Brazil mourns passing of one of football’s greatest, Mario Zagallo, 92

January 7 – A four-time world champion and the first person to win the World Cup as both a player and a coach, Mario Zagallo has died at the age of 92.

As a player, Zagallo won the World Cup in 1958 and 1962, as a coach in 1970 and as a technical director in 1994. His immense success was instrumental in shaping Brazil’s fortunes on the global stage. As a four-time World Cup winner, he played a part in nearly every important chapter of Brazilian football.

Born in Alagoas in 1931, Zagallo was a middle-class boy for whom choosing a football career was not straightforward. He was not the most gifted player either, but he soon moved from America to Rio giants Flamengo and his intelligence won him a place in the Brazilian national team.

He became the deep-lying winger, shuttling up and down to provide defensive cover, turning a 4-2-4 into a 4-3-3. Brazil had pioneered the back four, but playing a system with wingers left the midfield exposed. Zagallo’s ingenuity to drop back solved this problem.

In 1958 in Sweden, he won a maiden World Cup for Brazil alongside teenager Pelé and dribbling wizard Garrincha. Four years later, Brazil and Zagallo repeated the feat in Chile. Pelé was injured in the group stages, but Garrincha and Amarildo took over to lead Brazil to victory. It was a testimony to Brazil’s strength in depth and the golden generation of which Zagallo formed a part.

His name remained linked to the national team and the global finals. In 1970 in Mexico, he returned as a coach of the two-time world champions.

On the eve of the finals, he succeeded the tempestuous Joao Saldanha and tweaked the team, dropping Wilson Piazza to centre back to integrate Clodoaldo in midfield and playing Rivellino as a false left winter, the role Zagallo occupied as a player. It worked wonders and Brazil thrilled for three weeks in the Mexican heat to claim a third World Cup, the tournament culminating with Carlos Alberto Torres’s iconic strike in a 4-1 win against Italy in the final.

A third title, conquered in such an exuberant style, meant Brazil forever became synonymous with the beautiful game.

The Brazilians and Zagallo had seized their moment in history. TV had arrived in earnest and what better platform for Brazil to become the ‘futebol’ nation, Pelé the greatest of all time, and the World Cup a juggernaut?

The 1970 tournament also marked the end of Brazil’s golden era, but Zagallo would win the World Cup one more time.

In 1994, he operated in the shadows as technical director as his protégé Carlos Alberto Parreira guided Brazil to a fourth title in the United States. That Brazil side never received much recognition back home because it was seen as too unattractive. In a way, it was also how Zagallo was perceived by his fellow countrymen.

His passing however has prompted Brazilians to reflect on his career and recognise that Zagallo was a giant of the game whose vision played a pivotal part in Brazil’s dominance of the international football.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva expressed condolences to Zagallo’s family, friends and “millions of admirers” and declared three days of mourning in Brazil.

“We offer solidarity to his family members and fans in this moment of grief for the departure of this great hero of our football,” said CBF president Ednaldo Rodrigues.

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