Winning the FIFA World Cup™ once is hard enough, but to lift it three times in a row seems a virtually impossible task. For proof of that, one need only tell the story of the team that came closer than any other to achieving that unlikely hat-trick.

The second world war denied Vittorio Pozzo’s great Italy side the chance to defend the back-to-back world titles they won in 1934 and 1938, while their attempt to win a third consecutive crown at Brazil 1950 ended with a first-round exit. Italy’s misfortune leaves Brazil as the only other nation that has ever had an opportunity to win three World Cups in a row. It came 50 years ago, at England 1966, a competition the Brazilians went into as very firm favourites – perhaps too firm – having emerged victorious at Sweden 1958 and Chile 1962.

“There were two things that happened, if you ask me,” said former Brazil right-back Djalma Santos, in an interview with FIFA.com a few years ago. “The first was trying to bring two generations together in one, which is very difficult; and the second – and more importantly – was treating A Seleção as if it were an exhibition team, one that would just go and win the World Cup as if it were the most natural thing in the world.”

Discussing his place in the squad in 66, he added: “I should never have gone to England. I was 37 and I’d already played in three World Cups. But we didn’t know what we wanted.”

Too many cooks
Looking back, and bearing in mind that Brazil would go on to win the World Cup again at Mexico 1970, there are more than enough reasons to believe that a third straight world crown should have come their way in England.

Aged 25, Pele was, in theory at least, at the peak of his powers, while talented youngsters such as Tostao and Jairzinho, aged 19 and 21 respectively, had no shortage of experienced two-time world champions around them. There was also the fact that, in winning in Sweden and Chile, Brazil had buried the inferiority complex brought on by letting the 1950 World Cup tragically escape from their clutches on home soil, a state of mind memorably described by the writer Nelson Rodrigues as the complexo de vira-latas (“the street dog complex”, to give it its literal translation).

Yet though the ingredients were all there, that blend of experience, youth and confidence proved to be anything but a winning formula.

The reasons for Brazil’s flawed campaign begin with their preparations in Brazil, where the national team had become a phenomenon that had grown out of control, an asset to be exploited to the maximum. Evidence of that came with the extensive national tour the team undertook before flying to Europe. Selecting a squad of more than 40 players, Vicente Feola – the man who had coached Brazil to their first world title in Sweden – split them up into different training groups and took them from one side of the country to the other, visiting five cities along the way, a venture that was almost a tournament in itself.

It was only when the Brazilians arrived in Sweden that the final 22-man squad for England was announced, just two weeks before the tournament started. The shortlist included the likes of Djalma Santos, Gilmar, Zito, Bellini and Garrincha, all of them the wrong side of 30. “Aside from the fact that we didn’t have a settled team, the players who won the two world titles were all on the decline, except for Pele,” wrote Tostao in his book Memories, Opinions and Thoughts on Football.

Short of inspiration
Brazil’s opening match at England 1966, against Bulgaria at Goodison Park on 12 July, turned out to be the high point of their tournament. It was also an occasion for the history books, as it was the last time that Pele and Garrincha played together. They got on the scoresheet too, both with free-kicks, bringing a stylish end to a footballing dynasty, though neither of them knew it at the time. Of the 40 games in which the two wizards shared the pitch over a period of eight years, Brazil did not lose once, winning 36 of those matches, including that 2-0 defeat of the Bulgarians.

Yet that winning debut came at a price. O Rei received some harsh treatment at the hands of the eastern Europeans and picked up an injury to his right knee that forced him to miss the second group match against Hungary, with Tostao coming in to replace him. Led by Florian Albert and Ferenc Bene, the skilful and well-drilled Hungarians outclassed a Brazil side lacking identity, the 3-1 scoreline barely reflecting the Magyars’ domination.

Brazil’s task in their final match in Group 3 looked no easier, with a tough Portugal side providing the opposition. Ahead of what was a make-or-break match, Feola chose to make nine changes to the starting line-up, dropping Garrincha and bringing Pele back into the side. Still struggling with his injury, the No10 was the target once again for some heavy tackling.

Even at a time when substitutions were not permitted, Brazil managed to use 20 of their 22 players. Looking very much less than the sum of their parts, Feola’s side were no match for a Portugal side featuring the likes of Eusebio and Coluna, who would go on to finish third. The 3-1 defeat to the Portuguese spelled the end of Brazil’s tournament. A golden opportunity to complete a unique hat-trick of world titles had slipped out of their hands.

“The 1966 World Cup was the toughest experience I have ever had in football,” recalled Pele in an interview with FIFA.com years later. “I missed part of the 1962 World Cup with injury, and in England, once again, I wasn’t able to play as I would have liked. It was one of the saddest things, and it was made even worse by the fact we got knocked out. I went away from that World Cup determined never to play for A Seleção again. The only reason I decided to play in 1970 was because I was in great form with Santos. The scars of 66 were still there though.”