Who’s your favourite Brazilian footballer? If you’re my age, it’s probably Ronaldo or Ronaldinho. If you’re older, maybe it’s Romario, Socrates, or maybe even Pelé himself. And if you’re too young to remember the times when Zidane had any hair on his head, I’m guessing it’s Neymar. It’s all too logical; they’re the deadly strikers, the tricky wingers, the magic number 10s. But what if I told you there’s another kind of samba magician? A player with all that flair, but cut to a different mould: the Segundo Volante, the typical Brazilian no.8.
Second to none
So, what does that expression mean? Segundo Volante. “Segundo” it’s rather easy, it’s the Portuguese word for “second”; volante it’s a bit more tricky. Carlos Volante was an Argentine midfielder of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Born in the city of Lanús in 1905 he debuted for the club of the same name in 1924. The son of Italian immigrants, he got a move to Napoli in 1931 and went on to play for several European clubs in Italy and France. In 1938, fearing the threat of WW2, he moved to Flamengo after some Brazilian friends convinced him to ply his trade over there.
His arrival coincided with the short but immensely relevant stay at the club of Hungarian coach Dori Kürschner, who was attempting to apply the highly structured WM to Brazil’s typically free-flowing game. Kürschner deployed him as one of the halfbacks, and even though the Magyar was out by September of that year, Volante was highly successful. His style as a rugged, combative ball-winning midfielder with a never-say-die attitude was both surprising and illuminating for Brazilian football. So much so that other managers, looking for his players to emulate that, would tell them to “play as Volante”. From there the expression has grown to conquer all of South America, where it came to mean any midfielder. Even now, when in Brazil they use the expressions “cabeça de área” (18-yard box leader) and “meio-armador” (playmaking midfielder), here in Argentina we say “volante de contención” and “volante creativo”, quite literally “holding midfielder” and “creative midfielder”.
So that explains the “volante” part, but why “segundo”? As Kürschner was sacked following a string of bad results, the Flamengo job went to the Hungarian’s assistant (and former player-manager of the club), Flávio Costa. It was largely expected that he’d drop the WM, but he instead opted to tweak it. He rotated the square formed by the four midfielders, so one of the halfbacks would drop in front of the back 3 (a role that would come to be known as the quarto zagueiro, a ball playing centreback) and one of the inside-forwards would advance to sit right behind the front 3 (creating the traditional ponta da lança role) and the set-up came to be known as the diagonal.
As the 4-2-4 developed from that system, a 2-man midfield was formed by the remaining players, a “primeiro” (or first) volante and our man, the “segundo” (or second) volante. The reason as to why each took its name is less clear, but reading a bit of football history it’s not hard to hypothesize an explanation. When Kürschner implemented the WM in Brazil he did it not by dropping the centre-half between the fullbacks (as it happened in England) but rather by dropping the left half into the defence.
That way, the two half-backs were number 5 and 4, and when Costa and other coaches implemented the diagonal, it was numbers 5 and 8 which formed the midfield. As such, anyone reading the team sheet list would have read the midfield as 5, the first midfielder, and 8, the second midfielder, primeiro and segundo volante.
The first player to have taken the role of segundo volante on the international level was probably Zizinho, as the deep inside forward on the right in the diagonal played by Brazil’s 1950 WC side, the same role he had occupied in Flavio Costa’s Flamengo. Much more of a dribbler than those who would follow, his skillset and quality were such that when he missed Brazil’s second match of the 1950 World Cup vs. Switzerland the home team struggled to break down the deep defence of the Swiss. Even years later, Bela Guttmann would sign the then 34yo Brazilian from small side Bangu for his Sao Paulo side to take the role of the creative midfielder in the 4-2-4 he was looking to implement. That side would go on to win that year’s Paulista Championship, and Zizinho would become a Sao Paulo legend.
His successor in the national team, Didi, was much more defined in his role as a midfielder. An elegant passer of the ball, he dictated tempo while also helping the defence. He had a cold head and a smart reading of the game, and also possessed a killer mid-range shot, inventing the folha seca free-kick style, most famously used in modern times by Cristiano Ronaldo and Juninho Pernambucano. The man who would succeed him would take the Segundo Volante role even further and become arguably its greatest exponent, Gérson de Oliveira Nunes, better known simply as Gérson.
The heir to the kingdom
The sole child of footballer Clovis Nunes, who had won the Rio de Janeiro title in 1935 with América Football Club, Gérson de Oliveira Nunes was born in Niterói, a coastal city part of the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Region, in 1941. He first started playing at 6 years old, with Bangu de Icaraí. Even at that tender age, he was the owner of the ball: the team was run by his dad. Despite that, Gérson showed great promise, and in 1955 he joined Niterói club Canto do Rio’s youth academy.
Gérson has often said that he had wanted to become a footballer ever since he was a child. In those days his hero was actually one of his dad’s friends, none other than Zizinho himself; however, as he grew and his passing ability and intelligence began to shine, his eyes turned to the man he’d replace in the National Team: Didi. The master himself acknowledged his passing skills: “He was my heir”.
In 1958, Canto do Rio faced Flamengo, which many considered the best youth side in Rio. Gérson dismantled the whole team, and Mengão’s manager Modesto Bria asked the club to sign him. At just 17 years old, Gérson made it to Flamengo. The first team featured players like Joel Martins, Moacir, Dida and even Mario Zagallo, who had been crowned world champions just six months earlier, but Gérson wasn’t dazzled. He barked orders at them in training, with a strong personality that didn’t match his age.
Everything was going to plan, until the key match of the 1962 Rio de Janeiro State Championship, better known as the Campeonato Carioca. With Flamengo and Botafogo locked in a title race, they faced each other in the last matchday. Flavio Costa, who had returned to the Mengão that very year, played Gérson on the left, with a terribly thankless objective, man-marking Garrincha. It was to no avail. Botafogo won 3-0 and Garrincha, who was Brazil’s key man in their 1962 World Cup title, was uncontrollable, scoring two. Teammates, board members and fans blamed the loss on Gérson, saying he had put enough of a shift. Ironically, he was sold to Botafogo, for what was the highest ever fee paid in Brazilian football at the time, $250,000.
It was around that time that he got his nickname of “Papagaio” (Parrot), because of how talkative he was. Gérson was chased by reporters after games because he was guaranteed to produce a new headline. He became the club’s main spokesman, always dealing with media after matches, and Gérson never disappointed. He’d spare no thought on his teammate’s attitudes, the board’s decisions or coach’s tactics, and would even propose solutions. At a time when players only ever talked in clichés, he always was the exception. It took some time, but eventually his team got used to his personality.
By the time the 1966 World Cup arrived, he was an undisputed starter for the National Team. However, his first major tournament experience wasn’t a good one. He was only able to feature against Hungary, where the Seleção was soundly beaten 3-1, and was unable to play the rest of the matches, with kidney problems. Brazil was out of the World Cup early for the first time in 12 years, and Gérson was once again blamed for the failure, accused by the press and the public of being a “coward” and lacking “love for the national team”.
Botafogo won the Campeonato Carioca in 1967 and 1968, with Gérson among the key figures. It looked like he was about to finally settle when the team decided to do a tour in Mexico. Gérson refused to join them, as his wife was due to give birth. The board threatened to remove him from the team, claiming his presence was mandated by his contract, but he put his family before his career and stayed home. From there, things were sketchy between Gérson and the club, so he argued it’d be best if they sold him so he could make more money because “playing football won’t last forever”. In July of 1969, he was moved to São Paulo for $225,000.
However, before he could play for his new side, he was called by Mario Zagallo to the squad for the 1970 World Cup. There, Gérson would be able to cast away the ghosts of 1966, becoming the leader and the brain of the Seleção.
Gérson and the 4-2-4
The team that won the 1970 World Cup was in many ways the culmination of the process that started with Kürschner’s arrival to Flamengo, the definitive version of the Brazilian 4-2-4, the coronation of a process that had started almost 30 years prior.
The back four was perfectly balanced. On the right, Carlos Alberto, a fullback very much in the same mould as Nilton Santos, had greater license to push forwards, whilst on the opposing flank Everaldo acted as a counterweight. Standing at 1.89m (6’2), centreback Hércules Brito offered aerial capabilities; next to him, the much shorter Wilson Piazza played as a defensive midfielder for Cruzeiro and was the perfect quarto zagueiro, allowing the team to bring the ball from the back.
In the middle, Gérson played on the left next to a much more defensive player in Clodoaldo, who stood on the right and covered for Carlos Alberto’s marauding runs. It’s interesting to see how, in the same way we can see the role of the Segundo Volante develop through the years, a similar progression can be seen with the more defensive of the partners. In 1950 it was Danilo Alvim who stood between Zizinho and the quarto zagueiro, an elegant, long passing midfielder, much more similar to Gérson himself than a modern-day holding midfielder. Eight years later, when Didi took on the role of Brazil’s midfield orchestrator, he did it with Zito by his side, a much more defensively minded, combative player, but still a marvellous technician who dictated tempo in Pelé’s Santos as he barked orders and lead the team.
It was only with his successor (both at Santos and on the National Team), Clodoaldo that the position became a mostly defensive, positional role. As an article on the Brazilian football magazine Placar points out: “[Clodoaldo], always calm and strong, was a master of ball recovery and excellent on support, becoming one of the first cabeça de areas of Brazil”. We can maybe put him, then, as the starting point of a long line of rugged and talented Brazilian holding midfielders, including Dunga, Gilberto Silva and Fernandinho.
Gérson was a tactician on the pitch; he guided his teammates, telling them where they should stand, and even making them switch positions to better exploit the opponent’s weak spots. In the semifinals, with Brazil a goal down against Uruguay, he saw himself often marked out of the game, so he decided to switch roles with Clodoaldo, dropping to a more defensive stance and unleashing his young teammate’s runs. The result was Cloadoaldo’s equalizer with a late run into the box from the left.
Upfront, four of the most creative players in that era combined. Jairzinho started wide on the right, cutting inside to create space for Carlos Alberto’s runs, while the industrious Rivellino positioned himself a bit deeper, in a role similar to that which Mario Zagallo (who coached the side) occupied in 1958. In the middle, Pelé and Tostão, both ponta da lanças in their teams (Santos and Cruzeiro), started together, with O Rei usually starting deeper to find space and attacking from there, and the Cruzeiro man dropping off in the attacking phase, but pushing forwards when Brazil lost the ball.
Gérson’s role was about linking those around him and making the teamwork. As Jonathan Wilson notes in “Inverting the Pyramid”, “Gérson spent hours practising clipping diagonal balls for Jairzinho to run onto, in effect calibrating his left foot, making adjustments for the thinness of the Mexican air”.He would take the ball deep and look to advance it, either via long passes or with dribbling runs forwards, as the attacking quartet stretched the defence and looked to find space so Gérson would find them.
Not only that, but he would also often the opponent’s box, either arriving late from deep or carrying the ball forwards with intent, looking to exploit any gaps created by the fear his teammates drove into the defender’s hearts with a quick lay off or (as he did in the 1970 World Cup final), launching a powerful shot with his left foot from the edge of the area.
Crucially, he was also a volante, and there he aided the defence at all times. As Sandro Mazzola would quickly find out, his forward runs didn’t mean he left Clodoaldo exposed, but rather they formed a solid duo guarding their centre backs, combining the cabeça de area’s strength and speed with Gérson’s positional awareness and intelligence. He was, in many regards, a total midfielder.
After the glory
At São Paulo, Gérson won two São Paulo Championships, in 1970 and 1971. However, right when he seemed to be at his peak, injuries started to slow him down. When he was out of the team, São Paulo’s level dropped, and both fans and the press accused him of “dumping” his team when they needed him most.
His smoking got worse, which also didn’t help. He suffered severe shortness of breath, a consequence of his cigarette addiction. Such was his smoking that Nocaute Jack, the massagist of the Brazilian National Team, left a pack and some matches ready for him in the dressing room at halftime during games. By the São Paulo years, he was up to two packs a day.
Further controversy followed when Gérson refused to play in a friendly against Fluminense in the city of Maceió, in the north of Brazil (some 2400 kilometres away from Sao Paulo). The situation became intolerable when he worsened an ankle injury playing Futsal in the Rio de Janeiro area.
However, Gérson had other priorities. The highly polluted air of São Paulo was giving his daughter Cristiane pulmonary issues, so he decides to move back to Rio. He gives the São Paulo board an ultimatum, either he’s sold or he retires. Without any real options, the club sells him to Rio de Janeiro side Fluminense for $300,000. At 31 years old, Gérson fulfilled the dream of playing for his childhood side. Not long after signing, he’d live his last great moment with the Seleção, winning the Taça Independência in 1972, an international tournament held to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Brazilian Declaration of Independence. Without Pelé, Gérson was the captain, lifting the cup in front of the almost 100,000 people who attended the Maracanã.
With Fluminense, Gérson spent a lot of time on the sidelines due to injuries. The manager, Davi Ferreira, better known as “Duque”, was a known disciplinarian who would clash with Gérson. He renovated the squad with young talents like Pintinho, Cléber, Marco Aurélio and Rubens Galaxe. By October of 1973, Gérson was ready to play, but Duque argued that he “needed more time” and that the team was “slower” with him on the pitch. The team would win the Campeonato Carioca that year, but discord never ended. They often clashed regarding tactics. Once, before a match against América Mineiro, the manager was explaining how the opposition would play; “I know”, pointed out Gérson, “But how are we going to play?”. Refusing to follow orders, he was subbed off at halftime, and Fluminense lost the match. Not long after that game, Gérson suffered an injury while training. Disenchanted, he decided to end his career in November 1974, at 33 years old.
Gérson had always made it clear that, despite his manager-on-the-pitch attitude and tactical intelligence, he wasn’t keen on pursuing a career in management. It was in the commentary box where he found his new home. “Up there, with coffee and cold water, everything seems easy, doesn’t it?”, he pointed out shortly before his retirement.
When he retired, he moved back to his natal city of Niterói, so he travelled every day twenty-six kilometres to his working place in Rio de Janeiro, commentating matches both for TV and radio. When he was asked about it, he answered in typical Gérson style: “I get paid a lot to criticize, I won’t take a bad pay to be the one they criticize”.
He embraced and enjoyed his new work; his only regret was to take part in an ad for cigarettes brand Vila Rica, in 1976. There, he lauded the superior “taste and smoothness” of the cheaper brand and asked the public “Why would I pay more if a Vila Rica gives me everything I want from a good cigarette? I like to get an advantage in everything. Get an advantage too, get Vila Rica”. That was eventually associated with the idea of Jeitinho (the idea that Brazilians always have a way to bend the rules to get what they want) and gave birth to “Gérson’s Law”, a saying that implies Brazilians like to skip the line. It was hardly a fitting way for a world champion to get immortalized in popular culture; smoking hurt Gérson even long after he had retired.
In many ways, it’s hard to put Gérson’s career in context. Such an enormous accomplishment like Brazil’s victory in the 1970 World Cup seems to put everything else in the shadows. But he was an incredibly influential player for Brazilian football, and probably remains so.
From a footballing and tactical standpoint, he was a key member of the last great team before the advent of modern football. He was the last great classic Brazilian playmaker, playing a role that was born out of the original great Seleção sides. “When he stopped playing, the great passers of Brazilian football ended”, said Didi.
From a professional side, he was one of the first to take his worth seriously and fight for his rights. “If fighting for my rights, or the rights of the footballer, is to be “problematic”, then I’m problematic”, he said once to Placar, “But I’ll tell you something, many want to take advantage of me, but I won’t let anyone do it”. When he moved from Flamengo to Botafogo, he demanded payment of a clause in his contract that granted him 15% of the transfer fee. Flamengo wouldn’t pay, so Gérson took them to court. It took him three years and he eventually only got half of the payment, but for him, it wasn’t about the money. It was his right, and he wasn’t about to let it slip.
Interviewed by Placar in late 1970, he remembered what he went through after the 1966 World Cup, when he was harassed by both the press and the people in the street. “What some pundits don’t understand is that once they attack a player, the public feels like they can attack him too”, he commented. “But I don’t allow it. I’ll always remember the names of those who got the public to insult us. They attack us, talk ill of us, but when we stop playing they forget about us. So I try to enjoy it, I try to get the most I can get out of football now, because when you don’t, you end up forgotten, broken”.
If we’re to consider he played around the same time as Garrincha, who was often ripped off by Botafogo who took advantage of his naivety to the point where the club’s biggest selling-point was on one of the lowest wages they paid, it makes sense Gérson was ready to fight for what he was due.