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The greatest team to never win the World Cup? How the Brazil side of 1982 became one of the most beloved in history

<i>Peter Robinson/EMPICS/PA Images/Getty Images</i><br/>Scotland's John Wark (right) defends Falcao during the group stage clash.
PA Images via Getty Images
Peter Robinson/EMPICS/PA Images/Getty Images
Scotland's John Wark (right) defends Falcao during the group stage clash.

By Matias Grez, CNN

Whenever Socrates walked out onto the pitch, all eyes were on the man they called ‘Doctor.’

As well as being a ludicrously talented footballer — his mesmerizing technical ability, power and rangy legs making him a marvel to watch — he was also an exceptionally intelligent man, earning a medical degree from the University of São Paulo earlier in his career.

Socrates’ ‘Doctor’ moniker stuck with him, though his practices were unconventional; he was known to like a smoke and a drink, but his vices never appeared to hinder him on the pitch.

He was also captain of the Brazil team at the 1982 World Cup, long before cable television and streaming made every football match and player compilation readily available. National teams and their star players would be shrouded in mystery when arriving at a World Cup, with A Seleçao and its stars possessing an almost mystical quality.

When Brazil stepped out onto the pitch for its first match of Spain 1982 against the USSR, resplendent in that famous canary yellow and blue kit, few fans knew what to expect.

After 90 minutes, however, they were mesmerized by what they had seen — and Socrates, the team’s captain, brain and heartbeat, was at the center of it all.

Despite going 1-0 down in the opening stages of the match, Brazil played a flamboyant and fluid style of football, reminiscent of the great Brazilian teams of the past, eventually winning 2-1 thanks to stunning late goals from Socrates and Eder, two names that often come up in eulogies about the side.

“We were all very, very optimistic about what would happen at that World Cup,” Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil’s most decorated commentators, told CNN Sport.

“First of all, because they were exceptional players, each one with their own characteristic, their personalities were very, very strong and they were kind, captivating and seductive.

“You have as an example ‘Doctor’ Socrates, a democrat, a militant of good things for his people,” Kfouri added of the man who had been a leading voice in opposition of Brazil’s military government and who would become known for his messages delivered on headbands in Mexico four years later.

“The same for Falcao, ‘The King of Rome,’ a guy who went to Roma and led them to the championship again 41 years after the last.”

In Uruguay, 18 months earlier, Brazil was one of six teams competing in the World Champions’ Gold Cup — known as the ‘Mundialito’ or ‘Little World Cup’ — which consisted of five of the six World Cup winners at the time and the Netherlands, which had replaced England.

Despite losing to host Uruguay in the Gold Cup final, Brazil beat West Germany — one of the favorites for the 1982 World Cup and eventual losing finalist — 4-1 in the group stages. It was a “categorical” victory, Kfouri recalls, “a footballing spectacle.”

As the tournament in Spain progressed, optimism in Brazil only grew. Comprehensive, beautiful victories over Scotland and New Zealand followed — 4-1 and 4-0 wins respectively — as Brazil advanced to the second group stage of the World Cup with a flourish.

‘I don’t mind a thrashing from Brazil’

At the 1974 World Cup in Germany, Scottish commentator and author Archie Macpherson recalls a much different Brazil side to the one that had last been to Europe for the 1966 World Cup in England.

“After 1966, the Brazilians were so incensed by the way they had been treated on the field — particularly Pele, whose legs you could barely see for bruises and hacks, he was brutalized in their view — they decided if they were going to come back to Europe, they would have to harden up considerably,” McPherson, author of Touching the Heights, recalls.

“So when they did come back in ’74, it wasn’t the kind of Brazilian team we really expected. They had one or two outstanding players … but they were tougher, and they mixed it and instead of playing that with that flamboyant style they had become, if I can put it this way, ‘Europeanized’ simply to survive.

“So we wondered about how they were [in Spain ’82] but these first three games that they played, clearly they had resorted to type, to style, to their natural rhythms. So it was good to see them back that way and that’s why they were beginning to win support.”

Macpherson’s Scotland was the unfortunate recipient of one of the most mesmerizing performances that Brazil team put together. However, such was the beauty with which that team played, Macpherson was left only with feelings of awe once the match was over.

Despite once again going a goal behind, Brazil never changed its style of play, though Macpherson notes this admirable stubbornness to only playing beautiful football may have also led to the team’s downfall.

“We made the mistake of insulting the Brazilians by scoring after about 18 minutes,” Macpherson laughs, “and then they let fly at us. At the center of the team was, of course, Socrates, the guitar-playing, chain-smoking medical man, who seemed to contradict every piece of medical advice, advice in his lifestyle.

“He represented that elegance and almost casual nature of the way that the Brazilians began to play, relying on great feet and great speed.

“He was really at the center of everything. Maybe, his distinctive style made him a focal point to view, but after David Narey had scored that goal … the Brazilians went to town.

“I don’t mind a thrashing from Brazil because it was wonderful to watch. It wasn’t a defeat, it was the culmination of a demonstration of the best in football: the exposition of skill, the fair way they played, and the fact that at 4-1 — and this was the greatest achievement of all and the best compliment of all — the Scottish supporters were far from downhearted.”

‘Brazil eliminated’

Before the change in World Cup format, the top two teams from six groups went on to create another four groups of three teams, with the four winners of the second group stage making up the semifinalists.

Brazil was placed into a group alongside Paolo Rossi’s Italy and Diego Maradona’s Argentina, the defending champion from four years earlier.

After Italy had beaten Argentina 2-1 in the opening match, Brazil then cruised past the Albiceleste 3-1 thanks to goals from Zico, Serginho and Junior, with Maradona being sent off and Ramón Díaz scoring a late consolation for the Argentines.

So, it all came down to Brazil vs. Italy on July 5 for a place in the 1982 World Cup semifinal.

“I have to say, Italy played better than Brazil and their victory was indisputable,” Kfouri says. “It’s just one of those things in football. They [Brazil and Italy] could play 10 times, Brazil would win seven, draw two and lose on July 5. On that day, it was Italy’s day, that’s indisputable.

“This image of a great Brazil team remained anyway. I’ll never forget the headline of a newspaper in Andalucía, which said the following: ‘No one understands this world anymore; Brazil eliminated.'”

Italy had twice taken the lead thanks to goals from Rossi, but Brazil fought back on both occasions through Socrates and Falcão. However, when Rossi completed his hat-trick 15 minutes before the end, there was to be no third Brazilian comeback.

Macpherson described the result as “a huge anti-climax” for the neutrals watching at the World Cup.

“I remember being abjectly miserable, it was almost as if my home team had been beaten, my home country had been beaten,” Macpherson recalls.

“I was so disappointed, as many others around the world, but I would insist it was of their own making. They couldn’t change the style at all to suit the circumstance.

“Nobody liked the Italians,” he adds. “Italian football, of course, had this reputation of being cynical and defensive. Helenio Herrera, an Argentine, nevertheless established Catenaccio throughout Italian football and indeed throughout Europe to a great extent and this was the antidote to it, a complete antidote to it.

“So that’s why they were so disappointed. I mean, I can remember I was beside myself not being able to see this set of players again.

“Outside of Italy itself, and I was there with Italian journalists, there wasn’t a soul outside that group who wanted Italy to win. They were urging Brazil on, hoping that this would prove that their kind of football that could be maintained and be successful.”

The legacy of Neymar and Tite

The Seleção went into this World Cup — as it often does — among the favorites to lift the trophy. However, such is the admiration for the team of ’82, Kfouri says even victory in Qatar would not put the current group of players onto the same pedestal.

If Neymar was to win the Golden Boot on the way to guiding Brazil to victory in Qatar, Kfouri admits he will be considered better than the cherished stars of ’82, raising himself to the heights of Ronaldo, Romario and Rivaldo, but that he will likely not be loved in the same way.

“The team of ’94 won, the 2002 team won and they don’t compare with the team of ’82,” Kfouri says. “Now, of course, if you ask me if by chance — I don’t believe it — but if by chance the current team shows fabulous football in Qatar, it’s possible, but nothing indicates that this is going to happen.”

Despite that gut-wrenching loss to Italy, there is no sense of regret that Brazil’s team in 1982 failed to lift the World Cup trophy, just a remaining feeling of pride that the nation produced and was able to witness one of the most beloved sides in history.

“I won’t speak, I’ll let Pep Guardiola speak when he says that it is a national team, a football team, that has survived for 40 years as something spectacular,” Kfouri says.

“Today’s team has a maximum of one outstanding player, Neymar, who is not capable of just doing what Socrates, Zico, Falcão, Cerezo have done, four extraordinary players, four geniuses.

“So I think there is no comparison, the same way there is no comparison with the two teams that won later, from ’94 and 2002, the team from ’82 is better than both. That team didn’t win like the Netherlands didn’t win in ’74, like Hungary didn’t win in ’54 — these things just happen in football.”

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