Soccerex, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. (adapted from a 2013 post)
At the Brazil CBF booth they had a loop of film showing all the goals in their five championships. Over and over in at full speed and then slow motion, the loop was mesmerizing, especially the older footage. Between 1958 and 1970 Brazil was untouchable. It's hard to imagine now but they were light years ahead of the world on an individual skill level.
What was going on? What was their secret? How were they so far ahead?
A couple of brief moments from their breakout 1958 give us a hint. Both moments are brilliant, one quite spectacular, so much so that it may have blocked out any real message that might be understood.
The first moment is the third goal of that 1958 final. Pele, just 17, accepts a ball on his chest angling it away from the covering defender, with the ball headed toward the ground the Swedish sweeper looked to kick him and the ball out of the stadium. But Pele simply lifts the ball over him softly, leaving the sweeper swinging at air, as the ball came back down Pele slammed it home. It was so incredible, perhaps still the best goal ever to be scored in a final, it would be easy to pass off Pele as gifted, godlike, born special, a genius and prodigy.
Talk to the average Brazilian and they see talent as innate, special, and Pele was special. His gifts were god given. (It's easy to see how they believed that).
3:10 (3rd goal) Pele magic moment
3:20 (4th goal) Zagalo goal
The fourth goal is the moment I want to look at. The situation is this. The ball has been parried by the Swedish defender and the ball is rolling toward the left corner of the box with two massively athletic Swedish defenders moving powerfully toward it, like trained sprinters their bodies low, knees driving--a terrible beauty of human movement.
From outside the picture glides in a slim figure, carefully as if on an icy walk, but moving surprisingly quickly. It's clear the three of them, two charging Swedes and a slight Brazilian winger will arrive at the ball at the same time, and it's not a fair fight.
You see the little man moving in for Brazil is not just anybody, the left winger is Mario Zagallo who will become the beating heart and soul of Brazilian soccer. He will have a part of all five world cup wins, as a player 1958 and 1962, as head coach 1970, as an assistant 1994 and 2002. And he is about to make his introduction.
Zagallo is gliding, controlled running, so smooth, readying himself. One of the swedish defenders pulls up confident for the counterattack. Then Zagallo does something strange, he turns himself away from goal to make himself small, like a turning sideways to avoid a passing bus, or like a fencer, giving away little to contact. The big Swede gets to the ball full on with force, but Zagallo lightly swings his right foot at the ball, surly too lightly? Zagallo contacts the ball at just the correct time, not too late or too soon, too high or too low, not too heavy or light. He catches the defender using too much force, trying too hard, the big defender struggles for a split second, but soon momentum carries him passed the ball and Zagallo who is now gliding in, alone with the goalie, he switches the ball to his preferred left foot and slots the ball under the charging keeper. Effort, meet your master: skill.
Things should be as simple as possible, but not a bit too simple" --Albert Einstein
The skill that Zagallo used in this 50/50 tackle is only born of the street. There is no drilling this type of confrontation. No coach would think of this--and if they did they would have no idea of how to teach it. Zagallo, playing for fun as a youth must have encountered this situation before, thousands of times, watched, learned, tried many different variations and knew, without thinking, that the defender, the ball, the distance called on this one technique, he made that decision and he executed it. Game over.
It was never really a fair fight, Zagallo wasn't the athletic monster that Pele or Garrincha were, he was everyman, he was small and thin. He was nurtured, like all young players were at the time in Brazil, at the parks and courts, every day. "Academies" as they exist today did not exist in Brazil back then where they waited until 16, 17 before bringing they kids on trial to the club. In Zagallo's case America at 17.
From "The Gold Mine Effect," Rasmus Ankersen
Brazil's love of play had unwittingly created a best practice.
The science is now lining up with these practices, the randomness, the affordances, implicit learning, intrinsic motivation, and low anxiety, the science is saying, is more effective for motor skill acquisition.
Academies, especially in the US, are focused on mostly the opposite: specificity, competition and explicit learning. The learning is too slow, too inflexible and not best practice.
As we se in the Zagallo example is that the education learned through hours of joy on the street, will always overwhelm the trained, drilled, athletic. The wonder of learning, the joy of free play had given Zagallo all the tools he needed to separate the ball from the Swedish defender and helped win a world cup, and then 4 more.
In 1958, 1962, and 1970 Brazil simply "outstreeted" the world. Their dominating generation was forged of a culture where everyone plays, a lot. Brazil was in love with soccer. Everywhere there were games, fields could not keep pace. The multiplier effect allowed them to try things culture demanded it was pleasing to the eye. The skills and ideas were born and grew there. Now Pele's goal was a street move as well, but with his out of this world athleticism and audacious maneuvers it was easy to be dazzled, and see soccer as born into him, a product of divine grace.
Lesson, there is no great moments, spectacular and blinding like Pele, or simple and subtle like Zagallo, without play. If Brazil's vaunted pick up games disappear so will that special play at the World Cup level. And some Brazilians (Zico notably) are concerned that culture is dying. As coaches, as fans, as players who love the game we have to protect and nurture this culture above all else.
Mario Zagallo, the heart and soul of Brazilian soccer
I met Zagallo at Soccer Ex Rio. He was with 6 members of that great 1970 team (plus Pele remotely on the large screen) to honor their keeper Felix who had just passed away. Zagallo, then eighty, grabbed the microphone to introduce his beloved team. The love and respect for his players, in their 60's and 70's was clear to see. As they showed the highlights of 1970 team and Felix on the big screen the greats all had tears in their eyes. Was all of this born of the street? Not just the skill but the genuineness? The humanness? The 5 world championships? All of this comes from the street, the culture of joy and wonder in Brazil 1950-1970 when they played soccer better than anyone.
I told Zagallo that I liked the way he made himself small as he went into that tackle in 1958, he smiled ear to ear, a kid again as he remembered that play.
Let's all remember that joy of play and keep building the beautiful game.