1958 was unforgettable for Mazzola, Pele, Pepe and Zito. Together, they travelled to the exotic fields of Sweden and delivered Brazil its first FIFA World Cup™ title.
Mazzola finished that year having made a high-profile move to AC Milan and having rapidly set about becoming one of the most successful South Americans to ever grace calcio; Pepe ended it having rocketed home roughly a goal a game from his left-wing station; and Zito began 1959 having been championed as the finest midfield general on the planet by the prestigious European broadsheets. As for Pele, his incalculable celebrity dwarfed those of Juan Manuel Fangio, Armin Hary, Arnold Palmer and Sugar Ray Robinson, respective mega-stars of motor racing, athletics, golf and boxing.
Yet earlier that year, exactly 55 years ago to this Wednesday, Palmeiras striker Mazzola and Santos aces Pele, Pepe and Zito – then mini-celebrities within Sao Paulo state and unknowns outside of Brazil – clashed at the Pacaembu. Although the sides would soon meet in encounters of towering stakes, there was little more than pride on offer given that they were already out of contention for Torneio Rio-Sao Paulo glory. Nobody, therefore, could have foreseen what would transpire.
Urias gave Palmeiras the lead. Pele equalised. Pagou put Santos 2-1 up. Nardo restored partiy. Then O Peixe seized absolute control. Dorval put Lula’s team ahead, Pepe’s dynamite-fuelled left boot amplified the advantage, and Pagao sent them in at half-time with a seemingly unassailable 5-2 cushion.
Zito recalled: “I said in the dressing room, ‘They can reverse five, but ten [goals] and they’re done. Let’s destroy Palmeiras today.”
While Lula was encouraging his troops to inflict further humiliation on their opponents, his Verdão counterpart Osvaldo Brandao had a significant problem to deal with. “Our goalkeeper Edgar started crying during the interval,” explained Mazzola. “He said, ‘I can’t go back out’, so our coach Brandao had to send on Vitor, who was a young reserve.”
Vitor nevertheless belied his inexperience by beginning to frustrate Santos’s fearsome attackers. Meanwhile, Palmeiras’s attackers began to make the implausible look plausible. Paulinho pulled one back, before a quick-fire Mazzola brace levelled the scores. Then, with little over ten minutes remaining, Urias fired O Alviverde in front.
The men in green had made a miracle comeback. Unfortunately for them, it was the first of two miracle comebacks the 43,000-plus in transfixed attendance would witness. Pepe, whose prolificacy owed almost exclusively to his thunderous left boot, scored once with his right and once with his head to snatch Santos a breathtaking 7-6 triumph. As the final whistle sounded, both sets of supporters gave the players, who embraced one another, a standing ovation.
“When the game ended not even we could believe it,” Santos creator Jair Rosa Pinto later explained. “It was an unbelievable comeback.” Mazzola, who become known in Italy as Jose Altafini, said: “It was unbelievable. I still have supporters coming up to me in the street to talk about that game. Nobody will forget it.”
Pepe reflected: “Scoring with my right foot or my head was very,very rare for me, and I managed both in the same match. And it was one of the greatest games in Brazilian football history.”
Afterwards, the headmost hero of that mind-blowing night headed for the bus stop, queued anonymously and, at around 3am, slipped on to the back-seat for the ride home. Anonymity was something Pepe, Pele, Zito and Mazzola wouldn’t have for much longer.