Mario Americo’s magnificent seven

  • Mario Americo was Brazil’s masseur at seven FIFA World Cups

  • He ingeniously passed on tactics and stole the Sweden 1958 Final ball

  • Today is the 30th anniversary of Americo’s passing

Mario Americo may not appear on any list of FIFA World Cup™ greats. He may not be associated with the skilful, free-flowing football that his native Brazil has come to be known for. And he may not be revered around the world like so many of his countrymen. But for the legendary A Seleção team that won three World Cups in 12 years, the impact he made cannot be underestimated.

The history of the World Cup is decorated with the names of unforgettable stars, famous referees, mastermind coaches, unbeatable goalkeepers and assertive leaders. But football is a team game and the other characters – hidden away from the public eye and the flashing cameras – played and continue to play a huge part in the world’s biggest football competition.

Americo, who died on 9 April 1990, aged 77, was the Brazil masseur during their most successful period. He started his career when the team was still wearing white – something which changed after they spectacularly lost the world title in 1950 in an infamous upset known as Maracanazo. To say the defeat was felt around the country is an understatement.

“We spent a lot of time in isolation, four months between the cities of Araxa and Rio de Janeiro," said Americo. "This proved to be in vain because journalists and politicians broke our concentration and we were hounded by fans."

In addition, prior to the final, “lots of relatives and various players were looking at the list of businesses and industries that would pay them a bonus for winning, which never came about."

Americo’s work as Brazil's masseur took him to Switzerland 1954. Eager to scout the competition, he went to see what Hungary, the tournament favourites, were doing in training before their matches. He saw that the Europeans were doing gymnastic exercises in the changing rooms before heading out onto the pitch. He rushed back to tell coach Zeze Moreira and, from then on, the Brazilians took up the practice of stretching before playing.

At Sweden 1958, his reputation as something of a natural leader preceded him and he had become more than just the physiotherapist – he had become part of the team. Vicente Feola, the coach who won Brazil’s first World Cup, nicknamed him pombo-correio (carrier pigeon) due to his leather pouch, which is on display in the FIFA World Football Museum.

Americo would enter the pitch first and foremost to attend to injured players, but he would do other things too. Feola, from the bench, would gesture to a player on the field, who would go to ground as though suffering from an injury. He would send on Americo, who would use his pouch to pretend that he was helping the player when in fact he was actually passing on tactical orders. Although this story was originally deemed a myth, it was backed up by Sweden 1958 winner Jose Altafini when he visited the FIFA World Football Museum.

But his role within the team was not limited to healing and passing on tactical messages – in fact, his toughest job for the team had nothing to do with either. After the Final of the 1958 tournament, Feola asked him to get his hands on the match ball – the one that Brazil had just won their first world title with. Diligent and loyal as he was, Americo ran on to the pitch as soon as the match was over. After snatching the ball from French referee Maurice Guigue, he ran for the changing room.

Security staff chased him but Americo was too fast and he was able to reach the changing room with just enough time to stash away the match ball, grab a replacement and return to the pitch before asking for forgiveness for the brincadeira (trick). Throughout the entire incident, he had his medical pouch wrapped around his waist.

At Chile 1962 and Mexico 1970, he enjoyed central roles within the squad. In the Brazil teams that are still hailed as the greatest of all time, Americo was a constant and welcome presence. But all good things come to an end and after Germany 1974, he went into politics. Two years later, in 1976, he was elected as a city councillor in Sao Paulo, where he was in charge of attending to athletes and members of the public at the Physiotherapy Institute in the north of the city.

Such was the distinguished career of a man who took part in seven World Cups. A man who could be seen running lightning-fast with his pouch on to the pitch to treat his players, and perhaps to carry out other orders too.