Brasil’s To Lose

World Cup fact, fiction and conjecture


When the 18th FIFA World Cup kicks off in just a few days, the principal debate among all fans is sure to centre on who will win and lose, who will emerge as the player of the finals and who will win the Golden   Boot as the tournament’s highest individual scorer. However, while the entertainment factor—the colour, excitement, skill, speed and flashy goals -delivers the immediate thrill, the statistics and records are always going to be the source of the most heated debates. After all, the quadrennial tournaments with their new faces and their new performances  come and go but the records are there forever and keep the arguments year in, year out.
Trying to pick a winner is almost always an exercise in futility; there are far too many variables to work out – the draw, the stadia, recovery time in-between matches and the climate. Then there are the incalculable – injuries, refereeing errors and coaching tactics. After 36 years of following the World Cup game by game as well as reading analyses of and viewing old films of past tournaments, I can remember  just one instance when I almost got it right. For the 1986 Finals in Mexico, after a match-by-match assessment  of the draw  I came up with Argentina beating France in the final. Heavily influenced by my expectation that, as with the 1970 edition, the heat and altitude would be a significant factor, my prediction took account of the Diego Maradona factor. I was not then – and still am not now – a Maradona fan but I told friends at TTT that the World Cup would be won by “Maradona and ten robots.” That is exactly what happened. Argentina had wisely dropped all their ageing warriors and assembled a nondescript force of young, fit legs to be Maradona’s supporting cast.
At the time, the 24-year-old was at the crossroads of his career, and doubt had arisen as to his ability to turn prodigious talent into success. The superstar had just signed a huge contract to play for Napoli in Italy, following a disastrous stint in Spain that ended with a broken leg – a gift from “the Butcher of Bilbao”,  Andoni Goicotchea of Atletico de Madrid. I reasoned correctly that those setbacks would serve to make Maradona more focused, but he exceeded all expectations, almost single-handedly winning the Cup.
The other half of my prediction went to pieces in the semi-final when France, the European champions, having taken 90 minutes and a penalty-spot shootout to defeat Brasil, used the same line-up in the semi-final against Germany a couple of days later, and paid the price. It was too much for their ageing midfield; Michel Platini, Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana had not recovered in time. To this day, I stand firm in my conviction that the French reserves would have beaten an ordinary German side; it was exhaustion, not German ability that defeated Platini’s men.
Predicting a winner this year is a far more daunting challenge; the effects of geography and climate of the African continent on the European teams are difficult to anticipate, there having been no precedent. Additionally, aside from Brasil, the most consistent team going into the finals has been Spain, European champions but notorious non-performers at the World Cup. The African teams have home advantage but they are prone to major blunders at this level; the Dutch have some talent but their record places them in the category of Europe’s greatest enigma. Argentina are their South American equivalent, twice winners but noted under-achievers, they come to South Africa with a great attack led by arguably the best player in the world but also with the burden of a history of inexplicable collapses. France has a decent attack but their midfield and defence do not appear to match the front-runners. And, as for the champions, Italy would do well just to reach the final four this time around.
Which leaves Brasil, the most balanced team; such is their depth of talent that they can afford to omit from their squad players of the quality of Ronaldinho. Names such as Lucio and Maicon, Kaka and a slew of strikers make them the most formidable team at face value and one feels that only Brasil can defeat itself in this tournament. It would not be the first time they have done so. I do not think that will happen in 2010 but if it does it will simply be one more interesting fact to add to the following list which is designed to fire the imagination of the true student of this fantastic, emotional roller-coaster of an event. 

• The highest scoring tournament (average goals per game) was played in Switzerland, 1954 (140 goals in just 26 matches)!
• Hot-headed: The most ill-tempered tournament (sendings-off, violence, on-field skirmishes) was played in Chile, 1962.
• The highest individual scorer in tournament history is the Brasilian Ronaldo (15 goals in three tournaments – 1998, 2002 and 2006); he did not see any action in USA 1994.
• The previous holder was Gerd Mueller (West Germany): 14 goals between 1970 and 1974.
• Golden Boot: The highest scorer in a single World Cup was Juste Fontaine (France): 13 in Sweden 1958.
• Bound to score: The only player to score in every round (including the final) was Jair Ventura (Jairzinho) of Brasil in Mexico 1970 (seven goals in six matches).
• Not too shabby: Pele scored 12 times in 12 completed matches for Brasil – six in four matches (1958), one each in 1962 and 1966 (single matches) and four in six matches (1970).
• Near and yet far: The Netherlands played in two consecutive finals and lost them both (West Germany 1974 and Argentina 1978).
• Uruguay won the first World Cup (at home in 1930) and the first after World War II (Brasil 1950).
• Uruguay won the only World Cup played entirely on a league basis. In the final match of 1950, Brasil needed just a draw to be champions but Uruguay came from behind to win 2-1 at Maracana.
• Counting their chickens: Brasil had composed a song called “Brasil the victors” before the final game in 1950 and a local newspaper had published a team photograph of “the World Champions.”
• Couldn’t lose: Hungary’s 2-3 loss to West Germany in the 1954 final in Berne, Switzerland is the greatest upset in tournament history. Their unbeaten run had extended back to the 1952 Olympiad in Helsinki and they had already beaten Germany 8-3 in the World Cup preliminary rounds.
• Uruguay (1930) is the only reigning Olympic champion to have won the World Cup. 
• Deyna, Szarmach, Lato and company: Poland won the Olympic title in Munich 1972 and returned two years later to place third in the World Cup behind hosts West Germany and Holland.
• Unlucky?: West German striker Uwe Seeler played in four successive tournaments between his country’s two successes (Switzerland, 1954 and West Germany, 1974) without lifting the trophy.
• No need: Since the introduction of substitutes, Brasil is the only team to win using just 13 players in an entire tournament. In 1970, Everaldo replaced injured left back Marco Antonio, while Paolo Cesar Lima came on for the unfit Gerson whenever victory seemed certain.
• Rival teammates: So little love was lost between playmakers Allesandro Mazzola (Inter) and Giovanni Rivera (Milan) that the Italian coach never played them together in Mexico 1970. That was until the final, where they were beaten 4-1 by Brasil anyway.
• Negative: West Germany started the lone striker scourge in 1974. They used five defenders (Franz Beckenbauer at libero never went past the half-line), four midfielders, and Gerd Mueller up front.
• One-hit wonder: Valencia striker Mario Kempes failed to have any impact at the 1974 and 1982 World Cups; yet at home in 1978, he was the star attraction and Golden Boot winner with six goals.
• Shocker: Francois Oman-Biyik delivered one of the greatest upsets in Finals history, scoring the header as rank outsiders Cameroon upset defending champions Argentina 1-0 in the 1990 opening match.
• Luck: In the 1986 quarter-finals, France eliminated Brasil in a penalty-spot shootout. At a crucial point, Bruno Bellone’s kick smashed against the post but went in off the Brasilian keeper’s back. Luis Fernandez later converted the winner for France.
• Guts: In one of the most courageous displays ever, Trinidad and Tobago, the smallest country to play in the finals was reduced to ten men in the first half, and yet held European giants Sweden to a goalless draw in Germany 2006.
• Brasil won the 1970 World Cup by adding an extra forward (in creating the 4-2-4 formation).
FACT: Brasil introduced 4-2-4 in 1958, and it was a defensive move, dropping a forward in order to play four at the back. At the 1970 Finals, Brasil won with an adaptation of the England (1966) 4-4-2.
• England invented 4-3-3 in 1966. FACT:  The first 4-3-3 appeared in 1962 when Mario Zagalo (outside left) began hanging back to support Brasil’s midfield. England coach Alf Ramsey invented 4-4-2 at club level and used it to win the 1966 World Cup.
• A black Portuguese player kicked Pele out of the 1966 World Cup. FACT: Morais, a white Portuguese player, kicked Pele all around Everton’s Goodison Park until he was stretchered off in Brasil’s 3-1 elimination.
• The USA. never played at the World Cup until they squeezed past T&T into Italia 1990. FACT: The USA played by invitation at the 1930, 1938 and 1950 World Cups (their team was made up mostly of naturalised Americans).
• Gordon Banks twisted in mid-air to save Pele’s header in the 1970 England-Brasil clash.
FACT: Banks sprinted from the near to the far-post; Pele had already met Jairzinho’s cross but he headed into the ground, intending to beat Banks in the event he was able to get back. Banks dove to his right, caught the ball on the half-volley and slapped it over the bar.  

• Brasil’s most absurd pre-war decision came at the 1938 finals in France when star striker Leonidas was “rested” for the semi-final against Italy. Italy won 2-1 and went on to beat Hungary 4-2 in the final. Poor Leonidas had to settle for the Golden Boot with eight goals.
• FIFA “curried favour” to allow Garrincha to play in the 1962 final against Czechoslovakia after being sent off in the semis against the host Chile. It is thought that FIFA took pity on the right winger after he was struck on the head by a bottle from the hostile Santiago crowd. Ironically, Garrincha, the star of the tournament, faded almost into oblivion in the final.
• Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier intimidated a Canadian referee to deny Trinidad and Tobago a place at the 1974 World Cup. T&T hit the net five times against the hosts in 1973 but only one goal was allowed as Haiti “won” 2-1. FIFA later banned the referee but let the result stand.
• Welsh referee Clive Thomas did Brasil a grave injustice at the 1978 finals in Argentina. Brasil were locked 1-1 with Sweden when Zico headed in a corner in injury time; but Thomas had blown off the match while the corner kick was airborne.
• West Germany deliberately allowed East Germany to beat them 1-0 at home in 1974 to avoid meeting Johan Cruyff and the rampaging Dutchmen in the semi-finals.
•  In the 1974 final, unable to shake his marker Willie Rijsbergen, Gerd Mueller jumped backward onto the Dutch defender’s insteps while referee Jack Taylor’s attention was elsewhere. Rijsbergen was limping when Germany won the equalising penalty and was unable to reach Mueller when he scored the winner. Too late, Rinus Michels finally substituted his ailing centre-back.
• West Germany “bought” a penalty in the 1974 final when Bernd Hoelzenbein, Eintracht Frankfurt’s notorious “diver,” ran at Rijsbergen and went down dramatically in the box.
• Neighbours Austria and West Germany deliberately played to a goalless draw in Argentina 1978, thus allowing both to advance at the expense of Algeria, who had upset the Germans 2-1 and were leading them on points going into the final round of the preliminaries.
• FIFA officialdom denied Brasil the 1978 World Cup by bowing to the home team’s demands that Brasil play their final second round match before Argentina played theirs. This allowed Argentina to know exactly how many goals they needed to score against Peru to reach the final.
• Peru “sold out” the fateful match to Argentina. Needing four goals to surpass Brasil, Argentina scored six without seeming resistance from the previously excellent Peruvians. Peru’s goalkeeper, Ramon Quiroga, was born in Argentina.
• Rank outsiders Trinidad and Tobago should at worst have held England to a goalless draw at the 2006 finals in Germany. With some 20 minutes left, Peter Crouch headed in a David Beckham cross but replays showed the gangling striker had yanked defender Brent Sancho’s dreadlocks. Sancho, mysteriously, did not make any visible protest. England’s second goal came about only because T&T were forced to abandon defence in search of an equaliser. 
• Brasilian officials insist that striker Ronaldo suffered epileptic fits on the night before the 1998 final and yet he convinced them that he was match ready the next day, hence his failure to perform as France ran away 3-0 winners in Paris.
 Here’s hoping South Africa 2010 delivers all of what we have come to expect.

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