The nine-pass move begins deep in Brazilian territory with centre-forward Tostao tracking back into his own half to retrieve the ball. A neat midfield triangle then sees the ball end up at the feet of Clodoaldo, who dribbles past Italy’s Rivera before drawing in three more Italian players. The defensive midfielder elegantly evades the tackles with a sashay that has gone down in history before passing the ball to Rivelino, who is positioned on the left sideline near the center line. With Italy having lost their shape, Rivelino sends a long ball to Jairzinho further down the line, who then drifts across to drag Italian skipper Facchetti out of position, and then passes the ball to Pele.
Time seems to stop still. Pele calmly holds the ball, even as Tostao, who began the move but is now back in his usual position, alerts the forward to Brazilian skipper Carlos Alberto’s run from the deep. Without looking up, Pele rolls a perfectly weighted pass into the path of the fullback, who shoots first-time. The low curving shot beats the goalkeeper and caps the 4-1 victory in the final of the 1970 World Cup. The goal regularly makes it to many lists as the best in a World Cup and the move, for many, was the defining image of one of the greatest teams to ever play in the World Cup.
You watch the goal and you notice a distinctly different style to their play. The Europeans, even then, preferred a more direct style. The Brazilians, on the other hand, always had a trick or two up their sleeves. The Seleção played with Brazil’s jogo bonito (which is Portuguese for ‘The Beautiful Game’) mentality. They simply danced to a different rhythm. “Brazilian football,” former Brazil coach Joao Saldanha believed, “is a thing played to music.”
It helped that every player in the 22-member 1970 squad played in Brazil at the time. Five were from Santos, three from Botafogo and Cruzeiro, two from Fluminense, Corinthians and Palmeiras, and one each from Flamengo, Grêmio, Sao Paulo, Atlético Mineiro and Portuguesa.
But things have changed now. Perhaps irreversibly so. Brazil don’t play that way maybe because they simply can’t. Their young talent leave their shores between 18-21, finish their development in Europe, are coached and drilled away from Brazil and while it means that they play a very modern and up-to-date style, it simply lacks the flair of the old. When they think football, they think differently.
Eighty-five percent, according to data put out by Fifa, of the Brazil squad that has been named for the 2022 World Cup plays in Europe and of the top 10 teams in the world, Brazil’s number is the smallest. All the other teams, including Argentina, are over 92%. Countries like Mexico (35%), Uruguay (46%), United States (62%) and Iran (44%), who all find a place in the Top 20 of the Fifa rankings, have lower percentages but that is also why they don’t find themselves being fancied.
It isn’t just that either. A total of 73% of the players at the tournament play for clubs in Europe and this is despite Europe providing just 40% of the teams at the tournament. Europe, as it has been for decades, is the melting pot of world football. The best players and coaches make their way to the richest and most prestigious leagues, all of which are in Europe, and that in turn has a trickle-down effect to even the smallest leagues in the continent.
Seven of the last eight World Cup finalists have been from Europe and 13 of the last 16 semi-finalists too. Brazil and Argentina always figure in the favorites debate, but winning the trophy has proved to be a different challenge. The sheer quality in the continent can be gauged from the fact that eight of the top 10 teams in the world are from Europe and Germany aren’t even one of them. Italy, who are the reigning European champions, couldn’t even qualify. Erling Haaland is in the form of his life di lui but will not play at Qatar 2022 as his country di lui Norway did not qualify, despite the big man bagging five goals in six games in the qualifiers. Sweden won’t be there either. Simply put, there are no guarantees.
If all of this wasn’t enough, the UEFA Nations League, which began in September 2018, gives Europe an even bigger advantage. The tournament allows European teams to play competitive matches against each other while the rest of the world (read: not the best either) have to play against each other in friendlies. So, if you were wondering why even international football has a distinctly European feel to it, then that is part of the answer.
Europe, as it has in tennis too, has earned the benefits of the strongest leagues and the strongest international teams playing each other regularly and learning through those matches. The players are able to not just hone their individual skills, but also figure out the team set-ups better and at the World Cup every little thing helps.
One can hope a nicer balance can be found, but the rest of the world has a lot of catching up to do and it won’t be easy to claw back the advantage. It will mean a massive restructuring of leagues across the other continents and the financial muscle required will be immense as well. As things stand, the world will cheer for Brazil and Argentina as their representatives because, to rephrase former England striker Gary Linekar’s quote, “Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, in the end, the Europeans always win.”