ESPN were showing this game and I like it. I can write about what I want.
Brazil is a strange, spoiled footballing nation where a team of losers are rated higher than the side Carlos Alberto Parreira won the World Cup with in 1994. That 1982 side weren’t half good though, eh?
Toninho Cerezo had been suspended for Brazil’s opening game against the USSR, but his replacement Falcao played so well he couldn’t be dropped. Coach Tele Santana opted to do what Mario Zagallo did in 1970 and simply left the players to it, sitting two registi behind attacking midfielders Socrates and Zico, putting Eder in a sort of outside left position (truthfully this role only really exists in Brazilian and Italian football, meaning there’s no name I can give you to explain it if you are not already aware of it, so you are better off watching the game and seeing it for yourself – Antonio Cassano played this sort of role at Sampdoria, neither winger, trequartista or striker) while Serginho led the line.
Serginho was initially heavily criticised and blamed for Brazil failing to win the 1982 World Cup, but over time his role has been revised to a more Emile Heskey-style puzzle piece. He wasn’t the most technically gifted of players and didn’t really belong with the likes of Zico and Socrates, but he worked hard and provided the Brazilians with a needed outlet. Basically: he wasn’t that bad, but if Careca or Reinaldo had been fit he wouldn’t have been in the side. Tim Vickery probably said it best: “He was a fearsome prospect: huge, physical, aggressive. Knowledgeable people I talk to in Brazil say that he was no joke at all â€“ play with two wingers and get service into the box and he would attack it and score goals. What he couldn’t do, though, was combine with the super-skilled midfield that Brazil played in 1982 â€“ he simply didn’t have the technique for it. Although he wasn’t first choice, I think we have to blame Tele for asking a player to carry out a function that he wasn’t cut out for.”
With the team looking a bit narrow, it was up to Junior and Leandro to provide width from full-back, just as Carlos Alberto and Nilson Santos had done before them, although the fluidity the team showed meant this wasn’t always necessary. Zico would pull wide, join Serginho or interchange with Socrates; Falcao, or even Junior at times, would move into Socrate’s position, and Eder would move from centre forward to the wing and back again, while the full-backs bombed down the wing. It was the classic Brazilian box formation, a 4-2-2-2, although many would argue the start of the box were there only to make up the numbers.
Not so for the Italians. Playing up to stereotypes, they based their game on a strong defence, adapting the now outdated catenaccio system to the modern game with the zona mista. The catenaccio system had been exposed as inefficient against fluid systems when the Netherlands showed the world total football, so rather than rigidly man-mark their opponents, they marked zonally, ensuring they wouldn’t be pulled apart by the opposition’s movement yet keeping the same shape. Gaetano Scirea – possibly the greatest libero football has ever seen – swept up behind Claudio Gentile, fresh from dominating Diego Maradona against Argentina and now tasked with stopping Zico, and Fulvio Collovati; Antonio Cabrini played as a left-back given the license to attack, while Bruno Conti patrolled the whole of the right flank on the other side; Gabriele Oriali played at the base of the midfield with Mario Tardelli and Giancarlo Antognoni ahead of him; Francesco Graziani played just off the out-of-form Paolo Rossi, who had just returned from his ban for the Totonero betting scandal and looked out of shape, having to be substituted in two of Italy’s games and failing to score at all.
The opening few minutes consisted of the Brazilians keeping possession yet even at this early stage, the Italians looked sharp, regularly snatching away the ball with a brilliantly timed interception, while the Brazilians looked out of sorts, Socrates overhitting a pass to Eder wide left and Junior hitting a pass straight to Conti, miles away from any Brazilian players.
After just five minutes, Italy took the lead – Conti advancing most of the way down the wing unopposed, before cutting inside and hitting a crossfield ball to Cabrini with the outside of his foot. Cabrini took two touches then sent in a cross for Rossi. Both Italian strikers moved cleverly: Graziani ran from in front of Oscar to Luizinho, distracting him enough to allow Rossi to pull wide into space, Junior failing to make it back in time to stop him from heading home.
As Jonathan Wilson pointed out, “had Brazil scored an early goal, Italy could easily have wilted, their system and their mentality not equipped to be chasing a game” yet they had the lead, thus the control of the game, so Brazil had to up the ante. Minutes later, Socrates slipped a through ball between Italy’s midfield to Serginho in a moment that partially summed up his place in the team at his worst. His touch was poor, bobbling up to allow Cabrini to knick the ball from behind him when he tried to turn past Collovati, the ball fell to Scirea who tried to clear it but, with little space, it cannoned back off Collovati to Zico whose touch set up the advancing Serginho for a shot. He missed. Dreadfully. “The sort of miss that a Sunday morning player shouldn’t have been guilty of” according to John Motson. Still, it was a chance, and it was chances Brazil needed, they just hopefully wouldn’t fall to Serginho next time.
Another few minutes passed, then Brazil got level again. Socrates dropped deep to pick up the ball from a throw in by Leandro, advanced, slipped a through ball to Zico, who expertly twisted away from Gentile to knock a ball into the space behind Gentile for Socrates, who had continued to stride forward and hit a low shot past Zoff at his near post. Although the scores were level, it was advantage Brazil, only needing a draw to advance to the next round and just generally a much more comfortable attacking team.
In the immediate aftermath of the goal, the Italians looked to break up Brazil’s rhythm by any means they could find – so fouls. Junior was tripped up by Oriali and the inaptedly named Gentile crashed straight through the back of Zico to earn himself a yellow card. It didn’t really work though, the quicker tempo required to stop – or kick – Brazil leaving some gaps in the Italian defence. Like Socrates had done for the goal, Falcao picked the ball up and slotted a through ball for Zico, who once again shrugged off the now cautioned Gentile to hit a ball into the gap he had just left for Falcao to pick up. Luckily for Italy, Cabrini noticed this and did enough to force Falcao wide. This tempo was dropped near immediately, suggesting it may just have been a way of regaining Italy a foothold in the match and in this regard it worked – Brazil were in control but Italy were coping.
Brazil passed and they passed and they passed, they created a half-chance, Italy would pass it for a bit with little threat, Brazil would get it back then pass some more. While the Italians looked nervy when they got the ball the ball, seemingly scared of giving it back, Brazil looked so casual. Sometimes, however, that casual passing can come across as a bit arrogant, and it certainly did when, 25 minutes in, Cerezo lazily hit a square pass in the general direction of either Falcao or Luizinho, but, crucially, not directly to either of them. Neither moved to get it, presumably thinking it was intended for someone else, until Rossi pounced, slipping away from the challenge of Luizinho to finish clinically.
This time the Italians held out and, as time started to run out, Brazil didn’t seem quite so casual. With them forced into pouring men forward, the Italians were now finding it much easier to create their own chances, particularly on the counter, but they also looked far more comfortable passing it around, simply keeping it away from the Brazilians to kill off the game. None better than when, mid-way through the second half, Graziani evaded the challenge of Falcao, drawing three Brazilian defenders towards him, and crossed for a completely unmarked Rossi, who messed up the finish.
Of course, Brazil did manage to score again: Falcao hitting a rocket of a shot from the edge of the area. The outside run of Cerezo opened up space for Falcao to shoot by dragging Tardelli away to follow him, but Falcao’s brilliance and the way no one really looked to close him down makes you think he would have scored it regardless. If anything, the run makes the goal more impressive, showing how great both Falcao and the rest of that side were.
In the minutes that followed, Brazil showed their control again, creating two good chances, but a run down the wing from Antognoni won Italy a corner. Conti took the set-piece, two Brazilians tried to head it away but the ball fell to Tardelli to hit on the volley – Waldir Peres seemed to have it covered until the lurking Rossi flicked it the other way at the last moment for his hat-trick, Junior slow to push out, playing him onside.
Momentum shifted straight back to Italy and, despite Brazil being more desperate for a goal than ever, they looked more comfortable than they had for the rest of the game, shutting down Brazil’s attacks with brutal effectiveness. They even managed another goal, Antognoli finishing a neat counter only for it to be ruled offside.
It was most probably the greatest match in World Cup history. It was a game in which countless milestones could be set, in which numerous tactical points could be raised. I’m not going to do that as I see little need to. There’s no greater point in the background of this article, I just happened to record it and figured it would be of interest to some of you. What I will however say is this: the blame for that Brazil side failing has been really unfairly attributed. Hugh McIlvanney claimed Serginho “probably meant the difference between winning and not winning the championship” which, as partially outlined before, is incredibly harsh on the striker. It’s true that if he had converted his horrible miss Brazil would have advanced, but it’s also true that he worked hard and provided a needed outlet and very few other chances fell to him, yet the other attackers don’t get lambasted as much for not finishing theirs (admittedly, his was much easier…).
Brian Glanville also pointed his finger at Serginho, but also at the defence, another common target, saying it was “the game in which Brazil’s glorious midfield, put finally to the test could not make up for the deficiencies behind and in front of it.” Again, there’s much to agree with in the statement: the defending for the first and third goals was awful and Brazil’s midfield controlled the game, scoring and creating many chances. What he neglected to mention however was that Brazil’s defence was put under more pressure to allow the midfield to play as it wished. For the first goal, Conti was able to advance most of the way down the right flank because he had no winger as a direct opponent to stop him, and Antognoni faced the same situation when winning the corner that set up the third, while the blame for the second goal lays squarely at the feet of Cerezo, unlike the ball for his pass to whoever its target was. The Italians faced the same problem as them of course, but then Cabrini and Conti were better defensively than them. Yes, Brazil’s defence was shoddy, but if their midfield was going to leave them exposed, that midfield had to create more goals than what their opponents could otherwise they were just as much to blame.