Didi inspired Brazil to two FIFA World Cup trophies
He was named best player at Sweden 1958 ahead of Garrincha and Pele
The midfielder died 20 years ago today
“We have to do something,” Didi whispered to his friend and Botafogo team-mate in the dressing room. Nilton Santos nodded agreeingly.
It had taken six editions for the FIFA World Cup™ to witness a goalless draw. It left Brazil, who shared it with England, humiliated and afraid.
Didi and Nilton Santos had been dumped out of Switzerland 1954 by Hungary. Now they faced another formidable European force, the soon-to-be maiden UEFA EURO winners Soviet Union, in a must-win final group game.
Didi was pushing 30; Nilton Santos three years older. It was, they felt, their last chance.
So, that evening, together with Bellini, they did something that was unheard of in times seniority went unchallenged: they knocked on Vicente Feola’s door and urged him to bring in Zito, which would allow Didi more freedom to attack from midfield, along with Garrincha and Pele.
The coach surprisingly approved their idea. A Seleção were duly unstoppable, with only the great Lev Yashin keeping the score down to 2-0.
Brazil went on to win a World Cup that will forever be synonymous with Garrincha and Pele, though neither, nor 13-goal Just Fontaine was voted the competition’s best player. That distinction went to Didi.
Four years later, even without the injured Pele for all but the start of the tournament, Didi dazzled as Brazil defended their crown.
I have never seen a player play so effortlessly. To Didi playing football was like peeling an orange.
As a 14-year-old, Didi suffered an injury while having a kickabout with his friends. The wound became infected and he came mightily close to having his left leg amputated. After six months in a wheelchair, however, he recovered.
Didi got his big break because of his brother, Dodo. The pair were playing for Rio Branco, amateurs in their home city of Campos dos Goytacazes, when Madureira, who played in Rio de Janeiro’s top flight, signed Dodo. He asked Didi to go along and help him settle in. Madureira noticed Didi’s talent, gave him a trial and signed him, while Dodo was released within six months.
Didi scored the maiden goal at the Maracana. In its inaugural match, eight days before the kick-off of the 1950 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, for which it was built, the Fluminense midfielder put a Rio XI ahead against a Sao Paulo XI.
I treated the ball with as much affection as I give my own wife.
Didi pioneered the ‘dead leaf’ free-kick – a shot that would suddenly dip or swerve as it was close to goal. It is considered a precursor to the knuckleball famously executed by the likes of Juninho Pernambucano, Didier Drogba, Andrea Pirlo, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Luiz, Gareth Bale and Hakan Calhanoglu. Its birth was curious.
“I injured my ankle against America,” explained Didi. “I rested it, I treat it, I did physiotherapy but I couldn’t kick the ball without feeling significant pain.
“Then one day, messing about, I kicked the ball abnormally, with three toes, and I didn’t feel any pain. ‘Hmmm’, I thought. I started kicking it with three toes and I noticed that, after the ball had travelled a bit, it would suddenly change direction.
“It was far from perfect as a free-kick, but I realised that if I could perfect it, it would be very hard for goalkeepers to stop. So I started worked very hard on it – hours every morning, hours every afternoon – until I got it right.
“In 1957 we played Peru in a World Cup qualifier. We had to win. I scored the only goal with a dry leaf. If I hadn’t have suffered that injury against America, who knows what would have happened?”
Despite inspiring Brazil to a place at Sweden 1958, Didi was almost left out of the squad for the tournament, considered too old to deal with the demands of playing in midfield. "It would be funny if they left me out – I paid for their ticket," he said before the squad was announced.
When Brazil fell behind against Sweden in the 1958 Final, Didi tucked the ball under his arm and casually strolled back to the centre-circle. He was ushered to speed up by his panicked team-mates, with Zagallo rushing over to him and screaming, “Speed up, man – we’re losing!” Didi replied with typical calm: “Chill out, Zagallo. We’re better than them. We’ll score goals aplenty.” Brazil won 5-2.
Didi scored 20 goals in 68 internationals from midfield.
Didi was given the moniker ‘Príncipe Etíope’ (Ethiopian Prince) by Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues due to his elegant style of play. It also caused him to be compared to jazz legend Louis Armstrong, while the European press dubbed him ‘Mr Football’ during Sweden 1958.
Didi spent seven years at Fluminense, famously propelling them to glory in the Copa Rio – an eight-team, seven-country championship – in 1952. He also had two glorious spells at Botafogo, helping them win three Carioca crowns and a Rio-Sao Paulo Tournament.
In between, Didi joined Real Madrid in 1959, but although his genius flickered, the presence of another megastar was not welcomed by Alfredo Di Stefano, and the Brazilian soon returned home.
Didi had a spell at Sporting Cristal towards the end of his playing career, and fell in love with Peru. He was appointed the club’s coach in 1967 and quickly led them to the Peruvian title, before being appointed by the country’s national team in 1969.
Peru had been invited to Uruguay 1930, but had never qualified for the World Cup until Didi masterminded them getting to Mexico 1970 ahead of Argentina. At the finals, La Blanquirroja memorably reached the quarter-finals, where they lost a 4-2 thriller to Brazil.
“Didi was a second father to me,” said Teofilo Cubillas. “He helped me so, so much. He still had amazing technique and gave me a lot of great advice. He was responsible for my free-kicks and my shooting and he turned me into a two-footed player.”
Didi is, as a star, is an unsurpassable virtuoso. He treats the ball amorously. He appears, by his feet, like a rare and sensitive orchid, which must be cultivated with refinement and thrill.