Carlos Alberto Torres, O Eterno Capita (1944-2016)

Nicknames are ubiquitous in Brazilian football lore. They add to the playful and allegorical beauty of the sport, a crucial part of national culture. Few of Brazil’s greatest players were ever referred to by their given names: Pelé, Zico, Garrincha, Tostão and Didi are a handful of such examples. We can agree that Edson do Nascimento, Arthur Coimbra, Manuel dos Santos, Eduardo de Andrade and Valdir Pereira sound far less magical.

Truly iconic players often receive a second nickname as a glorification of their skills and talent. Pelé is O Rei, The King; Garrincha is the Alegria do Povo, the Joy of the People; Ronaldo became O Fenômeno, the Phenomenon.

Carlos Alberto Torres, who passed away on Tuesday afternoon at 72 after suffering a heart attack in his Rio de Janeiro home, has a different nickname. His has nothing to do with his abilities with the ball, instead it is an expression of utmost respect.

Carlos Alberto is O Capita. The Captain. And there can be no other.

In the lead-up to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, despite being 25 years old and surrounded by a squad full of senior players at the top of their games (such as Gerson, Pelé, Brito and Piazza, most of them skippers at their respective clubs), Brazil’s captain’s armband went to Carlos Alberto.

“We chose him as our captain, not the coaches,” explained midfielder Gerson, four years older than Carlos Alberto and then captain of São Paulo FC. “When he spoke, he commanded total respect, he was the guy. We never referred to him by his name, only as Capita.”

Carlos Alberto is regarded by many to be the greatest right-back ever to play the game. His upright posture, long strides and thunderous shot made him a nightmare for his opposing numbers, but he was valued most for his defensive abilities. Imposing physical strength, a natural sense of positioning and precise timing in the tackle, attributes that saw him reinvent himself as a centre-back later in his career.

Sadly, the triumph in 1970 was O Capita’s only World Cup appearance. In 1966, the promising young right-back was a late exclusion from a confusing Brazil squad that was chosen by committee. In 1974, he was ruled out by a foot injury.

Besides being Brazil’s leader in Mexico, Carlos Alberto was revered at Santos and Fluminense, where he won several titles both as player and manager. He also had an influential spell at the New York Cosmos in the late 1970s, where he played alongside his friend Pelé in the North American Soccer League.

In Brazil he will always be known as O Capita, the archetypal skipper. In the rest of the world, he is most famous for scoring in the dying minutes of the 1970 World Cup Final against Italy. He remains the only captain to have scored a goal for his country in the Final – and what a goal it was.

The following is an excerpt from “A to Zico: an alphabet of Brazilian football”, written by Mauricio Saverese and myself. The book is available on Amazon in electronic format and an updated second edition is in preparation.

(…) One could argue that the 1970 World Cup Final was won on Brazil’s right flank. Having scored in every match of the tournament, Jairzinho was identified as the biggest threat to the Italy defence. His penetrating diagonal runs had proved difficult for defences to deal with, so Italy’s coach Ferruccio Valcareggi duly assigned left-back Giacinto Facchetti to man-mark Jairzinho, following wherever the Brazilian winger may roam. This in turn caused a whole new problem for Italy: Carlos Alberto. A knock-on advantage of Jairzinho’s forward runs was that Brazil’s right-back, team captain Carlos Alberto, had his own space to push up into. Usually the defender was reluctant to attack too much, concerned about leaving the opposition’s left winger with too much room to counterattack. This was not the case against Italy, the only team Brazil faced in 1970 that played without a left winger. Carlos Alberto was therefore free to attack at will, time and time again he helped construct Brazilian attacks and establish his side’s dominance in the match.

Brazil deservedly regained their lead on 66 minutes when Gérson beat Italy goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi with a vicious left foot shot from the edge of the penalty area. Five minutes later, it was 3-1. With the accuracy of a championship golfer, Gérson dropped a soaring 50-yard free kick on the forehead of Pelé, who cushioned the ball into the path of Jairzinho. Italian defenders began to close in on the winger, but Jairzinho bundled the ball into the net for his seventh and final goal at the 1970 World Cup.

After Jairzinho’s goal and with the Italians running on empty, the result of the World Cup Final had been put beyond doubt. Despite a long and physically taxing tournament, Brazil had no interest in running down the clock. They kept coming forward, ostensibly enjoying themselves too much to retreat and waste time. They celebrated their triumph through their football, passing the ball around effortlessly. Four minutes from full-time, thanks to Brazil’s insistence, the supporters in the Estadio Azteca and everyone watching around the world were treated to futebol arte’s all-time greatest moment…

The heavy-legged Italians stagger down Brazil’s left wing in a hopeless attempt to pull a goal back. Tostão, tracking back to defend, robs the ball back inside Brazil’s half and strokes it to Piazza in the centre of defence. After a neat exchange of one-touch passes, Clodoaldo gets his foot on the ball in midfield. As a gang of Italians close in, Clodoaldo, with his socks around his ankles, pulls off the most audacious piece of skill in the entire tournament. With only a handful of touches, the defensive midfielder darts and weaves around four opposition players in the space of four seconds. The crowd are on their feet, Clodoaldo has opened up the pitch for another Brazilian attack. It is at this moment that captain Carlos Alberto thinks back to the pre-match team-talk and a piece of advice he received from coach Zagallo.

“He told us that Italy would leave their right flank completely open if Jairzinho, Pelé and Tostão moved to the left all at once,” Carlos Alberto recounted, decades later. “After Clodoaldo dribbled the Italians, I started moving forward, slowly”.

Clodoaldo passes left to Rivellino, who takes a single touch of control before playing a long pass down the touchline to Jairzinho. The right winger had been followed all the way across the pitch by his marker Facchetti. The way is now clear for Carlos Alberto.

“When Rivellino made that pass, I could clearly see Italy move their defenders to the left. It was the only time it happened over the 90 minutes.”

Jairzinho darts infield onto his right foot and just as he beats Facchetti, Carlos Alberto goes full-throttle.

“I started running as fast as I could”.

Pelé has already noticed Carlos Alberto’s gut-bursting run before he receives Jairzinho’s pass. With the ball at his feet, the No 10 waits, does some complex physics calculations in his head and plays a perfectly weighted pass to his right for Carlos Alberto to arrive and smash into the net without breaking stride.

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