World Cup 1982. Brazil vs. Italy and “the day football died”

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In November 2004, Brazilian football legend Socrates made a famous (and brief) promotional cameo for English non-league side Garforth Town.

An interview with the legendary midfielder, known as the Doctor because of his medical degree as well as his political involvement, turned into a long after-hours conversation in a local pub. Guards and notebooks were down as Socrates, ever the easy-going character, chatted about football with a sincerity that was surprising even to himself.

It was in that pub, in such an unusual place and so far out of his comfort zone, that Socrates made a startling confession: he had never watched Brazil’s 3-2 defeat by Italy in the 1982 World Cup – not one. He just couldn’t stand it.

“I just don’t need to go through this game again,” he said. And it is likely that the refusal remained until January 2011, when he died at the age of 57.

This game was a classic of the World Cup, played on a hot day in Barcelona 40 years ago. One of the most famous generations of Brazilian footballers saw their dreams dashed by an Italy side that changed throughout the tournament, putting behind them a poor start on their way to destroying West Germany in the final.

As time went on, many older Brazilian fans mellowed, but on July 5, 1982, there was a sense 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 leftist President João Goulart was ousted in a coup d’état.

Joao Figueiredo, an army general, became president in 1979 with the mission of overseeing a smooth return to democratic ways, but there were increasing calls for a faster transfer of power during a turbulent period for the Brazilian economy.

It was in this context that Tele Santana was announced as Brazil’s new football coach in early 1980. Santana was a good player, a winger who scored 164 goals in nine years with Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro. He still ranks fourth among scorers.

Santana also built a reputation for fair play. During his 12-year professional career, he was never excluded. He demanded the same attitude from his players.

Spain’s 1982 World Cup qualification began with emphatic 1-0 and 2-1 away wins over Venezuela and Bolivia, but Brazil soon found impressive success at home, beating the same opponents 5-0 and 3-1. They raised eyebrows on the May 1981 European tour by beating England, France and Germany in the space of a few days.

But Brazil did more than win. They played a flowing game that couldn’t be more different from the tactically disciplined style that infuriated fans in the post-Pele era.

The exploits of Pele and Brazil at the 1970 World Cup seemed a long-forgotten dream during uninspired campaigns at the next two tournaments, despite the team finishing in the last four on both occasions.

Now, like Socrates, the Seleção had Zico, Flamengo’s mercurial playmaker, pulling the reins. They had a flowing kind of football where no player seemed to touch the ball more than twice before passing it. It was great to watch and, according to Zico, even more fun to play.

“We were adamant that Brazil stick to the style that made them famous. It would be wrong from the very beginning to be afraid of defeat or to be hostage to the result,” he says.

“We wanted to enjoy what we do. We felt that something really special was happening.”

Millions of Brazilians did so. In the streets, bunting rose, as if preparing for a royal wedding or coronation. At a time when Brazilian players were mostly plying their trade (Roma’s Falcao was a rare exception), you could bump into an international star on a trip to Rio’s supermarket.

“The fans never stopped listening to us, but at least they identified with us because we were all playing in Brazil at the time,” says Zico.

“These days, almost immediately after playing with the national team in Brazil, players get on a plane and fly abroad.”

Socrates
Socrates was 50 when he retired to play for Garforth Town

Expectations for the squad were understandably high and in Spain, Brazil opened their World Cup campaign with a dramatic 2-1 win over the Soviet Union, before thrashing Scotland (4-1) and New Zealand (4-0).

The tournament started with 24 teams in six groups of four. Six winners and group participants advanced to the second group stage. The four winners of these groups of three will compete in the semi-finals.

Brazil found themselves in the company of regional rivals Argentina and Italy, who drew all three of their first-round games, narrowly getting out of a group that included Poland, Cameroon and Peru.

Italy’s preparation for the tournament was determined by the situation surrounding striker Paolo Rossi. In 1980, Rossi was involved in a match-fixing scandal and his two-year ban ended just eight weeks before the start of the World Cup. Manager Enzo Bearzot did include the Juventus striker in his squad.

The country’s media coverage and the attitude of the fans created a sombre mood as they lined up for the game against Argentina on June 29. After 90 minutes, they won their first match in Spain. When Brazil defeated Argentina 3-1, the stage was set for a decisive showdown between two playing styles that could not have been more contrasting.

Italy celebrated the 1982 final against West Germany
Marco Tardelli’s iconic celebration as Italy beat West Germany in the 1982 final

“You play there. Do you want to say something?”

Santana answered this question at the end of the team talk in Barcelona. Falcao was already worried about the winner-takes-all game against Italy at Espanyol’s now-destroyed Sarria stadium.

The Roma midfielder will face well-known opposition and he feared his Brazil team-mates had misjudged the real danger they posed due to their poor start.

Prompted by the coach, Falcao expressed his concern about a possible role for Italian left-back Antonio Cabrini, a skilful player who was quite comfortable in attack. And that defender Claudio Gentile would probably stick to Zico like glue, looking to repeat what he achieved against a certain Diego Maradona in the previous game.

Italy’s style of play can be contrasted with Brazil’s adventurous attacking commitment. They knew how to close down and take on opponents – the win against Argentina showed that, a win that reinvigorated them – but they would also need to fire up front to overcome the Brazilians. And their main striker Rossi has yet to score in the competition.

“The Brazilian side was out of this world,” Rossi told me in 2006. — There were players who could pass the ball blindfolded.

“For me, I just felt like I was learning how to play again after being suspended.”

The mood in the Brazilian camp could not have been more different.

“Some guys teased me and said it was easy to make a living in Serie A,” says Falcao.

Later, the defender Oscar mentioned that some players had already discussed the weaknesses and strengths of Poland, the opponents that await in the semi-finals.

Brazil would have drawn as they had the better goal difference, but Zico recalls: “In the dressing room before the game, Tele (Santana) never told us to hold back. Our commitment was always to go for victory, it was the real Brazilian way.”

Brazil celebrates a goal against Argentina at the 1982 World Cup
Brazil would next win the World Cup in 1994, beating Italy on penalties in the final

Much of the Barcelona crowd hadn’t even found their seats when Cabrini crossed and Rossi headed home. In five minutes, Italy led 1-0, and Rossi broke his duck.

Brazil hit back soon after through Socrates but fell behind again in the 25th minute when Rossi latched on to a horribly lost ball in the Brazilian back line. When they equalized again in the 68th minute, Falcao’s raucous celebration was not only a reflection of joy, but also a desire to almost choke on chewing gum.

At 2-2, Brazil got the result they needed to progress. But with just over a quarter of an hour to go, Rossi completed his hat-trick from an Italian corner, won against the run of play. Israeli referee Abraham Klein then wrongfully disallowed another Italian goal for offside before blowing the final whistle in what will forever be known in Brazil as the “Sarria tragedy”.

His legacy can be seen in the more pragmatic and physical styles that would become more popular in the country over the next generation. When Brazil beat Italy on penalties to win the 1994 World Cup, no one could say they played with the same swagger.

Italy, meanwhile, followed up an upset in Barcelona by beating Poland in the semi-finals with a brace from Rossi before winning their third World Cup title with a win over West Germany in Madrid. The disgraced former striker, who died in 2020 aged 64, also scored in the 3-1 final to take home the Golden Boot.

“Of course we were disappointed with the result against Italy, but everyone’s conscience was clear,” Zico recalls.

“There’s nothing wrong with losing with dignity, it’s part of the game. “Seleção” was returning home, but we stayed true to our beliefs until the end.”

Falcao, who marked the 20th anniversary of the match by publishing a book of memories of the 1982 campaign, also looks brave when looking back.

“This team lost that game, but earned a place in history. I am grateful to have been a part of one of the best matches of the World Cup,” he says.

But some of the team felt the defeat more deeply, few more than Socrates.

Twenty-two years after the events in Barcelona, ​​on a cold night in West Yorkshire, he was still trying to come to terms with it.

“We had a great team and we enjoyed playing,” he said, barely taking his eyes off the pint glass he was holding.

“Then Rossi took three touches and scored a hat-trick. Football as we know it died that day.”

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