It's 30 years ago this month that, according to Zico, football died. On 5 July 1982, in the Estadi de Sarrià in Barcelona, Tele Santana's majestic Brazil lost to Italy and were eliminated from the World Cup. With them went the nostalgic form of Brazilian football, the fluid attacking style that had won them three World Cups between 1958 and 1970.
It was never quite as free-form as the stereotype suggested, of course. The team of 1970, for instance, was meticulously prepared and superbly balanced. Carlos Alberto's surges forward from right-back were made possible by the fact that Everaldo, the left-back, was far more defensive; when Carlos Alberto went forward, the defence shuffled across and became a back three. Carlos Alberto was hurtling in to space vacated by Jairzinho, who cut infield into space in every game during the tournament, making the most of the space created by the way Pelé and Tostão dropped off to join the midfield. Clodoaldo was the ball-winner in front of the back four, with Gerson a deep-lying playmaker alongside him. On the left, Rivelino, a natural No10, was given licence to drift infield by the solidity of Everaldo behind him.
That is a sophisticated interlocking that certainly isn't created by grabbing 11 blokes off the beach, but still, there was a freedom and fluidity to their play that wasn't there in 1974 or 1978. 1982 was a return to the old style, the rhythmic midfield triangles, the sudden explosions of pace, the sense of self-expression. The formation of the midfield was serendipitous. Falcão only started Brazil's opening game, against the USSR, because Toninho Cerezo was suspended, but he played so well he had to be retained so it was he rather than Dirceu or Paulo Isidoro who partnered Toninho Cerezo when he returned. With Zico and Sócrates also in the side, Brazil had four vastly talented creative midfielders, but no wide players whatsoever apart from Eder.
Cerezo and Falcão – both registas, deep-lying playmakers – sat behind Zico and Sócrates – the trequartistas – while Eder was deployed as an auxiliary centre-forward, playing off the lumbering Serginho, who would surely never have been anywhere near the side had either Reinaldo or Careca been fit. That said, as Rob Smyth has argued, his physicality helped create space for the others to play, battering opposing defences and driving them back. The formation was thus a 4-2-2-2, with a strong central column flanked by two marauding full-backs in Leandro and Júnior. Europeans may have argued it lacked width, but this was a team of such fluency and poise in possession that they created it with their movement.
They produced the most exhilarating football the World Cup had known since 1970. They beat the USSR 2-1, swatted aside Scotland 4-1 and New Zealand 4-0. In the second group phase, they comfortably beat the reigning world champions Argentina, leaving them needing just a draw against Italy to reach the semi-finals. It was considered a formality.
Italy were in the phase of il gioco all'Italiana rather than out-and-out catenaccio, but caution remained they underlying theme. The game in the Sarrià was seen as an allegory: the attacking and defensive schools of football meeting. To try to alleviate the shortfall in midfield caused by Helenio Herrera's version of catenaccio, Italian football had followed the route of Dutch and German football, by making the libero a far more rounded player, a converted inside-forward in Gaetano Scirea rather than a converted full-back like Ivano Blason or Armando Picchi, capable of stepping out from the back and making an extra midfielder when his side had possession.
Italy had begun the tournament slowly, progressing through the first group – in which they drew all three of their games – only by virtue of having scored a goal more than Cameroon, who also drew all three of their matches. Paolo Rossi, returning after a ban for his involvement in a match-fixing scandal, looked far from his best, but a 2-1 win over Argentina gave them belief, and raised doubts among the Brazilians. Waldir Peres, the latest in a long line of hapless Brazilian goalkeepers, admitted before the game that his great fear was that Rossi would suddenly spring into life. He proved a far better mystic than he was goalkeeper.
Was it the greatest World Cup game ever? Probably, although Hungary's 1954 victory over Uruguay will always have its devotees. Certainly it had an epic feel, something enhanced by overcrowding as far more than the official 44,000 squeezed in. Had Brazil scored an early goal, Italy could easily have wilted, their system and their mentality not equipped for chasing a game, but it was the Italians who took a fifth-minute lead, as Bruno Conti, having been allowed to advance almost 40 yards down the right, cut infield and released the attacking left-back Antonio Cabrini, who crossed for Rossi to repay the faith of his manager, Enzo Bearzot, with a fine header.
And so was set in motion the pattern for the game: Brazilian attacking, and Italian resistance. Within seven minutes, it was level, as Sócrates played a one-two with Zico, and advanced to drive the ball in at Dino Zoff's near post. Then surely, it seemed, Brazil would kick on to win. Perhaps they would have done, had it not been for a dreadful error from Cerezo after 25 minutes, casually knocking a square pass in the vague direction of Júnior. Rossi, suddenly a poacher again, stole in, and beat Peres. This time the lead lasted, and Brazil became increasingly edgy. Rossi, with the chance to make it 3-1 midway through the second half, sidefooted badly wide, and when, two minutes later, Brazil equalised through Falcão's ferocious drive, it looked once again as though they would prevail.
Perhaps, needing only a draw to progress, they should have tightened up and held what they had, but that was not the Brazilian way. They kept attacking, and paid the price. A Conti corner was half-cleared, Marco Tardelli half-hit his shot from the edge of the area and Rossi, played onside by a dozing Júnior, hooked the ball past Peres. It was, as Brian Glanville said, "the game in which Brazil's glorious midfield, put finally to the test, could not make up for the deficiencies behind and in front of it".
It was a game, moreover, that lay on a fault-line of history. It may not have been the day that football died, but it was the day that a certain naivety in football died; it was the day after which it was no longer possible simply to pick the best players and allow them to get on with it; it was the day that system won. There was still a place for great individual attacking talents, but they had to be incorporated into something knowing, had to be protected and covered for. In truth, that had already been apparent; even the free-flowing style of 1970 might not have worked anywhere other than Mexico, where the heat and the altitude made hard pressing impossible.
As Tim Vickery argues in the next issue of The Blizzard, Holland's victories over Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil at the 1974 World Cup prompted a radical change of philosophy in South American football as a whole. It was then in Brazil that the technocrats took over – 1982 and to a lesser extent 1986 were the final failings of the old style.
The irony is that il gioco all'Italiana was itself dying. "It was effective for a while," the veteran journalist Ludovico Maradei explained, "and, by the late 1970s and early 1980s everybody in Italy was playing it. But that became its undoing. Everybody had the same system and it was rigidly reflected in the numbers players wore. The No9 was the centre-forward, 11 was the second striker who always attacked from the left, 7 the tornante on the right, 4 the deep-lying central midfielder, 10 the more attacking central midfielder and 8 the link man, usually on the centre left, leaving space for 3, the left-back, to push on. Everyone marked man to man so it was all very predictable. 2 on 11, 3 on 7, 4 on 10, 5 on 9, 6 was the sweeper, 7 on 3, 8 on 8, 10 on 4, 9 on 5 and 11 on 2."
Hamburg exposed the predictability of il gioco all'Italiana with their victory over Juventus in the 1983 European Cup final and, within five years, Arrigo Sacchi's Milan had revolutionised how Italians considered the game. What was clear, though, and what hasn't changed, is that system was king.