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At the 1982 World Cup, only one team could beat Brazil—and it wasn’t Italy.

Shock and Awe: Italy’s Paolo Rossi stunned heavily favored Brazil with an improbable hat trick that left the Seleção’s hapless goalkeeper, Waldir Peres, in despair and its cerebral captain, Sócrates, in an existential funk. Illustration by Joe Morse

Shock and Awe: Italy’s Paolo Rossi stunned heavily favored Brazil with an improbable hat trick that left the Seleção’s hapless goalkeeper, Waldir Peres, in despair and its cerebral captain, Sócrates, in an existential funk. Illustration by Joe Morse

 

Once upon a time before football became synonymous with data hounds, FIFA perp walks, VAR time wasters and transfer fees so stratospheric that you could buy yourself a cabinet post in the Trump administration with change left over, there was a team that played the game as freely and exhilaratingly as it will ever be played. Once upon a time, there was Brazil ’82.

Unburdened by the weight of suffocating tactical systems, not to mention excess hair gel, they made it up as they went along. This was football off the cuff, and man, you shoulda been there. All these years later, I still can’t say the names Zico, Sócrates, Júnior, and Falcao without a gaping grin on my face.

For two glorious weeks under a blazing Spanish sun, these sleight-of-foot wizards produced a blur of jaw-dropping back-heels and nutmegs, bicycle kicks and rabonas and dummies, all of it seemingly without effort and all of it—nearly four decades on—preserved forever in mental amber as one of sport’s most enchanting experiences.

Did I mention that Brazil didn’t win a damn thing at the ’82 World Cup?

They say that history is written by the winners, but when you lose as beautifully as Brazil did, “they” are wrong. “It’s like our feet heard music,” said Oscar, Brazil’s center back, “and they danced to the beat.”

Master of the Dark Arts: Italy’s mustachioed enforcer Claudio Gentile, right, came to grips with Brazil’s brilliant playmaker Zico from the opening whistle. By the end of the first half, he had torn a hole in Zico’s shirt that exposed half his torso yet was not carded for his forcible striptease.

Master of the Dark Arts: Italy’s mustachioed enforcer Claudio Gentile, right, came to grips with Brazil’s brilliant playmaker Zico from the opening whistle. By the end of the first half, he had torn a hole in Zico’s shirt that exposed half his torso yet was not carded for his forcible striptease.

 

The music stopped on the final day of the second round—July 5, 1982—at Barcelona’s packed Estadi de Sarriá, where some 43,000 spectators watched Italy defeat Brazil, 3-2. Such are the facts. Still, numerical truths can’t do justice to one of the most thrilling—and paradigm-shifting—contests in the history of the World Cup.

Take those alleged 43,000 spectators. I was in the steamy, bouncing bandbox of a stadium that day, 15 rows up from midfield, and my best crowd estimate would be closer to 200 million. It felt as if the entire population of Brazil had Telêported itself into the Bombonera on an undulating sea of yellow and green. And they were all swaying in rhythmic harmony to a nonstop samba beat, while flags the size of tarps flowed up and down the rows of seats and kites painted in the country’s iconic colors performed step-overs in the sky.

It was impossible not to get caught up in the ebullient mood, and if you happened to be at the center of this euphoria, you wanted—more than you wanted anything, ever—to become one of them, if only for those 90 minutes. And if, like me, you succeeded, you knew without a doubt that the scoreboard at the end of that day lied. Italy didn’t defeat Brazil. In playing with devil-may-carelessness and by relentlessly attempting to out-wow itself, Brazil beat themselves.

Oh sure, there was Paolo Rossi, the most cold-blooded buzz killer in World Cup history, still known in Brazil as “O Carrasco” (the Executioner), scoring his entirely improbable hat trick. But which one of his goals soared beyond the mundane? The free header at the far post? The intercepted pass with only the keeper to beat? The deflected clearance that landed at his feet six yards from goal?

Three lapses by Brazil, three ruthlessly poached goals. Where’s the beauty in that?

The rest of the world (OK, maybe not Italy and Argentina) wept when Brazil were knocked out. For that giddy fortnight, their dancing feet had stretched the boundaries of what we knew to be possible. Had they been less cavalier, had they not approached the Italy match with the joyful nonchalance of young men playing pickup on a beach, caipirinhas in hand, had they simply pulled back on the throttle to preserve a 2-2 draw that would have seen them go through to the semifinals, they would have surely won the Cup.

Instead, that honor went to Italy, and it would be 12 more years before the Seleção lifted the trophy. And by that time the playful spontaneity of ’82 had been leached out in favor of a dour, muscular side embodied by the captain, Dunga, whose idea of attacking panache was a square pass. It was as if that team of bricklayers had scrawled graffiti on Brazil ’82’s Mona Lisa.

“If we had won playing our way,” said Luizinho, Oscar’s partner in central defense, “there would have been no reason for the ’94 team to abandon jogo bonito.”

Every time a World Cup draws nigh, I find myself praying for even 10 minutes of magic that will quicken my pulse the way Brazil did in ’82. And if that makes me a hackneyed romantic, then I’m in pretty good company.

When the reigning Supreme Managerial Being Pep Guardiola was a young boy growing up in Catalonia, he would sit in front of the TV, mesmerized by videos of Brazil ’82. “They were so much fun to watch,” he said. “I knew even then that is how I wanted to play.”

Once he started playing and managing for real, he and his teams personified his idols’ signature qualities: the ease in possession, the quick one-touch passes, the positional fluidity, the poise and skill to wriggle out of tight spaces, and of course, the obsession with attacking and scoring goals. Guardiola just repackaged them into what became known as tiki-taka while adding a dollop of defensive grit and high pressing. Those two modernizing tweaks transformed his teams into more than just a collection of freewheeling entertainers playing for playing’s sake. By building on that Brazilian blueprint, Guardiola forged a cohesive collective that allowed him to actually—you know—win things.

Yet even after he captured the Champions League twice with Barcelona, the Bundesliga four times with Bayern Munich, and the Premier League for as long as he stays at Manchester City, the core of his ethos remains unchanged: How you play the game is every bit as life-affirming as the result.

“People try to judge success by titles and winning records,” Guardiola said, “but just like a good book or a good movie, a team can have an impact on people forever. That was Brazil ’82 for me.”

For me, Brazil ’82 was a harsh reminder that in sports, as in life, heartbreak can be but an afternoon away. I vividly recall that amazing day in the spring of 1982 when my father called to say that his business partner in Barcelona had been able to score us tickets to the upcoming World Cup. I leapt off the couch with all the torque of Pelé soaring to unleash that famous header against England in 1970, only in my case, the result was not a miraculous save by Gordon Banks but a wrenched ankle that required three days of icing. I hate wasting ice on anything other than whiskey.

Our tickets covered three matches—the last game of the second round in Barcelona, one of the semi-finals in the same city, and the final in Madrid. Waiting out the ensuing months with the patience of a 3-year-old, I gave little thought to the second-round game that would pop my World Cup cherry. Though I had covered the New York Cosmos for close to a decade and co-authored a book with Pelé, I had never seen a World Cup game in the flesh as either a journalist or a fan. What were the odds that my first experience would go down in history as perhaps the greatest of all time?

 

In an early indication of its insatiable greed, FIFA had increased the number of revenue-producing teams by 50 percent (16 to 24), resulting in a second-round group that included a three-time Cup holder in Brazil, a two-time winner in Italy, and the defending champion Argentina. The bloody survivor would advance to the semifinals. This was not just your garden-variety Group of Death. This was Zombie Apocalypse.

There are things in life that can’t be comprehended no matter how hard you try to wrap your mind around them—quantum physics, Thomas Pynchon’s later novels, or why Arsène Wenger was still coaching Arsenal in 2018. But Brazil’s not winning the 1982 World Cup? To me that remains the most unfathomable of them all.

They arrived in Spain the darlings of the tournament, having tuned up by laying waste to 20 of their previous 22 international opponents, including, in one statement-making week, England, France, and West Germany. In the first four matches of the World Cup, they scored 13 goals, each more eye-popping than the last. What could possibly go wrong?

I had fallen hopelessly under the spell of Brazilian soccer in 1970 while watching that year’s World Cup final on a closed-circuit screen at Madison Square Garden in New York with my football-mad father. It was my first exposure to the dream team of Pelé, Gérson, Tostão, Rivellino and Jairzinho that would come to symbolize the apotheosis of jogo bonito.

When Carlos Alberto lashed in the fourth goal following a flowing nine-man move, perhaps the most dazzling buildup anyone had ever seen, my father and I were swept up by our singing and dancing Brazilian brethren into a giant conga line that snaked out of the arena onto West 34th Street, sambaing through the gridlocked traffic and drawing quizzical stares from people stuck inside their cars, futilely honking their horns. It was a party you never wanted to end—carnaval come to life in the mean heart of Manhattan. There was no reason to think that my father and I wouldn’t be doing the samba again 12 years later.

“Before they announced the matchups for the second round, we were praying Italy would be in our group,” said Luizinho. You could hardly blame them. After all, this was an Italian side that didn’t win a single game in the opening round—a side that in its first three matches had managed to find the net a whopping two times, one more than Cameroon, to scrape through on “superior” goal differential.

As a measure of how well the Azzurri’s feckless start to the tournament went over back home, La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s pink paper of record, deemed them a “disgrazia” and the government of Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini was nearly hurled into the Tiber River by the intensity of the outrage. Much of the vitriol fell on the Armani-clad shoulders of Italy’s wily, pipe-smoking manager, Enzo Bearzot. Why, the critics shrieked, did Bearzot stick with Rossi as the spearhead of the attack in the face of his striker’s staggering ineptness in front of the goal?

GoloSo!: Sent clear by Zico’s defense-shredding flick, Sócrates kicked up a cloud of chalk as he threaded the ball through the tiniest of gaps left by Italy’s legendary keeper Dino Zoff. The goal evened the match at 1-1.

GoloSo!: Sent clear by Zico’s defense-shredding flick, Sócrates kicked up a cloud of chalk as he threaded the ball through the tiniest of gaps left by Italy’s legendary keeper Dino Zoff. The goal evened the match at 1-1.

 

The 22-year-old star of Italy’s 1978 semifinal World Cup campaign, Rossi had been banned from football for three years because of his involvement in a 1980 match-fixing scandal. The sentence was conveniently commuted just weeks before the World Cup, but it didn’t take Nostradamus to divine that the onetime bambino d’oro was a rusty, busted echo of his former self. Woefully short of both fitness and confidence, the slight, boyish-looking Rossi went scoreless through the first four games and all of Italy begged Bearzot to put an end to his personal reclamation project.

The Azzurri, if not Rossi, finally rediscovered their mojo against the favored Argentines, winning 3-1 in a game that featured the most cynically brutal job of defending in the tournament’s history. At the end of it, Italy’s ironically named defender Claudio Gentile had fouled a curly-haired prodigy by the name of Diego Maradona an astonishing 23 times, roughly once every four minutes, and somehow had earned only a single yellow card.

“Soccer isn’t for ballerinas, “ was Gentile’s mantra, and he enforced it with the predatory gusto of a lamprey eel sucking the life out of his opponent.

To prepare for their game against Italy, Brazil’s manager, Telê Santana, gathered his players at their training camp and had them watch the Argentina match. Santana had publicly scoffed at Italy’s archaic style of antifootball, the dour opposite of Brazil’s jogo-ness. He viewed the matchup as nothing less than a philosophical hinge point in the evolution of the modern game: South America vs. Europe, attack vs. defense, creativity vs. calculation, elegance vs. cynicism, goal-scoring delirium vs. midfield muggings that leave you peeking under your bed for the rest of your life.

In trying to create his utopian ideal, Santana empowered his players to flaunt their personalities, to express their ginga, that ineffable Brazilian exuberance that has always set the Seleção apart. With a glut of fantasistas in midfield—Sócrates, Zico, Falcao, Cerezo, and Éder—Santana built his team not from the front or back but through the middle.

Everything would flow through that “magic square,” and since Brazil believed that possession was their manifest destiny, what did it matter that their big lunk of a striker Serginho had the mobility of a mastodon or that their goalkeeper, Waldir Peres, played as if his hands were slathered in butter? Or that the wing backs, Júnior and Leandro, had as little interest in residing in the defensive half as Jürgen Klinsmann had in Landon Donovan. After all, where is the fun in stopping the other guy?

“Santana was the last romantic in Brazilian football,” Luizinho said, “and he was not about to sacrifice his principles for anyone. So what if the opponent scored three goals? We’d just score four.”

And Rossi?

“He was nothing special,” Oscar observed after watching film of Italy’s victory over Argentina. “He wasn’t a great dribbler. He didn’t possess a hard shot. He didn’t concern us.”

 

My father had booked us into the Avenida Palace, his favorite hotel in Barcelona. All I knew about the place was that the Beatles had pitched up there during their inaugural world tour, along with a small army of round-the-clock security staff to guard them from legions of swooning tweens. No such protection was available for Dad and me, though we would have welcomed it whenever we passed through the lobby. We couldn’t walk two feet in any direction without a desperate-looking Brazilian or Italian, cash in hand, buttonholing my father and begging him to sell our seats.

On the night before the game, a man resplendent in a white suit with a small Brazilian-flag pin in his lapel accosted us on our way to the hotel bar and, without preamble, offered $2,000 for our pair of tickets, the highest price yet—and this time, instead of sadly shaking his head no, my father hesitated. Hesitated so long that I could feel what he was thinking: Why not pocket a cool two grand and watch Brazil tear Italy apart from the comfort of our hotel room? After all, he had been given the tickets gratis by a business associate, and at that point everyone expected the game to be another Brazilian romp. “Dad,” I said urgently, ignoring the anxious would-be buyer within earshot, “please don’t sell! This is our chance for a real father-son bonding experience, maybe the most important one we’ll ever have in our lives!” I had him at “bonding.”

So we sent the guy away empty-handed, much to my relief, and settled into a booth. We were well into our first pitcher of sangria when I sensed danger—in the form of a striking young woman in a dress as tight and short as the blue hot pants the Brazilian team wore on the field. A striking young woman, that is, who happened to be striding purposefully in our direction, her stilettos rhythmically stabbing the wooden floor. In what seemed to be an eye blink, she reached our table and crouched down gracefully by my father’s side. (That’s when I knew she was Brazilian; from my vantage point, I could glimpse her yellow-and-green thong—an accidental peek, I can assure you.) She was whispering something in his ear, and he was grinning—but soon the grin froze on his face as he shook his head. At that, she abruptly straightened up and stormed off, muttering in Portuguese. What the hell was that all about?

“She said I was an attractive man, a very attractive man, and she would like to spend the evening with me,” my father explained, a tad wistfully. “But there was a quid pro quo. She wanted to know if I had an extra ticket to the game. When I said no, I guess she realized I wasn’t so attractive.” I told him how much I appreciated his sacrifice, given that he’d be treating her to my seat, although had the situation been reversed, I might not have done the same. He laughed and ordered another pitcher of sangria.

During the prematch buildup, someone painted a large mural on the side of the building abutting our hotel. It featured the likenesses of Zico and Sócrates. Looming above them were the words “Brazil, Campiones Mundo.”

Wait, Brazil hadn’t even advanced out of the second round. This seemed like a harbinger—of the ominous kind.

I knew that hubris had been the downfall of other magnificent World Cup teams. Hungary’s highflying Magical Magyars, captained by the great Ferenc Puskás, flamed out in 1954, courtesy of Germany. Twenty years later, the Dutch master Johan Cruyff and his band of Total Football revolutionaries had captivated the world with their trademark insouciance before being introduced to the cold, rude touch of the silver medal by the resolute Germans. I fretted that a similar fate might befall Brazil, who regarded victory over Italy as a mere formality, just another samba beat in their inexorable procession to a ticker tape parade in Rio.

“EEE—TAL—YAAA!”: After a dismal start to the tournament that caused the Italian press to label them a “disgrazia,” the Azzurri rediscovered their mojo against Brazil and went on to win the World Cup. Top row from left: Dino Zoff, Giancarlo Antognoni, Gaetano Scirea, Claudio Gentile, Fulvio Collovati, and Francesco Graziani. Front row, from left: Paolo Rossi, Bruno Conti, Gabriele Oriali, Antonio Cabrini, and Marco Tardelli.

“EEE—TAL—YAAA!”: After a dismal start to the tournament that caused the Italian press to label them a “disgrazia,” the Azzurri rediscovered their mojo against Brazil and went on to win the World Cup. Top row from left: Dino Zoff, Giancarlo Antognoni, Gaetano Scirea, Claudio Gentile, Fulvio Collovati, and Francesco Graziani. Front row, from left: Paolo Rossi, Bruno Conti, Gabriele Oriali, Antonio Cabrini, and Marco Tardelli.

 

“Braa-zeeel!”: The Seleção had laid waste to 20 of the 22 international opponents they faced heading into the World Cup and scored 13 goals in winning their first four matches of the tournament. Top row from left: Waldir Peres, Leandro, Oscar, Falcao, Luizinho, and Júnior. Front row, from left: trainer, Sócrates, Cerezo, Serginho, Zico, and Éder.

“Braa-zeeel!”: The Seleção had laid waste to 20 of the 22 international opponents they faced heading into the World Cup and scored 13 goals in winning their first four matches of the tournament. Top row from left: Waldir Peres, Leandro, Oscar, Falcao, Luizinho, and Júnior. Front row, from left: trainer, Sócrates, Cerezo, Serginho, Zico, and Éder.

 

“At the start of training camp,” Oscar recalled, “Telê called us all together on the field and said ‘I don’t just have the best players in Brazil but the best players in the whole world. Now just go out and play.’ ”

Oscar neatly summed up the danger inherent in this motivational gambit: “How could we not be overconfident?”

 

On game day, my father and I foolishly gave ourselves only 90 minutes to get to the stadium across town and, as a result, almost didn’t make the kickoff. The massive influx of Brazilian and Italian fans, only a tiny percentage of whom actually had tickets to the match, slowed everything to a crawl.

As we pushed our way through the teeming mosh pit outside the stadium, I ran into Brian Glanville near the entrance marked “Press”. At once a witty raconteur and cantankerous scold, Glanville was then Europe’s preeminent football writer, his elegant, authoritative articles for the Sunday Times a must-read for aficionados of the sport. As a kid, my room was festooned with clippings of his work my father had brought back from his overseas trips. I was eager to hear what the Bard of the World Cup thought about the game we were about to see.

“Brazil should win easily,” he said, “but knowing my old friend Enzo, he will have something up his sleeve for the Brazilians.”

That something was a born-again Paolo Rossi who, in Glanville’s words, “sprang suddenly and sensationally to life.” Taking advantage of some comically slack marking by Brazil’s defense, Rossi headed Italy in front after only five minutes. The goal elicited no more than a collective shrug from Brazil, who had been behind twice before in the tournament and ended up winning both times. “For some reason, we tended to start our games slowly,” said Luizinho, “We weren’t worried when Rossi scored.” Pablito, however, wasn’t Bearzot’s only surprise. Knowing that Brazil’s creative midfield fulcrum of Zico and Sócrates would dictate the tempo and expect his team to bunker in, he flipped the hoary stereotype of Italy as a risk-averse, defensive monolith on its head by having the Azzurri attack from the opening whistle.

“We didn’t expect them to play so offensively,” Oscar recalled. “But we felt that an open game would be to our advantage. We had so many great attacking players, it was just a matter of time until one scored.”

To be precise, it was just a matter of nine minutes, and not surprisingly, the goal came from the silky interplay of Zico and Sócrates. Known as “the White Pelé,” Zico was heir to the sacred No. 10 shirt and played with a streetwise swagger reminiscent of his fabled predecessor. Brazil had an electrifying run of eight consecutive goals in which Zico either scored or had a foot in making them.

From the moment he emerged from the tunnel, the Brazilian could feel the fetid breath of Gentile on his neck. Just as he did with Maradona, Gentile would shadow Zico everywhere, alternately snapping at his ankles and jabbing him in his back. The Italians believed that if they could keep Zico off balance, they would disrupt the fluid syncopations of Brazil’s attack.

If Zico was the flamboyant heartbeat of Brazil ’82, Sócrates was its cool soccer brain. The tall, bearded, Renaissance man of Brazilian football was simultaneously physician, social activist, philosopher king, and captain of the national team. According to Andrew Downie’s terrific biography, Doctor Sócrates, Sócrates had spent the years leading up to the World Cup self-medicating with alcohol, nicotine, and George Bestian amounts of sex, but Santana convinced him that if he gave up his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit and tempered his cachaça consumption (the manager wisely didn’t bother trying to get him to curtail his bed-hopping) Brazil could win their first Cup in 12 years.

With his 6-4 height and languid gait, Sócrates could lull opponents into thinking there was no imminent threat as he strolled through midfield. Then, just as defenders nodded off, he would ratchet up through the gears and surge past them to deliver a killer ball or let rip a screamer that gave the keeper no chance. Sócrates played with a twinkle in his eye and mischief in his soul. Socra-tease.

Now, in the 14th minute, Sócrates collects the ball near the halfway line and plays it to Zico, who has Gentile draped all over him from behind like something out of the prison shower scene in The Shawshank Redemption. This time, though, Zico spins out of Gentile’s iron grasp with a lightning Cryuff turn and flicks a perfectly weighted ball into the flight path of Sócrates, who keeps running toward the byline. As the lanky Brazilian reaches the right edge of Italy’s box, Dino Zoff, their legendary goalkeeper and captain, advances off his line to narrow the angle.

For a fraction of a second, Sócrates looks away from Zoff toward the middle of the box, as if to cut the ball back to a teammate in better position. To protect against that possibility, Zoff moves a fateful step to his left, leaving the tiniest of gaps between the goalkeeper and his near post. Not many players in the world could thread a shot through that sliver, let alone one that sticks in the memory all these years later. Wedging his right foot under the ball to ensure it has the precise trajectory to avoid Zoff’s outstretched leg, Sócrates kicks up a cloud of chalk before his shot flies past the flailing keeper. 1-1. From Sócrates’s one-two with Zico to the ball nestling in the net took all of eight seconds. Eight seconds of pure, instinctive artistry.

My father is shouting at me. “Did you see what he did there? Did you effin’ see that?”

As the gold-and-green-bedecked fans go mental around us, I can’t help but notice several young women stripping off their halter tops and waving them above their heads as they gyrate to the samba beat. At first, I think they’re just trying to cool off in the searing heat, but the Brazilian man to my left sets me straight: Performing a spontaneous striptease, he says, is the way they choose to celebrate each time the Seleção score. Never in my life had I so badly wanted to see six more Brazilian goals.

Instead, moments later, Brazil’s flaws and folly are laid bare when Cerezo, finding himself 30 yards from his own goal, hits a lazy Sunday-morning square pass in the general direction of a pair of unsuspecting Brazilian defenders who are idly discussing their favorite bossa nova tunes. Punishment is swift and merciless as Rossi nips in front of them to hammer the ball past the hapless Peres. Italy leads, 2-1.

Brazil should have leveled just before half when Zico wriggles free of Gentile’s clutches, only for the Italian to grab a fistful of the Brazilian’s shirt and yank him backward just inside the box. It looks like a stone penalty, perhaps even a red card, but the linesman had flagged Zico for being offside before Gentile fouled him. Enraged by the call, Zico storms over to referee Abraham Klein and points to his shirt—or what was left of it after Gentile had nearly ripped it in half. A no-nonsense Israeli who is exercising as firm a grip on the game as Gentile did on Zico’s shirt, Klein impassively listens to the Brazilian’s tirade, then suggests he find another jersey.

“Gentile, Viado! Gentile, Viado!” the irate Brazilian fans begin chanting. At the time, I had no idea what viado meant but I had an inkling it wasn’t a compliment. Still, if I am to be a Brazilian that day, I have to be all in. Which is how I wind up howling this Portuguese epithet that I later discover translates rather politely to “Gentile is a sissy boy.” As much as I enjoy the newfound camaraderie with my Brazilian homies, I doubt I’d be uttering those words if Gentile’s cleats were anywhere within the reach of my ball sack.

By halftime, Brazil are behind, 2-1, but unruffled. “The atmosphere in the dressing room was the same in our previous games,” Oscar remembered. “No finger pointing, no criticism of our play. Cerezo was upset with himself for the bad pass, but Sócrates put an arm around him and said to forget about it. Telê was very calm. He thought Rossi had scored two easy goals and that Italy were lucky to be leading. He said we should just continue doing what we were doing and we’d score more.”

As the players run out for the second half, thunderous chants of “Braa-zeeel” ring down from the yellow-and-green faithful. The Seleção respond by wheeling out their party tricks. They may be trailing in a World Cup game of huge magnitude, but damn if they’re not going to enjoy themselves. Cerezo almost redeems himself with a 40-yard run from midfield, but his first-time shot is brilliantly blocked by Zoff, who comes racing off his line to hurl his creaking 40-year-old body at the Brazilian’s feet. Then Serginho, of all people, impudently back-heels the ball toward goal, only for Zoff to make a last-ditch kick save.

The pace is unrelenting, the ball moving at Xbox velocity up and down the field. At times, it appears Brazil are playing in a 2-0-8 formation as the wingbacks romp down the flanks and the deep-lying midfielders scamper up the middle.

The breakthrough comes in the 68th minute when Júnior, the marauding fullback who never met an overlapping run he didn’t like, cuts inside from the left and sends an outside-of-the-foot, cross-field pass to Falcao at the right corner of the Italian penalty area.

The world’s highest-paid footballer at the time, Falcao was the only member of the Seleção to play for a club outside Brazil. The fact that he made his living in Italy, where he was known as the King of Rome for leading AS Roma to the Scudetto, was a source of constant amusement to his teammates. “We were always kidding him about being a foreigner,” said Oscar, “but maybe we should have taken him more seriously when he said before the game that Italy’s players are better than they had shown so far in the tournament.”

And now Falcao faces a blockade of those players as he nervelessly jinks across the edge of Italy’s penalty area. Dropping his shoulder a few millimeters, he sells them the subtlest of dummies and pulls the ball back sharply to his left foot. By the time Zoff can get a good look at Falcao’s swerving thunderbolt, the ball is nestled in the back of the net.

At which point, an older woman directly in front of me, her face painted green and gold and a crucifix dangling from her neck, throws her arms heavenward as she sways back and forth, thanking the Lord: “Obrigado, Senhor! Obrigado, Senhor!”

With 22 minutes remaining, it’s 2-2 and all Brazil has to do to advance to the semis is protect what they have.

“Playing for a draw never occurred to us,” said Luizinho. “It’s not in the Brazilian mentality.”

“When Falcao scored, we all said, ‘OK, now let’s go and win it,’ ” said Oscar. “But in pushing everyone into the attack, Luizinho and I were the only defenders left in our half and we were screaming ourselves hoarse at Júnior to get back.”

After Italy launched a swift counter and Peres made a hash of a routine save, the Azzurri earned a corner—incredibly, their first of the game. Brazil packed the penalty area with all 11 players, making it even more congested than the streets on the way to the game. When the ball came in, no one in a yellow shirt was able to clear it properly and it caromed out to Marco Tardelli on the 18 yard line. His shot was deflected and fell fortuitously to the feet of…do I really need to tell you?

“All Rossi’s goals were essentially tap-ins,” said Luizinho. “How do you prepare for that?”

After that, it is almost painfully predictable. Brazil floods forward, attacking with nine players, but the Azzurri, led by a heroic Zoff, holds them off.

There is one last chance for Brazil. It comes in the 88th minute, after Éder has been fouled on the left wing. The midfielder curls the ball beyond the far post, where Oscar is waiting to thump a header toward the opposite corner. Zoff plunges to his left but can’t hold the ball and for a split second it’s loose on the doorstep of World Cup immortality.

“If only someone was there to poke it in,” said Oscar, “I believe we would have gone on to win the Cup.”

But Zoff recovers instantly, stopping the ball squarely on the line before pulling it into his chest like a man rescuing a baby from a burning building. The Brazil players raise their arms to signal a goal, but Klein has an excellent view, and after checking with his linesman, he rules the ball hasn’t crossed the line.

Two minutes later, it’s all over, and ecstatic cries of “EEE—TAL—YAAA! EEE-TAL-YA,” reverberate throughout the stadium. I watch forlornly as the triumphant Italians go batshit-crazy on the field and Bearzot rushes out of the dugout, arms flung wide. I fully expect him to wrap them around Rossi, whose hat trick has so spectacularly repaid the manager’s stubborn faith. But the first player he embraces isn’t Rossi. It’s Gentile, who has made Zico his bitch for most of the match. So rapturously does Bearzot bear hug his thuggish defender that he is rewarded for his passion with a pair of broken aviator shades. You’d think Bearzot would have known that no one gets that close to the Black Beast without suffering some sort of damage.

Joy to the World: Brazil fans celebrate their team’s goals with more naked emotion than any other supporters. Here they are going mental after Sócrates equalized in the first half.

Joy to the World: Brazil fans celebrate their team’s goals with more naked emotion than any other supporters. Here they are going mental after Sócrates equalized in the first half.

 

Meanwhile, on the Brazilian side, the jubilant shirt-doffing has been replaced by stunned disbelief, as the fans try to grasp what has just occurred. Eventually they begin to rise from their seats and shuffle wordlessly, in what seems like slow motion, toward the exits, their sadness palpable. But I stay put, too numb to get up. By the time I am able to summon the energy to move, my section is deserted, save for a single object. It is one of those bright yellow-and-green kites that were pirouetting in the sky at kickoff and now lie on the ground, mangled and abandoned. Maybe, like the team it stands for, the kite has flown too close to the sun.

In São Paulo this past December, the ’82 legends were honored at an ESPN awards ceremony. In a procession of grandfatherly beer paunches and gleaming pates, the players made their way to the stage as their respective World Cup highlights flashed on a giant overhead screen. When it was Oscar’s turn, he paused, just so briefly, before gazing up at the flickering images. In the intervening 35 years, the 63-year-old has gone to great lengths to avoid watching a game that many consider an all-time classic.

“I played in it and knew how it ended, “he said. “Why relive the trauma?”

Now, as he walked to the stage, trauma was staring at him from the screen. He saw himself climbing above the Italy defense and powering the ball toward goal.

“At first, I flinched,” he said, “but the rest was exactly as I remembered it. Cerezo screened my marker so I’d have a clear shot at the ball. I got good contact with my head and for a moment I thought the ball was going in. Afterward, Zoff told me that the time between his save and the referee saying it wasn’t a goal were the longest 30 seconds of his life.”

Since then, wherever Oscar goes in Brazil, he is inevitably asked about the last-minute header and how only a matter of inches separated the Seleção from World Cup salvation.

“Many people have convinced themselves that the ball had crossed the line and we should have advanced,” he said, “but I was right there and Zoff trapped it before it could crawl over. Sometimes, it’s just not your day and you have to accept it. We hit the bar. We hit the post. And maybe we weren’t humble enough. But in the end, I have no trouble sleeping at night. We played the way we wanted to play, and history will remember us for that.”

I can’t speak for history. I can only speak for myself.

Obrigado, Brazil ’82.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Obrigado, too, to Wilson Egidio, one of the U.S.’s elite youth soccer coaches, for arranging and translating the interviews with Oscar and Luizinho, his former club teammate in Brazil.

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