It may have been 64 years ago, but they’re still talking about Maracanazo down there, the knockout blow that Brazil took from Uruguay in the final match of the 1950 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro.
“Unfortunately that was a big surprise,” Pelé told the Globe this week as his country again was preparing to play footsie with the rest of the planet on its home turf. “All the people say, ‘OK, men don’t cry,’ then you see your father cry and it is a big disappointment.”
Pelé — formally Edson Arantes do Nascimento — was 9 that summer and he went on to produce joyous tears three times as his mid-air mojo inspired his canary-colored playmates to Cup victories in 1958, 1962, and 1970.
The Seleçao since have won two more golden keepsakes, but what would mean by far the most to the country would be a completion of the circle: a triumph in the final in the same massive Estadio do Maracana.
“If I have the power to decide, I would put Brazil and Uruguay in the final,” says the 73-year-old Pelé, now the global soccer ambassador for Santander Bank. “Then we will have revenge.”
Brazil, which last won the Cup in 2002 when it squelched Germany in Yokohama, hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals since then, going out to the French and Dutch. This time, though, the stars are in alignment for Canarinho, which will be playing in front of tens of thousands of drum-pounding, dancing fans, starting Thursday afternoon in Sao Paulo in the tournament opener against Croatia.
Pelé’s grandnephews, who come in riding a nine-match winning streak, haven’t lost at home in their last 36 outings. They crushed defending world titlist Spain in Maracana in the championship match of last summer’s Confederations Cup dress rehearsal. And they have a most favorable draw in the Croats, Mexico, and Cameroon.
But what normally would be viewed by the citizenry as an excuse for a monthlong carnival instead has been an occasion for discord. Unhappiness is widespread about the tournament’s exorbitant $12 billion tab, with the 2016 Olympics running up the meter even more. On Monday, the Seleçao’s team bus was surrounded by protesters en route from Rio to its headquarters camp and President Dilma Rousseff went on national TV to urge her countrymen to get behind the event.
It’s a different Brazil, a different world, and a different team than the one that Pelé played for in 1970. Every player on that roster — from Carlos Alberto to Jairzinho to Gerson to Rivelino — played for a domestic club. Only four members of this side do: forwards Fred and Jo and backup goalkeepers Victor and Jefferson. The other 19 are football expatriates who perform for eight countries.
Neymar, the 22-year-old striker who has inherited both Pelé’s number (10) and his spotlight, plays for Barcelona. Captain Thiago Silva suits up for Paris Saint-Germain, defender Maicon for Roma, goalkeeper Julio Cesar for Toronto FC.
“The success of the Brazil team in 1970 was the team played together,” says Pelé, who had four Santos teammates on that squad. “We knew exactly what would happen.”
That team played seven tune-ups before the tournament, which was held in Mexico.
This one only played one before last week.
“Until two weeks before the World Cup, we didn’t have all the players here,” Pelé observes.
‘The success . . . in 1970 was the team played together.’
Not that the Seleçao are alone in that. Ghana, which will meet the US in its opener Monday, has players in 13 countries, from Tunisia to Russia to the United Arab Emirates. But for the country that invented the jogo bonito (the beautiful game), with all of its rhythm and invention, convening its global All-Stars a fortnight in advance of the Big Dance doesn’t do much for flair and flow.
“This is the first time that you will see Brazil different than in the past,” muses Pelé. “We always had the best forwards, the best scorers, the best wings.
“Always, Brazil was strong in the attack. This World Cup they have a little problem to set up the attack. I think there is too much responsibility on Neymar, that Neymar will win the World Cup. The pressure on Neymar is too heavy.”
The man himself says he’s tranquil.
“I am ready to be the star of this team,” says Neymar, who’ll be making his Cup debut.
Pelé, who was only 17 when he went planetary, never had the benefit or burden of playing the tournament at home, nor did any of the Romarios and Ronaldos who hoisted the trophy after him.
“This is the moment to take the opportunity,” Pelé says. “Of course if Brazil wins the World Cup it would be much better than losing. We don’t want to have again the same history as 1950. I hope this World Cup my son doesn’t see me cry.”