It’s science, not artistry, that made the Brazilians the best at football

There is a widespread belief that Brazil has been so good at football, because their players are somehow more naturally gifted. Which is, of course, complete nonsense. From time to time Brazil has produced some exceptionally talented players, such as Pelé. But so have other countries. Brazil hasn’t won five FIFA World Cups just through natural talent, but by hard work, practice, and, crucially, the appliance of science – before most of the Europeans.

The great Brazil side of 1970

The man behind Brazil’s greatest successes was Joao Havelange, who was President of FIFA from 1974 to 1998. Havelange was the eldest son of wealthy Belgian immigrants that settled in Rio de Janeiro early in the 20th century. Havelange wanted to become a professional footballer but for someone from his social background this was not acceptable – sport should be amateur. Havelange pursued swimming and competed for Brazil in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and at the next Olympics in Helsinki in 1952 he was in Brazil’s water polo team. He then went into sports administration and by 1958 he was president of Brazil’s sports federation, which at the time included Brazilian football and its national team. He held this post until 1973, during which time Brazil won the World Cup three times.

Brazil had failed in the first five World Cups, most notably in 1950. Deep still today in the Brazilian football psyche – despite five World Cup wins since! – is the scar of Brazil’s highly unexpected (by Brazilians) defeat in the deciding match in the 1950 World Cup against Uruguay in the Maracana Stadium, in Rio, Brazil, in front of 200,000 fans, known as the ‘Maracanazo’, the ‘Maracana blow’.  At the 1954 World Cup an ill-disciplined Brazil lost 4-2 to the great Hungarian team in the quarter-finals, with two Brazilians sent off. Brazil did not expect to win in Switzerland in 1954 – no team had won on another continent in the first five World Cups – but Brazil’s failure in 1950 had to be expunged.

Havelange didn’t know much about football tactics, but his organizational skills were supreme. While preparations for earlier World Cups had been amateurish, the Brazil squad that travelled to Sweden for the 1958 World Cup was perhaps the best prepared national team in history until then. Nothing was left to chance. Brazil had a thorough training schedule before the tournament. With the players and manager in Sweden was a backroom team which included coaching staff, a doctor, a dentist and a psychologist. Brazil asked that at their team hotel female staff were replaced with men, so that the players would not be distracted. Before the final against hosts Sweden Brazil even complained about the Swedish cheerleaders, and these were banned from the game. Brazil, inspired by a hat-trick by a 17-year-old Pelé, won 5-2, and became the first team to win the World Cup on another continent.

The same scientific approach, together with talented players, ensured Brazil’s victory in 1962.  By comparison, England’s approach at this time was amateurish. The team was chosen by a selection panel rather than the coach Walter Winterbottom. An English woman was found in Chile to cook English food for the players.

In 1966 in England referees failed to protect Pelé, who was kicked out of the tournament. Havelange made sure that Brazil’s preparation for the World Cup in Mexico in 1970 was even more meticulous. The team was together for three months before the tournament. The training programme using techniques developed by NASA, including altitude training. Brazil triumphed in 1970 not because they had the best eleven players, but because they had the best preparation.

Having been instrumental in leading Brazil to three World Cup triumphs, Havelange challenged the Englishman Sir Stanley Rous to be elected President of FIFA in 1974 – and won. He prepared brilliantly for this election. Again, Brazilian planning had defeated English ‘amateurism’. Havelange’s meticulous planning and scientific approach ensured Brazil won three World Cups – and effectively took control of FIFA for the next three decades.  

For my full argument that it’s science, not artistry, that made the Brazilians the best at football, please see my new book, What You Think You Know About Football is Wrong: The Global Game’s Greatest Myths and Untruths, published by Bloomsbury, London, UK.