Saturday 06 January 2024, 12:00

A tribute to Mario Zagallo: 1931-2024

Mario Zagallo was one of the most influential figures in FIFA World Cup™ history and the first person to win football’s greatest prize as both player and coach.

The former winger, who passed away on 5 January 2024 at the age of 92, won the FIFA World Cup with Brazil a remarkable four times – twice as a player, in 1958 and 1962, once as coach in 1970 and once as assistant coach in 1994. He will best be remembered for leading the 1970 team, arguably one of the finest that football has ever seen, with an array of legendary players including Pelé, Jairzinho, Rivelino and Tostão.

Usually known in Brazil simply as “Zagallo”, his career transcended the old and modern eras of the FIFA World Cup. He also coached Brazil at the 1974 tournament and, for a third time, in 1998, leading them to the runners-up spot, and was Brazil’s technical co-ordinator in 2006. He is one of only three people to have won the FIFA World Cup as both player and coach.

Born in the state of Alagoas in 1931, Zagallo’s family moved to Rio de Janeiro when he was eight months old and he spent the rest of his life in the Cidade Maravilhosa. He initially joined América, then moved to Flamengo in 1950 where he quickly began collecting titles, picking up three Carioca championships. He was at the Maracanã, as a teenage solider on security duty, on the day that Uruguay stunned Brazil 2-1 to win the FIFA World Cup 1950™ in one of the tournament’s greatest upsets.

As Brazil’s left winger in the FIFA World Cup 1958™, he began to show that he was ahead of his time. Zagallo helped turn Brazil’s 4-4-2 into a 4-3-3 by dropping back into the midfield to provide extra cover for the defence, a novelty at the time. His defensive abilities proved crucial in the final when, with Sweden leading 1-0, he prevented a second goal by heading the ball off the line. Brazil went on to win 5-2, with Zagallo scoring the fourth.

Four years later, Zagallo scored Brazil’s opening goal of their campaign, in the 2-0 over Mexico, as they went on to retain their title.

Zagallo, now with Botafogo, retired in 1965 and quickly moved into coaching with the club’s youth team. He took over the senior team in 1967 and they won the Campeonato Carioca in his first season. He never looked back after that.

Just 75 days before the start of the FIFA World Cup 1970, Zagallo was put in charge of the Brazil team to replace João Saldanha, who led them through the qualifying campaign. Although there was little time to play with, Zagallo changed both the players and the system. “I had already formed the opinion that if Brazil took that (old) system to the World Cup, we wouldn’t get anywhere,” he told FIFA on his 90th birthday.

Brazil went on to win all six games and claim their third world title in a tournament that, broadcast in colour for the first time, took the World Cup into the modern era.

Zagallo was again involved when Brazil won their fourth World Cup title 24 years later, this time as assistant to coach Carlos Alberto Parreira.

Fascinated by the number 13, which he believed would bring him luck, Zagallo also coached the national teams of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, helping the latter qualify for the FIFA World Cup 1990 although he was not in charge for the tournament itself.

In Rio de Janeiro, he coached Botafogo four times, Flamengo three, Vasco da Gama twice and Fluminense once. He won his final title, the Campeonato Carioca, with Flamengo in May 2001 and called it a day sixth months later at the age of 70, bringing the curtain down on a 53-year career.

"I was born on the right day,” he once said. “I was born with victory by my side."

FIFA President Gianni Infantino paid tribute, saying: “It is with great sadness that we learn of the passing of one of the true greats, a man whose impact on the FIFA World Cup is unparalleled.”

“In times of need, Brazil has looked to ‘The Professor’ as a calming presence, a steering hand and as a tactical genius. He will be remembered as the Godfather of Brazilian football and his presence will be sorely missed by everyone in the game but especially here at FIFA.

“The story of the FIFA World Cup cannot be told without Mário Zagallo.

“I wish to send my heartfelt condolences to the country of Brazil, the Brazilian Football Association and to his family and friends.”