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. We followed up with the great Brazil and Netherlands teams of the early 1970s.
Moving ahead a decade, we revisit the next great Brazil team and its French national team counterpart of the early 1980s:
For some fans, Brazil's 1982 side was the best in its history. It did not win the World Cup, but it played with flair and a spirit not seen since 1970. Its strength was in midfield, where coach Tele Santana fielded two holding midfielders, Cerezo and Falcão, behind two of the world's best offensive midfielders, Socrates and Zico. Tactics expert and SI.com writer Jonathan Wilson has called the system a 4-2-2-2.
In the 1982 World Cup, Brazil scored 15 goals in five games, with eight different scorers. That, perhaps, points to a weakness as well: center forward Serginho, only playing because Careca was injured, was a bruiser better suited to a crossing game. When he was subbed off against New Zealand, former Brazil coach Joao Saldanha summed up the nation's mood: "Now the ball is round again."
Serginho aside, the front five often rotated positions in a kind of South American homage to Total Football. It may have looked spontaneous, but the team had spent four months honing tactics, and Socrates had even temporarily given up smoking. At the back, Brazil was not so good: fullbacks Leandro and Junior provided attacking width, but goalkeeper Valdir Peres "kept goal like Edward Scissorhands," wrote The Guardian.
When Brazil lost the 1982 World Cup quarterfinal against Italy, it marked the end of the attacking style that had won three World Cups. "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," Wilson wrote.
Zico put it simpler. He called it the day football died.
France coach Michel Hidalgo had a problem. He had four brilliant midfielders, but all of them were used to playing as No. 10s for their clubs. So what did he do? Played them all at the same time for France, and worked out a system around it. It became known as le carre magique, the magic diamond, and it had Luis Fernandez at the base, Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana on the side and Michel Platini at the top.
Platini was the 10-carat star: Ballon d'Or winner as best player in the world, he was also France's captain and inspiration. He turned up late to the squad get-together pre-Euro 84, because of commitments with Juventus, and his first words to his teammates on his arrival were: "Right guys, we're here to win this and that's what we're going to do."
His teammates took their lead from that confidence.
One said: "He ran the show, and we all felt better when he was threre." Platini ended up scoring nine goals in five games (the tournament's next top scorer had three). There was strength at the back, with Max Bossis the leader and physical presence after the retirement of Marius Tresor. Fullbacks Patrick Battiston and Jean-Francois Domergue were solid, though Domergue preceded Lillian Thuram and scored his only two international goals in the dramatic semifinal win over Portugal.
France played two up front, and the movement of Bernard Lacombe and Bruno Bellone would allow Platini, almost a false nine, to join them. Maradona may have inspired Argentina to glory in 1986, but no individual before or since has been so responsible for one team's success as Platini was for France in 1984.
WHY THEY NEVER MET AT THEIR PEAKS
These two sides faced each other in the 1986 World Cup, but by then Brazil had a totally different team. Socrates was the only starter who was in the side that lost to Italy four years earlier. France avoided Brazil in the 1982 World Cup draw; two years later, it hosted the European Championship, and won on home soil (helped as it was the only tournament in which Platini played where he was not carrying an injury).
France won the 1986 quarterfinal on penalties, in a match full of controversy. Proof that none of the big names were at their best that day? Zico missed a penalty shortly after coming off the bench late on. In the ensuing shootout, the first two players to miss were Socrates and Platini.
HOW IT WOULD'VE PLAYED OUT?
Let's assume this game was played before Brazil had lost to Italy, before it had sacrificed freedom for the system, and so coach Tele Santana would look at the France team and ignore it. There would be no plans to minimize the impact of Platini, no suggestion that Cerezo, or Paulo Isidoro, stay back and go man-to-man on the French captain. That would run counter to the philosophy: we are Brazil, the others should worry about us.
Hidalgo's was a similar vision, but he had the sense to be pragmatic as well. Fernandez was tough, and Giresse smart enough to know when to drop back and sit alongside, and so the diamond, le carre, would start the game looking more like a triangle, with two holders playing deep and Tigana just ahead. Hidalgo would be happy to contain early on, and let Brazil enjoy early possession. Socrates and Zico may prod and look for gaps, but Bossis and his back line would remain secure.
Eder, playing behind Serginho, might try and drift wide but would get little change from Domergue. Serginho is decent at hold-up play, and might bring others in, but he can't turn his man, and his frustration will build. After one clash, I can see him kicking out at Bossis, and he'd be lucky to get just a booking (it has been worse for him in the past: he missed the 1978 World Cup as he was serving a 14-month for kicking a linesman).
With the game narrow in midfield, Eder is able to find space out wide, and that might be key: one low ball across the back of the area, one lapse in concentration from Yvon Le Roux and Zico breaks the deadlock.
Brazil would not sit back–it does not know how to, remember–and France has chances to equalize straightaway, Giresse dispossessing Cerezo to release Platini, whose shot hits the side-netting. Close! At halftime, Platini would tell his teammates to stay calm, and the chances will come. They believe him (after all, five of his nine goals in 1984 came in the last 15 minutes of games) and sure enough, with under half an hour to play, Platini gets on the end of a Lacombe knock-down to level the score.
Santana takes off Serginho, who is on the verge of getting a red card, but with that goes Brazil's Plan B option: the French spine holds firm against the low-socked Socrates. Meanwhile France pushes forward and its habit for late goals continues: Platini is hacked down on the edge of the area by Junior, and as he is down for a while receiving treatment, Domergue spots the dead-ball and takes it himself.
Valdir takes a step to the right, but too soon: the ball goes left, and Domergue, just like against Portugal, has become the hero again.
There is no controversy after the game. As in 1986, the players all respected each other (seen by the way they sat in amongst each other as the shootout took place). But the last word belongs to Socrates, who struggled to find his voice on the pitch. As he put it after the Italy loss in 1982: "So we lost? Ah well, that's worse for football."