Not only the finest World Cup game of all time, this may rank as the greatest game ever played. Brazil, which had delighted the tournament with exquisite displays of carefree attacking football that overwhelmed opposing defenses needed only one point to progress to the semi-finals but playing for a tie was inimical to Brazil’s style. The scintillating swagger and skill of Socrates, Zico, Falcao and Eder is still remembered by many purists as representing the poetic high point of the “beautiful game” for the post-Pelé generation of Brazilian players, and having demolished every team they had faced along the way, they were overconfident going into the Italy game.
They were stung 5 minutes in by a headed goal from Paolo Rossi, recently returned from a two-year ban resulting from a match fixing scandal. A breathtaking exchange of passes between Socrates and Zico unlocked the steely Italian defense, allowing the philosophically named captain to score one of the best goals of the tournament. But the Brazilians’ casualness cost them dearly when a schoolboy error by Cerezo gifted Rossi a second. Again, Brazil equalized, but Rossi’s third, from a poorly defended corner, broke Brazilian hearts. Rossi described the game as the “greatest” of his career but Zico couldn’t bring himself to admit that the better team had won. “We played artistic football with beauty, all about goals and attacking,” he said. “Italy were the opposite, completely preoccupied with stopping the other side playing.” Italy went on to win the tournament, making the Brazil game an object lesson in how winning the World Cup requires a marriage of attacking flair and defensive grit.