Mario Zagallo was everything to Brazil – his record-setting participation defined the national team

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It’s an origin story worthy of a god.

Mario Zagallo was 18 years old when Brazil played Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final. At that stage, he had not yet signed his first professional football contract, yet he had not even begun to establish himself as one of his country’s most successful – and beloved – sporting figures.

However, he was at the Maracana on that momentous Sunday afternoon in July. He wore the olive green uniform of the Brazilian Army, his military service having given him a front row seat to history. It was expected that Selecao would be ahead in the match. Won their first World Cup title.

Instead, Uruguay won.

Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues called it “our Hiroshima” – a distasteful image that tried to capture the depth of despair. Adults were sobbing in the stands. Zagallo, who had spent countless hours of his childhood kicking a ball around the scrubland on which the stadium was later built, stood there in his uniform, overcome with sadness.

Patriotism and duty were never mere words for Zagalo, who repeated pain as fuel. Eight years later, he played his first game at international level and began a journey that would help make Brazil a dominant power in the sport. By the time he retired from football at the age of 74, he had been involved in four successful World Cup campaigns – a record that would stand for decades to come.

Brazil has had shining stars and many better players. However, no one is as intertwined with the fate of the Seleção as Zagalo. When the eternal Mr. World Cup died Friday night at the age of 92, a small part of Brazil’s national identity went with him.

It was Zagalo’s humility that first led him to greatness. He used to play as a number 10 as a youth, playing in a role behind the frontline, but after achieving success at Flamengo he decided that he could not compete with the best players in that role.

He became a winger. This suited his physique – to use the catchy Brazilian phrase, he was ‘butterfly fillet’, so light that he had to run around in the rain to get wet – but he approached the situation differently than his peers. Explained. While he saved his energy for speedy dribbles, Zagalo made a point of stepping back and helping with the defensive load.

They called him ‘little ant’, perhaps not entirely generously, but his managers loved him. Zagallo helped Flamengo to three consecutive state championship titles between 1953 and 1955 and was the final bolt for Vicente Faiola’s 1958 World Cup team. When Pepe, one of the team’s stars, was out with injury, Zagallo was promoted to the starting eleven.

His tactical diligence proved to be a huge boon for Fiola, as he could be relied upon to make up numbers in midfield when Brazil lost possession. After six games, Zagalo was the World Cup winner and Brazil had overcome its demons.

Zagalo (front row, second right) after winning the 1958 World Cup (Barretts/PA Images via Getty Images)

In the wake of that tournament, he swapped Flamengo for Botafogo, whose all-star line-up – Zagallo, Garrincha, Nilton Santos, Didi, Amarillo – formed the backbone of Brazil’s team for the 1962 World Cup in Chile. Again, the Seleção lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy. Again, Zagalo started every match.

At this stage his legacy would already have been assured. Each of the double World Cup winners of that era is remembered with great reverence and love. However, Zagallo went to the next level by coaching Brazil to its third World Cup victory.

After a successful stint in the Botafogo dugout, he was handed the Brazil job on the eve of the 1970 tournament. It wasn’t the smoothest transition – predecessor João Saldanha was removed from his post after failing to topple Brazil’s military dictatorship – but Zagallo took it in his stride. It helped that he had good relations with many key players, particularly Pelé, whom he guided to the 1958 World Cup and who considered him a close ally.

Brazil was so aggressive in qualifying that most people believed it would be foolish to change things for the World Cup. However, Zagalo had some changes in mind. One was to move Piazza to the center of defence, opening a berth for Clodoaldo, a cerebral midfielder. The second was to include four number 10s – Pelé, Tostão, Rivelino, Gerson – and winger Jairzinho in the same team, a plan that looked strange on paper.

However, Zagalo made it work. Rivelino was moved to the left, allowing freedom to flow inside. Gerson played a different role with Clodoaldo and ran things deeper. Jairzinho went on a rampage up and down the right side. Pelé and the selfless Tostao played centrally, alternating between passing and creating. It was as much a feat of ego management as strategy, which is to take nothing away from Zagallo. That team was his great gift – not only to Brazil, but to football.

It is no surprise that he never reached those heights again. However, further successes followed: Zagallo was Carlos Alberto Perreira’s right-hand man when Brazil won the 1994 World Cup and led the Seleção at the 1997 Copa América.

Zagallo speaking to Brazil players before the 1974 World Cup (Don Morley/Getty Images)

That latter title is best remembered not for the football but for a soundbite that neatly underlined the other side of Zagallo’s personality. He looked like your gentle uncle, but he could be very prickly. After Brazil defeated Bolivia in the final, a wild-eyed Zagallo looked into the lens of the television camera and mocked his critics. His final line – “You have to stay with me” – instantly entered the Brazilian football lexicon.

Whatever feelings there were towards Zagallo over the years – for his exclusion of Romário from Brazil’s 1998 World Cup squad, or his decision to play Ronaldo with a clearly under-performing Ronaldo in the final against France – it has long been Has faded since. What remains is his legacy, which is impressive in both its depth and breadth.

Zagalo starred on two great teams, then built an even better team as a coach. Including his two stints as Perera’s assistant, he played in seven World Cup campaigns, four of which were successful. It is no surprise that his death – a year and a week after Pelé’s – has inspired a comparative outpouring of emotion and mourning in Brazil.

“He was an ambassador of Brazilian football,” Globo’s Carlos Eduardo Mansour wrote on Saturday. “He had an umbilical relationship with the yellow jersey. Nobody liked it more.”

Zagailo said in 2021, “The Seleção was everything to me.” If soccer teams could talk, it would probably return the compliment.

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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