Any observer of the game in Brazil will look at the national obsession through the prism of that hoary old chestnut, the glass being half full or requiring a top-up.

Five World Cup titles is more than any other nation but, really, is five truly worthy of the devotion of the game in the South American country?

Perhaps of all the failed attempts in World Cup finals, 1974 and 1978 stand out most; the years that fall after the glorious team of Pele, Carlos Alberto, Gerson, Jairzinho, Tostao et al in Mexico and before the Socrates/Zico-led dream team of 1982 that shone brightly but failed to live up to its true potential.

So what exactly went wrong in West Germany and Argentina? Was it management failure, a change in style, away day blues or something else?


The ’74 squad was one possessing huge expectations. The Selecao had won three of the last four cups, with that one aberration in 1966 due to a lack of preparation, internal bickering, Pele’s injury and being bullied by their Portuguese cousins.

There would be no such mistakes in Mexico.

By 1974 that star-studded side had largely broken up with Pele, Gérson, Tostão and Carlos Alberto deprived of participation due to injury or age.

Jairzinho and Rivellino were the only starters from the victory over Italy to make the trip to West Germany; and in all only seven of that 1970 squad was still around four years later.

Mario Zagallo rebuilt his side and did so around the likes of Luis Pereira, Nelinho and Edu. But preparation for West Germany was hampered by a lack of game-time.

Unlike the 1970 outfit, which had the benefit of six qualifying games against Paraguay, Colombia and Venezuela, winning them all, the ‘74 squad, as champions, qualified automatically. There would be no South American Championship, which fell into abeyance after the 1967 event, to its reinvention as the Copa America in 1975.

Thus, Brazil relied on international friendly matches to tune up prior to leaving for Europe. In 1972 there were only five games, the following year a weighty ten, all between the end of May and the beginning of July, and you wonder what they would have learned against a Shamrock Rovers XI. In the months prior to their opening finals game, there were nine full internationals, with the sturdiest opposition being Mexico and Czechoslovakia. It was a full two years since the Brazilians had a faced a formidable foe, Portugal. And while friendlies, notoriously, tell very little, there could have been little concern by Brazil’s future foes at pre-Cup games with draws against Austria and Greece and narrow wins over the Republic of Ireland and Bulgaria.

As with all World Cup finals squads, there was a mix of the experienced and the raw, but Brazil’s 22-man squad was more pronounced than others. There were the stalwarts: Jairzinho, Wilson Piazza, Marco Antonio, Rivellino, Paulo Cezar, Edu and Ze Maria. And there were a crop of promising players such as Dirceu, Mirandinha, Alfredo, Renato, Carpegiani, and Nelinho, who had a combined total of just 17 caps.

Straying from Brazil’s usual fluent movement, Zagallo adopted a shoot-on-sight tactic against Yugoslavia, who were unlucky not to score in a drab draw. Scotland also exposed their limitations in another goalless stalemate, in which the Scots were deemed to be the more adventurous and free-flowing team. Two games and not a single goal from the reigning champions.

This dismal return would be rectified, as was expected, against debutants Zaire in the final group game. The Africans had lost 9-0 to the Slavs but held Brazil to 3-0. They had to; the nation’s dictatorial president had demanded they concede no more, otherwise ….. Hence that infamous, desperate charge from the wall at a free-kick that has been discussed in full on this site.

There would be little respite in the group stage, a single-goal victory against East Germany, followed by an encouraging 2-1 victory over Argentina, set up a winner-takes-all match against the Dutch, flamboyant 4-0 winners over Argentina in their first stage two encounter.  

It was cruel and it was a sad sight as the Brazilians were seen off by a side that showed some of the creativity and imagination that their opponents had displayed so well over the decades.

Total football equalled total domination. Zagallo and his side had no answer to the beauty of Johan Cruyff and the Dutch. They were dissected from both sides of the pitch for Neeskens and Cruyff’s goals which settled the match in their favour. To cap a dismal day, Luís Pereira was sent off in the 85th minute, but he should have joined Ze Maria in the bath for what some have described as a rugby tackle on Cruyff, and by Marinho Peres for his off the ball attack on Neeskens. Such indiscipline had rarely been conducted by the boys in blue and yellow.

The consolation of third place was passed up as Brazil came a cropper against an impressive Polish side to end a poor campaign.

Zagallo’s footballing conservatism failed to win over the fans and media in a country used to fluent, attacking football. Pelé claimed that Brazil were essentially out of character.

In those four short years since Mexico, the game had been turned on its head.


The omens for a revival had roots in the inaugural Copa America in 1975. After impressively topping their three-team group ahead of Argentina and Venezuela, winning all four matches, Brazil slumped to a 3-1 defeat to Peru and would exit on lots, with both sides having scored three and conceded three in a four-man group topped on goal difference by Colombia.

There was no Rivellino, Jairzinho, Marco Antonio, Rivellino, Paulo Cezar, Edu and Ze Maria but it did provide an opportunity for the new breed that included Reinaldo and Amaral to make their breakthroughs for the national side.

Because of that early exit in West Germany, Brazil had to qualify for the 1978 tournament and did so comfortably, winning four out of six games, including a 6-0 victory over Colombia and an 8-0 stroll against Bolivia.

Another consequence of the 1974 debacle was the sacking of Zagallo and his replacement by Osvaldo Brandao, who lasted only till the first qualifying game and replaced by the little-known Claudio Coutinho.

The squad for 1978 had been completely reshaped – only goalkeepers Leao and Waldir Peres, Nelinho, Dirceu and the now 32-year-old Rivellino survived from 1974, though the latter wasn’t fit enough to actually play in any of the games. In their place came the likes of Oscar, Falcao, Zico, Gil, Roberto Dinamite and Cerezo while hopes were pinned on striker Reinaldo, who had set a national league record with 28 goals from 21 matches in 1977.

The 1978 tournament, as has been much noted, was a farcical event played to a backdrop of oppression, torture and rape that followed the 1976 military coup.

At a friendly at Wembley on the cusp on travelling to South America, the Hungarian manager Lajos Baróti told Brian Glanville that “everything, even the air, is in favour of Argentina”.

Most people knew what that meant.

There was controversy from the off, and it wouldn’t be to Brazil’s liking. Drawing 1-1 with Sweden, Nelinho eventually flighted over a corner and just as Zico was about to head the ball in the net, Welsh whistler Clive Thomas blew for full-time. Fury and accusations erupted, but Thomas maintained that the Brazilians had only themselves to blame for bizarrely taking so long to take the corner kick.

The Selecao then laboured to a goalless draw against Spain and a 1-0 win over Austria. Their profligacy in those two games would be costly: the Austrians topped the group on goals scored and Brazil ended up in the same second round group as Argentina.

Brazil had the upper hand on day one, beating Peru 3-0 while the hosts overcame Poland 2-0. The two South American giants failed to score against each other, so the single spot for the final came down to two matches that were held at different times on the same day.

While Brazil faced Poland in the heat of the afternoon, Argentina would play Peru in the evening. Brazil won 3-1 against the Poles, so the Argentinians were well aware of what they needed to do: win by four clear goals and they were in the final. They succeeded with something to spare, winning 6-0 against the hapless Peruvians, who were playing only for pride.

Coutinho branded the result a disgrace. Years later, a Peruvian senator would claim that the match result was fixed thanks to a deal between the two South American dictatorships involving political prisoners, money and grain.

It is also noted that General Videla reportedly visited the Peru dressing room before kick-off and impressed on the Peruvians just how important this tournament was to Argentina, while stressing the value of “Latin American solidarity”.

Coutinho declared Brazil the moral champions of the cup, partly because they were the only unbeaten team in the tournament, albeit with three draws from seven games.

Brazil’s dalliance with the conservative, European style of play they had adopted for these two tournaments, drifted away and they would become something of the ‘old’ Brazil for the 1982 and 1986 World Cups. Of course, they failed to win these either, but at least they were good to watch.