1970: The greatest team ever?

With Pelé literally kicked out of the tournament in 1966, and with the mercurial Garrincha having retired, Brazil arrived in Mexico seeking both a third world cup win and a new generation of heroes. England, the defending champions, provided the sternest test in the group stage, in a game memorable for Gordon Banks’ awe-inspiring save from a Pelé header and Bobby Moore’s impeccable defending. A single goal from Jairzinho won it, after a dribble from Gérson, the team’s brain, and Pelé’s lay-off had set him up. Peru, coached by Didi, an icon of the team that won the trophy in 1958 and 1962, were beaten next, before Uruguay’s robust defence was breached thrice in an attritional semi-final recalled more for Pelé’s miss after he had impudently dummied the goalkeeper.

The pinnacle had yet to be scaled though. This was a team that could boast of Roberto Rivelino’s hammer of a left foot, and Tostão’s guile, in addition to the threats posed by Pelé, Jairzinho and Gérson. As Clodoaldo, who scored the crucial equalizer in the game against Uruguay, was to say: “We had five such aces. Even a pack of cards only has four."

Awaiting them in the final were Italy, exhausted after a titanic 4-3 victory over West Germany in extra time. And two of the aces Clodoaldo spoke of soon combined to give Brazil the lead. Rivelino volleyed over a cross from the left and Pelé soared—as he had as a 17-year-old in the final against Sweden, 12 years earlier—to plant the header past Enrico Albertosi.

But when Roberto Boninsegna capitalized on a dreadful mistake from Clodoaldo, Italy had parity, and they went into half time the happier side. Brazil had nothing to show for their manifest superiority. That changed in the second half as their excellent fitness—Mário Zagallo, who had won the Cup twice as a player, stressed on it in the build-up to the tournament—began to run the Italians ragged. A marvellous left-foot finish from Gérson restored the lead, and he then turned creator, lobbing the ball up to Pelé, whose header into the six-yard box was bundled over by Jairizinho.

The best was saved for last, a goal rightly celebrated as the acme of team play. Clodoaldo’s dribble inside his own half took him past four Italians, and he then slipped the ball to Rivelino on the left touchline. His pass released Jairzinho, who then cut inside before looking up to see his options. Pelé received the ball 5 yards outside the box, and, as the weary defenders closed in, he played a no-look pass to his right. The ball bobbled over a rough patch on the turf, but nothing could stop Carlos Alberto, the captain and right-back who had made the overlapping run, from thrashing the ball into the corner of the net.

“It could have been 5 or 6-1 to Brazil," said Rivelino later. “Only that national team could have put on a show like that." Nearly half a century later, that statement brooks no argument.

1982: The day football died

All these years later, there can be no conversation about the world cup without at least a mention of Telê Santana’s 1982 Brazilians. They did not even reach the semi-finals, losing 3-2 to Italy in the second league phase, but the staggering beauty of their football ensured they would never be forgotten.

Starting with the balletic footwork and precise shot from Sócrates against the Soviet Union, and finishing with Falcão’s pile driver which looked to have salvaged a draw, and a semi-final place, against Italy. In between, there was Éder’s delightful chip-and-volley against the Soviets, Zico’s banana free kick against a Scotland side that had the temerity to take the lead, Éder’s pitching wedge of a finish in the same game, and Falcão’s long ranger to seal the 4-1 win.

Who could forget Éder’s bar-rattling free kick against Argentina that set up a Zico tap-in, or the passing and movement that resulted in Serginho heading the second? And what of the third from Júnior, the buccaneering full-back who was as comfortable in the attacking third? Ultimately though, defensive lapses, and especially Cerezo’s casual sideways pass, cost them in a game they only needed to draw to progress to the last four.

“That side epitomized Brazil," said Sócrates years later. “It may have been the last side to represent Brazil in a world cup that epitomized the country. It was irreverent, joyful, creative, free-flowing."

It was also unforgettable.

2002: Ronaldo’s Redemption

After the nightmarish events of the final four years earlier, Ronaldo arrived in Japan and South Korea eager to script a new chapter. It began with a delightful goal against Turkey, as he headed in Rivaldo’s cross after ghosting past two defenders. Against China, Cafu’s trickery down the right wing set up a tap-in, and he was in the right place at the right time to claim the first goal against Costa Rica as well.

But it was the second goal that summed up his incredible ability to find space and finish even when surrounded. A first-time finish against Belgium sealed a quarter-final place, and that uncanny knack of gliding through traffic was in evidence again in the semi-final, as his deft toe-poke past Turkish goalkeeper Rüştü took Brazil to yet another final.

And when Oliver Kahn fumbled Rivaldo’s strike from outside the box, Ronaldo was perfectly placed to convert the rebound. In the 79th minute, he sealed it with a goal worthy of the greatest Brazilian sides. Kléberson rampaged down the right, and, when he crossed, Rivaldo dummied the ball for Ronaldo to trap, steady himself and finish with the right boot. With his eighth goal from seven games, redemption didn’t come much sweeter.

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