Brazil are an absolute juggernaut at the international level and a football powerhouse. But who makes a line-up of their greatest players?
Welcome back to this SportsLumo special, where we chronicle the best of the best in international football. This is a 20-part series, so do stay tuned for content as and when we post it. We have previously covered England and Argentina in this series. Today’s nation of focus is Brazil.
It is hard to talk about football and not think about Brazil. The blue-and-yellow jersey and shorts combination is an iconic sight in football, and with good reason too. The Selacao, as they are commonly known, are an absolute juggernaut at the international level. They have won the World Cup a staggering five times, the most by any one nation in history. They have also won the Copa America 9 times, as well as two Olympic gold medals. The side were also successful in the now-defunct FIFA Confederations Cup, winning the tournament four times in seven appearances.
Brazil has always produced quality players, especially in the attacking third of the field. Therefore, picking out an all-time playing XI is easier said than done.
That being said, we are going to do just that in this list. So here goes what we think is our best playing XI in the history of Brazilian football.
Gilmar dos Santos Neves is one of many players on this list who was part of Brazil’s ‘Golden Generation’ of the 1950s and 1960s. The goalkeeper, who played in three World Cups from 1958-66 and won two of them, is widely considered the greatest of his position to emerge from Brazil.
Gilmar’s biggest strengths, aside from his swift reflexes and superior shot-stopping skills, was his composure and calmness under pressure. Indeed, his calm demeanour often had the effect of calming down any nerves in the defence. His ability to bring a degree of composure to proceedings is well-known.
He was also part of the legendary Santos side that dominated all and sundry during that era, and provided many a player to the national team. Amazingly, till date, he remains the only goalkeeper to win back-to-back World Cups.
Marcos Evangelista de Morais, known commonly to football fans as Cafu, is arguably one of the greatest right-backs ever, never mind just in Brazil. His attacking instincts as a full-back were spot on but he could defend very well too. Thus, he was an extremely complete player in that position.
He played in three straight World Cup finals from 1994-2002, winning two of those. The second of those wins in 2002, saw Cafu captain his side to the World Cup win. They won their fifth title with a 2-0 win over Germany in the final.
He was part of two great Serie A sides with Roma and AC Milan, winning multiple trophies with both sides. At Roma he earned the nicknamed Il Pendolino (The Express Train) due to his ability to run the flanks. He is now part of the Hall of Fame of both clubs.
Carlos Alberto Torres was, in many ways, a defender who was ahead of his time. He was an excellent defender with a very good reading of the game. A technically gifted footballer who possessed an excellent passing range, he often Brazil’s attacking play significantly.
However, Torres was also an excellent leader who was known to lift the game of those around him. Thus, it is little surprise that he is considered one of the greatest defenders of all time. As an aside, he was also a proficient penalty taker.
Torres played for a number of Brazilian clubs but is best remembered for his time at Santos. There he won multiple domestic titles in a dominat sude. But it is his captaincy during the 1970 World Cup which was the standout moment of his career. He even scored the fourth goal of the final, widely regarded as one of the greatest goals in the history of the game. Not bad for a defender.
Domingos da Guia is a name that most modern football fans will be unlikely to remember or even know. However, he is a legend of the Brazilian game. Sadly, he played in an era when the national team didn’t have as much success as later sides would.
His journeyman club career saw him play for a number of clubs in South America. This is including but not limited to Vasco da Gama, Corinthians and Nacional – where he would win multiple trophies. Yet, despite moving clubs a number of times, his ability shone through wherever he played.
He is best remembered by the Brazilian public for his starring role in the 1938 World Cup. With Domingos in the heart of the defence, Brazil made it to the semi-finals of the tournament. However, eventual and defending champions Italy knocked them out. His showings mean he is considered one of the best-ever Brazilian defenders.
Now this is a name modern football fans will be familiar with! Roberto Carlos is one of few players who made being a left-back seem like a cool thing to do. Most young children dream of strutting their stuff as a forward or striker. Carlos could do it just as efficiently from a defensive position.
His lung-bursting runs, powerful shots from distance and of course that banana free-kick against France – check it out on YouTube if you haven’t already – made him extremely popular with fans around the world. Yet there remains a stereotype that he was solely an offensive full-back. Carlos could defend very well when the situation called for it. That is something people who played with and against him can attest to.
Carlos is also the first of the Galacticos of Florentino Perez’s first reign as president of Real. He is also Real’s most-capped foreign player. Besides that, he also won a World Cup, 2 Copa Americas and a FIFA Confederations Cup.
Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri is one of those Brazilian players who is distinctly un-Brazilian. In a country known for producing flair players, Dunga was the opposite; he was industrious, tactically very smart and loved a tackle. Indeed, such was his skill while tackling that he could sometimes complete a pass while dispossessing a player with a sliding tackle.
Dunga possessed the stamina to either play deep or as a box-to-box midfielder. However, he is best known for his time as a defensive midfielder, whether with his country or clubs. He also captained Brazil to their 1994 World Cup win. He even coached the national team in two stints, although he could not win a World Cup during that time.
Amazingly, he is one of only two men – with Spain’s Xavi being the other – to have played in a World Cup final, an Olympic final, a Confederations Cup final and a continental championship final. That makes Dunga’s career truly one-of-a-kind.
Arthur Antunes Coimbra, known commonly as Zico, is arguably Brazil’s most skilful player to have never won a World Cup. Nicknamed the ‘White Pele’ due to his skill and creativity, Pele himself sang Zico’s praises; he said that Zico came closest to matching him as a player. That’s some praise!
Zico’s ability on the ball saw him become a creative force as well as a dead ball specialist. Indeed, his free-kick taking ability is legendary as he scored 101 goals from direct free-kicks. Given he scored 240 goals in his career, that is quite a scary free-kick conversion rate.
At the domestic level, his biggest successes came with Flamengo. But he also shone for Udinese in the Italian Serie A as well. He’s also won numerous individual awards, and is both Flamengo’s top goal-scorer and the highest goal-scorer at the Maracana Stadium.
Manuel Francisco dos Santos is considered by a small section of older Brazilian fans as the greatest player ever. Yes, even ahead of Pele. And while that is what can be at best described as a hot take, there’s little debate over the fact that ‘The Little Bird’ was an all-time great for Brazil and Botafogo.
Garrincha was a star on the right-wing during Brazil’s 1958 and 1962 World Cup winning campaigns. However, his ability truly shone in the latter of those campaigns. With Pele out for the tournament, it was Garrincha who starred for the Selecao. In fact he won the Golden Boot and Golden Ball that year. Thus he became the first to win both awards as well as the tournament.
His post-football life, however, was riddled with tragedy. Garrincha suffered from alcoholism and would eventually die due to the disease. His personal life was also something of a mess. However, the footballing memories he made are still remembered by everyone who witnessed it.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, best known as Pele, is without a doubt one of the greatest players to have ever graced the game. As an attacking player, few could match him. Whether it was scoring goals, creating goals, dropping deep to dictate the play or even link play with others, Pele could truly do it all.
He was also one of the first players in the game to become a truly global superstar. At a time when interest in the sport was rising, he would eventually go on to transcend the sport. That he was a man of African origin to do so made it all the more inspiring, at a time when rampant racism and colourism was very prevalent in the game.
He would have spent his entire club career at Santos were it not for serious financial issues that forced him back into the game. Proving his status as icon of the sport, he went to America to play for the New York Cosmos, where he grew the popularity of the sport and planted the seeds for the country’s current rise.
For fans who grew up watching football in the early 2000s, there was perhaps no one as captivating to watch as Ronaldo de Assis Moreira – or simply Ronaldinho. The Brazilian was an entertainer in the truest sense of the word: he not only scored and created goals, he made fans excited because you never knew what he could do next.
Possessing a beaming smile and party tricks for days, Ronaldinho’s best moments came when he was at Barcelona. He won the Ballon d’Or, two La Ligas as well as a Champions League trophy. Indeed, such was his propensity to bring joy to fans that, during one El Clasico encounter, he received a standing ovation while exiting the field – from Madrid fans. The only other player to receive this honour? Diego Maradona.
Ronaldinho’s career was later hampered by a lack of professionalism as well as recurring injury issues. However, when in his prime, there was no one who could do what he did. Few embodied the phrase Jogo Bonito or ‘The Beautiful Game’ as much as Ronaldinho did.
Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima was nicknamed O Fenomeno or “The Phenomenon” for his natural ability on the ball as well as his all-round play. He emerged at a time when strikers would still largely play as poachers or target men and went on to revolutionise the role.
Indeed, such was his natural ability at an early age that he twice broke the world transfer record in moves to Barcelona and Inter Milan. He thus became the first person to do this since Diego Maradona. He also won two Ballon d’Or trophies and remains to this date the youngest recipient of the award.
Most modern strikers – including greats like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski – cite Ronaldo as a role model. The man nicknamed R9 didn’t just score goals; he was an excellent passer, could link play well and also possessed good dribbling skills. And even though he was plagued by injuries later in his career, he was unstoppable when in full flow.
A person who could count himself unlucky to not be part of the all-time playing XI, Mario Zagallo nevertheless makes the cut as a manager. He has the unique distinction of winning the World Cup a record four times. Of course, two of those came as a player, one as a manager and one as an assistant manager.
Zagallo won the 1958 and 1962 World Cups as a player but by the time 1970 rolled around he was retired. He was drafted in as a last-minute appointment ahead of the World Cup. However, his appointment turned out to be an absolute masterstroke.
He led arguably one of the all-time great Brazil teams to their third World Cup win, thus becoming the first person to win the trophy as both player and manager. Given he was 38 at the time, he is also the second youngest World Cup-winning manager – the youngest is Uruguay’s Alberto Suppici, who won it as a 31-year-old in 1930.
To round things off, he was also Brazil’s assistant manager when they won the tournament in 1994.