“Coaching Brazil is not like coaching the other big teams – you don’t have one target at a World Cup but two demands. Not just to win it, but to play beautiful football.”
Pele’s words reverberated throughout his country as it sought to fill its hot-seat in early 1980. They had just spent two-and-a-half years under the regime of Claudio Coutinho, a captain in the Brazilian army who had never played professional football. His expertise may have qualified him to pioneer physical conditioning tests for the avant-garde Americans and even have a stint at NASA, but it did not qualify him to satiate the flair-famished Brazilians. A Seleção may have finished third at the 1978 FIFA World Cup™, but they did so playing robotically rather than romantically – the style in which they had embarrassingly crashed out of the recent Copa America after losses to Bolivia and Paraguay. It was time to replace a pragmatist with a purist. It was time for Tele Santana.
“As soon as he came in things changed drastically,” explained Falcao. “Playing for A Seleção became a lot more fun. He understood that he had intelligent players – he wanted us to play intuitively and not systematically. He urged the fullbacks to attack. He didn’t want central midfielders who only knew how to stop the opposition – he wanted ones who knew what to do with the ball. He gave us freedom to try what we wanted. He always wanted us to put on a spectacular show.”
The first 14 months under Tele were heavenly for Brazilians. A Seleção won all four qualifiers for the 12th FIFA World Cup. They put together ten consecutive victories from February 1981. Among them were defeats of England in London, France in Paris and West Germany in Stuttgart – all within seven days. They demolished Republic of Ireland 7-0 in their final warm-up for Spain 1982. They entered the competition unbeaten in 19 matches. They entered it with an entire nation believing they would not only conquer, but do so in even more exhilarating fashion than ‘The Beautiful Team’ had in 1970. Not even a tournament-ending injury to Careca, just four days before they kicked off their campaign, could temper expectations – and after three outings in Seville, the rest of the wowed world agreed.
The magic of Spain '82 Flicks and feints. One-twos and blistering counter-attacks. Back-heels (well, Socrates was on duty) and nutmegs. Oh, and breathtaking goal after breathtaking goal. They were all showcased as Tele’s team played arguably the most attractive football the World Cup had ever seen. Helpless Argentina were Brazil’s next victims – 3-1 in another exhilarating performance in their second-phase opener.
“In all my time covering football as a player, coach and journalist, I have never known another team, no matter how well they were playing, not receive some form of criticism," Falcao recalled. "There’s always something. But nobody, nobody said a word against us. It’s because we genuinely played extremely beautiful football. There was nothing to say against us.”
Everybody knows the next chapter. Brazil required a draw to reach the semi-final. They played some thrilling football. They scored two marvellous goals. They also missed chances and made mistakes. Paolo Rossi capitalised and scored three. The overwhelming favourites were out.
Tele regained the reins just before Mexico 1986. Brazil once again performed enchantingly in the group stage, before thumping Poland 4-0 in the Round of 16. In the quarters, however, Zico uncharacteristically missed a penalty in normal time and the South Americans ultimately lost a shoot-out.
Tele won titles galore as a club coach. The Minais Gerais native guided Atletico Mineiro to an unforeseen conquest in the maiden Campeonato Brasileiro. He was the brains behind Gremio denying an exceptional Internacional side a ninth straight state championship trophy. He masterminded Sao Paulo’s thrilling defeats of Barcelona and AC Milan in back-to-back Intercontinental Cups. Unfittingly, however, he never won one with A Seleção.
“One of my biggest regrets is not winning a trophy for Tele,” rued Zico after the iconic coach passed away, ten years ago to this Thursday, in Belo Horizonte. “If anybody deserved one, it was him.”
A FIFA World Cup Trophy may have eluded him. The title of Brazil’s most beloved all-time coach certainly has not – perhaps in a nation fixated with thrilling, that is an even greater accolade.