.
“I was already in position out on the left wing, ready for kick-off, and I saw Didi walking slowly with the ball in his arms. I ran over to him, shouting in desperation, 'Come on Didi, we're losing!' He just said 'Calm down lad. We're still a better team than they are. Don't worry, we´ll turn this game around soon enough,'” fellow Seleção legend Mario Zagallo told FIFA.com. “And once we heard that, everybody suddenly calmed down. We equalised five minutes later and the rest is history. That's what Didi was like: he made everything seem easy.”
Why sweat it?
Yet the very same steady, deliberate approach that paved the way for Brazil´s 5-2 win against the Swedes and a first world title had also earned him more than his fair share of detractors. In fact, though the 30-year-old was at that point an established Brazil international and firm favourite at then club side Botafogo, as well as previous employers Fluminense, his composure, intelligence and economy of movement was often mistaken for a lack of both pace and commitment.
This was the case during his brief spell for Spanish giants Real Madrid, who in 1959 swooped for a player widely acclaimed as one of the star performers at Sweden 1958. “The Spanish fans loved players who put in tackles and went to ground, and I never used to tackle anybody,” recalled Didi, in a 1987 interview with Brazilian magazine Placar, of his frustrating time alongside the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas.
“My shirt and socks would still be spotless by the end of a match and they couldn´t get their heads round it. I used to have to grab a handful of mud and smear it across my shirt. Why should I have to do that, when I could attack and put our strikers through on goal? The fans used to get so angry,” added Didi, who returned to Botafogo in 1960 and won a second world title with Brazil at Chile 1962.
My shirt and socks would still be spotless by the end of a match and they couldn´t get their heads round it.
What's more, with his laid-back yet determined personality seemingly reflected in every gesture, be it a simple sideways pass or that iconic stroll in Solna, Didi became the perfect muse for Nelson Rodrigues, the writer who, for many, best encapsulated Brazilian football in the 1950s and ´60s. Rodrigues compared Didi´s elegance on the pitch to that of an “Ethiopian prince”, which in time would become his unique nickname.
“Didi treats the ball lovingly. At his feet, it seems to become a rare and sensitive orchid, which must be looked after with affection and pleasure,” was one of Rodrigues' particularly descriptive portrayals of the midfielder's class in possession. And though such eloquence may seem a little over the top nowadays, there are few stars whose playing style lends itself as much to poetic license as Didi's did.
Respect of his fellows
Underlining the steel that lay hidden beneath Didi's calm and what some perceived as haughty exterior was the authority he enjoyed amongst his colleagues. This ability to lead served him well once he turned his hand to coaching, having hung up his boots in 1966 on the back of a low-key spell with Sao Paulo.
His first success in the dugout came after returning to Peru's Sporting Cristal, where he had briefly played in 1963, with victory in the 1968 Peruvian championship earning Didi the opportunity to take charge of Peru ahead of the 1970 FIFA World Cup. Once on Mexican soil, the team he assembled stormed all the way to the quarter-finals, where they exited at the hand of eventual winners Brazil, thanks in good measure to an outrageously gifted 20-year-old by the name of Teofilo Cubillas.
“Didi was the man who taught me how to score from free-kicks and how to shoot,” Cubillas told FIFA.com, on the coach who handed him his senior Peru debut. “It´s also because of him that, despite being right-footed, I worked hard in training until I could use both feet equally well.”
As much of an idol as Cubillas was, however, it is the words of another even more legendary figure that best sum up Didi´s place in the history of the beautiful game. “I´m nothing compared to Didi. I'll never be anywhere near as good as he is,” said none other than Pele, in an interview given during Sweden 1958. “He´s my idol, he's the guy I look up to. The very first picture cards I bought were of him.” Need we say more?
Did You Know?
Being such a graceful performer, it comes as no surprise that the free-kick technique that made Didi famous was descriptively dubbed the “folha seca” (dry leaf). These masterful set-piece efforts would appear to be flying high over the bar before suddenly dipping goalwards, an effect similar to a dry leaf falling from a tree.
According to Didi, he paid a heavy price for his trademark “folha seca” free-kick technique. Indeed, the years of twisting his body when practicing the savagely dipping set pieces in training led to a spinal problem that remained with him for the rest of his life.
Such was the mastery of the game Didi showed as part of the Brazil team that won the 1958 FIFA World Cup™, the international press dubbed him “Mr Football”.
In 2001, at the age of 72, Waldir Pereira suffered complications following surgery on his digestive system and passed away in Rio de Janeiro. Tributes to him abounded across the globe after his death, including a minute´s silence in Madrid´s Santiago Bernabeu.