This feature was originally published in Radio Times magazine.


Brazil are the only nation to have won the World Cup five times, and in the build–up to Qatar they are favourites to land trophy number six. So what is the secret?

A giant population (now around 215 million) undoubtedly helps; some will argue it’s merely a case of grabbing 11 people off Copacabana beach and sending them out to express themselves. The truth is much more complicated – and much more interesting.

Pelé gets most of the headlines, but there is one man who did even more to establish Brazil as football’s first nation. Mário Zagallo was a player in the triumphs of 1958 and 1962, coach in 1970 and assistant coach in 1994.

His high point as a player was the 1962 tournament in Chile – and when I tell the 91-year-old that England went to that World Cup without even so much as a doctor, he almost jumps out of his seat.

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“It’s hard to believe,” he says. “What an amazing lapse! We’re considered a Third World country, but way back in 1958 we had what we call a technical commission – a whole back-up team of specialists working together.”

Brazil's team coach Mario Zagallo at the 1998 World Cup
Mario Zagallo coached Brazil to World Cup glory. Antonio Scorza/AFP via Getty Images

As so often in success stories, the path to glory begins with failure.

Brazil suffered a traumatic defeat on home soil in the 1950 World Cup. The players were accused of not being sufficiently macho, so four years later in Switzerland they worked themselves up into a frenzy to kick the great Hungarians all over the place in what would become the notorious “Battle of Berne”, a quarter-final match that Brazil lost 4–2.

But these mistakes would not be repeated. On the road to Sweden 1958, João Havelange took over Brazil’s FA. He would eventually have a long and controversial reign as FIFA president, but for all his faults, Havelange proved a proficient administrator and made sure Brazil were organised.

They scouted training venues and accommodation in Sweden months in advance. They brought in doctors and dentists. There was even an experiment – premature as it turned out – to work with a sports psychologist. And, crucially, there were physical-preparation specialists.

At this time, and for many years afterwards, physical preparation in England was a couple of laps round the pitch followed by a game of snooker. Brazil were way ahead.

They also had a tactical lead. They had brooded on the 1950 defeat to Uruguay and arrived at a conclusion: they needed more defensive cover. So an extra player was withdrawn to the heart of the defence, and the modern back four was born.

Zagallo personifies this process. He was a skilful left winger who would also work back in midfield – a player with two shirts, as was commented at the time.

Come Mexico 1970, Zagallo was now coaching the team, and taking forward the tactical revolution. “I see that team as a modern 4-5-1,” he says. “We played as a block, compact, leaving only centre forward Tostão upfield. We brought the rest of the team behind the line of the ball, saving our energy, and then when we won possession, the quality of our team stood out.”

And not just the quality – the fitness as well. “Our physical preparation was excellent,” recalls Zagallo. “We won most of our games in the second half. We had a huge advantage because we had trained for 21 days at altitude, and no one else had done it.”

Neymar playing for Brazil
Neymar will be looking to bring the World Cup back to Brazil this year. Carl De Souza/AFP via Getty Images

Brazil have never been quite so dominant again, though have added two more triumphs from the subsequent 12 World Cups (in 1994 and 2002).

It is now 20 years since their last victory – two decades in which western Europe has been dominant – but there is a justifiable confidence that the long wait could be coming to an end. Individual talent? Tick. A fine, tactically astute coach? Tick. A good sports medicine back-up team? Tick.

Everything needs to be in place. The lesson of Brazil’s history is that the stars shine brightest when the collective balance of the team is correct and the preparation work has been done. The formula has worked five times. Could this be number six?

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