Revisiting Classics — 1982 FIFA WC ‘Brazil vs Italy’
This is a series I am trying to build where I revisit some of the all-time football classics. I wrote one on the 1974 FIFA World Cup finals between Cryuff’s Netherlands and Beckenbauer’s West Germany too. But the mistake I made was of getting into too much detail and it ended up being some 3000 words long. I’ll still share the link hoping some of you might be courageous enough to take a glance.
Revisiting Classics — 1974 FIFA WC Final ‘West Germany vs Netherlands’
When Total Football met the well-oiled German machinery
For the sake of brevity, I’ll give a brief background about the game we have here, i.e. Brazil vs Italy at the 1982 FIFA World Cup, and then present my top 5 observations.
Brazil and Italy, being who they are, enter every World Cup as favorites. But they had very contrasting starts to the 1982 campaign.
Italy, grouped with Poland, Cameroon and Peru, drew all their first-round matches. With just 3 points, they narrowly edged out Cameroon on the number of goals scored and progressed as runners-up in the group. Brazil, on the other hand, dominated their group. The iconic trio of Zico, Socrates, and Falcao, were running riots over the opponents. The Samba nation won all their matches with a goal difference of +8. This included scoring 4 each against Scotland and New Zealand.
In the second round, Italy, Brazil, and defending champions Argentina was part of Group C, with the winner progressing to the semi-finals. Both Brazil (3–1) and Italy (2–1) beat Argentina and faced each other in the final match of the group. Italy needed a win against Brazil while a draw would have sufficed for the latter to progress. But the way Brazil had been playing, everyone expected them to win against the Azzurri.
5 Key Observations from the match —
Socrates was a revelation
Socrates is a name that transcends football history. A doctor by education, he was known as much for his political ideology as for his heavy drinking and smoking. But all this pales in comparison to what he does on the field. Playing as a quintessential No 8, Socrates dictates the entire game. He defends and wins the ball, directs the ball's progression, and through his movement creates space for teammates to exploit. And if this wasn’t enough, Socrates even gets at the end of a move to find Brazil’s first goal through a sumptuous finish. He was a treat to watch with the ball, equally adept at passing and running with it. Falcao and his chemistry were near-telepathic, the two could easily play as a double pivot in a modern 4–2–3–1 system. To sum it up, Socrates was present everywhere, doing everything and doing it quite well.
Gentile — the master of dark arts
Whatever I said about Socrates, I wish I could say the same about Zico. But the ‘White Pele’ wasn’t at his best and the credit for it goes to Claudio Gentile. The former Juve defender’s reputation precedes him. Known for his aggression and hard-tackling, Gentile had man-marked Maradona out of the game in the previous match against Argentina and he did the same with Zico. The Brazilian wasn’t given an inch of space in the final third. As soon as the ball reached his feet, Gentile would get it off him, by hook but mostly by crook. At one point, Zico had to change his shirt after it got torn by constant pulling. In order to make any difference, Zico would often drop down deep. He was effective at times, even assisted a goal, but far from enough by his standards.
Junior — fullback or midfielder?
Alongside the names already mentioned, Junior is also one that often comes up while talking about this 1982 Brazil side. On paper, he was the team’s left-back. But throughout the match, Junior played far ahead on the pitch, almost like a left-sided midfielder. He would join the likes of Falcao, Socrates, and Toninho Cerezo in moving the ball forward, often interchanging positions to play centrally as well. In today’s time, we see the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joao Cancelo almost play as midfielders. But to see this type of positioning and movement by a fullback in a match played 40 years ago was a welcome surprise. A little research, however, showed that Junior often played as a midfielder, both centrally and wide. What I saw on the pitch might be an anomaly for a fullback but it was more or less his natural game.
Brazilian Midfield vs Italian Defence
Even before the match started, Italy knew that Brazil were going to dominate the midfield battle. The fluidity of Tonino, Falcao, Socrates, and Junior could not be matched by the Azzurri. This is why their defensive setup had to be perfect, and it was. In front of goals stood the legendary Dino Zoff, resembling a general who had set up his army to defend their territory. Despite being over 40, Zoff had complete control over the box. Ahead of him were his commanders, Gentile and Scirea in the center and Cabrini and Collovati defending wide. For Italy, the game played out like a chess match, where they had to find an answer for every little challenge that Brazil’s midfield presented.
Paolo Rossi — the difference-maker
Rossi had last scored an international goal in 1979. He hadn't offered much in the tournament prior to this game, which is why some were perplexed by the continuous faith Italy’s manager Enzo Bearzot showed in him. But the gamble paid off in the end. While the Italian defense was limiting the damage, they needed someone upfront to make the most of the few opportunities that were being created. Rossi turned out to be this player. He headed the ball for his first, pounced on a Brazilian miss-pass for his second, and with a poacher’s finish scored his third to send Italy into the semi-final. Rossi made the most out of Brazil’s defensive unbalance while the Brazilian forwards were finding it difficult to finish chances at the opposite end. Fun fact - since Rossi, no player has scored a hattrick against Brazil in an official match (Messi scored one but in a friendly).
Conclusion and aftermath
Italy won the match 3–2 and Brazil went out despite the goals by Socrates and Falcao. The impact of his game on football history and folklore can not be overstated. With Rossi scoring three more goals, Italy would go on to win their first post-war World Cup. For Brazil, it was a grueling loss surpassed only in public memory by the Ghost of Maracana 1950. Watching their beautiful game being overwhelmed by the defensive Italians, Brazilian football took a dark turn. The innocence and free-flowing nature had to make way for a more result-oriented style of football. This did help Brazil win two more World Cups but never the same level of adulation. On the other hand, the 1982 side has been immortalized in the hearts of football romantics, with books written about it and songs sung about it. One couldn't help but think what if this team consisting of Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Junior, and others had gone all the way.
Link to the full match