The Pope may be Polish, but God is a Brazilian." Thus spoke Pelé, now a newspaper columnist, after his old side, Brazil, had eliminated Poland by a score of 4-0 from the World Cup tournament in Mexico early last week.
And indeed, through the first 74 minutes of Brazil's quarterfinal game against France in Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara five days later, it looked as if the maestro had it absolutely right. Brazil, the tournament favorite, had begun the game in its traditional majestic style. Just 17 minutes into the first half, French defender Manuel Amoros lost a race for the ball to Brazil's Muller (Brazilian players like to be known by single nicknames). Muller and teammate Junior exchanged a few passes before Junior got the ball to Careca, who kicked it waist high to the left of Joel Bats and into the French goal. That got the samba drums a-throbbing.
But Saturday was the 31st birthday of France's elegant Michel Platini—three-time European player of the year. To this point in the World Cup, Platini had been strangely subdued. But just before half-time he got a birthday goal, gift wrapped by Brazilian defender Edinho, who, astonishingly, gave up the ball to the Frenchman about six feet in front of Brazil's goal. It was the first time anyone had scored against Brazilian goalie Carlos Gallo in the tournament—a stretch of four games and 41 minutes.
With the game tied at 1-1, Brazil kept attacking. The French were visibly wilting in the 86° heat. With 18 minutes left in the game, Brazilian coach Tele Santana put the 33-year-old Zico in the game. It was an inspired stroke. Less than three minutes later, the veteran had sliced his way through midfield and sent a long, precise pass to Branco, who found himself with only Bats to beat. The French goalie had just one course of action to take, and he took it, running out and sweeping the legs from under Branco. It was a penalty, naturally. And even before the formality of the unimpeded penalty shot directly at the goal, Branco and teammate Alemao rolled on the grass in a happy embrace as if the game, the Cup even, were already Brazil's.
June 29, 1986
Zico lined up to take the shot. His run-up was nearly casual, and almost simultaneously with striking the ball he half turned in triumph—just as Bats dived to his left, got a glove to the ball and deflected it. Whereupon, presumably, God turned in his Brazilian passport.
The game moved through a scoreless 30-minute overtime, then into the farce of a penalty shoot-out. Five different players from each team took the extremely high percentage shot at the singularly defended goal. Brazil converted three of its kicks, France four, and the final score was 5-4, France.
The winning shot was struck by Luis Fernandez, but it was Bats who became France's new hero. Not only had the goaltender stopped Brazil from winning in regulation time with his save on Zico, but he had also begun the penalty shootout with a brilliant save against Socrates. "I knew which way Socrates would go," Bats said later. "I watched the way he took his penalty shot against Poland."
Bats, 27, is a serious poet with two published volumes to his credit. He took up poetry as a kind of therapy after undergoing successful surgery for testicular cancer four years ago. Early in the tournament, Bats says, he felt disturbed and nervous. His five-year-old daughter was sick back in France, and he couldn't sleep nights. During France's first-round, 1-1 tie with the U.S.S.R, Bats says, he felt he might fall asleep in the goal. But he showed no sign of sleepiness Saturday.
In this Cup, it appears that a good goalie is the finest asset a team can have. Three of the four quarterfinal games ended in overtime penalty shoot-outs. The shoot-out is hated by all in Mexico City, with the exception, perhaps, of the old gentlemen of FIFA, who are intent on their TV profits, the amount of which they refuse to make public. After France beat Brazil, West Germany took out Mexico 4-1 on Saturday and Belgium eliminated Spain 6-5 on Sunday, by this same inglorious means. The only way to avoid death by penalty kick, it seems, is to have a genius on your side.
Like Diego Maradona, as the 114,580 people who watched him play for Argentina in its 2-1 win over England at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City on Sunday would testify. There had been speculation that the game would be a bloodbath, a soccer-field replay of the 1982 Falklands conflict, IT'S WAR, SE√ëOR! headlined The Sun, the notorious London tabloid and WE PLAY AGAINST THE "PIRATES" thundered the equally notorious Cronica of Buenos Aires. The game was a tough one, but there were few political echoes.
Even so, it too might have ended in a shoot-out had not Maradona intervened with two goals in four minutes, one horrendously tainted, the other perhaps the best of the tournament. On the first, the crafty Diegito punched the ball into the net with what looked like a left hook. On the second, he picked up the ball in a crowd just inside midfield and dribbled by four Englishmen, including goalie Peter Shilton, in a broken-field run of more than 55 yards.
The victory would not win back the Falklands—Las Malvinas to the Argentines—but at least it maintained a Latin American presence in the semifinals. Europe has never won a Cup in the Western Hemisphere, and now it has three chances in four. On Wednesday, France meets West Germany, and Belgium faces Argentina. The final is Sunday.
And so, while car horns blasted in Buenos Aires, along the beaches of Rio, where all month the air had been filled with the sound of firecrackers, there was silence. On Saturday night, under a full moon, Brazilians were even seen tossing their unignited fireworks into the surf.
Sounds like good stuff for poet Joel Bats, no?