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When the magical and mononymous men from Brazil appeared from another world in 1958, they played football in a way no one ever knew it could be played.

Illustrations by Anthony Gerace

Illustrations by Anthony Gerace

There are two kinds of sporting history. The first is the factual kind: what actually happened, what the athletes actually did, what they were really like. The second is legend: what we think happened—the sorts of deeds we long to be a part of, enacted by the sorts of people we long to be. It hardly needs saying that there is more truth in the legend than the fact, for it is by means of legend that we try to understand ourselves.

The deeper the events and the participants lie in the past, the greater the power of their legends, like the Wild West. Legend thrives on the shortage of hard facts and real personal experience, but it can’t develop without wondrous deeds.

It’s harder to find a legend these days. There’s so much information. Everybody who’s anybody in football is out there performing for us every week. If you miss the match there are a hundred ways of catching up. The latest masterpiece from Lionel Messi or Kevin De Bruyne is only a few clicks away.

The greatest legend in all football—and the competition for that accolade is pretty intense—is Brazil. The Brazil of Pelé. And it sprang from almost complete ignorance. All we had, back then, was the whisper of wondrous deeds performed by impossible men with cool names. We knew, without ever seeing, that this had to be the greatest thing football had ever seen—or ever would see.

And perhaps we were right. We were entitled to one football match a year on television, the FA Cup final. Back then, even the players who played in London were more or less legendary figures: Danny Blanchflower, Billy Wright, Bobby Charlton. We talked about them in the playground at school: I remember the kudos won by the boy who claimed he’d had tea with the Spurs goalie Bill Brown.

Somehow we picked up tales of football played in a fashion beyond our imagining. Brazil! It was a place of impossible heroes who performed impossible deeds, a place like Brobdingnag, Middle-earth, Krypton. We couldn’t see the footballers, of course, save on occasional five-minute clips on Sportsview: black-and-white action from a match apparently played in a snowstorm. Instead we had a legend of perfection and glory.

The World Cup of 1958 took place entirely in the arena of the imagination. We knew that these amazing human beings—if human they were—played their football not in plain colors but in canary and sapphire. What’s more, most of the players were—it was hard for us to believe then—black. Black men playing football: How could such a thing come to pass?

Mass immigration from the West Indies was just beginning. Now we were faced with a far-off race of supermen who could play football in a way that no one ever knew football could be played, men in canary and sapphire who could make a football sit up and dance, or fly like an arrow into the goal.

We knew but never saw the great Brazil team of 1958. They won something called the World Cup. They were the best in the world, the best ever—and the best player was only 17. He scored six goals in the World Cup finals, three in the semis against West Germany, two more in the final against Sweden. He, of course, was Pelé.

The World Cup of 1962 was equally mysterious: a great event that took place in the shadows. Of course, Brazil won it again, even though Pelé was injured for most of it. England were playing in that tournament. I remember the sense of sumptuous inevitability. England were beaten by Brazil, 3-1, with Garrincha scoring twice.

Garrincha Smith? Jimmy or Bobby Garrincha? No, just Garrincha. The same way it was just Pelé. They no more needed a second name than Hercules or Odysseus did. Brazil went on to beat the hosts, Chile, in the semis and then Czechoslovakia in the final. That, it seemed, was the natural order of things.

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It was around this time that strange things began to happen in England. My mother started putting garlic in the food—also herbs. People began to make a fuss about coffee: Apparently the instant stuff we had drunk for years was no good. Our wealthy friends had a bidet installed in their bathroom—the glamour of knowing such people!

Everything, it was generally agreed, was better abroad. The French were truly civilized. They ate better, drank better, thought better, lived better, did sex better. You could get French cheese if you knew where to look: Boursin, Port Salut, Brie. Everything to which a wise, civilized person aspired was French.

The same emotion was now rampant in football, but it was Brazil, not France. Here was a legend of joy, in which impossibly great players learned the game in the sunshine on Copacabana Beach. We English, we played on mud, in wind and rain and snow, and could scarcely move, so we just thumped the ball and kicked one another. But in Brazil—Brazil!—they danced for happiness, and the ball danced with them.

The 1966 World Cup finals were to be held in England. Of course, England, so dismally mud-bound and ineluctably provincial in all they took on, couldn’t possibly win. It was a question of by how much Brazil would win. Naturally, Brazil won their opening match against Bulgaria, with stunning free-kick goals from Pelé and Garrincha. All seemed on track.

But then Brazil lost to Hungary in a cracker, with Pelé injured and absent, and that’s when they panicked. They made seven changes for their last group match against Portugal, and lost that too. By this time there was a growing suspicion that the home nation might play some small part in this tournament.

Of course, England went on to beat West Germany, 4-2, in the final. And that victory polarized the ways we look at football: the Brazilian way and the English way. It was part of English football for the next 25 years. While some insisted that skill mattered above all, others would clamor for more robust virtues.

A later England manager, Graham Taylor, said: “Our failure has not been because we played for the English way, but because we haven’t. Bloody football should be honest, open, clean passionate. Part of a nation’s culture, its heritage, is the way it plays its sport. And the English way is with passion, commitment.”

Perhaps he should have built his team around the former midfielder Glenn Hoddle, who said: “Unlike the Brazilians, we start looking for faults as soon as we recognize a player’s skill. I’ve had it pushed down my throat since I was a kid. Of course the runners and tacklers are part of the game, but people don’t have a go at them if they can’t play 40-yard balls or go past three men at a time. They don’t expect them to do the things skillful players are good at. That’s the way we are in England, and maybe it’s part of the reason Brazil do a bit more than us at international level.”

The World Cup of 1970 looked—at least to us English—like a contest between England and Brazil. After all, between them they had won the previous three World Cups. Here, it seemed, was a rivalry that would run forever.

There is a picture of Bobby Moore, the England captain, swapping shirts with Pelé after the two teams had played in the World Cup group match that year: the black and the white torsos, equally athletic, the mutual respect between the greatest attacking player of his time and the greatest defender. England and Brazil, linked spiritually for all time by the different ways in which they sought footballing excellence.

It didn’t work out like that. Instead the World Cup of 1970 established the legend of Brazil for all time. That legend of eternal greatness for the entire footballing world was especially resonant in England.

Let’s savor that forward line: Gérson, Jairzinho, Tostão, Rivellino, and Pelé. Only five names. Comparisons across the ages never make much sense in any sport, but they scored three or four goals in every match they played, bar one, winning the final against Italy, 4-1.

The one exception was the match against England, which Brazil won, 1-0. It was a match famous for Gordon Banks’s save from Pelé. The match was followed by that see-you-in-the-final moment of footballing brotherhood, but history—as well as legend—now shows that this was the point at which Brazil overtook England. They were never close again. (Instead, and much to England’s discomfiture, the great European opposition to Brazil’s pursuit of global domination of football turned out to be the Germans.)

The legend of Brazil has grown deeper and more vivid as the years pass, the legend of Pelé and his band of one-named heroes. It is Brazilian practice, borrowed from the former colonial power, Portugal, to give everyone three or even four names: given name, perhaps a saint’s name, mother’s name, father’s name. To be known by a single name or nickname is accepted practice. There isn’t much room on the program, still less on the back of a shirt, for Edson Arantes do Nascimento, which is Pelé’s real name—or even for Frederico Chaves Guedes, who is, of course, Fred.

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The coolest name? That has to be Sócrates, short for Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira. He was from the generation after Pelé, and he completed a degree in medicine while playing professional football. He once said: “To win is not the most important thing. Football is an art and should be about showing creativity. If Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas had known the level of recognition they were going to have, they would not have done the same. You have to enjoy doing the art and not think, ‘Will I win?’ ”

That, I think, represents the high tide of the Brazilian legend, the team that mixed beauty with a certain glorious fecklessness. That was when Brazil were at their most exotic, when an absurdly cool giant (he was 6-4) could say such highfalutin things with complete sincerity. This, apparently, was the team that always won—and it did so because it rose above the desire for mere victory. It aimed for something higher: victory was just an incidental bonus.

And if that seems like a despatch from another age, the legend of Brazilian football survives. It has even survived familiarity with the players themselves. “It’s all very well doing those tricks in Rio,” the old school would say when any foreign talent was discussed. “But how do you think he’d cope with a cold winter’s night at Middlesbrough?”

They were to find out when Juninho—Brazil’s young player of the year—incomprehensibly signed for Middlesbrough in 1995. I was there for his debut, to see if Juninho would elevate Middlesbrough to the standards of Brazil, or whether Middlesbrough would have the reverse effect on the Brazilian. It turned out to be neither: Middlesbrough were relegated a couple of seasons later, despite the full-hearted contributions from Juninho.

Soon after this, many Brazilian players began to become figures of daily life, rather than footballers occasionally glimpsed in forays to the slopes of Mount Olympus. The big European leagues are full of Brazilians, and they have good games and bad games like anyone else. When there is a Brazilian playing for Watford, you are beginning to outrun the power of legend.

That’s Richarlison. The Premier League also has Willian, Fernandinho, David Luiz, Roberto Firmino, Gabriel Jesus, and others. Yes, some Brazilian footballers are even offering a second name—what is the world coming to?

But the myth still gives power to Brazilian players and, especially, the Brazilian national team. I was there in Shizuoka when Brazil played England in a quarterfinal of the 2002 World Cup. Had the team been called anything other than Brazil, England would have won.

England took the lead. And they were only 2-1 down with 32 minutes to play when Brazil had a man sent off. Had they been playing the same team clad in a strip of plain red, blue, or white and called Northeast South America or Land of the Nuts, they would have won. But it was Brazil. England knew they were not supposed to beat Brazil. And so with Brazil there for the taking, they failed to take. The legend prevailed where reality fell short.

And the great debate of English football—technique vs. toughness—has been decided for all time in favor of technique. These days center backs—even goalkeepers—can bring a waist-high ball down with a single touch. Skill is no longer considered unmanly in England.

Brazil haven’t won the World Cup since 2002, when they beat Germany in the final. But legends don’t need facts to keep them going. When the World Cup was held in Brazil four years ago, we heard it all again: the free spirits who all learned their football on Copacabana Beach.

It’s a glorious dream, but in reality you’re more likely to see volleyball than football on Copacabana. The great footballing skills are learned not in the sand, where the ball doesn’t bounce and the game is ultimately unsatisfactory, but in ferocious games of futsal, and on hard pitches in local junior leagues.

Perhaps you remember a line from the old western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

As the World Cup gets into full swing, we’ll forget that these days, club football is the priority of both football and footballers, that the standards of top club football effortlessly outstrip those of the scratch teams of the international game, and that the players who line up in canary and sapphire are the same people we watch each week in the European leagues. We’ll watch them step onto the pitch: 11 players accompanied by the memories of Rivellino, Tostão, Jairzinho, Gérson, Garrincha, Zico, Sócrates, and Pelé himself.

Print the legend.

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