In a personal account, STU HORSFIELD laments the day the beautiful game died as Italy’s pragmatists eliminated Brazil’s magicians
I crashed through the front door and slung my school bag in the hall without breaking stride. “Hi mum, school was fine. Has it started yet?” I didn’t hear, or even wait for, an answer, screeching to a halt on my knees in front of the television. I jabbed the ‘on’ button and paused, breathing heavily. Then the screen burst into glorious life, the instantly recognisable noise of the samba beat burst from the speakers. Those glorious golden yellow shirts filled the screen and the cast of characters were displayed in a diagonal pattern from right to left. All in block capitals. I had made it in time.
As a 10-year-old you don’t always appreciate what you are watching, or the impact it will have on you for years to come. During the 1982 World Cup, I became obsessed with the Brazilian side. Everything about them was exotic: the sumptuous goals they scored and the way the players rotated around the pitch was unlike anything I had ever seen.
Leading up to this decisive second phase game, played in the now-demolished Stadium, Brazil had scored 13 goals in four games, brushing aside the USSR, New Zealand, Scotland and archrivals Argentina. This was just going to be another formality, another master class in jogo bonito. Traditional slow starters, Italy had struggled in their group, drawing all three games and only edging out Cameroon on goals scored. A narrow 2-1 victory against Argentina meant that Brazil only needed a draw to qualify from this mini second phase group to reach the semi-final.
As expected Brazil began with their easy-on-the-eye languid style. The samba drums set the metronomic beat to which the team played. Italy were their cautious, cynical self in defence. Claudio Gentile, who had marked Maradona out of their previous game, was now trying to stifle Zico with his relentless pursuit of the Brazilian number 10.
A jarring blow shook me out of the armchair and onto my haunches as Italy took the lead after only five minutes. The previously impotent goal-scorer Paolo Rossi scored his first goal of the tournament. I reassured myself that, with 85 minutes to go, all would be well. After all, this carefree Brazilian side had gone behind twice before in the tournament.
Sure enough, seven minutes later sublime interplay between Socrates and Zico, who left Gentile chasing a golden shadow with a deft Cruyff turn, flicked the ball to his captain and The Doctor rifled the ball in at Dino Zoff’s near post. Normal order had been resumed, I settled back waiting for the subsequent footballing exhibition.
“Cerezo… OOOOOFF… Rossi… and Rossi’s in again. Two one. Paolo Rossi. A terrible mistake by Cerezo.” John Motson’s words merely reinforced what I had already seen. Not again, the carefree attitude with which the Brazilians played the game was becoming their undoing. The half-time whistle sounded and the Azzurri were still leading 2-1.
“How’s it going love?” my mum asked not really expecting and answer, much less caring what it was. “Terrible, the Brazilians are losing.” “Is that bad?”, she asked. I couldn’t be bothered to explain the potential repercussions of this great Brazilian side going out of the tournament, so I ignored the question.
As the second half wore on the game became, characteristically for the Brazilians, open and free-flowing and yet uncharacteristically equally free-flowing for the Italians. Emboldened by their sudden prolificacy in front of goal and a striker, fresh from a two-year ban for match fixing, hitting a sudden rich vein of form the Azzurri matched the Seleção blow-for-blow.
Then it happened. Junior, the loosely termed left back, skipped in-field beyond Conti and laid the ball off to Falcão. Cerezo overlapped the frizzy blond haired Roma player, taking three Italians with him. Falcão stepped inside and unleashed a 20-yard strike beyond the outstretched Zoff and into the top corner.
I left the chair ran outside to inform my mum what had just happened. “That’s nice love,” she replied. I ran back inside to bask in the glorious replays. As it stood, this majestic dream-team where going through. They just needed to hold what they had.
On 74 minutes, the inevitable happened. Looking back 36 years it seems inevitable now. It was a half-hearted clearance and poor marking by a side who were uninterested in the banality of defending that allowed Rossi to sweep in a third goal and claim his hat-trick. Despite my pleading, the samba rhythm and the Brazilian’s flair, the equaliser never came. The greatest team I have ever seen were out.
Italy went on to win the 1982 World Cup with Paolo Rossi winning the golden boot as the tournament’s top scorer. Telê Santana received a standing ovation from the assembled press as he entered the press room for his post-match conference.
The 5th June 1982 is the day that the beautiful game died, never again has a side played with such wanton abandonment of rigidity and tactics. There have been sides since, which have played wonderful attacking football, but after that searing hot afternoon in Barcelona the principle of ‘beauty before victory’ was never to be seen again.