Wednesday, May 23, 2012

South America went Brazilian – as far as club representation was concerned. Awarding went against the ‘rules’ too – the Libertadores Cup finalists had no players among the top three. Rivelino, playing for Fluminense by now, got the third place. Zico of Flamengo was second. It looked like Flu-Fla derby once again, but since neither club won anything, something else was more interesting. The overall South American football was still lagging behind the Europeans. There was nothing really new and Brazilian skill and artistry got the upper hand, but it was a bit strange. Rivelino was great player – no doubt about it – but by 1976 he was no longer improving. He was getting older, obviously reached his peak a few years back, and his presence represented lack of new exciting legs. One thing was certain: at the end of the 1960s Rivelino was seen as possible ‘new Pele’ – the player was denying that, arguing the uniqueness of the King, but expectations were impossible to suppress. By 1976 it was well clear that he never came even close to Pele and was not going to become better. Zico – ‘the White Pele’ – finally got recognition, partial one, as it was, but after 6 years of professional football he was still considered ‘promising youngster’. Pele was national team regular before he was 20 – Zico hardly ever played for Brazil yet. Most importantly, no matter how good Rivelino and Zico were, their clubs failed to win the Brazilian championship. Both Flamengo and Fluminense were not the leading clubs at home – so unlike Pele’s Santos of the early 1960s.

South American Player of the Year was voted Elias Figueroa. The Chilean defender was champion with Internacional (Porto Alegre), ranked very high in Brazilian football, and was probably the closest thing to the modern European ‘libero’ South America had at the time. Figueroa was ranked the best South American for a third time in a row – enourmous achievement by any standard, especially given the continental preference of flashy strikers.

How great is great? If one is voted continental best three times in three years, there should be no doubt about quality. In South America Figueroa became a legend. He was voted also FIFA’s player of the year – the best in the world, that is. Yet… outside South America he continued to be relatively unknown. Probably the most unapreciated player of the 1970s. Hats down to him, though.