The small final was played on June 24 in front of 75 000 fans. Eight years back Brazil and Italy played the real final, but not in 1978 – a lot happened meantime, both countries went throw crisis and uncertainty. To a point, competing for bronze medals was the best each team was able of at the time. To a point, Italy was in better position, for the pressure on the team was lower – no high expectations. For Brazil it was not so – apart of having the whole country demanding victory, the team struggled during the finals, but there was also the feeling the boys were robbed by the hosts scheming with Peru. And Brazil without a title... get the bronze at least! The 4th place in 1974 was heavy burden. Anyway, no one can say either team was an outsider or lacking ambition. The match for third place was not a formality.
Italy was weakened – because of too many yellow cards Benetti and Tardelli were unable to play. Brazil had different problem – Coutinho was unable to shape a really smooth team. One thing emerged during the campaign – Rivelino was not an effective leader, but a liability. And he was benched. But... he was Rivelino, the superstar, the hero of the last Brazilian World Cup success. One of the few players in the world with over 100 national team caps. Aging hero too – it was his last World Cup, he deserved some kind of tribute, not to mention his own personal weight and ambition. Play with him or without him? Coutinho settled for something in between. Bearzot changed the whole midfield for the final – it was unavoidable with 2/3 of the line suspended. So – Antognoni was back, plus Aldo Maldera and Patrizio Sala, who did not play at all so far. Old habits die hard, if at all – Italy clearly returned to the ill-famed defensive tradition: adding Maldera made for 5-3-2 formation. Brazil was based on Dirceu – neither Rivelino, nor Zico was a starter – with additional fire-power hidden back in defense – both Nelinho and Rodrigues Neto were starters, for the first time together.
The match started with heavy Brazilian assault and Italy went back to defending. Back to the familiar... which also included the familiar danger of crafty Italian counter-attacks. Causio finished a cross by Rossi with great header and Italy was leading in the 38th minute.
It was 'good old times' at half-time: Italy entrenched in defense, the opposition playing better and relentlessly attacking, a single goal scored, Italy leading, match over... against Brazilian magicians it was not over. Coutinho made urgent readjustment: Reinaldo started the second half instead of Gil. Then in the 64th minute Rivelino stepped in, replacing Toninho Cerezo. It looked like desperate move, not at all as leisurely tribute to a fading star – Rivelino had to change the game, to win it somehow. It was not that he was not trying, but real role was more of scaring and confusing the Italians. Whatever the real intention was, Brazil turned the match in their favour – Nelinho equalized in the 64th minute. A deadly long shot the player was famous for, but also a kick exposing the weakness of Zoff – he was vulnerable to balls shot from a distance. Coutinho apparently knew that, for he fielded two players capable of such surprising kicks from long range. In the 71st minute Dirceu made it 2-1. It was the last goal of the match and in a way was great symbolic moment: the best Brazilian player, the one who really became the star and the leader of the team scored the last and victorious goal. Brazil won the bronze medals. It was also entertaining match – something important in itself, for if great football is not played at the most important stages, what is the point of the World Cup? And the better team won!
24.06.78 (15.00) Buenos Aires, Estadio Monumental
BRA - ITA 2:1 (0:1)
(+76000) Klein ISR, Palotai HUN, González MEX
BRA: Leão (c) - Nelinho, Oscar, Amaral, Rodriguez Neto – Toninho Cerezo (64 Rivelino),
Batista, Dirceu, Gil (46 Reinaldo) - Roberto, Mendonça
ITA: Zoff (c) - Cuccureddu, Gentile, Scirea, Cabrini - P.Sala, Antognoni
(79 C.Sala), Maldera, Causio - Rossi, Bettega
0:1 Causio 38 h, 1:1 Nelinho 64, 2:1 Dirceu 72
booked: Nelinho, Batista / Gentile
Italy was one of the pleasant surprises at the 1978 World Cup. It looked like Bearzot changed and turned around the stubborn Italian tradition of defensive play and started to play exciting attacking football. The team had a lot of talent and few young players were noted: Antognoni, Rossi, Cabrini. Bettega was a revelation – apparently, he matured and developed into great modern striker, one of the best players at the World Cup. Solid team, with depth – but, it was considered early in the tournament, still developing and shaping. It was not yet their time - may be in a few years. Forth place was seen as just. More than that would have been lucky strike, but above real strength. The most important part was the conceptual change – no more boring and irritating football, angering non-Italian fans.
Brazil finished with bronze medals – which was great even at home after the dreadful 1974 disaster. Shaky, somewhat boring and restricted by 'discipline', the Brazilians raised to the occasion at the end and deserved third place.
Bottom: Gil, Toninho Cerezo, Mendonca, Roberto Dinamite, Dirceu.
As a whole, Brazil finished better than 4 years earlier. The team also played a bit better, but the performance was shaky. Once again, the best part was defense and weakest – the attack. Brazil continued to be un-Brazilian. The emphasis on 'European style' made the team ineffective and unattractive. However, the 1978 vintage was not the big disappointment the 1974 squad was. Yet, a lot did not work – just like in 1974, the key players of the team were not the overwhelming leaders and during the tournament Coutinho constantly tried to change, to mend, and to find some working solution. Beginning with Rivelino, the big stars hardly impressed anyone: Zico and Roberto Dinamite appeared to be grossly overrated. Rivelino and Zico lost their places as titulars. Roberto Dinamite played to the end, but the impression was that there were no other options. Coutinho used practically all midfielders and strikers of the selection, rotated players, and nothing really clicked. At best, he had a fighting team, but a winning one... clearly, Brazil was not a contender. Third place was the maximum. Ironically, Coutinho and his team were spared from Brazilian wrath – thanks to the ill-famed match between Argentina and Peru. Attention was diverted, at least temporary, from team Brazil. Coutinho was not sacked – instead, he proclaimed Brazil the moral winner of the tournament. Many agreed in the still inflamed days after the World Cup – the coach pointed at the record: Brazil was the only team at the finals which did not lose a match. Numbers speak for themselves... it was true. And the troubles with Brazilian performance, with the very concept making Brazil ineffective and flat team were forgotten for the moment.
Of course, not everything was black: Leao played a second strong World Cup. Oscar was excellent. And Dirceu stepped into the vacant position of motivating organizer. Mendonca also was a pleasant discovery – may be particularly pleasant one, for he did not play for Brazil before.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Brazil was incompatibility between Rivelino and Dirceu – at the beginning Dirceu was a reserve. When he was a starter, Rivelino was out of the squad. It appears strange, for they played together for Fluminense in 1976. But Dirceu lasted only one year – very likely things did not work. One thing was clear – the days of 32-years old Rivelino in the national team were over. The last of the great 1970 world champions was stepping down – and it was time for new heroes, restoring the wounded pride of Brazilian football. Dirceu was seemingly the man around whom to build a new team. All considered, Brazil was just a bit lucky to win bronze – and to be grateful for it.