When Ireland play in the World Cup, a nation holds its breath but when Brazil play in the World Cup, the world holds its breath, writes Liam Mackey
Under the enlightened management of Tite, and with Neymar back from injury, there is cautious hope that, after Brazil suffered its darkest footballing day four years ago, a reborn side, packed with quality players and playing ‘the Brazilian way’, can restore the faith in Russia.
And it won’t only be Brazilians who hope that proves to be the case.
Many great teams and many great players have adorned the competition since its inception in 1930 but no other country – not even a recognised superpower like Germany or Spain or the Argentina of Maradona or the Dutch of Johan Cruyff who were such beautiful losers in 1974 – is capable of casting a spell on the Mundial quite like Brazil.
They have won it more times than anyone else, of course, five in total from their first in 1958 to their last in 2002, but while that record has ensured them of an as yet unchallenged position in the history of the game, it doesn’t come close to explaining the unique place they hold in the affections of football lovers around the globe.
To understand why that is, the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, more than any other of their triumphs, holds the key. And that victory for the ages also goes a long way to explaining why, when Brazil fail, as they did so disastrously in Belo Horizonte in 2014, it's as if football itself has let us down.
I’ll have to admit to a certain bias, I suppose. Brazil’s victories in 1958 and 1962 came too early for me and even in 1966, when Pele was literally kicked out of the tournament in England, I was still too preoccupied with Action Man and ‘The Virginian’ to pay any heed to the dreadful injustice of it all. But by 1970, weaned on Manchester United’s 1968 European Cup win and Shamrock Rovers’ six-in-a-row, I was already deep into my football apprenticeship and, at the seasoned age of 11, newly open to the possibility that there just might be other players out there to rival George Best and Mick Leech in my personal pantheon.
I was, you might say, ripe for the plucking by this thing we would all come to know as ‘the beautiful game,’ and, in Mexico, the likes of Gerson, Tostao, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto and, of course, the incomparable Pele, gave such vibrant, intoxicating life to the concept of 'joga bonito' that I, and many more like me, would never again look at football – or any other sport, for that matter – in quite the same way.
Everything about that Brazil team seemed magical. Even their greatest misses were greatest hits, like Pele’s booming effort from the half-way line against Czechoslovakia and his physics-defying dummy against Uruguay, the one that appeared to give the bewildered ‘keeper whiplash before the great man’s shot on the turn rolled agonisingly – the cliché has never been more apt – the wrong side of the post.
Actually, it’s probably just as well it didn’t go in: my fragile, eggshell mind, already experiencing canary yellow and cobalt blue sensory overload, would probably have exploded.
Brazil were so good that they brought the very best out in their opponents too, including moments of such outstanding defiance that, though fleeting and ultimately ineffectual, they have entered the folklore of the game in their own right. Think of Bobby Moore’s immaculate tackle to rob Jairzinho and Gordon Banks’ seemingly impossible save from Pele’s header when holders England fell 1-0 to the Selecao in an epic game in Guadalajara.
But nothing could stop Brazil’s swaggering march to the final where destiny demanded that they finish on a high. And not only did they not let us down, they proceeded to elevate the game of football to new levels of sophistication, exhilaration and sheer joy. Setting the bar for what people call ‘winning in style’, they simply blew Italy away in the Azteca Stadium, Pele opening the scoring with a towering leap and a header that not even ‘the Banks of England’ could have saved.
The brief appearance of a quirkier Brazilian trademark – what Jack Charlton liked to call “fannying about at the back” – allowed the Italians the temporary illusion of parity before Gerson and goal-a-game Jairzinho put the maestros firmly back in charge.
And then came the coup de grace, the goal which has come to be regarded as the greatest team creation ever, scored by the greatest team of all time, an exquisitely fluid multi-player move from deep in their own half, which ended with Pele almost nonchalantly laying off a pass into space on his right, the weight of it so perfect that galloping full back and skipper Carlos Alberto – suddenly entering our fuzzy television picture from stage right - didn’t even have to break stride or take a touch as he came onto the ball at full tilt and walloped it low into the far corner of the Italian net.
Brazil 4 Italy 1, the Jules Rimet theirs to keep. I knew even then that it would probably never get better than this.
But, boy, could it get worse.
Four years ago, I flew off to Brazil to cover the 2014 World Cup. For a few weeks, the fabled Maracana became my local ground and, fanning out from my Rio base, I also got to rove the length and breadth of that fantastic country, from Sao Paulo to the banks of the Amazon in Manaus.
Your experience of a World Cup as a working journalist – with all the demands, sometimes stressful, of travel and workload and research and deadlines - means that you can never hope to be able to soak up the tournament like a fan.
But I still recognised the origins of the tingle I felt walking into the stadium in Belo Horizonte to see the hosts take on Germany: 44 years after I’d imbibed Mexico ’70 in the family home in Tallaght, I was about to fulfil a boyhood dream by seeing Brazil in the flesh, and on home soil, playing in the semi-final of the World Cup..
And if this visitor to football's holy land was almost beside himself with excitement, conceive of how the natives must have felt, as minus the injured Neymar but carried aloft by a packed, passionate stadium and millions more of their countrymen and women watching on the box, Brazil prepared to take the penultimate step towards another World Cup final.
And then, after just ten minutes, Thomas Muller scored for Germany. A setback, for sure, but there was still a long way to go. The crowd immediately rallied. Which is more than you could say for the players. In a four-minute spell, that was as shocking as it was surreal, Germany scored four more times as their opponents, never the most convincing of sides even when on top, simply lost their heads and fell apart.
With more than 15 minutes to go to the break, it was 5-0 to Germany, already game over, World Cup over, a nation’s dream brutally extinguished. On the BBC, Alan Hansen said: “In 22 years as a pundit and forty years in the game, I’ve never seen anything like that.”
In the stands and right across that vast country, the joy of anticipation gave way to first disbelief and then grief. All around me in the stadium, there were people reduced to tears. Never before or since have I been on hand to see a game of football induce such collective trauma. Think Ireland 1 Denmark 5, if you must, but you would need to multiply that by at least a factor of 10 to get even close to the sense of shock and despair which prevailed in the Estadio Mineirao that day.
By the end, as Germany piled on the pain and ran out 7-1 winners, the tears had given way to anger, at the team, at the manager Phil Scolari and even at the government of the day. That night in my hotel in the city, I watched as one of Brazil’s leading pundits appeared to have a nervous breakdown live on TV.
The following morning, when I landed back in Rio, there wasn’t a Brazilian shirt to be seen, not one, in a city which had been clad in yellow for the previous few weeks. Nearly all the newspapers opted for black borders to frame stories and headlines that spoke of fiasco and embarrassment and of a national humiliation without precedent.
Brazil had gone into the tournament haunted by the 64-year-old spectre of the ‘Maracanazo’, their shock World Cup final defeat to Uruguay in Rio in 1950. The hope and belief had been that they would never have to experience anything like it again.
Well, they didn’t. In Belo Horizonte, they were made to endure something far, far worse.
And because it was Brazil, their Brazil and our Brazil, the Brazil of 1970 reduced to this state of abject dysfunction, football romantics everywhere felt their pain.