One of the most popular ideas of the moment it seems is that Brazil have learned the lessons of 1966, modernised their game and are all set to stage a really serious bid for the 1970 World Cup - the Mundial as it is known in Mexico.
Certainly I am pleased to see Brasilia amongst the qualifiers - and undoubtedly they will be far more popular all over the world than Argentina, who have been busily copying the European style of play, and have been kicking lumps off each other for several years past. But Brazil, for all their popularity and the undoubted class and genius of Edson Arantes do Nascimento have yet to prove themselves to me.
More gullible critics than I have assumed that because Brazil beat Venezuela, Colombia and Paraguay in the qualifying rounds, winning all six games for a goals tally of 23 for and only two against, that this automatically and at once puts them back in business. I will accept the very valid point that the players' morale has improved since former Botafogo boss and ex-journalist Joao Saldanha has taken over. I'll also take into account the fact that since I saw them last Pelé has changed his mind about appearing in the Mundial and that when I last observed them in the flesh during the summer of 1968, the presence of Pelé would have made a tremendous difference. But I cannot agree that the Brazilians have modified their game for the fans of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have always regarded football as we look upon a circus - an arena in which talented jugglers show off their unusual skills. This, I am convinced, has not changed and wall not change for some time yet.
Let us sit down quietly without any fuss and consider the evidence. Last year under Aimore Moreira, a Brazilian squad without Pelé toured Europe with only mixed success. The greater part of Saldanha's squad were included in that touring party which did very little to impress me. As I saw that squad they had a very good left-back, Rildo, whom I liked the first time I saw him some years ago at Wembley; a more than useful centre-forward in Tostao, who has come on still further since I saw him if all I hear is true, and a talented but otherwise lacking left-winger in Edu from Santos. Tostao has been having eye trouble, however, and Rildo has been omitted from the list of 22 probables.
On the debit side they had a real problem in goal; a right-back, Carlos Alberto, who was keen on copying the European backs by moving upfield to demonstrate his considerable skill, but not so keen on the hard sprinting required to get himself goalside of the ball when Brazil's attacking moves broke down. In addition to this they had a grossly overrated midfield pair in Gerson and Rivelino; talented yes, but so eager to show off their ball skill they seldom bothered to look about and play off the first-time ball which has become a cornerstone of the modern game. Over and above all this, and still the biggest problem of all they had absolutely no cover or depth in their defence. It should be stated that they also had a young and talented right-winger in Natal (from Belo Horizonte), whose intelligent distribution and running off the ball proved conclusively that there is at least one real coach working in Brazil. But this young man has been conspicuously absent from Brazil's team since Moreira lost control.
Looking into these problems a little more deeply, Saldanha brought back Gylmar, a superb 'keeper in his day, to earn his 100th cap and help beat England 2-1 last June. But England that day through injury or whatever, fielded a very unbalanced team which included an attack of Ball, Bell, Bobby Charlton, Hurst and Peters. Four of these five - Hurst being the lone exception - are natural midfield players and on this score alone I suggest that England were far below their best that day. Again Gylmar has not been recalled since then, and I very much doubt if Saldanha has solved his goalkeeper problem. We will not know the truth of that suggestion (and neither will Saldanha himself) until Felix, Claudio or the newcomers Ado and Leao or whoever it is the Brazilians have between the sticks, test him against stiff European opposition which challenges for what we term the "fight" ball hit haphazardly into the box. Then, and only then, shall we all discover whether or not Saldanha has managed to adequately replace Gylmar dos Santos Neves.
The 'keeper apart, the core of Saldanha's difficulties must revolve around the centre of his defence where even if he wanted to play an ausputzer, libero or plain "sweeper" he would have difficulty finding one who did the job regularly for his club and was therefore experienced at it. To play "behind" looks, and is, an easy job, particularly in the physical sense, for compared with other positions the sweeper has a lot less moving around to do. But though it looks easy and is easy to those with the experience and the know-how, it's an awfully easy place to get caught in. One foot out of position, one tiny fraction of a second late in reading something, and the speed at which the game is played today is enough to destroy any player who is less than highly skilled at this game. When I saw Joel, the burly left-half (left centre-back) ,in 1968 he was big, intimidating and fine header of the ball. But he was also a very awkward looking player, easily drawn and slow to cover. Joel is still there in the World Cup side that qualified and looks like being a regular choice for the Mundial. Maybe he has improved in the year since I saw him last but somehow I doubt it.
Looking back over the last 12 months - in December, 1968, Yugoslavia drew 3-3 with Brazil in Rio de Janeiro and a few days earlier West Germany had gained a 2-2 draw at the same bowl, that is, Maracana. At home to European opposition lacking adequate time to acclimatise these are not results on which World Cup hopes can be based. Since then they did beat England ... but in my opinion an unbalanced England, and they have qualified by winning six games in a row. But look a little further into those qualifying matches and we find that the only time the Brazilians were faced by anything like an organised, experienced defence was in their final game, at home in Maracana to Paraguay. That day, with Paraguayan 'keeper Raimundo Aguilera performing really well and his colleagues running themselves silly, Brazil could only scrape home by 1-0 and that one a rebound which Pelé popped in from around three yards. Tostao, the young man who made his World Cup debut in '66 and hit ten of the 23 qualifying-goals Brazil scored, had an operation to save the use of his right eye.
Another doubt that I cannot put out of my mind is whether or not Pelé will be able to withstand the very rough handling all the world expects him to get in Mexico. Everyone he plays against will know that if they "let" him play as he can play, then he will murder them. In 1962 Pelé missed most of the series through injury and in 1966 he was literally kicked out of the World Cup.
A great deal of course will depend on Pelé himself and his determination, but much will also depend on the attitude of the referees and the instructions they receive from above with regard to tough tackling and foul play. If it is tolerated as it was in England ... then good-bye, Pelé, and I have serious doubts about whether or not FIFA and-their chosen band of officials have the courage and the know-how to get a firm hold on things and keep tight control. But for the answers to these questions we can only wait and see.
One final thought before I pass on to brighter points from Brazil's point of view: I cannot help feeling that a team drawn from the Cumberland town my family comes from wouldn't give Venezuela a good run, and before judging Brazilian prospects we must wait and see them over here in Europe again before we get a truly reliable guide. This, of course, will come because with the thoroughness which was traditional for Brazil ... until 1966, the squad will be very seriously prepared for Mexico. The first get-together and training session took place in early February. From this point on it is all for Brazil and club matches are forgotten. Thorough medical checks followed on all the 44 players. Then the diary reads:
March 8: Brazil will meet a South American team in Porto Alegro.
March 15: Brazil will play against Argentina or Peru in Rio de Janeiro.
March 22: Brazil versus European opposition (preferably Russia, Hungary or West Germany) in Sao Paulo.
March 29: Brazil v. European opposition in Rio: preferably England or Scotland (no chance of these two in the season) or Czechoslovakia.
April 2: Depart for Montevideo, where Brazil will play their two regular games against Uruguay for the Copa Rio Branvo.
April 6 to 11: Players released for a short holiday.
April 12: Players report back for training.
April 16 & 19: Brazil will play two games against Chile in Santiago.
April 20: The squad flies off to a special training camp in Colombia. Special, because it is situated at a similar altitude to Mexico City and there they will train for 27 days. During this time Brazil will play against Colombia (twice) and Ecuador... all at high altitudes.
May 18: The party flies direct from Colombia to Mexico for the final 14 days' preparation at altitude.
Obviously the CBD means business and personally I wish them well. I'd rather see the disorganised but talented Brazilians win the Copa Del Monde than have one of the tough and nasty European teams get it. I hope they do, but I fear they won't.
This article originally appeared in the March 1970 edition of World Soccer.