1982: Why Brazil V Italy Was One Of Football's Greatest Ever Matches

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The Brazil team that travelled to Spain for the 1982 World Cup was the Avengers Assemble of football teams: arguably the greatest collection of individual talents ever to grace a tournament pitch.

When they played Italy, it was a clash of styles that produced the greatest game in World Cup history: daring and flamboyance matched with caution and cunning. Football would never be the same again – and it was a life-changing match for many of us watching, too. 

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A kite twerks erratically in the warm, turgid air. Its body is green, with a plait of yellow bows trailing off, and as it jiggles through the cobalt sky, past a rare cloud, it calls to mind the Brazilian flag, which is exactly what it is meant to evoke.

A hundred feet underneath the kite stands the Seleção – literally “the Selection”: Brazil’s national team, God's chosen footballers. They have only moved from the changing room to stand just inside the touchline but sweat already pools around the chests of their golden jerseys.

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The mercury has swollen to the mid-thirties this afternoon in Barcelona and inside Espanyol’s Estadi de Sarrià, meant for 44,000, at least 50,000 spectators are jammed in, fanning their match programmes to keep from passing out.

The Brazilians are lined up for the anthems, but it is a wobbly, shambolic squiggle, as if an ordered arrangement would represent an unforgivable submission of individual identity. At one end is Falcão, blue-eyed with blond ringlets, looking simultaneously old and young, like a Charles Schulz character. He is an *estrangeiro* or “foreigner” – one of only two players in the squad to make his living outside Brazil.

At Roma in Italy, he is the best-paid footballer in the world, but he snuck into the team only through Toninho Cerezo’s suspension for the first match of the tournament and then made himself undroppable. Next to him is the “Little Rooster”, Zico.

He grew up playing futsal, the indigenous five-a-side indoor football where the heavy ball pings around ferociously, and his vision and craft is unmatched by anyone at the World Cup. Anyone since Pelé, really.

Éder, the winger, is a shampoo commercial brought to life. On the field, he either stands still or saunters, except when he is taking a free-kick, when his run-up rivals Bob Willis’s. Cerezo, John Motson would inform us, is the adopted son of a circus clown, “but the resemblance ends there: he’s regarded as one of the most talented players in Brazil”.

At the end of the line is the captain Sócrates, known back home as O Doutor, or “the Doctor”, a man who’ll one day be Garforth Town’s finest-ever player. Despite his actual medical training, he’s been a two-packs-a-day man since he was 13 and he’s fond of a drink, too. (He would die in 2011, aged 57, from septic shock that came on after eating beef stroganoff. Make of that what you will.) He has tiny feet and shapely legs, his shiny shorts riding up like coochie cutters.

Brazil’s stooges this afternoon, their Washington Generals, are Italy. The Italians wear gleaming white Le Coq Sportif track tops with blue piping and their coaches look on in preppy, seersucker suits and aviators. The players are a handsome, swarthy bunch, but rather generic compared to the Brazilian mix of short and tall, hirsute and balding, black and white.

Only two are instantly recognisable: the ancient redwood Dino Zoff, Italy’s man between the sticks since Julius Caesar’s unbeaten tour of the British Isles in 55BC; and the number 20 with distinct, sloped shoulders, Paolo Rossi, who is shifty, his eyes darting, like a bad actor playing a drug addict. Rossi only returned to football two months before, following a two-year suspension for match fixing, and so far he has been horribly rusty in the tournament.

As Sócrates and Zoff swap ceremonial banners, separated by the Israeli referee Abraham Klein, no one needs reminding what is being played for: if either team wins, they will have a place in the semi-finals against Poland; if it’s a draw, Brazil progress because of their superior record.

Pleasantries over, Klein dispatches his linesmen, Chan Tam Sun from Hong Kong and Bulgaria’s Bogdan Dotschev, to clear the detritus off the pitch: streamers, flares and inflatable balloons are brushed daintily to the perimeter.

Finally at 5.15pm on 5 July, 1982, Serginho, Brazil’s lumbering striker, clunks the ball to Zico and the greatest match in World Cup history is underway.

As Stand By Me's Gordie Lachance might have said: nothing is as real, vital and gut-churningly essential as those most formative experiences when you’re a child. I wasn’t autistic, but, like many boys, it must have been a borderline classification.

Even now you could hand me Donkey Kong JR on a hand-held Nintendo and, though my reflexes are blown, I could complete it on muscle memory alone. I still remember by heart the phone numbers of a handful of friends from primary school.

And the 1982 World Cup feels like it happened not yesterday, but perhaps last month, and certainly not 32 years ago.

This summer’s World Cup in Brazil will, of course, be required viewing, but I wonder how long the matches and the players will stay in the memory. This says something about me and something about the tournament.

Globalisation’s creep means that the stars of 2014 will mostly be familiar to us already, and the pre-eminence of club football and the Champions League can sometimes make the World Cup feel like an unwanted delay on a player’s summer holiday.

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Football has become a ravenous commercial beast, and a theoretically Corinthian endeavour like the World Cup has had to adapt to this reality. So it is that the Itaquerão stadium in São Paulo, which hosts the opening match on 12 June, can be described in The New Yorker by the man building it as “the best, biggest shopping mall in the world, with a soccer field in the middle.” Nike estimates it will flog more than one million England shirts.

Back in 1982, if you wanted to buy a replica kit, you most likely had to travel to Soccer Scene on Carnaby Street. I was seven-and-three-quarters years old when the tournament began and so I was able to devote my full obsessive personality to it. Unlike ’78 and ’86, it was held in Europe, so the matches were all played at sociable hours.

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My parents were embarking on a messy divorce, which left no one to admonish me for going square-eyed in front of the television or to insist that I took advantage of the summer that was rumoured to be taking place outside. When games weren’t being played, there were Panini albums to fill, football annuals to consult, all while “This Time (We’ll Get It Right)” played on an infinite loop.

Football will never again be so exotic: the rectangular goal-netting that was pitched like a fancy tent; the Adidas Tango España, the last leather World Cup ball, so much less humdrum than the Mitre Ultra boulders we were used to.

But mostly, it was the players I was obsessed with, specifically the Brazilians. By 1986, several of them would have ventured to play in Europe – Zico, Sócrates, Júnior among them – and we would learn that they could also be feckless and lazy and maddening.

But four years earlier, they retained the mythological status of folk heroes. We saw them at the World Cup and then poof! They disappeared, and all that was left was grainy VHS footage.

The little their opponents knew about them must have been paralysing. In May 1981, the Seleção beat England, France and West Germany, away from home, all in less than a week. In the Intercontinental Cup in December, six months before the World Cup, Liverpool, the champions of Europe, played their counterparts from South America, Brazil’s Flamengo.

That Liverpool team of Souness, Hansen and Dalglish were bastards, mean and relentless, and had won the European Cup three times in previous five years. In front of 62,000 spectators at Tokyo’s National Stadium, however, they endured death by a thousand tiny nicks.

Souness hared around the parched grass trying to kick Zico, Flamengo’s playmaker, but couldn’t get close. By 41 minutes, Liverpool were 3-0 down, all created by Zico, and that was that.

At the 1982 World Cup, Brazil’s opposition faced the bleak prospect that only three of that Flamengo team were deemed good enough to make the squad. Against a perfunctory Soviet Union, the Seleção began scratchily, going 1-0 down after a goalkeeping howler.

But, with quarter of an hour remaining, Sócrates jinked past two defenders and let rip from 25 yards, and then, 10 minutes later, Eder scored an even better one, popping it up with one foot before horse-kicking it into the corner with the other.

Four days later, Brazil played Scotland, facing up once more to the Liverpool trio of Souness, Hansen and Dalglish. Again Brazil went a goal down, but this time they replied with four: Zico’s free-kick watched motionlessly by everyone on the pitch, including Scotland’s goalkeeper Alan Rough, was the pick.

Brazil put four past New Zealand, and scored three against the world champions Argentina, with Maradona becoming so frustrated that he was sent off for a petulant stomp. This was, without question, the most irrepressible Brazilian team since 1970, and perhaps these players were even more free-wheeling.

Routinely, commentators noted they appeared unconcerned about conceding goals because they believed they would always score one more. In fact, they played like they were oblivious to the existence of an opposition: they never varied their tactics, they just swarmed forward in relentless waves; their self-evident moral, intellectual and aesthetic superiority made keeping score almost meaningless.

In contrast, Italy were dour and unadventurous, the antithesis of Brazil. The Azzurri had impressed no one in Spain: in the opening group stage, they drew their matches against Poland, Peru and Cameroon, and only advanced because they had scored one more goal than the latter. No one, quite sensibly, gave them a hope.

The 1982 Brazil team did have flaws and they were of a magnitude glaring even to a seven-and-three-quarters-year-old. Starting at the back, their goalkeeper, Waldir Peres, was wildly erratic. He resembled the actor Robert Duvall and acted somehow put-upon, as if all the players had agreed to rotate in goal but now no one was taking their turn.

The full-backs, Leandro on the right and Júnior on the left, excelled bombing forwards, but viewed actual defending with the enthusiasm of a teenager made to tidy his bedroom.

This often left the centre backs overrun. Upfront, Serginho was a blunt instrument in a team of scalpels. No one much fancied playing on the right side, so they didn’t, and the whole team had a tendency to start matches groggily.

All of these weaknesses are exposed in the first half of the Italy match. Brazil – as they had against the USSR and Scotland – concede the first goal. It comes after five minutes: Bruno Conti, Italy’s right back, wafts up the field and no one thinks to tackle him; eventually, he passes to Antonio Cabrini, who has as long as he wants to cross to the far post, where Rossi guides a header past Peres.

It looks too easy and it is. At the other end, the best chance falls, regrettably, to Serginho. After a succession of lucky ricochets, he finds himself in front of the goal, 10 yards out, with just Zoff to beat. He scuffs his shot horribly, missing by half a goal again. It calls to mind the damning assessment of João Saldanha, a former coach of the Seleção, after Serginho was subbed against New Zealand: “Now the ball is round again.”

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Brazil is saved, as it always was, by its midfield. There is some dispute over the formation that it played in the 1982 World Cup: Jonathan Wilson in Inverting the Pyramid, his authoritative book on football tactics, described it as 4-2-2-2; in The Guardian, Rob Smyth has called it 2-7-1.

Either way, the system was anchored by two meia-armador, or holding playmakers: Cerezo and Falcão. They in turn released a pair of meia-atacante, attacking midfielders: Sócrates and Zico. Éder was allowed to roam, playing as a false-nine, a deep-lying centre forward mostly on the left, behind Serginho.

When it worked, Zico once noted, the players were perpetually circulating, never assuming a designated position. For Sócrates, it “confounded opponents” and had “a rare structural strength”.

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At the same time that England were engaged in soul-searching over whether it could include one luxury player – Glenn Hoddle – Brazil was accommodating five fantasistas.

After 12 minutes at the Estadi de Sarrià, it clicks. Sócrates picks up the ball in his own half and surges forward. He passes it to Zico, who nips it through the Italian defence with the outside of his boot.

Sócrates powers on and blasts it past Zoff at the near post. A man known for his left-wing views, he celebrates with a raised fist, his trademark homage to the Black Panthers. One-all, order is restored.

Italy’s response to Brazil’s unfathomable attacking formation is il gioco all'Italiana (“the game in the Italian style”), a zonal upgrade of their brutalist catenaccio (“bolted door”) philosophy. Defenders guard their patch ruggedly, and Gaetano Scirea, their libero, sweeps around behind them.

Zico, in particular, is singled out for special attention; his shirt is literally shredded in the first half from the man-marking of Claudio Gentile, who might have at least taken him to a movie or dinner first.

The Brazilians are used to time and space, but for the first time in the tournament, the Italians deny them it. The fantasistas become rattled and mistakes creep in. After 25 minutes, Cerezo knocks a lazy pass across his goal area, Rossi nips in and smashes the ball through Peres’s fingers from the edge of the area: 2-1. And that’s how it stays going into half-time: no mistake, Brazil are in a game.

Brazil’s 1982 team were a tight crew. According to Fernando Duarte’s illuminating new book, Shocking Brazil, the players spent four months together before the World Cup, preparing intensively to make their style look spontaneous.

Sócrates even gave up the booze and fags so that he would be in prime physical condition. But it wasn’t all about self-denial. Brazil teams were famous for their rigid belief in concentração, or “concentration”, which was based on the unscientific belief that Brazilian men couldn’t be trusted not to have wild, ambitious sex before important games.

The only solution, therefore, was a lockdown away from wives, girlfriends, perhaps even vacuum cleaners. Concentração, however, was not applied at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, and the squad had a relaxed, family feel.

The new ambience was, to a great extent, a response to the joyless experience – for players and fans – of the 1978 World Cup. Since 1964, Brazil had been run by a military dictatorship whose grinding, ill-conceived mismanagement would ensure that the country remained a third-world nation into the new century.

Originally, the junta had little interest in football, but the popularity of the wondrous 1970 Brazil team proved an irresistible bandwagon to commandeer. The regime’s involvement became most corrupted when Cláudio Coutinho, an army captain, was made coach of the Seleção for 1978.

Coutinho, never a player at any serious level, believed that hard-earned fitness and teamwork always trumped individual skill, and he proposed that Brazilian teams should emulate the Netherlands’ Total Football rather than relying on its own traditional attributes.

For ’78, he didn’t pick Falcão and Sócrates; he dropped Zico. “The dribble, our speciality, is a waste of time, and proof of our weakness,” he once said.

Coutinho’s fate was sealed not by results, which were decent, but by a near-universal rejection of what he stood for: winning ugly. His replacement in 1980, Telê Santana, was everything he wasn’t.

As a player, Santana had been a flying right-winger and the teams he’d coached played open, pulsating football. His brief was romantic as much as pragmatic: restore Brazil to greatness, reclaim the jogo bonito, or beautiful game.

“That’s why everyone loves 1982 so much because it’s a return to the tradition that the military first tried to steal and then tried to deform,” says David Goldblatt, a sociologist who has just written Futebol Nation: A Footballing History of Brazil.

Santana’s choice of Sócrates as his captain was a pointed one: not only was Sócrates wise and considered on the pitch, but away from football he was a social activist who read Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes and was an outspoken advocate for democracy.

That he was allowed in the team was revealing; the fact that he was their leader even more so. “The military are losing energy; they want to go,” Goldblatt explains. “By 1980, the economy is nose-diving, hyperinflation is on the horizon and they have run out of tricks.

They are not going to turn Brazil into the great continental superpower they imagine they could have done. It’s time to go and Coutinho didn’t work, so it doesn’t look good to do it again. That’s why football acquires a little bit of autonomy from the military in the early Eighties.”

For Brazilians at home, enduring the final throes of military rule, the 1982 team represented escapism. The country’s Congress finally elected a civilian president in 1985 — with inflation at 235 per cent — though Brazilians would have to wait until 1989 for a properly democratic ballot.

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Watching Zico, Sócrates and the rest play like they didn’t have a care was almost enough to forget everything else that was wrong with the country, says Fernando Duarte, who in 1982 was a nine-year-old living in Rio de Janeiro: “Football, and sport in general, is always a way to detach from reality.

And at that time, people were looking for some kind of happiness.” Duarte recalls streets festooned in Brazil’s colours, with prizes awarded to the most original designs. “A lot of people didn’t have the money to decorate, so there would be collections, pretty much passing a bucket round the houses, so they could have a party and watch it together.”

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At the Estadi de Sarrià, the players were in little doubt this was more than a game. At half-time in the dressing room, Cerezo – at fault for the second Italian goal – was sobbing hysterically. Sócrates did his best to console him and inspire the rest of the team. They had 45 minutes to save their World Cup.

The sun is sinking behind the concrete stands, the temperature has dipped fractionally, and Brazil starts the second half brightly. Falcão shoots wide from the edge of the box and the right-back Leandro tries his luck from long range.

Cerezo runs around dementedly, as if determined to single-handedly atone for his mistake. But the Italians stand firm and look dangerous on the counter-attack. Rossi goes down in the box and his doe eyes turn pleadingly to Abraham Klein for a penalty.

Then, after an hour, the same player is through one-on-one against Peres, but side-foots it wide. Gentile shackles Zico so effectively that you forget he’s even on the field.

Zico’s presence is still, however, a factor and after 68 minutes he creates space that Falcão accelerates into. Falcão dummies right and then takes the ball the other way and blasts it left-footed past Zoff from the edge of the box.

It’s a special goal, but the celebration is even better, as he turns and runs straight at the camera, puce-faced, veins throbbing like a competition bodybuilder. (In Shocking Brazil, Falcão reveals that he actually had a gob of chewing gum lodged in his windpipe: what we’d forever interpret as the most atavistic expression of human ecstasy is actually a man in desperate need of the Heimlich manoeuvre.)

Brazil just needs to hold on now to qualify for the semi-finals and Santana immediately replaces Serginho with a midfielder, Paulo Isidoro. But the message doesn’t register and the players keep pushing forward. Zico shoots high and wide, and Éder is denied by last-ditch Italian defending.

Then, after 74 minutes, Peres sloppily concedes a corner; Brazil pack the box with all 11 players, parking the bus, but they only get in each other’s way. When Marco Tardelli shoots from the edge of the box, Júnior is playing two Italian attackers onside and Paolo Rossi has an easy tap-in. It’s his hat-trick and Italy lead for the third time.

The last quarter-hour is frenzied, desperate from Brazil. Éder smashes an absurd free-kick from a full 40 yards. Then in the 86th minute, Italy’s classy playmaker Giancarlo Antognoni scores for the Azzurri and it is – wrongly, it turns out – struck off by the Bulgarian linesman.

With one minute on the clock, Éder crosses and Oscar’s header is smothered by an agile leap from the 40-year-old Zoff. The Brazilians protest, but it is hollow and unconvincing; losing is so unexpected that they have no experience hiding their desperation.

In the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief, Brazil are currently at number three: bargaining. They have been through denial and anger – depression and acceptance are still waiting for them – and they can only hound the referee, imploring him for a second chance.

At the final whistle, it is both the loudest rumpus you have ever heard and an epic, stunned silence. The Brazilians depart quickly from the field, their shirts slung over their shoulders, some kissing crosses round their neck.

Almost unnoticed, that green and yellow kite has fallen to the ground. It thrashes a couple of times like a fish on the deck of a boat, before resting limply on the grass.

I’m not exaggerating to say that Brazil’s defeat by Italy was the worst and most discombobulating event in my seven years on this Earth. My parents’ separation was barely a blip in comparison.

My primary emotion – and I still remember it keenly now – was one of profound injustice. It made no sense: how can you clearly be the best and still lose? Could life really be so cruel?

Speaking to people for this article, conversations frequently descend into 12-step confessionals. Brazilians are aware that outsiders share their outrage, but you can tell they feel we are magpies on their personal bereavement.

“You didn’t lose the World Cup when you were nine!” Duarte tells me, good-naturedly, but with feeling. “It was the first time I saw my father crying, so it was a weird sensation. I never got over it.”

Not long ago, Duarte met Paolo Rossi, who in Brazil they still call “The Executioner”: “It really took me a while to warm up to the guy. I’m never going to get over it because it’s a moment that happened that defines your life. You just want it to happen again so you have a chance to change the story.”

When the coach Telê Santana died in 2006, Sócrates wrote a tribute that described the scene in the Brazilian dressing room after the match. Think, essentially, Goya’s Black Paintings: tears, anger, disbelief. Santana, however, was quietly composed.

When he eventually spoke, he told his players that he was proud of them, they had truly represented their country, but it was not their destiny to win that World Cup. “We gave it our best shot,” he concluded. “The whole world was enchanted by you. Be aware of that.”

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Santana was right: history has been kind to the 1982 Brazilians. When Carlos Verri, better-known as Dunga, the captain of a dour Brazil squad that actually did lift the World Cup in 1994, had the temerity to call them – long before José Mourinho stole his line – “specialists in losing”, he was widely vilified. To this day, the ’82 team are only behind Pelé’s 1970 heroes in the pantheon.

Brazil-Italy did, however, represent a tipping point for the sport. Both Zico and Sócrates described 5 July 1982 as “the day football died”. In Sócrates’s autobiography – still unpublished in English – he explained: “The team's defeat in Barcelona was a crushing blow to the Brazilian style of play. From that moment on the emphasis changed to focus on results.

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"The business side of the game grew frighteningly quickly and money was channelled to the winners, even if they were poor-quality winners. Brazilian football would never be the same again. Even though it is often subconscious, we now try and copy European pragmatism. With that, our game has become more rational and tactically more rigid and it has lost some of the identity.”

The 1982 Brazil team splintered, then disintegrated. In 1983, Zico left Flamengo to join Udinese in Italy. The following year, Sócrates promised a crowd of one and a half million people at a political rally in Brazil that he’d stay in the country if a law was passed ensuring democratic presidential elections.

It wasn’t, and he left with a heavy heart for Fiorentina. Cerezo joined up with Falcão at Roma. Éder did stay in Brazil, but he became known for his explosive temper and was suspended from the national team for pushing a ballboy.

Santana retuned to coach the 1986 World Cup team but, because of injury or loss of form, the only *fantasista* to start the tournament was Sócrates. Zico was patched up from a long-term knee injury to play in the classic quarter-final against France but missed a second-half penalty and Brazil were eventually eliminated in a shoot-out.

Football may have died on that afternoon in July, but re-watching the 1982 match now, it’s clear the cause of death was natural causes not murder. Italy, it pains me to write, won fair and square: they hustled, they fought and they ruthlessly capitalised on Brazilian mistakes.

Three decades on, there is much about the contest that is as anachronistic as the hoardings that advertise pocket calculators. Each goal kick, Zoff calls up Gentile to boot it up the field. The most notable difference from the modern game, however, is the speed of play.

Today’s midfielders typically cover 12 kilometres over 90 minutes; then, players would run around 5km. That afternoon in Barcelona was not a simple question of athleticism trumping creativity, but the realisation that from here on the best teams would combine both.

Brazil ’82 reminded me of watching Anchorman: there was something faintly preposterous in the swagger of those players even at the time. From Sócrates’ exuberant beard and off-field vices, to Éder’s comical free-kick run-up, to the hapless Peres in goal, we would never see their likes again.

If they’d have beaten Italy, it would not have created a blueprint for future teams: it would have merely been a wonderful coronation for a group of outrageous individuals who happened to find their peak at the same time.

Like Ron Burgundy and his team, they had to adapt or be made extinct. They changed, we changed, but mercifully the memories have remained indelible.


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