Brazil’s Battered and Bruised Boys of 1966

Brazil’s Battered and Bruised Boys of 1966

The image has become iconic; one of many. The dark-skinned figure limping dejectedly from the field, a raincoat draped about his shoulders, exiting his stage like football’s answer to the caped James Brown, battered and bruised. This is the defining image of Brazil, and more specifically, Pelé, at the 1966 World Cup.

It was never meant to end like this. England, West Germany, Portugal and the rest may have had their own ideas but this was supposed to be Brazil’s party. They’d swept all before them in ’58 and ’62 and the expectancy was that they would touchdown in Rio de Janeiro at the end of it all with the Jules Rimet trophy tucked in their hand luggage – theirs to keep for all time. Eventually however, the Seleção would be forced to arrive back in the middle of the night on a flight deliberately delayed to allow them to skulk home under the cover of darkness. For them, the dream was obliterated, laid to waste on the Goodison Park turf.

Brazil’s mistake was to believe their own hype. Having delighted the world in Sweden in 1958 with the 17-year-old Pelé to the fore and then been streets ahead of the competition in Chile four years later, the popularity of the national team had reached an all-time peak. This led to much politicking by the country’s leading club sides who all vied to have their stars populate the squad for the 1966 finals in England. Head coach, Vicente Feola, under intense pressure from the clubs, selected an incredible 46 players in the build-up to the ’66 tournament, leading to much conflict and confusion. Worse still, the squad became bloated and complacent.

The opening fixture of their World Cup defence came against Bulgaria at Goodison, where goals by Pelé, who by this time had ascended to be the planet’s best player, and the mercurial but troubled Garrincha gave them a comfortable victory. But the win came at a cost.

The Bulgarians came armed with a plan to deal with the tricks and flicks of the reigning champions – put the boot in. It was just one example of the cynicism displayed throughout the entire 1966 World Cup, often dubbed the dirtiest in history, and it was certainly not the last time Brazil would find themselves on the end of such treatment.

Bulgaria’s bully boy tactics ultimately proved unsuccessful but it did rob Brazil of their talismanic goal machine, Pelé, for their next game with Hungary. The Magyars took full advantage of Brazil’s loss and inflicted a surprise, comprehensive 3-1 defeat on their opponents leaving them on the verge of a humbling early exit from the tournament they arrogantly expected to win at a canter. The defeat also signalled the end of the ageing Garrincha’s international career, the only loss he ever suffered in the famous yellow jersey.

The third and decisive group game would, ironically, be against their former colonial overlords, Portugal. Only victory would be good enough for Brazil. The Portuguese had no previous noteworthy history on the international stage and certainly lacked the pedigree of the Brazilians, but this was a new, classy Portuguese national squad built around the great Benfica side of the 1960’s who were national champions on eight occasions as well as five times European Cup finalists. Spearheading their attack was the up-and-coming superstar, Eusebio, who walked away from the 1966 World Cup as the Golden Boot winner with a stunning haul of nine goals. Brazilian coach, Feola, aware of the predicament his side were in, completely changed his defence and keeper from the Hungary game, and in a desperate last throw of the dice, reinstated a semi-fit Pelé to the starting XI.

Portugal topped the group and were determined, by fair means or foul, to eliminate the Brazilians from the competition and remove one of the major threats to their own challenge for World Cup glory. The ploy was simple; stop Pelé at all costs. The Portuguese captain, Mário Coluna, ably aided and abetted by colleagues (chiefly João Morais), was assigned the task of shackling the great man who found himself on the end of a sustained and vicious attack throughout the game. English referee, George McCabe, failed to provide the least bit of protection for Pelé who had to be patched up on several occasions as a result of being kicked all over the rain-sodden Goodison Park pitch by Portugal.

With Pelé all but out of action and unable to be substituted, Brazil lacked any kind of focus. Their wretched 1966 World Cup campaign was finally dealt the killer blow as Eusebio and co. took advantage of their ineptitude to record a 3-1 win. For Portugal, the brutality was seen as a necessary means to an end. They would finish the tournament in third place – beaten in the semi-final by hosts, England.

Pelé was so enraged at the violence meted out to him he vowed never to play at the World Cup finals again – a decision he mercifully reversed before 1970. It also deprived him of the best opportunity he ever had of realising his dream of playing at Wembley, one of the few accolades missing from his incredible career.

The 1966 debacle acted as a wake-up-call to Brazil. They were forced to rebuild their team, discarding the old guard like Garrincha, Zito and Djalma Santos and developing the side around the new breed – Jairzinho, Rivelino and Tostão. Brazil realised that if they were to recapture what they thought was rightfully theirs, they would have to put together a team of invincibles and not just be reliant on one man with God-given abilities. Although, by the time Mexico ’70 came around, that particular genius would be back to wreak his revenge.

Words by Mark Godfrey
Illustration by Jenks In The Cut