KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Mario Zagallo’s international renown began with numbers. He was the man who triumphantly converted two into three.

This was in Brazil’s initial World Cup-winning double in 1958 and 1962. Zagallo was an orthodox left winger in attack in the victory in Sweden in 1958 when Brazil introduced 4-2-4 to the world. Four years later in Chile coach Aimore Moreira shored up the resilience of an ageing team by pulling Zagallo back on the left of midfield. They won the World Cup again.

Mario Jorge Lobo Zagallo Zagallo, the man who personified the switch to 4-3-3, has died aged 92. Another impressive number among so many others in his career.

Zagallo was underrated by many fans and media but his achievements speak for their lack of perception: he was a world champion twice as a player then also as national team coach in 1970 and senior technical coordinator in 1994. Zagallo also led Brazil to success in 1997 in both Copa America and FIFA Confederations Cup.

The Copa America success in Bolivia prompted the outburst to camera which defined Zagallo’s career: “Now you will have to put up to me!”

More silverware came Zagallo’s way at club level. As a diligent, generous team-mate he was a Carioca state winner with Flamengo in 1953, 1954 and 1955 then again with Botafogo in 1961 and 1962 as well as double Rio-Sao Paulo champion.

Later, as a coach, Zagalo won seven domestic trophies with Botafogo, Fluminense and Flamengo as well as a Saudi league title with Al-Hilal in 1979. Sandwiched amid all of those prizes was an Arabian Gulf Cup success with Kuwait in 1976.

Rio move

Zagallo was born in Atalaia in Alagoas, not far from the wondrous Iguacu falls on the border triangulation with Paraguay and Argentina. He was one when his family moved to Rio de Janeiro where he witnessed the historic 1950 World Cup defeat by Uruguay as a member of an army police security unit. Years later he recalled: “This defeat marked me. I swore that we would be champion one day.”

That same year Zagallo moved from the América youth teams to Flamengo. One month before the 1958 World Cup finals he made his Brazil debut in an Oswaldo Cruz Cup victory over Paraguay and remained first choice with coach Vicente Feola in Sweden a month later.

Zagallo’s inside forward partner was Pele. He recalled: “I was 27 and Pele was 17. That’s why I say that I never played with him, but that he played with me.”

Pepe, at Santos, was a more dangerous goalscorer and Sao Paulo’s Canhoteiro a better dribbler, but Zagallo’s team ethic brought him back into the frame in Chile in 1962. He retired three years later.

New start

Zagallo’s second World Cup career began in the spring of 1970 when he was appointed national team coach in place of the unpredictably contentious Joao Saldanha. He oversaw history as Brazil became three-times winners of the Jules Rimet trophy after playing some of the most memorable football in World Cup history.

Success enshrined Zagallo as the first man to win the greatest prize in football as both player and coach. However maintaining success proved beyond even Zagallo with a cautious, much inferior team four years later in West Germany. His magic touch then returned, as supervisor in support of coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, in 1994.

Zagallo always insisted that 13 was his lucky number but believed himself the victim of fate when Brazil lost 3-0 to hosts France in the 1998 World Cup Final. Mystery remains over the late selection of Ronaldo who had been taken ill at the team hotel.

Zagallo always insisted: “He was cleared to play by the doctors. Anyone in my position would have done the same thing. I wasn’t going to be the one keeping him from playing in a World Cup final.”

Final curtain

Another defeat by France, in the 2006 quarter-finals, brought an end to Zagallo’s connection – this time as coaching aide to Parreira – with the World Cup. Health now had to take priority. Zagallo had suffered a heart scare in 2001 and had undergone stomach surgery in 2005. Later came back trouble in 2014 and he spent three weeks in hospital last August with a urinary infection.

At least by now Zagallo had won his battle with a reluctant media over the spelling of his name. For years he had been known as Zagalo after a newspaper printing error at the start of his career in 1950 when he left America for Flamengo. It had taken his insistence during an interview with Folha de Sao Paulo in 1995 to put the record straight.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in expressing condolences to Zagallo’s family, friends and “millions of admirers”, declared three days of national mourning. FIFA president described Zagallo’s impact on the World Cup as “unparalleled” and the CBF’s Ednaldo Rodrigues hailed Zagallo as “one of the biggest legends and a great hero of our football.”

Mario Jorge Lobo Zagallo: born August 9, 1931, died January 5, 2024.

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