Losing their star player through injury in the middle of a FIFA World Cup™ is nothing new for Brazil. Yet, as the country continues to digest the untimely absence of Neymar, its glittering footballing history shows that it has been through the same before and triumphed over adversity.
The precedent came at Chile 1962, when A Seleção were shorn of the services of no less an idol than Pele, who limped out of their second match of the tournament, and yet still went on to win their second world title.
On that occasion 52 years ago it was a muscular problem suffered by their iconic No10 that had an entire nation fretting, but when Amarildo deputised for him against Spain, all talk of O Rei being irreplaceable came to a sudden end.
Aged 22 at the time, the Botafogo forward shrugged off any pressure he might have been feeling to score twice against the Spanish and three times in all as the Brazilians successfully defended their crown. In doing so, he showed the way for the player who will be given the onerous task of standing in for Neymar in Tuesday’s semi-final against Germany.
“I wasn’t nervous – anything but,” Amarildo, now 75, told FIFA.com. “I looked on it as something normal, motivating even, because I wanted to show what I could do. Obviously I didn’t want Pele to be injured, but I needed to prove something and I did that in a decisive game against Spain, where it was either us or them who went through.
“I was putting my career on the line, trying to prove myself in the eyes of the people of Brazil, because I had to be up to the situation. I didn’t feel nervous, but I did feel it was my responsibility to play with heart and get the better of the opposition.”
Though the situation Brazil were in on that occasion was not exactly the same as playing in a semi-final, defeat to a Spain side featuring legendary names such as Ferenc Puskas, Francisco Gento and Alfredo di Stefano would have meant the end of their dream of defending the title. Their task was made all the harder when it was announced in the build-up to the game that the injured Pele would be taking no further part in the competition. But with Amarildo subsequently coming into a side that included household names such as Didi, Mario Zagallo, Garrincha and Nilton Santos, all of them team-mates of his at Botafogo, the balance of the team was not greatly disrupted.
“Any player who’s regarded as the best in the world is obviously going to be missed, but thanks to God, Amarildo, who played on the wing with me at Botafogo, didn’t crumble under the pressure of pulling on the Amarelinha,” recalled Zagallo, in conversation with FIFA.com. “He was used to playing with his team-mates, and he relaxed and had a great World Cup.
For his part, Pele said of his deputy: “Apparently Amarildo wasn’t ready [for the World Cup], but he’d had a fantastic championship with Botafogo and that’s why he was called up. You need confidence to play in the World Cup and he did a perfect job.”
O Possesso whips up a storm
Amarildo made his mark in that vital meeting with Spain, scoring twice as Brazil came from behind to win. Nicknamed O Possesso (The Possessed One) by the celebrated Brazilian journalist Nelson Rodrigues on account of his talent and strong personality, the forward would keep his place in the side, thanks in no small part to those attributes, helping his team-mates to take Pele’s absence in their stride.
With Garrincha in devilish form, Brazil brushed aside England and Chile to move into the Final against Czechoslovakia, who had drawn 0-0 with Aymore Moreira’s side in the group match in which Pele suffered his injury.
Though his stock had risen, Amarildo had to contend with the possibility that Pele might yet return for the Final. As it turned out, however, Pele was in no shape for a dramatic return.
Taking up the story in an interview with FIFA.com some time ago, team-mate Djalma Santos said: “Pele was absolutely desperate to play in the Final, and he had a fitness test two days before the game. You can imagine how Amarildo would have felt about that, especially if Pele had passed the test. But he could still feel his injury, which meant that Amarildo played, and he played well too.”
In a repeat of the Spain game, Amarildo and Brazil saw the Czechs take an early lead, through Josef Masopust after 15 minutes. The comeback began just two minutes later, with the Botafogo boy scoring to set Brazil on the way to a 3-1 win. O Possesso had done it again.
“Nelson Rodrigues gave me that nickname, and he was right because I wasn’t scared of anyone or anything on the pitch: 90 minutes were like war for me,” said the man himself. “I have to say, though, that when Mauro went up to collect the Trophy, I was shaking. It’s an amazing thing to hear the national anthem and to see the Trophy, something I never thought I’d see close up when I was a boy. I was shaking out of happiness.”
Fifty-two years after jumping off the bench and into World Cup history, Amarildo still has very vivid memories of the whole experience. And given that it was a positive one for him, he sees no reason why Neymar’s tournament-ending injury should damage Brazil’s chances.
Offering up some advice that Neymar’s replacement and the whole team would do well to follow, the man who proved himself to a distrusting nation all those years ago said: “Whoever comes in, they mustn’t feel as if they’re Neymar’s substitute but as someone who’s ready to help and who’s not going to affect the team’s performance.
“To be honest with you, the change could even be a good thing, because it will bring something new to the team and change the way they play. Both he and the rest of the side will need to play in a different way and work new openings, which could give them more options. The team will have to come together and play as a unit at all times. And they’re obviously going to need to be very brave to win this World Cup.”
If they follow that advice, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s men could well be shaking with happiness too in a few days’ time.