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; Coe wins 1500m Gold, Zola Budd trips Mary Decker, Carl Lewis emulates 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 (AKA African) footballing nations such as Iraq, Morocco & Algeria had players sharing stickers & shinies, team shots and stadiums were sought after.

In an era of colourful but slightly hazy picture feeds & 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 & Junior, a rampaging full back/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, like Socrates a planned part of the midfield, was my favourite; he had a cool name & reminded me of Gene Wilder, Pryor's comedic partner in amongst others, 'Silver Streak', (a film rarely seen these days, most likely because of the lengthy blackface scene.)  These are logical connections when you're 8, and probably unconscious ones as you age.

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 4 years before.  Joining Junior, Socrates & 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, was largely solid & he too had Gene Wilder hair.

The primary criticism of this team was that it was too old, indeed the stars were largely 32-33 by now, but stars they still were & from day one I was rooting from them.

Brazil in Mexico:
As it happened Falcao barely made it onto the pitch & Zico spent much of the tournament trying to shake off an injury, so the teams that did perform were less swamped with abundant talent more gilded by it. To start, 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 goal from Careca 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 superceded by the one he scored in the first knockout round against Poland en route to a 4-0 win; as finally they looked like a Brazil 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 4 goals & Brazil had won 4, scored 9 and conceded none. They had started to deliver flowing, attractive football & we had new heroes for me to emulate in the garden in Careca and Josimar. 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 & 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 & 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 & earnt a penalty soon after the 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 in a move reminiscent in cynicism, if not the violence of Schumacher on Battiston in 1982.  Similar results ensued as the referee bafflingly waved play on, and the French striker failed to follow up.  Amazingly, within a matter of seconds Brazil had carved out an open goal for Socrates to contrive to miss entirely. In this clip, after 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 & 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 & 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:
A few links if that's whetted the appetite:
*My sticker album sadly got landfilled after my mother threw it out amongst some unwanted magazines.
Fucking heartbreaking.

And some stats for the stats fans. Many of you will have seen this as I put it up on Twitter. Inspired by Optajoe tweeting about Maradona's dribbling I did some of his Mexico '86 tournament stats for fun:
Crazy contribution.  Goals, assists, brutally fouled and dribbling like two Andros Townsends: some player?

What it shows is that if you are the best player in the world and you want to win the World Cup; you need to play like the best player in the world during the World Cup.  This is where C. Ronaldo & Messi have thus far failed to make the grade.  They play for teams similarly talented as Maradona's but have as yet failed to make the transition.  I appreciate the game has changed in many ways, but that's where I think Zidane can be held up as one of the true greats, as he managed it in the modern era & won the lot.

Anyway, Messi's big chance is upon him, as the World Cup is now in the Americas for the first time in many years...

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