Sunday, 18 May 2014

Brasil '86: The Mystique of the One-named Warriors & Gene Wilder


There's a romantic idyll attached to the first big sporting tournaments you remember.  The Los Angeles Olympics have a fond place in my memory.  I can recall many of the big stories, although I've no idea if I watched them live or just picked up news stories; Sebastian Coe won 1500m Gold, Zola Budd tripped Mary Decker, Carl Lewis emulated Jessie Owens and my favourite, Daley Thompson dragging himself round the 1500m to win the decathlon.  I think I liked him because he had a moustache like my dad.  For a similar reason Burt Reynolds was my favourite movie star.

I've no recollection of the European Championships of 1984, so my introduction to big football tournaments came at Mexico 86.  By now a keen football fan and fuelled by a fair run at Panini's Football 86 sticker album, Panini's Mexico '86 version was a fascinating resource.  It was full of players I knew nothing about, each with their date & place of birth & the club they played for.  Smaller footballing nations such as Iraq, Morocco & Algeria had players sharing stickers and shinies, team shots and stadiums were sought after.

In an era of colourful but slightly hazy picture feeds and with some of the commentary clarity akin to a medium wave radio transmission, Mexico seemed a world away. Many of the matches were scheduled for 12.00pm local time starts, presumably for European TV audiences including myself, and as such were played in searing heat, a factor that clearly affected the style of play.  Large sections of matches were played at near walking pace, only occasionally punctuated by darts of incisive play.

I am 8, I like Brazil

I was attracted to the Brazil squad, after all some of their players had moustaches too; Socrates, the playmaker and Junior, a rampaging full back cum midfielder, in particular. Nearly all of them only had one name which was intriguing and impressive.  It gave them an elevated position in my mind, as if these were the Football Gods and Socrates even had a name that had something to do with history. And the TV said he was a doctor? It made no sense but added plenty to the notion of heroism i'd attributed to them. Looking at pictures of the stickers now, Toninho Cerezo, who didn't even make the squad, looked a bit like Richard Pryor but Falcao, a midfielder, was my favourite; he had a cool name and reminded me of Gene Wilder, Pryor's long-time comedic partner.  These are logical connections when you're eight.

I suspect, as helmsman for the BBC coverage, Des Lynam was saying great things about this Brazil side, for it featured the aging core of the squad that had enthralled so many just four years before in Spain.  Joining Junior, Socrates and Falcao were Zico, widely regarded as one of the best players in the world and Careca, a lethal striker who became the focal point of the attack, announcing himself as a world class talent.  The goalkeeper, forever the weak point of Brazilian sides was Carlos, but bar one notable moment in the quarter final against France, he was largely solid and he too had Gene Wilder hair.

The primary criticism of this team was that it was too old, indeed the stars were largely in their early thirties by now, but stars they still were and from day one I was rooting from them.

Brazil in Mexico

As it happened Falcao barely made it onto the pitch and Zico spent much of the tournament trying to shake off an injury. In their first game, Socrates followed up a Careca shot that may have crossed the line to give Brazil victory over a decent Spain side, then an early poached Careca goal saw Brazil edge past an Algerian team from which little was expected.  So far, they had done enough but not excited.  The third match against Northern Ireland changed that somewhat, notable as it was for a looping 30 yard thump from entirely unheralded novice full back Josimar.  That became one of the favourite goals of this World Cup but to my mind was superseded by the one he scored in the first knockout round against Poland en route to a 4-0 win; as finally Brazil started to look like a side that could go deep into the tournament:
[I can't describe how much I like that goal, it just makes me smile, especially the way he glides past the last defender to make space for the shot.]

By now, Careca was up to four goals & Brazil had won all four, scored nine and conceded none. They had started to deliver flowing, attractive football and we had new heroes in Careca and Josimar for me to emulate in the garden. Next they faced a stern test in the European Champions, France led by 3 time Ballon d'Or winner, Michel Platini.

France v Brazil, 1986 

Widely regarded as one of the definitive World Cup matches, I remember this with mixed emotions, for though I wanted Brazil to win and was significantly sad when they finally lost, they morally didn't deserve to win the game, at least that's what both John Motson & Jimmy Hill on commentary duties, told me and I believed them.  Briefly summarised, Careca scored a goal early but just before half-time Platini found himself free at the far post and tapped in to equalise.  Brazil had the better of the chances & earned a penalty soon after a half-fit Zico came on.  Tasked with converting, he failed, foiled by Joel Bats & to extra time it went.

Late on, France striker Bellone broke onto a fantastic Platini through ball, into a one-on-one situation and was clearly checked in his run by the onrushing Carlos. This move, was reminiscent in cynicism, if not the violence of Harald Schumacher on Patrick Battiston in 1982.  Similar results followed here as the referee inexplicably waved play on, and the French striker failed to follow up. Within a matter of seconds Brazil had carved out an open goal for Socrates to contrive to miss entirely. Exhilarating fare and in this clip, after those 48 seconds John Motson ends up breathless:

And so to penalties: Socrates missed & so did Platini (indeed, on his birthday), Julio Cesar banged it into a post and so it was left for Luis Fernandez put France through.  I was sad, although I understood Jimmy Hill's outrage.  Even if they hadn't deserved it, I would have liked them to carry on; Zico might have regained fitness & Falcao may have got a start...

And that was the end of Brazil '86.  I never got to see as much of Zico or Falcao as I would have liked, as back then you just didn't see football the way you could now. The team of 1990 was shorn of many of the interesting players of this squad for they were old or retired (Socrates, Falcao, Junior, Zico) or had faded into obscurity (Josimar).

But I still had my sticker book.  And many months after the World Cup had finished, I wrote to Panini with a postal order for a few pence to get my final sticker; Uruguay centre-back Victor Diogo:

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