The Brazil team that lifted the 1970 World Cup has been regarded by many aficionados as perhaps the greatest collection of footballing talent assembled under national colours at a major tournament. Not only was there an abundance of star players, each capable of turning a match in favour of the Seleção with a moment of magic, but they also combined to produce outstanding team performances, sometimes subsuming individual glory for the greater good of the whole; not in any collectivist manner, but with a joy and exuberance that reasserted an affection for jogo benito. It was the sort of team that allowed all who hold a passionate affection for the ‘beautiful game’ to believe again.
Of course, there were stars. Péle is the name that always come to the fore as the first among equals when considering that particular heady vintage of Brazil’s footballing talent. Then there was Rivelinho; he of the cannonball shooting. Tostão led the line with elegance, but an almost brutal grace. This tournament also saw the arrival of Jairzinho’s burgeoning talent, and then there was the imperious captain of the ship, Carlos Alberto, who netted the signature fourth goal in the final against Italy, to usher his crew over the line to glory and eternal fame.
There was one player though who, despite some describing as the ‘brain’ of the team, is often counted among the lesser of some very bright lights. Nothing could be much farther from the truth though. He was the glue of the team; the conduit through which so much of the play flowed. He pulled the strings that made the others dance to that irresistible Samba rhythm. The player in question is the short, slightly balding midfielder, Gérson de Oliveira Nunes, popularly known – when his contribution is recalled, that is – merely as Gérson.
Born in the winter of 1941, the player who, much later, would earn the nickname of Canhotinha de Ouro (Golden Left Foot), always seemed marked out by fate to become a footballer. Both his father and uncle were professional players, with the former also a close friend of the legendary Zizinho. It was a pedigree that he would honour with distinction.
As a precocious teenager, Gérson joined Flamengo, where his ability quickly became obvious as he was rapidly boosted through the levels of selection and into the first team. The ability to transition play from defence to attack with one pass, or to hold the ball and control the game, prompting and probing, and know when and how to select and execute each option is an exquisite gift, only granted to a select few players at the very highest level. Here though, was a player who displayed that ability, and with a maturity that belied his tender years.
At this early stage of his career, it was a talent that caused many to compare the youngster to Didi who was, at the time, the fulcrum of the Seleção’s team. It was the highest of accolades. Although lacking any searing speed, his ability to think ahead was the epitome of the old maxim that the first five yards of a player’s run is in his head. To execute such a playbook however, requires not only the ability, but also the self-confidence and belief to recognise that you have the talent to do so. There was no problem with that particular requirement. One thing Gérson didn’t lack was self-belief. It was a trait that he carried well beyond his playing days, and this confidence in his own ability and reluctance to be placed anywhere but in the highest order would shape much of his career.
Less than twelve months after making his club debut, he was invited to strut his talents on a wider stage when selected for the nominally amateur Brazil team that contested the Pan-American Games in 1959. The following year, he was part of Brazil’s Olympic team that travelled to Rome. He scored four goals, but Brazil fell at the group stage. By this time, it was clear to both club and national manager that here was a gem in the making, a rare talent.
Back at Flamengo’s Ilha do Urubu stadium in Rio, the club’s Paraguayan manager, Fleitas Solich, had selected Gérson as the team’s prime creative influence. It was a move echoed by national coach Aymore Moreira, who called up the young starlet for the national team making the short trip to Chile to defend the world crown that had been part of Péle’s coming out party four years earlier in Sweden. Any hopes of sharing in the Seleção’s second consecutive triumph however, were dashed by a knee injury. As Péle, Garrincha, et al lifted the crown again, he was left at home. It wouldn’t be the last time injury dealt a cruel blow to Gérson’s career.
In four years with Flamengo, the young midfielder played over 150 league games for the Rubro-Negro, netting an impressive 80 goals. For a player primarily deployed in a playmaker role it was a more than impressive tally. Despite such success and acclaim from the fans, in 1963 however, Gérson’s determination to improve saw him leave the club.
The previous year, Flamengo had been pitted against Botafogo in the Rio Championship Final. It was a high-profile match, and a chance for the youngster to show off his skills. Fearing a demolition job on his team by Garrincha, Botafogo’s star player, however Gérson’s manager detailed him to sacrifice his attacking role and instead concentrate on a man-marking job on their opponents ‘Little Bird.’
It was a tactic akin to the one Helmut Schön deployed when tasking Franz Beckenbauer to man mark Bobby Charlton in the quarter-final of the World Cup in 1970. Beckenbauer was a much more experienced exponent of the game however, and in his second World Cup Finals at the time. Whereas he completed Schön’s requirements, and then went on to turn the game in his team’s favour when Charlton was substituted and Schön removed his defensive shackles, it was a far more difficult task for the much less experienced Gérson.
It was, in fact, a task beyond the best defensive players in the world as had been illustrated in two World Cups, and to no-one’s great surprise – perhaps excepting Flamengo’s manager – despite gamely trying to stick to his manager’s plan, it was an impossible job for so young a player. Botafogo went on to win the game, 3-0, and Gérson’s influence on the outcome was fleeting at best.
It was an situation that infuriated, but hardly surprised the young player. It also led to him deciding to reject an offer of a new contract with the club the following year. Instead, he opted to join his conquerors. The old saying of ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!’ may well have been in his mind, and for the next couple of years, he would play alongside Garrincha for the Fogão, until the ‘Little Bird’ flew the nest to join Corinthians.
The move across Rio to join Botafogo was one any young aspiring Brazilian footballer would surely have liked to make. At the time, the club had the most celebrated squad in the country. As well as Garrincha, Didi – the player many had chosen to compare Gérson’s style to, Nilton Santos and Mario Zagallo were all adding flames to ‘the fire.’ Among this company, any talented player worthy of a place alongside such luminaries would surely flourish, and so it was with Gérson. The club won the Rio-São Paulo Championship in the following two years, and the Rio Championship in 1967 and 1968. That year also saw the club claim their first national honour, lifting the Brazilian Cup, beating Fortaleza in the final.
The period saw a flowering of Gérson’s talent, but again the international arena did little to enhance his prestige. With two successive world titles behind them, Brazil journeyed to England for the 1966 tournament full of hope and expectation of landing the most celebrated of hat-tricks in the home of football. It wasn’t to be. Whilst Sir Alf Ramsey’s ‘wingless wonders’ ensured that ’Jules Rimet was…gleaming’ for the home fans, Brazil were beaten and battered by a brutality that had abandoned all hopes of legitimate victory, and resorted to the barbaric treatment akin to Alexander Pope’s oft-quoted malevolence of breaking a butterfly upon a wheel. Although it’s certainly true to say that Gérson did not play well in the tournament, it’s perhaps little wonder. Four years later, he would put matters straight.
In 1969, Gérson ended his time with Botafogo, and moved to São Paulo. It had been a triumphant time with the club. In a shade less 250 league games, he had recorded just short of a century of goals, all but maintaining the impressive strike rate he had brought with him from Flamengo. In such illuminated company though, with a collection of star forwards looking for a place on the scoresheet, it may even have been a better record. The following year, in his third attempt at a successful World Cup, he would add the crowning moment to his now glittering domestic career, although initially it seemed as if injury problems would limit his chances again.
Unsurprisingly, Gérson was selected for the opening game of the tournament against Czechoslovakia. Just past the hour mark, with Brazil 3-1 ahead after falling a goal behind, Gérson was forced to leave the game and missed the final two group encounters – against England and Romania – before returning for the quarter-final against Peru. The two games he had missed had resulted in victories by the odd goal, with the encounter against England, a particularly tight game. With the midfielder back in place though, the Seleção began to stretch their legs. A 4-2 victory in the last eight was followed by a 3-1 win in the semi-final against Uruguay. In the final of course, Brazil put on a tour de force performance, defeating the Azzurri after being pulled up short when an error in the Brazilian defence allowed Boninsegna through to equalise Péle’s opening goal.
The bright opening to the game leading to Péle’s opening headed goal seemed to suggest that Brazil would sweep aside the weary Italians, who had battled themselves to a standstill in a slug-fest semi-final against West Germany that ended in a 4-3 victory. It was a game that seemed to betray the defensive inclinations of manager Ferruccio Valcareggi’s Catenaccio strategy, but enthralled the watching millions.
When the Internazionale player brought the Azzurri level however, the expected Brazilian carnival was stalled, Boninsegna had rained on the Seleção’s parade. Perhaps this wouldn’t be the weekend Mardi Gras most were expecting. The equaliser punctured the Brazil’s confidence, and as self-assurance drained from pre-match favourites, it re-energised the Italian team. Sometimes the best team in the tournament doesn’t win the world Cup. Just ask the Hungarians in 1954 when Sepp Herberger’s team defeated Puskas and the ‘Magical Magyars’ 3-2 in the World Cup Final after losing 8-3 to the same side in the group stages. Brazil needed a player who could re-energise their game. Someone with the belief to shrug off this slight delay, and strike up the band once more. They had one.
As time went on, Brazil began to re-establish dominance of the game, regaining composure and confidence, and at the centre of their play, encouraging and cajoling, probing and passing, controlling and directing was Gérson, an increasingly prominent figure in the centre of the midfield. The ‘Brains’ of the team had produced a way back to control of the game and it was somehow fitting that, just past the hour mark, it was the midfielder who fired Brazil back into the lead, and on to glory. At the end of the game, with so many eyes on Péle and Carlos Alberto, few noticed the diminutive midfielder overcome with the emotion of the greatest achievement in world football.
After 75 league games for São Paulo, Gerson made his last move, joining his boyhood favourite club, Fluminense. He would stay with the Tricolor for two brief years, playing 57 league games and netting just five goals as his powers waned. Age and a long series of injuries eventually brought his career to an end in 1974. He had played 533 league games for his four clubs, scoring almost 200 goals. On the international stage, he had worn the Canarinho shirt in 85 games. Sixty-one of those were victories, and only 19 had resulted in defeat. In those games, he had scored 19 goals, but none probably meant as much as the strike that restored Brazil’s lead in the 1970 World Cup Final. His final game for the Seleção came on 9th July 1972. Fittingly it was in a victory, 1-0 against Portugal.
After retirement, Gérson was still very much in the public eye, although not always for the best of reasons. Later suggested to be the result of bad advice, he took part in a commercial for a cigarette company in 1976. In Brazil, there’s a widespread disregard for laws and social imperatives, with the traditional approach being to get away with things if you can. In the commercial, Gérson’s tagline, promoting the Vila Rica cigarettes was, “I like to take advantage of everything, right? You too take advantage!” Whether by design or accident, the phrase was looked on as an endorsement of a lack of morals leading to bribery and corruption, often termed as the ‘Jeitinho Brasileiro’ (Brazilian way). Later, Gerson would declare that this was never his intention and that he regretted taking part in the commercial.
He also fell out with long-time team-mate Péle over the latter’s list of his 125 Greatest Footballers. Arguing, entirely with some justification, that he – and a number of his teammates from the 1970 World Cup squad – should have been included on the list. To have a list of the supposed best 125 players of all time and not to find himself included, riled his still strong self-belief and confidence.
He visited a local radio station and symbolically ripped up a piece of paper representing Péle’s list, declaring, “I respect his opinion, but I don’t agree. Apart from Zidane, Platini, and Fontaine, I’m behind 11 Frenchmen? It’s a joke to hear this.” In fairness, take a look at the list. He had a more than reasonable case.
Neither was he shy about putting some of the new generation’s superstar Brazilian players firmly in their place. Talking to Fox Sports, he disparaged opinions that Neymar would get a place in the 1970 World Cup team. Although one of the finest players of his era, and, of late, the subject of the most outlandish transfer fee, Gérson seriously doubted whether the PSG player would have been able to claim one of the starting eleven’s shirts ahead of Jairzinho, Péle, Tostao, Rivelino, or indeed, himself. “There wouldn’t be a space for Neymar,” he adamantly declared. “In whose place would he play? He can’t take Rivelino’s spot. Nor Péle’s. Would he come in for Tostao? For Jairzinho? There wouldn’t even be room in midfield for him.” As if to emphasise the point, he even denied the modern superstar a place on the bench. “We had Caju, too, an enormous talent,” he went on to say. “He played a lot in midfield or as a No. 10. He was pure talent. He was brilliant wherever you put him — and he was a substitute. So, I don’t even know if Neymar would have a place on the bench in that team.”
Neymar has currently scored 52 goals for Brazil, leaving him just two behind Romario and ten astray of top-scorer Ronaldo. At just 25 years of age, it seems highly likely that the PSG player will end up comfortably at the top of the tree if he stays healthy. Perhaps Gérson’s judgement was a little awry on this one. Given the success and celebrity of the 1970 World Cup team of Brazil though, perhaps that’s excusable. After all it was said some time ago, and Neymar still has some way to go to emulate the international glory achieved by the 1970 World Cup squad.
The man with the golden left foot now commentates for radio in his home town of Rio, calling games in his inimitable style. The player who provided the link for the club teams he played for across his career and in 85 games for the Seleção, now provides the link between the game being played out in front of him and the listening fans. Despite having players of the calibre of Neymar in the current national set up, there are many Brazilian fans who would willingly turn the clock back to have Canhotinha de Ouro back in a Canarinho shirt once again, rather than commentating on players who are perhaps not his equal.
Gérson de Oliveira Nunes was a once in a generation player, with both massively fortunate and unfortunate timing to his career. To have been part of a club side such as Botafogo with the stars ranged around him must surely have been a delight, and to be given the opportunity to display your talents in a Seleção squad that won three World Cups in four tournaments surpasses the dreams of any schoolboy. Against that though, there is a question that arises. In any other generation, would the midfield talents of Gérson received so much more recognition? Away from the dazzling talent of Péle, would his light have been allowed to shine even brighter and be recognised for doing so? Who can say? Perhaps if so, it may even have got him onto his former team-mate’s list. It’s a place well deserved by the player who was the ‘brain’ of such an outstanding team.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘These Football Times’ website).