Goodbye “Formiguinha”


Mario Zagallo has passed away, an icon of sports and especially Brazilian football, a lifetime dedicated to football within a career rich in triumphs, first as a player, then as the coach of his national team and beyond. A legendary figure deserving of remembrance.

Mario Zagallo, born in 1931, stood 169 cm tall and weighed 61 kg. Dubbed “Formiguinha” (little ant) due to his slender physique, he scripted pages of success in Brazilian football, first as a player and then as a coach, serving as Brazil’s head coach five times over a forty-year career.

Speaking of Zagallo, the player, he was deeply connected to his nation and always played there. He first gained notice while very young at America-RJ, but notably spent eight subsequent years at Flamengo (217 matches and 30 goals) until 1958. From there, he moved to Botafogo, scoring 46 goals in 115 appearances, significant numbers considering the era’s championships, which certainly did not match the pace of today’s football, where players from top clubs can average up to fifty matches a year. Imagine doing this in Brazil, a land that, especially in those decades, consistently produced talents.

He was the idol of fans of the Brazil that won the World Cup in 1958 and 1962, so much so that he retired from playing football four years later upon learning of his exclusion from the 1966 World Cup squad.

However, sport weaves stories and intertwines destinies in truly peculiar ways. After starting his coaching career at Botafogo, he received a call from the Federation to become the coach of the same national team that had excluded him only a few years earlier.

Alas, Brazil triumphed in the 1970 World Cup in the famous Azteca final, a match that, while acknowledging the opponents’ superiority, also involved an Italy worn out from the previous “Match of the Century,” stoically won 4-3 against Germany.

He gained much experience beyond those boundaries he had never crossed, venturing even to Kuwait and exploring those Arab territories of football that were at the time comparable to the achievement of Christopher Columbus. He returned to Brazilian clubs and once again received the call from his national team in the ’90s. Initially serving as a technical director with coach Parreira during our bitter final in Pasadena, he then led the national team to win the 1997 Copa America.

This brings us to 1998, and more importantly, to the final in Paris against France. He fielded Ronaldo from the start, who had fallen ill just hours before the match while at the hotel. Many, in hindsight, criticized that decision,

but considerations should have been made based on tests, the player’s willingness, beyond the media position of that moment in a World Cup final against the host nation and with the world’s best player in doubt due to unclear problems at the time. Ronaldo himself explained the incident in an interview years later: “After lunch, I decided to go to my room and rest a little, the last thing I remember was lying down on the bed. Afterward, I had terrible cramps, and when I opened my eyes, there were teammates and Dr. Toledo around me. Nobody wanted to tell me what was happening. I told them to leave me alone, to go talk somewhere else and let me sleep. Later, Leonardo invited me to the hotel garden and explained the whole situation. They told me it would be better not to play in the final. I underwent all the medical tests, and nothing came up, as if nothing had happened. Arriving at the stadium, Zagallo said that I wouldn’t play in the final, and I was in the hands of the doctors where Dr. Toledo gave me the green light to play.”

On his decision to play the final: “When we arrived at the stadium, I told Zagallo, ‘I’m fine, here are the results of the tests, there’s nothing wrong, I want to play.’ I didn’t give him an alternative; he had no choice but to let me play. And so it was, I was playing, but perhaps what had happened to me had shaken my teammates. It’s not something you see every day. Anyway, I had a duty to my country and didn’t want to miss the final; I felt I could play. Obviously, it wasn’t one of the best games of my career, but I was there to fulfill my duty.”

That defeat led to Zagallo’s dismissal. He spent a few more years coaching clubs, retiring in 2001, except for a change of heart for Brazil’s yet another call as a technical coordinator, a role concluded after the (dear to us) 2006 World Cup.

“My great friend, I know you’re going through a tough time, but I’m sending you positive energy from here! Soon you will be completely recovered, with the same strength as always! Courage, old wolf,” with these words in the summer of 2022, Pelé, a companion in a thousand battles, sent him a message of encouragement while grappling with health issues.

A career always at its peak. The last of the eleven Brazilians on the field in the ’58 World Cup final bids adieu, the epilogue in the life of a Formichina who became a Professor.

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Gianluca Puzzo

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Gianluca Puzzo

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