Tuesday April 28th, 2015

What if?

It's a question so often posed in the realm of sports. What if a certain player wasn't suspended, traded or hurt? What if a controversial call went another way? What if a coach had called a different play? What if a certain matchup had occurred at a different time?

That last question, above the others, has piqued our interest. In light of Floyd Mayweather finally facing Manny Pacquiao this Saturday in Las Vegas, years after both boxing greats were widely considered to be at their absolute best, it got us wondering: What if two soccer titans of their era who never got the chance to meet at their peaks actually did? All week in the build-up to Mayweather-Pacquiao, Planet Fútbol will take a historical deep dive into some of the greatest teams in soccer history, why they ultimately never got the chance to meet their equals and what might have happened if they had.

We started with the Uruguay and Austria national teams of the early 1930s and moved to Argentine power River Plate's La Máquina and Il Grande Torino of the 1940s.

Next up: Brazil and the Netherlands in the early 1970s.


“Those last minutes,” Hugh McIlvanney wrote in his match report of the 1970 World Cup final, “contained a distillation of their football, its beauty and élan and almost undiluted joy. Other teams thrill us and make us respect them. The Brazilians at their finest gave us pleasure so natural and deep as to be a vivid physical experience … the qualities that make football the most graceful and electric and moving of team sports were being laid before us. Brazil are proud of their own unique abilities but it was not hard to believe they were anxious to say something about the game as well as themselves. You cannot be the best in the world at a game without loving it and all of us who sat, flushed with excitement, in the stands of the Azteca sensed that we were seeing some kind of tribute.”

For many, Brazil’s 4-1 victory over Italy to seal its third World Cup represents the highest point football has ever reached. So easy was their style, so fluid, that the myth has grown up that the players just sort of fell together. Rather Brazil’s build-up was fraught and the lineup that eventually romped through the tournament was the suggestion of a group of senior players.

Gérson was an elegant, deep-lying playmaker. He needed protection, so Clodoaldo operated alongside him, a more physical, defensive presence–he may be best remembered for his part in Brazil’s final goal in the final, dribbling nonchalantly through three Italians in his own half, but that was uncharacteristic. Up front, there were doubts as to whether Pelé and Tostão could really play together. 

“Tostão was not a typical center forward,” said the historian Ivan Soter. “He was a ponta da lança like Pelé. So he would drop off and Pelé would become the center forward. It was very fluid.”

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The danger then was that there would be nobody in the box to take advantage of their attractive approach play, but that was alleviated by Jairzinho, a rapid right winger (he more than lived up to his nickname of ‘Furacão’–‘the Hurricane’) with an eye for goal. His strike against England, hurtling late into the box to hammer an angled finish across Gordon Banks after Pelé had held up and then laid off Tostão’s cross was typical, and he finished the tournament as the only man to score in every game in the finals.

Jairzinho’s forward surges left space behind him, but that was no problem because Carlos Alberto was a very attacking right back. He advanced and the defense shuffled over.

That still left two major issues: who to play on the left, and where to fit Rivellino, another who favored the ponta da lança role. Everaldo was a far more defensive-minded fullback, which balanced the back four, but that meant that if a flying left-winger were selected, damaging space could appear on that flank. Two problems became one solution, as Rivellino was stationed vaguely on the left, although he often drifted infield, asked to provide some sort of balancing counterweight to Jairzinho’s surges and encouraged to unleash his left foot whenever possible.


Rinus Michels had no great vision when he took over Ajax in 1965. What he found as a core of young local players who had been schooled in the virtues of passing and moving. Over time, they developed the style that became known as Total Football, their familiarity with each others’ games allowing them almost instinctively to cover for their teammates.

Michels oversaw the organic development of the side, which was based around the frail, angular center forward Johan Cruyff, who would often drop deep, even into his own half, to direct the play. Ajax went on to win three straight European Cups, and, although Michels left for Barcelona after the first, it was his Ajax that formed the basis of the national team he took to the 1974 World Cup.

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The real innovation was pressing and the use of the offside trap as an attacking tool. Johan Neeskens, a tough an intelligent central midfielder, led the charge, pressuring the man in possession, who couldn’t simply play the ball beyond his challenger because of the way the rest of the side also pushed up. Simple balls over the top became ineffective because forwards left behind the advancing defensive line would be caught offside.

Players interchanged positions, although only longitudinally, never laterally: the side is best thought of as three lines of three with a libero: the right back would at times play on the right of midfield or on the right wing, with others on that side of the pitch dropping back to over, but wouldn’t switch to play at center back. It was simple enough to be intuitively understood, but gave a variety to their play, increasing the angles of attack and allowing even the defensive line to press high in the opposition half, knowing there should be cover behind them.

The Dutch swept through the 1974 World Cup. Arie Haan was superb as the libero, Rob Rensenbrink and Johnny Rep admirable attacking foils for Cruyff and Ruud Krol and Wim Suurbier excitingly attacking fullbacks. But in the final, perhaps suffused with overconfidence, they lost 2-1 to the host West Germany.


Although Ajax had become a formidable side by the late 1960s, the Dutch missed out on the 1970 World Cup, eliminated by Bulgaria in qualifying. They were at their peak by 1974, but Brazil was in decline. Pelé had retired from international football after the 1970 World Cup (although he was only 30), Tostão had decided to become a doctor after problems with his eyesight, Clodoaldo was injured and Gérson, at 33, was nearing the end. Their style had changed as well: their football had become more physical, in response to the increasing pace of the European game.

The two sides did meet in the second phase in 1974, but far from an intriguing clash of styles, the game became a battle. Marinho Peres knocked Neeskens out cold and Luis Pereira was eventually sent off for a horrible hack on the same player.


Brazil’s performance in 1970, it turned out, was the end of an era. Zonal marking had developed in the 1950s and its natural corollary, pressing, was pioneered in the 60s. In Mexico in 1970, with the heat, the humidity and the altitude, pressing simply wasn’t possible. The pace of the game was slower and that allowed the sort of individualism in which Brazil specialized to flourish.

The reason Brazil changed its approach four years later was partly to do with the military regime–which sought data on everything and began to try to develop a “scientific” football–but also to meet the challenge of playing European teams in Europe. Uruguay and Argentina both stayed true to the traditional, slower game of South America and both were thrashed 4-0 by the Netherlands. In that sense, Brazil’s decision was vindicated.

As to who would have won? That probably depends on the conditions. In Mexico in 1970, the Dutch would never have been able to press with the intensity their game required. In cooler, lower conditions, it’s hard to see how even players as gifted as Brazil’s could have coped with the aggression of the Dutch.

GALLERY: 100 great photos in World Cup history

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