On the eve of Brazil’s opening game at the 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden™ the journalist, writer and playwright Nelson Rodrigues made an interesting observation on Brazilian nationhood in his column for the magazine Manchete Esportiva. It was his belief that in the wake of the shock defeat to Uruguay at the 1950 world finals, the so-called Maracanazo, the country had succumbed to what he termed a “mongrel complex”, the unshakeable belief that Brazil was inferior to the rest of the world.
“When the Brazilian footballer shakes off his inhibitions and reaches a state of grace there is no other player in the world that can match him in terms of fantasy, improvisation and invention,” wrote Rodrigues. “We have, in short, an excess of talent. The national team’s problem isn’t about football any more, or technique or tactics. It’s problem is self-belief. Brazilians must convince themselves that they are not mongrels and that they have more than enough ability to go to Sweden and succeed. To be or not to be a mongrel: that is the question for the national team.”
As was invariably the case, Rodrigues had hit the nail on the head. When Brazil defeated the host nation 5-2 in the final a month later, the victors did more than just claim a world title. They shaped the destiny of an entire nation, sounding the death knell of the mongrel complex. Neither A Seleção nor Brazil would ever be the same again.
FIFA.com relives that distant summer’s afternoon in Sweden, an afternoon on which a nation was reborn and a 17-year-old named Pele was crowned its king.
1958 was a memorable year in Brazilian history and not just because of the achievements of the national team. The country’s president, Juscelino Kubitscheck, instigated a period of near-miraculous economic growth, giving the green light to the construction of the new administrative capital Brasilia and overseeing the manufacture of the first all-Brazilian-built cars.
On the cultural front the guitarist Joao Gilberto came up with a revolutionary sound for the Elizete Cardoso song Chega de Saudade (No More Blues), regarded as the first formal example of bossa nova, a uniquely Brazilian style of music that would earn worldwide recognition.
It was little wonder then that the writer and journalist Joaquim Ferreira dos Santos should later pen a book entitled 1958: The Year That Should Never Have Ended.
Yet none of the events of those 12 months would be so fondly remembered were it not for the exploits of the country’s footballers. Aside from winning a maiden world title in emphatic style and on foreign soil, they also buried the painful memories of 1950 and that shattering 2-1 loss to the Uruguayans. In doing so they gave the nation two new heroes to admire: one a wiry, squat, bandy-legged right-winger by the name of Garrincha and the other a shy but prodigiously gifted teenager called Pele.
After the fifth goal I didn’t want to mark Pele any more. I just wanted to applaud him.
Curiously the pair started the tournament on the subs’ bench, only making their entrance in Brazil’s third and final group game, a 2-0 victory over the USSR. They remained in the starting line-up from then on, with Pele scoring the only goal against Wales in the quarter-final and then hitting a hat-trick in the 5-2 romp against France in the semis.
The final at the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm attracted a crowd of over 50,000. Though most of them were cheering on the tournament hosts, they still marvelled at the skills of the sensational Brazilians, enthusiastically applauding the victors as they paraded the Jules Rimet Trophy.
Brazil got off to the worst possible start when Sweden’s Milan-based star Nils Liedholm shot the hosts into the lead after only four minutes. Picking the ball calmly out of the net, the South Americans’ midfield general Didi then took control of the situation, intent on avoiding a repeat of the disaster that had befallen the country eight years earlier.
Tucking the ball under his arm and walking slowly back up the field before placing it on the centre spot, the 30-year-old gestured to his team-mates to stay calm. Once the preserve of Uruguayan, Italian and German players, Didi’s composed authority brought reassurance to his fretting colleagues and allowed them to consign Rodrigues’ “mongrel complex” to history.
Within five minutes they were level, Garrincha breaking down the right and firing in a low cross that centre-forward Vava slid home from close range. The man they called “Steel Chest” was on target again on 32 minutes, scoring a virtually identical goal after another surging run down the right by the irrepressible Garrincha had left the Swedish defence motionless.
Buoyed by their lead, the confident Brazilians began to enjoy themselves in the second half. Their third goal, just two minutes after the break, was the most famous of the lot. Chesting down a cross inside the box, Pele flicked the ball over the nearest defender’s head and volleyed home for one of the finest goals ever scored in the finals.
Midway through the half Mario Zagallo put the result beyond doubt when he shot home at the near post. Sweden then pulled one back only for Pele to score his second of the day with an injury-time header. Bursting into tears when the final whistle came, the tyro had more than played his part in reversing the fortunes of A Seleção and helping it to move on from the failures of the past.
What they said
“After the fifth goal I didn’t want to mark Pele any more. I just wanted to applaud him,” Sweden midfielder Sigge Parling.
“When I passed to Didi, I made as if I was going to run forward but turned back instead. That confused the defender a little and he let the ball come through to me. When I controlled it on my chest he thought I was going to shoot. I got my foot on it and flicked it over his head, which was something the Europeans weren’t used to. They always tried to close you down because they were used to people shooting straightaway. I hit the ball before it touched the ground and in it went. It was one of the most beautiful goals of my career,” Brazil’s Pele relives his side’s third goal.
“When Sweden went 1-0 up Didi picked the ball up and started talking to us, telling us we had the strength to go on and win the game. That boosted his confidence and ours as well. We knew we could win but I don’t think the Brazilian people had the same belief. Because of what happened in 1950 there was this idea that Brazil would get to the final and cave in. So what Didi did was crucial,” Brazil’s Djalma Santos describes Didi’s reaction to Sweden’s opening goal.
What happened next
At every FIFA World Cup finals held since Sweden 1958 Brazil have been rated among the favourites. They lived up to that billing four years later in Chile, when with a side featuring only two changes from the team that had triumphed in Scandinavia did what no one had achieved since Italy in the 1930s and retained the Trophy.
When Brazil won their third world crown at Mexico 1970 they were awarded the Jules Rimet Trophy outright, providing confirmation of their status as the pre-eminent force in world football. The symbol of that unprecedented achievement was Pele, the only player in the history of the game to have won three world titles. His successors have conquered the world on two further occasions, building solidly on the foundations that were laid that momentous day in Stockholm.