In November 2004, Brazilian football legend Socrates made a famous (and brief) advert for English non-league side Garforth Town. As a football writer for a major newspaper in Brazil, I arrived in the West Yorkshire town to cover the craziness of it all.
The interview with the legendary player – known as the Doctor because of his medical degree but also because of his political commitment – turned into a long after-hours conversation at a local pub. Guards and notepads were down as Socrates, who was always a nonchalant person, talked about football with an honesty that was remarkable even for him.
It was in that entertainment venue, such an unusual place and so far from his comfort zone, that Socrates made a surprising admission: he had never watched Brazil’s 3-2 defeat by Italy The 1982 World Cup – none of it. He just couldn’t stand it.
“I don’t need to go through that game again,” he said. And he probably refused until January 2011, when he died at the age of 57.
“That game” was a World Cup match played on a hot Barcelona afternoon 40 years ago. One of the most revered generations of Brazilian footballers saw their dreams dashed by an Italian side that turned into a contender, with a stunning start behind them on their way to ruin. West Germany in the final.
As time passed, many old Brazilian fans calmed down, but on 5 July 1982 the feeling was that a crime against football had been committed.
In 1982, Brazil was still ruled by the military regime that had seized power 18 years earlier, when left-wing president Joao Goulart was ousted in a coup.
Joao Figueiredo, an Army general, became president in 1979 with the intention of overseeing an easy return to democratic paths, but there were increasing calls for a quick handover at a time when Brazil’s economy was in turmoil.
It was in this context that Tele Santana was announced as the new football manager of Brazil in the early 1980s. Santana was a great player – a winger who scored 164 goals in nine years and the team of Rio de Janeiro Fluminense. He is still their fourth highest scorer.
Santana also built a reputation for fair play. He had never been fired in his 12-year professional career. He demanded the same attitude from his players.
Spain’s 1982 World Cup campaign began with shocking 1-0 and 2-1 victories over Venezuela and Bolivia, but Brazil soon struck a surprise blow at home, defeating the same opponents 5- 0 and 3-1. On the European Tour in May 1981, they raised eyebrows by beating England, France and Germany in the space of a few days.
But Brazil was doing more than just winning. They played a fluid game that couldn’t have been more different than the tactically organized style that had angered fans in the first season of the Premier League.
Pele’s exploits with Brazil at the 1970 World Cup seemed a long-forgotten dream during uninspired campaigns in the next two tournaments, although the team finished in the last four each time. both.
Now, along with Socrates, the Selecao had Zico, the mercurial Flamengo player, pulling the reins. Theirs was a flowing type of football where no player seemed to touch the ball more than twice before passing it. It was fun to watch, and according to Zico, even more fun to play.
He says: “We were adamant that Brazil must follow the method that made it famous. It would be a mistake from the beginning to be afraid of losing or to be a tie to the result,” he says.
“We wanted to enjoy what we were doing. We felt that something really special was happening.”
So have millions of Brazilians. In the streets, there was a noise as if it was preparing for a royal wedding or a coronation. At a time when Brazilian players often plied their trade at home – Roma’s Falcao was an exception – you could meet an international star on a trip to the Rio store.
“The fans wouldn’t hesitate to give us an ear, but at least they got involved with us because we were all playing in Brazil at the time,” Zico says.
“Nowadays players often jump on a plane and fly abroad immediately after playing for the Brazilian national team.”
Expectations around the group were understandably high, and Spain and Brazil opened their World Cup campaign with a stunning 2-1 win over the Soviet Union before beating Scotland 4-1 and New Zealand 4-0.
The competition started with 24 teams in six groups of four. The six group winners and runners-up advanced to the second group stage. The four winners of those three groups would enter the semi-finals.
Brazil found themselves in a group of group winners Argentina and an Italian side that had won all three of their first-round games, failing to get out of a group that featured Poland, Cameroon and Peru. .
Italy’s build-up to the tournament was defined by the circumstances surrounding striker Paolo Rossi. In 1980 Rossi was involved in a match-fixing scheme and his two-year ban ended eight weeks before the start of the World Cup. Manager Enzo Bearzot has however included the Juventus player in his squad.
The coverage in the national media and the reaction of the fans created a sombre mood as they prepared to play Argentina on 29 June. Ninety minutes later they had won their first game in Spain. As Argentina were put to the sword by Brazil in an emphatic 3-1 victory, the stage was set for a decisive battle between two styles of play that could not have been more different.
“You’re playing there. Do you have something to say?”
Santana asked this question at the end of the team talk in Barcelona. Falcao was already worried about the game against Italy at Espanyol’s dilapidated Sarria stadium.
The Roma player would be facing well-known opponents, and he feared that his Brazilian team-mates had the wrong idea of the real danger they posed, due to the start of stumbling.
When prompted by the manager, Falcao expressed his concern about the possible role of Italian full-back Antonio Cabrini, a good player who was very easy to attack. And that defender Claudio Gentile may stick to Zico like glue, aiming to repeat what he achieved against the said Diego Maradona in the previous game.
Italy’s style of play could counter Brazil’s strong commitment to attack. They knew how to shut down and resist opponents – the victory over Argentina showed, a victory that revived them – but they would need to shoot first, too, in order to beat the Brazilians. And their main striker Rossi had yet to score in the competition.
“That Brazil side was out of this world,” Rossi told me in 2006. “They had players who could pass the ball blindfolded.
“As for me, I felt like I was learning to play again after the suspension.”
In the Brazilian camp, the mood couldn’t be more different.
“Some of the boys were laughing at me saying it must have been easy to make a living in Serie A,” Falcao says.
Defender Oscar would remember later that other players were already discussing the weaknesses and strengths of Poland, the opponents waiting for the semi-finals.
Brazil would qualify with a draw – because they had a good goal difference – but Zico remembers: “In the dressing room before the game, Tele (Santana) didn’t tell us that behave ourselves. it was the true Brazilian way.”
Most of the Barcelona crowd had not yet found their seats when Cabrini whipped in a cross and Rossi entered.
Brazil went back shortly after Socrates, but fell behind again in the 25th minute when Rossi latched on to a loose ball at the back of the Brazilian. When they equalized again in the 68th minute, Falcao’s screaming celebration was not only a display of joy but also the urgency of almost choking on chewing gum.
At 2-2, Brazil got the result they needed to advance. But in more than a quarter of an hour, from the Italian corner to win the game, Rossi got his hat-trick. Israel captain Abraham Klein mistakenly disallowed another Italian goal for offside before blowing the final whistle in what would forever be known in Brazil as the “Sarria Tragedy”.
Its legacy can be seen in the pragmatic and physical practices that would become popular in the country in the next generation. When Brazil beat Italy on penalties to win the 1994 World Cup, no one could say they played the same game.
Italy, meanwhile, followed up Barcelona’s upset by beating Poland in the semi-finals thanks to Rossi’s goal before claiming their third world title by defeating West Germany in Madrid. The disgraced striker, who died in 2020 aged 64, also scored in the final (3-1) and took home the Golden Boot.
“Obviously we were disappointed with the result against Italy but everyone had a clear conscience,” Zico remembers.
“There is nothing wrong with losing dignity, it is part of the game. The Selecao were going home but we stood with our faith until the end.”
Falcao, who marked the 20th anniversary of the game by publishing a book commemorating the 1982 campaign, also puts on a brave face in retrospect.
He says: “That team lost that game but won a place in history. I am grateful to have been a part of one of the greatest games of the World Cup.
But some of the group felt deeply defeated, less people than Socrates.
Twenty-two years after the events in Barcelona, on a cold West Yorkshire night, he was still struggling to come to terms with the situation.
“We had a hell of a team and we played happily,” he said, not looking up from the pint glass he was holding.
“Then Rossi touched three times and got a hat-trick. Football as we know it died that day.”