Liverpool, 19th July 1966. Last round of the Group Stage. Brazil versus Portugal. Colony versus Empire. A symbolic duel for survival in the World Cup that dated back to the Age of the Discovery. Around 1400, Portugal took the world’s leadership and expanded overseas, exploring African and South American lands for goods such as woods, sugar, gold, diamonds, and other minerals, relying on black slaves to do so.
The match held in Goodison Park featured another mythologic clash: Pelé against Eusébio, two offsprings of Portugal’s Empire. Born in Mozambique, still a colony back then, Eusébio—the 1965 Ballon d’Or winner—came to Europe only days before his 19th birthday to sign for Benfica. After his debut in 1961, he won almost thirty titles with the Encarnados, including a Champions League and eleven Portuguese trophies. Not only is he regarded as the most prolific striker from Portugal, but Eusébio’s impact on the game puts him at the level of the best players ever—alongside Pelé.
The lusophone sides were drawn together in Group Three with Bulgaria and Hungary. Portugal defeated the Europeans easily, while Brazil managed to win against the former and lose to the Magyars. After the defeat against Hungary, Brazil coach Vicente Feola changed the entire defense. Needing to win with three goals’ advantage to proceed to the next round, Brazil pushed forward, but in under a minute Eusébio had already tested goalkeeper Manga with a powerful free-kick shot. The Brazilian struggled to make a save and the defenders revealed their agony as they tried to get rid of it in the box, a foreboding of what was up next.
Portugal, managed by Bazilian Otto Glória, had an aggressive posture, with tight marking and dreadful tackles. As a result, Vicente fouled Pelé so hard that the Rei started limping. Struggling to stay on, he saw Portugal take the lead through Simões and, within thirty minutes, Eusébio doubled the advantage. Brazil was hopeless. Portugal was a better side, tactically organized and ready to knock their opponents down.
Although Pelé could have been taken off due to his injury, Feola kept him on. There was no one to step up and fully replace Pelé in the collective imagination of the opponents, no one to make a proper threat.
One may argue that Garrincha was on the bench—why not use him? Drowned in debts, threatened with jail for not paying child support, meniscus severely injured and with tendon tears: that was Garrincha before the World Cup in England. Not even a surgery could bring him back to a decent level. No wonder he had a bad spell at Corinthians, after leaving his beloved Botafogo—who, financially, never loved him back — in 1965. His alcoholism and eternal childhood were also taking their toll. Garrincha was called up to the squad based solely on past glories with the Seleção, just like defender Bellini and winger Zito. The preparation for England’s World Cup was a letdown.
Jairzinho set Rildo up for a goal to reduce the advantage—a consolation goal, as Eusébio once again found the back of the net. Three to Portugal, one to Brazil. The Europeans would then proceed to their best campaign in the history of the World Cup, reaching the semifinals. This achievement would be repeated 40 years later, in Germany: once again led by a Brazilian coach, this time the last World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari, Portugal would fall down to Zidane’s greatness.
On the other side, 1966 represents the worst result in Brazilian history, in stark contrast to the national public opinion, so certain of the tri, the third success in a row. Two years prior to the World Cup in England, Brazil had undergone a coup, as had other Latin American countries in the 60s and 70s, in the vague hope of eliminating the USSR’s threat. In 1967, though, the military-civic dictatorship got rougher. The elimination against Portugal shamed them all, especially the rulers of Brazil, so keen to use the Seleção as a propaganda trophy.
The preparation for 1970 needed to be different, then, using all the tools necessary to elevate the Brazilian physical preparation, mixing natural talent with scientific methods, which were way more developed in European football back then. The fitness staff decided to bring everyone together earlier in Mexico, to adapt player’s bodies to the altitude and heat, as matches were played in the midday sun. Training also underwent a drastic change in order to learn how to beat 1966’s tactical innovation—the 4-4-2 formation.
In the end, the best team to take the pitch in any World Cup, ever, began that night, 19th July 1966. Thank you, Portugal.