Brazil vs Italy, World Cup 1978 Third Place Match

Eight years after Brazil beat Italy to claim top honours at the World Cup 1970, the two sides met again in the “small final” of 1978. From a team etched into history only one player, Rivellino, was left. Italy too, had seen a generational shift with a golden future looming on the horizon. It is a testament to both footballing nations that even while re-building, they could still be considering two of the top four sides in the world.

Overseeing their respective country’s efforts in Argentina were Enzo Bearzot and Claudio Coutinho. During their playing days the coaches had earned one cap between them. Bearzot had featured for the Azzurri in a 1955 defeat to Hungary. After hanging up his boots, Bearzot learnt the managerial craft under Nereo Rocco at Torino, would take charge of Italy’s Under 23 side and assist Ferruccio Valcareggi’s coaching staff at the World Cup 1974. Soon after Italy’s dismal showing in West Germany Bearzot got the nod to select and prepare the Squadra for Argentina.

Brazil under Cláudio Coutinho

While Bearzot, for nearly two decades, had donned the jerseys of such notable clubs as Inter, Torino, and Catania, Cláudio Coutinho’s resume read much different. For one, he lacked the playing background. Coutinho was more theoretician than practitioner, having graduated from the Brazilian Army’s School of Physical Education. In the lead up to the World Cup 1970 he was tasked to oversee the conditioning and fitness training of the Brazilian team. Several appointments in Peru and France followed, until, in 1976, Flamengo offered him the first opportunity to cut his teeth as a head coach.

When Admiral Heleno Nunes, in his position as President of the Brazilian Football Confederation, was in need of a replacement for Osvaldo Brandão, Coutinho provided the perfect blend of military background and coaching knowledge.

The football Coutinho’s Brazil showed in Argentina was a far cry from the image the mythical canary yellow jerseys evoke. They had breezed through the qualifying rounds easily enough, going unbeaten against first Paraguay and Colombia, then Peru and Bolivia. Coutinho, though, sacrificed creativity for a rigid system, thus “stripping the romance out of the Brazilian game, creating a side which played to a pattern rather than expressing itself”, as Mark Griffiths concluded.

Brazil scored all of two goals in their first three matches in Argentina, drawing with both Sweden (1:1), and Spain (0:0), securing progression to the Second Round only after beating Austria in the final match (1:0). Again Brazil went unbeaten through the next group, finishing level on points with Argentina and ahead of Poland and Peru. By way of scheduling Argentina had the advantage of playing their final match against Peru after Brazil’s match against Poland had ended. Argentina got the necessary win margin and then some, a 6:0 victory ensuring the hosts finished with a greater goal difference than their rivals. Collusion or not, Brazil had had the chance to beat Argentina on the pitch in the second fixture but were held to a goalless draw.

Italy lose out on the final

One team did beat the eventual champions. Italy topped their First Round group, winning all three fixtures against France (2:1), Hungary (3:1), and Argentina (2:1). In the Second Round a goalless draw with West Germany and a win over Austria (1:0), set the stage for a direct play-off for entry to the final between the runners-up of the two previous World Cups. Holland’s Ernie Brandts first scored at the wrong end, but got the equalizer himself shortly after the break. With fifteen minutes to go Arie Haan netted the winner. Holland had bested the Azzurri (2:1).

Just three days removed from their respective disappointment, Brazil and Italy met at Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires. Rivellino, a starter in 1970, began the match on the bench, alongside Toninho. The latter was the odd man out in the back line: Left back Rodrigues Neto had gotten injured in the match against Argentina. For the Poland match Toninho had moved over from the right side, with Nelinho coming into the side and making the most of his time at right back, scoring the opening goal. Now that Neto was fit again, Toninho had to make way.

For starters, Italy look to be the side more reliant on short passes, their swift ball movement drawing olés from the crowd. The Argentinian spectators, though, might have been rooting against Brazil more so than for Italy. Regardless, Italy are dangerous early on. Giancarlo Antognoni takes aim twice: A tame free kick is easily blocked by Leão. After a few miscues in the box the ball lands at Antognoni’s feet again. His second attempt, from 25 yards out, has a proper wind-up and just clips the post-crossbar section (2’).

Brazil dominate, but hardly create

That early chance is a bit of a red herring, as most of the first half, and really the match, turns into one way traffic towards Zoff’s goal. However, the Italian keeper is rarely actually called into action as his defence always keeps the Brazilians just outside shooting range. Everybody in blue is behind the ball, Italy’s default setup has the forward line only 40-45 yards out. Italy are looking to condense the center of the pitch, man-marking any Brazilian who ventures into that zone.

Approximate formations and player movements for Italy vs Brazil, June 24th 1978

Approximate formations and player movements for Italy vs Brazil, June 24th 1978

By design that leaves the wings open for Brazilian attacks, though, Italy seem happy to allow their opponents as close as 20 yards to the goal-line. Time and again this lures the Brazilian wingers into hitting early crosses from that 20-25 yard spot on either wing. All of them are easy fodder for Zoff.

For much of the first half Brazil have trouble figuring out how to break Italy down, especially when in extended possession. The solution seems to be chipping passes any which way at center forward Roberto Dinamite. Claudio Gentile of Juventus is tasked to mark the Brazilian, and the 24-year-old produces a masterpiece of defending. Altogether the Seleção make lots of simple mistakes, be it stopping the balls, passing into nowhere, even out of touch. This being the eighth match at the Monumental in three weeks won’t have helped the pitch conditions either.

Somehow Italy earn a corner. Causio quickly plays it low towards the near corner of the box with Cabrini running onto it. His shot takes a deflection, likely making it more dangerous than before, and goes wide by inches. The subsequent second corner earns nothing (33’).

Five minutes of Italian flair

With the first half nearing completion, another Brazilian attack had broken down after Gentile dispossessed Roberto. He plays it out to Antognoni who skips past one Brazilian into the opponent’s half, and finds Rossi on the right wing. Brazil are slow to get back into their defensive set-up. As Rossi squares up Amaral, Antognoni had made the run for the near post, drawing the only defender, leaving Causio completely unmarked at the far post. Rossi delivers a pinpoint cross onto the head of his teammate who duly nods in the 1:0 (39’).

Spurred on from the opener, some deft play by the Italians down the left wing sees Rossi pull into the box. Brazil make a meal of defending it. A first clearance falls to Causio, whose shot is blocked and spilled by Leão. The keeper quickly makes amends, stifling Rossi’s rebound effort. Again the ball lands at Causio’s feet. His second attempt clips the bar (42’).

The only bit of bother for Zoff in the first half had come from a Nelinho corner, which the full back had whipped in with the outside of his boot, producing more shot than cross. The first had been a bit too hard for comfort, but ultimately saved all the same by Zoff. Knowing what’s coming, Zoff easily plucks a second attempt out of the air and throws it over to Scirea, starting play over the right wing. As Cuccureddu slips a through ball for Rossi, the Brazilian offside trap fails, leaving Rossi one on one with Leão. Rossi shimmies, and side steps the goalkeeper. But with defensive support arriving, the window gets smaller and Rossi can only hit the post with an off balance shot (44’).

Reinaldo revitalizes Brazil

Reprieve from the Italian charge arrives in the form of half-time. Coutinho uses the break to sub Reinaldo on for Gil. As play resumes, Brazil are right back in command, setting up shop in Italy’s half. And, after a short while, the first cracks in the Italian defence appear. Cerezo chips a pass over the heads of the back line, Dirceu had slipped through, but also handled the ball while taking it down. As he slides the ball across for a Mendonça tap-in, the whistle goes.

A few minutes later, it’s again Cerezo who is pulling the strings; this time sending a ball from the second row into the box for Reinaldo. He heads it on for Mendonça, but the forward is brought down as someone runs into him from behind (57’).

Reinaldo proves a great option off the bench, revitalizing the Brazilian attack. The 21-year-old plays just behind the first line, roaming around the whole width of the pitch. Mendonça had moved inside, next to Dinamite, offering a second target in the box. Though their off-ball movement is now better, clear cut chances are still hard to come by for the sheer number of Italian legs in and around the box.

Off an attack like any other, Nelinho is left with the ball out on the right wing. He is 25 yards out with ample room around him, sees no option to cross to in the middle, and just has a go slicing a shot with his right foot towards the far post. It bends around Zoff’s outstretched arms and into the goal (64’).

Before play is re-started, Cerezo makes way for Rivellino. Soon enough, Rivellino, from the left half-channel, lobs a ball to the edge of the box. Mendonça, back to goal, controls it with his chest, leaving the bounce for Dirceu, and blocking Scirea’s path. Dirceu takes the lay off volley, slicing a shot across the face of goal, placing it between post and Zoff (72’).

Italy too disjointed to rally

What could make for an interesting closing, quickly gets bogged down. Had it been a fair match thus far, it now turns nasty. Gentile is booked for a brash tackle, Patrizio Sala connects with an elbow to Batista’s head. Just moments before, his older brother Claudio had come on for Antognoni.

Italy are disjointed going forward, even though they now push up in numbers. The Azzurri hardly get into the final third, as the passes into that front line already go amiss. Bettega is not involved at all, getting no touches. Rossi at least tries to get involved by dropping back.

There is little football to be had in the last ten minutes. It’s more tussles and tackles from Italy, time-wasting from Brazil. A last minute free kick is awarded to Italy just outside the box. Causio, instead of going directly for the goal, chips it into the middle, where Bettega blows by his marker. His header clangs off the bar.

Italy had shown flair for all of five minutes at the close of the first half, then hardly tested Leão again after switching sides. Brazil’s boon was their bench, both substitutes revitalized the attack which ultimately led to them turning the match around.

Of note are the ages in the teams, especially for the Italians. Zoff (36) was the only player on the pitch on the wrong side of thirty. The eternal Zoff has Italy eclipsing Brazil on average age, which comes out to 25.55 and 25.27 respectively. Gentile (24), Scirea (25), and Antognoni (24) were just about to enter their prime, while Cabrini (20), and Rossi (21) were still at the very start of their careers. All six would feature when the sides met again four years later, playing out the final match in their Second round World Cup group. For Brazil only Oscar and Cerezo would find their names on that team sheet.


  • MOTM: (first half) Gentile for taking out Dinamite & (second half) Reinaldo for reviving Brazil’s attack
  • Best hair: Causio
  • Viewing recommendation: Perhaps with 1982 in mind and seeing this tournament as the catalyst for a great Italian side, but this match specifically doesn’t showcase their ability; otherwise it’s a toss up

Full match can be found on footballia, highlights below. To be notified of future installments in this series, give us a like on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

About Sebastian

Sebastian writes and talks about football of all eras in German and English. His series of Retro Match Reports focus on British, German and Italian football history. For YYFP he is currently working his way through the late '70s and early '80s. Follow Sebastian on Twitter: @maltacalcio.

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