In the mid-1960s, reporters visiting footballing brothers Edu and Antunes, who plied their trade for Rio de Janeiro sides America and Fluminense respectively, would customarily ask the pair who they thought was the finer player. The answer was invariably the same: the pair would send the journalist off in search of their youngest sibling, Arthur, who was more often than not roaming the neighbourhood, a ball seemingly glued to his feet.
Though Edu made history with America and went on to represent Brazil, and Antunes was a player of some note during his career, their achievements paled in comparison to those of Arthur, who went on to become Zico, one of the finest players ever to pull on the shirts of Flamengo, Udinese and A Seleção.
“It really helps when you’ve got two players in the family who’ve already gone through everything you’re going to face in the future,” Zico said when interviewed by FIFA.com. “I was able to follow their careers at close quarters and used to watch all their training sessions and games. Whenever I needed something, I could always turn to them. But, aside from all that, I loved playing football.”
It really helps when you’ve got two players in the family who’ve already gone through everything you’re going to face in the future. Whenever I needed something, I could always turn to them.
As well as loving the beautiful game, Zico also had plenty of room in his heart for Flamengo, with devotion to the club akin to a religion in his household. The youngest of six children, five of them boys, Zico’s father was a Portuguese immigrant, Jose Antunes Coimbra, a long-standing Fla club member and gifted goalkeeper, who in his youth had come close to turning pro at the Gavea outfit.
“When we were born, each of us was given a Brazil kit and a Flamengo kit. I was the last to arrive and there was only the No8 shirt left,” said Zico, later synonymous with the No10 for both club and country. “There was a team flag up in our house, our dog was called Mengo (one of Flamengo’s nicknames) and our pet bird was called ‘The Cardinal’ because he was red and black.”
With his older brother busy lobbying his case, a 14-year-old Zico played one match for Edu’s team America, only for a longed-for trial at Fla to materialise at the same time. “My brother had already given his word (that I’d play for America), but when the chance came to join Flamengo of course that’s what I wanted to do. But he understood and so did the America officials. I was following my heart.”
It was not all plain sailing for the gifted youngster at O Mengão, however, with Zico having to wait until he was 16 to play in his first youth championship for the club in 1969. “Back then it was harder for young players, because in the youth system you were playing alongside lads who were up to three years older, which made a huge difference,” he recalled. “I was seen as a good prospect, but the fact that I was very skinny made people doubt me.”
Fortunately for the player and fans of beautiful football the world over, such were Zico’s gifts that the club decided to invest in an innovative programme designed to help O Galinho (The Little Rooster) bulk up. “It was the first time we’d heard of something like that,” said Zico, who was put through his body-building paces with doctors Jose de Paula Chaves and his son Jose de Paula Chaves junior, as well as fitness coach Jose Roberto Francalacci. “It was intended to speed things along, to give me the body shape that I might have had once I was a bit older.”
With his new-found physical attributes and the support of the club, Zico made his first-team debut in 1971, setting up a goal in a win over Vasco de Gama in the Campeonato Carioca. "I think that I would have made it as a footballer anyway, because it’s not all about physique at the end of the day. Being strong but not knowing how to play won’t get you anywhere. But it is true that it made me more sure of myself,” said Zico.
Inspired by their home-grown starlet’s skill, vision, inch-perfect set-pieces and clinical finishing, Flamengo won six state championships, three national championships as well as the 1981 editions of the Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup.
“The good thing was that we were able to assemble a great squad with a lot of talented players, a blend of two or three different generations,” said Zico. “Everybody knew each other and knew what the club stood for. The vast majority were Flamengo supporters, which means a lot, and they all had huge potential.
We were able to assemble a great squad with a lot of talented players. The vast majority were Flamengo supporters. We had the honour of winning more titles than Flamengo had ever won.
“We had the honour of winning, over a short space of time, more titles than Flamengo had ever won. As a fan, it was a great feeling to have been part of that. Up to that point I’d not been able to celebrate many Fla titles. To be honest, I would have loved to have been watching from the stands during my time at the club,” he added with a smile.
An integral part of the Rubro-Negro family, Zico took a brief but highly impressive sojourn in Europe between 1983 and 1985, where he helped transform Italian minnows Udinese into a genuine force. In his first season in Serie A, the Brazilian genius inspired the Friuli outfit's surprise title challenge, only for his team to drop off the pace with their star man out for five matches through injury, eventually coming home in ninth.
“It (Serie A) had many of the best players from across the globe. The eyes of the footballing world were on Italy at that time," explained Zico. "It was a really good period, one when I proved myself by living up to expectations when playing in another country."
Turning to his feats with A Seleção, Zico pulled on the fabled yellow jersey at three FIFA World Cups™: Argentina 1978, Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986. On paper, the best performance of the three came in a third-placed finish on Argentinian soil, but it is the Spain campaign that lives longest in the minds of Brazilian and world football fans. There, a hugely gifted team playing some phenomenal football looked all set to dazzle their way to the Trophy, only for their dream to be crushed by a hat-trick from Italy’s Paolo Rossi in a 3-2 reverse at the Estadio de Sarria in Barcelona.
“It’s always important to leave a legacy,” said Zico of that iconic team under coach Tele Santana, considered one of the finest ever despite exiting after the second phase in 1982. “But what matters to a professional is the title. I’m happy to have been part of a team like that, though, and people everywhere still remember us. But I’d be even happier if we’d have won.”
I’m happy to have been part of a team like that. People everywhere still remember us. But what matters most to a professional is the title.
Mexico 1986 would bring yet more heartbreak for Zico and Brazil, with A Seleção heading home after losing 4-3 on penalties against quarter-final opponents France following a 1-1 draw. Far from fully fit after only recently returning from a serious knee injury, O Galinho missed a penalty during the match but held his nerve in the shoot-out, with Socrates and Julio Cesar failing from the spot for the South Americans and only Michel Platini unable to convert for Les Bleus.
By then in the latter stage of his career, Zico continued to star for his beloved Flamengo until 1990, before playing an integral part in the growth of the professional game in Japan. Setting an example on and off the pitch between 1991 and 1994, Zico is revered for his role in helping Kashima Antlers become a force on the domestic and Asian scene.
And even in the face of so much fame and achievement, it is Zico's affection for the game which still shines through. “I’d like to be remembered as someone who loved what he did,” he said as the interview came to a conclusion. “As someone who was consistently very professional and keen to improve, as well as someone who always played fair and dedicated himself body and soul to football.”