It has edged past 1pm in Rancho Portugues, an elegant, traditional old restaurant in the Lagoa suburb of Rio de Janeiro. We’re sitting at a table — my friend Eduardo and I — watching the door. Every time it opens, we think it’s going to be him, but it never is. When it gets to 1.30pm, Eduardo calls him on his mobile. Jairzinho picks up.
Eduardo, who is acting as my fixer and translator, tells him we’re waiting for him at the restaurant. The man who scored in every game he played at the 1970 World Cup and was Brazil’s hero in the tournament every bit as much as Pele, says he is on his way to Barra da Tijuca, out to the west of the city. He’s going to a barbeque with friends. Eduardo asks him about our lunch. He says he forgot.
This is not one of those long stories about a quest for an interview and whether it happened in the end. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. I wish it had because Jairzinho is one of football’s great heroes. It would have been an honour to meet him and to talk to him. We tried to resurrect the meeting a couple of times in the next few days but Jairzinho was full of resentment about not being valued. Then Eduardo tested positive for Covid and we did not try again.
Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho graced the Brazil team which won the 2002 World Cup
I went back to my hotel and watched some more of the footage of Jairzinho at the 1970 tournament in Mexico. He was extraordinary. Unstoppable. His second goal in Brazil’s group game against Czechoslovakia was a masterpiece; a brilliant dribble evading first one defender and then another, riding tackles until he got to the edge of the area and unleashed a fierce cross shot that flew beyond the goalkeeper into the bottom corner of the net.
Against England, in another group game, it was his run and cross that set up Pele for the header that was miraculously kept out by Gordon Banks for the save of the century. It was also Jairzinho’s fierce rising drive that flew past Banks later in the game and won the match for Brazil, condemning Sir Alf Ramsey’s World Cup holders to eventual defeat in Guadalajara.
Jairzinho scored in the quarter-final, the semi-final and the final, too. And in the midst of what many believe to be the greatest goal ever scored in football, Brazil’s fourth in the World Cup final against Italy, it was Jairzinho who took a pass from Rivelino on the left wing, burst across the area and played the ball to Pele, who rolled it to Carlos Alberto, who lashed it into the net.
Some of the 1970 side feel they have been forgotten compared to other Brazil teams
The 1970 success is remembered as Pele’s triumph (here celebrating with Jairzinho after scoring the opening goal)
Jairzinho was Brazil’s top scorer in the tournament and yet it was his fate to be overshadowed by Pele, just as every other Brazil player was. For all that Jairzinho achieved, that World Cup triumph is remembered as Pele’s triumph and if it is remembered for one goal, it is not one of Jairzinho’s but that sumptuous team goal in the final, gilded by Carlos Alberto.
Jairzinho is 77 now and some of the people I speak to in Rio say he has a track record of being a little ill-tempered. He was a star in the game before the money came — the big money anyway — and it rankles with many of his generation that they did not earn anything close to the sums that are lavished on today’s vintage of talent.
One of the journalists I spoke to in Rio remembered that during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Jairzinho formed a musical group called Legendarios do Brasil that toured the country playing samba and salsa songs in cities where matches were being contested in the tournament. Other legends such as Marco Antonio, Roberto Miranda, Altair and Brito were in the band, too. The journalist remembers feeling uneasy, as if players of Jairzinho’s stature were being demeaned.
Some of Brazil’s 1970 team feel they have been forgotten. They feel overlooked compared with the great entertainers of 1982, who are still adored here, and compared to the World Cup winners of 2002, the team graced by Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, several of whom played in a glitzy, glamorous friendly in Miami last week.
‘We get a health plan from the Brazilian Football Federation and 1000 euros a month for being former players but it’s too little,’ says Paulo Cezar, ‘Caju’, a member of the 1970 World Cup squad.
‘We were the most brilliant football generation ever. The public don’t give us the credit we deserve. The 1994 and 2002 generation don’t like us.
‘It’s all about politics. How can you be jealous? They don’t ask for our opinion. They don’t use us as ambassadors. Tite, the current Brazil coach, is also responsible for that. They don’t want to have us close. People like Gerson could contribute so much. It’s very disappointing. We have never been honoured. It is a lack of respect.’
The great entertainers of 1982, featuring legends such as Zico (above), are still adored in Brazil
It seems almost impossible to believe that players from a team as revered and loved as that 1970 team could be ignored in their own land but then it pays to look a little closer to home, too. Bobby Moore, the captain of the only England team to win the World Cup, was shunned by the football community in this country before his death. Others among our Boys of 66 felt deserted and abandoned, too.
Where does a duty of care to players of that standing begin and end? When there is so much money in modern football, when those players continue to bring us so much pleasure and excitement with the way they played the game, with the place they hold in the rich history of the sport, then surely we owe them a debt?
They are part of our cultural heritage and they should be honoured and respected accordingly.
England captain Bobby Moore was shunned by the football community in this country
English football is slowly getting better at looking after its own. It would help if our broadcasters stopped pretending that football was invented in 1992 with the formation of the Premier League and stopped wiping out records set before then and turning players of previous generations into non-persons. Sky, in particular, should not be allowed to bury the achievements of the past.
More clubs, though, do recognise the contribution of former players by offering them match-day roles and acknowledging the affection in which they are held by fans. The PFA does much good work in this area, too. It’s a start. Maybe things will change in Brazil, too. Maybe, one day, Jairzinho will feel more valued. Maybe, one day, I’ll get to have that lunch with him and tell him face to face just how much he means to people like me.
KEEP UP WITH BEACH BOYS AND GIRLS
It is rare now in England to see groups of kids playing football in the park.
Maybe more of our youngsters are being dragged towards more organised forms of the game, maybe helicopter parents are more worried about letting them out by themselves than parents used to be a generation ago, or maybe kids are more interested in computer games.
Playing keepy-uppy and matches of foot-volley on the beach is still popular in Brazil
Whatever the reason, it was interesting to note the contrast in activity in Brazil when I was in Rio last week. On even a short walk along Ipanema Beach, there was group after group of kids, boys and girls, playing keepy-uppy on the sand to a high technical standard, and endless matches of foot-volley stretching from Arpoador to Leblon.
The love for the game still shines on in Rio’s youth in a way that appears to have been lost in England.
The runners in the Rio Marathon last Sunday did not have to contend with the heat that is often a concern in Brazil, but they did find themselves completing the 26 miles in a tropical downpour.
I went down to the beach in Ipanema to cheer on some of the sodden competitors as they trudged along the ocean front. If ever there was a day when Rio did not look like a seaside paradise, that was it.