Sunday 28 June 2020, 11:00

Tostao: Maradona, Messi and Cristiano weren’t on Pele’s level

  • Tostao explains why he had to nutmeg Bobby Moore at Mexico 1970

  • He reveals he played the last 20 minutes of the Final crying

  • Tostao juxtaposes Maradona, Messi and Cristiano with Pele

“I had been involved in countless retinal detachment surgeries,” said ophthalmologist Alice R. McPherson, MD. “The first question was always, ‘Will I get my sight back?’ This gentleman’s was, ‘Will I be able to play in the World Cup?’”

The Harvard alumna’s patient on a Houston, Texas operating table in late 1969 would himself become a doctor. Now, though, he was the man Brazil were banking on to surgically slice open defences at Mexico 1970.

‘The Little Coin’ was in his filthy-rich pomp. Tostao had been the indecipherable tunesmith as Cruzeiro denied Pele’s Santos a sixth straight Brazilian title with a nation-shaking 9-4 aggregate victory a few years earlier. He had finished as the leading marksman, with ten goals in six games, in South American qualifying for the ninth FIFA World Cup™.

Then disaster struck. A clearance from Corinthians hardman Ditao smashed his left eye and detached its retina. That injury would ultimately prompt Tostao into retirement – and medicine – at, effectively, the age of just 26. He was first, however, able to play a resplendent role in 'The Beautiful Team' thanks to the craft of McPherson and fellow ophthalmologist Roberto Abdalla Moura, whom Tostao bestowed with his winner's medal.

Fifty years on, Tostao chatted to about overcoming that injury, his lionised nutmeg of Bobby Moore, Brazil’s performance against Italy in the Final, crying through the last 20 minutes of it, and why Pele is the greatest player in history. Tostao, you were only 19 years old at England 1966. How was that experience for you?

Tostao: It was very important for me. I was Pele’s reserve. I didn’t get to play alongside him, but I got to watch him up close. Pele was so quick and he thought so quickly – he already knew what he was going to do before anyone else. I got to see the way he gestured, his expressions, the movements he made so that when I played alongside him, it was easier. I think ’66 was crucial to my partnership with Pele in ’70.

How worried were you that you’d miss Mexico 1970?

Very. There were so, so many hurdles to overcome. There was a risk I wouldn’t get my sight back. Then I had to convince the [ophthalmologists] to clear me to play. Then I had to convince the Seleção doctors. I hadn’t done anything except read books – my other eye worked – for six months. I had to get my fitness and rhythm back. Saldanha, who believed a lot in me, left. Zagallo didn’t know me and was sceptical over my injury. Plus, the Seleção had been in training for the World Cup for a while. I only returned just before the World Cup began and then a hemorrhage appeared in my eye. Think about all that!

You were an attacking midfielder at Cruzeiro. Can you tell us about how you came to play as a No9 for Brazil?

At Cruzeiro I used to play in midfield, further back, setting up plays. In the 1970 qualifiers, under [Joao] Saldanha, I was at top scorer in the qualifiers but I didn’t play with my back to goal. When Zagallo came in, once I was fit, he told me I was going to be Pele’s reserve because we played in the same position. He wanted to play with an out-an-out striker. Roberto [Miranda] had been playing and he had Dario. But once we were in Mexico, I played well in a friendly and he told me I was going to be a No9, a striker. I had never played in that position in my life. I had to adapt. I wasn’t an archetypical centre-forward – physical, a penalty-box finisher – but I played as a facilitator for Pele and Jairzinho, who were always bursting into the box. I preferred receiving the ball further back and playmaking, but the change was necessary. Fortunately I adapted well.

Many felt England were even better than they were when they won the World Cup in 1966, and that game is often referred to as ‘the Final that never was’..

England had a great team. It was a really difficult game, very even. Fortunately I managed that individual play, passed it to Pele, Pele to Jairzinho, and we won. We knew we were at risk of losing that game. The Uruguay game was also very tough. The England game was less dangerous because, if we’d have lost, we could have still qualified for the next phase. They are two of the hardest matches I played for the Seleção – England and Uruguay at that World Cup.

How did it feel to pull off a nutmeg on the great Bobby Moore and make that play people rave about decades later?

Bobby Moore was a great player, revered the world over, a world champion in ’66. He was a magnificent marker, he didn’t give you any space or time. But I didn’t try that because it was Bobby Moore. I had looked over to the sidelines and saw Roberto getting ready to come on. He was a forward. I knew Pele wouldn’t get taken off, so I knew it was me. I knew I had to do something special. [If I hadn’t] who knows if I’d have stayed in the starting XI? The ball came to me and I tried a speculative shot from distance, which got blocked. Seconds later it came to me again. It was a very tight game. I went for it. I managed to put the ball between Bobby Moore’s legs, pull off that dribble and find Pele. That cemented my place in the team.

Just as Pele would do against Uruguay, against Peru you simply rolled the ball back into Rivellino’s path for him to power it into the bottom corner. How good was his long-range shooting?

His shot was exceptional. He had the nickname ‘Patada Atômica’ (Atomic Kick) – it was thunderous. He scored so many goals from outside the box. Brazil has had some incredible shooters – Nelinho, Eder – but Rivellino’s was so ferocious and he placed his shots, they were so precise. His shooting was something else. That was just one of Rivellino’s qualities. He was magnificent. He was very intelligent, had tremendous ability, was a great passer. He was a complete player.

What about your performance against Peru?

I scored two goals, and they were very important, but it wasn’t my best performance at the World Cup. My best performance was against Uruguay. Against Peru, I had two chances to score goals and put them away. Against Uruguay, I set up two of the goals with crucial passes, and I provided the pass for Pele when he almost scored after dummying the goalkeeper. I didn’t perform as a traditional striker but was more of a facilitator, a playmaker.

What did you think of Brazil’s performance against Italy in the Final?

It was exceptional. The first half was tougher. Italy were marking us individually and we didn’t have many chances. Wherever a Brazilian player went, an Italian was right behind him. But marking in this fashion tires you, and in the second half the marking wasn’t as tight. Brazil played spectacularly in the second half. That was a very strong Italy team but we won 4-1 in a World Cup Final.

You appeared to play the latter stages of the Final in tears…

After the third goal, the goal that put it out of Italy’s reach, I was overwhelmed by emotion. I started crying and I couldn’t stop. I was thinking about everything I’d been through to get to that World Cup, how close I was to missing out on it. I travelled across the world for surgery on my eye. I was so close to not being allowed to go and almost didn’t get called up. It was really difficult to get used to playing again. When I realised we were going to be world champions, I couldn’t stop crying.

Do you think Brazil of 1970 was the best national team in history?

I don’t know because there have been other great national teams, including in Brazil. In ’58 there was Garrincha, Pele, Nilton Santos, Didi. But I think ’70 was a spectacular side, a revolutionary side in that era, and we were champions. The Seleção was spectacular in ’82, but they didn’t win. We won and we played spectacular football. We were revolutionary because we played modern football – you didn’t see that back then. And we had amazing players – Pele, Gerson, Jairzinho, Rivellino. I think it was an exceptional side. I think we enchanted the whole world.

Who do you think was Brazil’s best player at Mexico 1970?

Pele. He played unbelievably well. Gerson, the Seleção’s organiser in midfield, also had an incredible World Cup. Jairzinho was exceptional, he scored in every game. And Rivellino too. I’d say those four players, but Pele was on another level to everyone.

Over the years, Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have been compared to Pele. Do you think Pele is the greatest of all time?

I think Pele was better than all of them. For me there’s no comparison. Pele was far more complete. He had every quality that a forward could have. He didn’t have one defect. Maradona was spectacular, but he wasn’t on Pele’s level physically, he didn’t score the numbers of goals Pele did. Messi’s spectacular, but he doesn’t head the ball like Pele did, he doesn’t shoot as well with both feet, he doesn’t pull off the moves that Pele did. Cristiano Ronaldo is an exceptional player, but he doesn’t have the ability that Pele had and he doesn’t pull off the incredible passes that Pele did. If you take the qualities of Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi, put them together, then you’d have a player to compare to Pele! (laughs)