Saturday, March 2, 2013

Best in South America? There was always a bit of mystery and enchantment about it, as far as Europeans were concerned. The continent was fertile and new talent came all the time, but it was not always seen. And it was hard to figure out real merit of one player compared to the rest. Local bias plus deeply embedded journalistic fears play a role – both aspects not specifically South American, but universal. Choices can be doubted easily, for changes and recognition were and are somewhat late. But change of guard was detectable in South America – top three were two well established names and a newcomer, who was not newcomer at all, yet, clearly represented new generation of players. Elias Figueroa was voted third, although playing by now for modest Palestino (Santiago, Chile). True, he elevated the club to instant success, but... possibly votes went to him by habit too, for he was already unprecedented three times Player of the Year of the continent.

It was nice to see such a great player continuing ti keep high level of performance even when playing for smaller club and getting old.

Rivelino was voted second – he played for Fluminense by now and Fluminense was not winning. And the days of Rivelino in the national team of Brazil were nearly finished. He was also getting old and no matter how good Figueroa and Rivelino were, their was a sense that they represented yesterday's football and they were voted high not because they had particularly great season, but because of their names.

Number one was entirely different player – Zico.

The White Pele finally got recognition. Finally? He was only 24 years old. But! There were actually few 'buts': outside South America Zico was unknown quality – the world really saw him for the first time at the 1978 World Cup. Since Flamengo was not very strong so far, Zico was not exactly seen in South America either. He was known largely on print, by articles. Skepticism was fueled by the very shadow of Pele: for years Brazilians searched for the 'new Pele', and almost every year there was new discovery, quickly replaced by the next. Zico was playing since 1970 and meantime there were few others labeled 'new Pele'. It was not exactly great career so far: when compared to the King, Zico did not look all that great. He was not an instant star – he played little in 1970, then he was moved back to the juniors, then came back again, but his presence did not really make Flamengo a winning team. And he debuted in the Brazilian national team only in 1976, when he was 23 years old. Now, 23 is quite young, but the King was already World champion twice at this age, playing for unbeatable Santos, and the best player in the world. Zico seemingly failed to measure up to Pele. By far. So it looked like, yet, there was something else: football changed a lot in the 1970s, becoming much more physical. Serious training, not just talent was needed. Coaches were reluctant to include juniors in the first team – fears of failure possessed them, it was too risky, and the excuse was readily at hand: the demands of the game were too much for mere boys. Zico was considered too skinny and fragile in the 1970 and was returned to the juniors to build some muscle. Which he did, but skinny and fragile Pele was a starter back in the 1950s – so profound was the change of mentality and reality of modern football. And on top of it the South Americans misunderstood total football – they emphasized defense, discipline, and physicality, at the expense of artistry and creativity. There was no place for Zico in the 1974 World Cup Brazilian squad, for the mistaken philosophy of the time needed entirely different, even unbrazilian type of players. Coming back to the roots of Brazilian game was slow – hence, the debut of Zico was late. Mind, when he finally donned the famous yellow jersey Maradona debuted – and instantly fascinated both fans and professional observers. Objectively, the obstacles for Zico were too many – including the constant failures of Flamengo. But his time finally arrived, marking a big change: the generations of the 1960s and the early 1970s were getting too old, too old fashioned to cope with modern football, they were retiring or coming close to that. By habit, coaches and journalists depended on them, yet, it was the new generation shaping the game. It was high time for the old to step down and for good reason too: Zico was different kind of player, fit for the new football. He was physically strong, yet very skilful. Great passer and great goalscorer, constantly in motion. And his work ethic was something else – he was very disciplined player, very conscious, very different of the classic South American star. He combined European professionalism with South American artistry. There was no way his qualities to be ignored – new generation stepped in. Recognition came from very high place as well – from the King himself: Pele said that Zico was the closest to his style.
Pele and the White Pele posing together in 1979 with Flamengo jerseys. The King and his heir – Zico had rough beginning, but what a player he was!