Mario Zagallo: Giant of Brazilian and Gulf football dies aged 92

Tributes paid to four-time World Cup winner and mastermind of UAE's qualification for 1990 tournament

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Mario Zagallo, the legendary Brazil World Cup-winning player and manager with strong ties to football in the Gulf, has died, aged 92.

Zagallo was a key member of the Brazil team that won back-to-back World Cups in 1958 and 1962, starting in both finals. He returned to the national team as manager of what is widely regarded as the greatest international side of all time: the 1970 World Cup-winning team of Pele, Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto.

Zagallo's final World Cup triumph came as Carlos Alberto Parreira's assistant in 1994, as Brazil beat Italy on penalties in the United States. He returned as manager after that tournament and led them to the final in 1998, where they were beaten by a Zinedine Zidane-inspired France in Paris.

Intertwined with his glorious feats with Brazil was a long association with football in the Gulf, first in Saudi Arabia as manager of Al Hilal and then the national team, before he arrived in the UAE in 1989 and masterminded their one and only World Cup qualification campaign, for Italia '90.

Nicknamed 'Old Wolf' or 'The Professor', Zagallo played a part in almost every chapter of modern Brazilian football and was known for his superstitious obsession with the number 13, and also his catchphrase, “You will have to put up with me” – usually aimed at his critics.

Brazilian football confederation president Ednaldo Rodrigues confirmed Zagallo's death in a statement in the early hours of Saturday. No cause of death was released by the federation or his family.

Early days and playing career

As a young man Zagallo completed his national service and so began his association with the World Cup.

In 1950 he was detailed to the Maracana Stadium where he was among an estimated 200,000 who saw Brazil beaten by Uruguay in what was the first post-war World Cup final.

“That day has never left my mind,” he told the BBC in a 2013 interview.

By the time the 1958 World Cup came around, Zagallo was a star player at Flamengo. A 17-year-old Pele would take the tournament by storm, scoring twice in the final, with Zagallo also on target in a 5-2 win over hosts Sweden. Following Pele's death in December 2022, Zagallo had been the last surviving member of that team.

Four years later, Pele was kicked out of the tournament by overzealous defenders in the early stages of the 1962 finals in Chile, but Zagallo was again influential as Brazil beat Czechoslovakia to lift the trophy.

Domestically, Zagallo left Flamengo for Botafogo and eventually retired in 1965, having won 33 caps for his country. His managerial career started at Botafogo before he replaced Joao Saldanha as Brazil boss, aged just 38, shortly before the 1970 World Cup began in Mexico.

1970 and beyond

Named national team coach in 1970, he inherited a squad that included Pele, Jairzinho, Gerson, Rivellino and Tostao. Brazil dazzled throughout the tournament and destroyed Italy 4-1 in the final, becoming the first three-time winners. That triumph also made Zagallo the first man to win the World Cup as a player and manager, a feat later matched by Franz Beckenbauer and Didier Deschamps.

Zagallo also coached Brazil in 1974 in West Germany, but with Pele having retired from the national team in 1971, they struggled to hit the same heights and finished in fourth place.

Twenty years later he returned as assistant coach to Parreira as Brazil won the 1994 World Cup in the United States, again beating Italy in the final. He was back in the hot seat four years later in France, when Brazil lost 3-0 to the hosts in a final marred by striker Ronaldo’s unexplained seizure before the game. Zagallo faced criticism for letting Ronaldo play.

“He was cleared to play by the doctors,” Zagallo said. “Anyone in my position would have done the same thing. I wasn’t going to be the one keeping him from playing in a World Cup final.”

His last involvement with the Selecao came as Parreira’s assistant in 2006 in Germany. Brazil were fancied pre-tournament to win a sixth title, but a squad featuring Ronaldinho, Kaka and Ronaldo lost to France in the quarterfinals.

At home, Zagallo was one of the few coaches who had successful stints with all four traditional Rio clubs – Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco da Gama.

Lasting impact in the Gulf

Zagallo's first foray into football in the Middle East came in 1976 when he was appointed as coach of the Kuwait national team, who he famously led to the 1976 Asian Cup final just a few weeks into his two-year tenure. Success at the 1976 Gulf Cup followed before he returned to Brazil as coach of Botafogo in 1978.

However, just months later he was lured back to the region by Al Hilal, who he promptly led to the Saudi Pro League title in 1978.

A stint with the Saudi Arabian national team between 1981 and 1984 followed before he once again returned to Brazilian club football.

But in 1989, with the nation seeking a first ever qualification to the World Cup, Zagallo was back in the Gulf as UAE manager. A nail-biting sequence of qualifiers ensued but Zagallo and his players held their nerve to make history.

Given the gravity of the achievement it was all the more shocking that he then left the job before the tournament to return to Vasco de Gama, with his compatriot Parreira replacing him for the tournament in Italy.

Tributes to a champion

The news was announced on Saturday morning through Zagallo's Instagram account, with a message that read: “It is with great regret that we announce the passing of our eternal world champion, Mario Jorge Lobo Zagallo. A devoted father, loving grandfather, caring father-in-law, faithful friend, victorious professional and a great human being. Giant idol. A patriot who leaves us a legacy of great achievements.”

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva expressed condolences to Zagallo's family, friends and “millions of admirers” and declared a three-day period of mourning in Brazil.

Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues said: “The CBF and Brazilian football mourn the death of one of its legends. The CBF offers solidarity to his family and fans in this moment of sadness at the departure of this idol of our football.”

Gianni Infantino, the Fifa President, said: “In times of need, Brazil has looked to ‘The Professor’ as a calming presence, a steering hand and as a tactical genius. He will be remembered as the Godfather of Brazilian football and his presence will be sorely missed by everyone in the game but especially here at Fifa. The story of the Fifa World Cup cannot be told without Mario Zagallo.”

Brazil legend Zico posted on X, formerly Twitter: “Brazil lost one of the greatest names in the history of football, Zagallo. Champion and I had the pleasure of working at the beginning and end of my career at Flamengo and also in the 98 World Cup. May he rest in peace and God comfort his family, Brazil and football, thank you.”

Romario, who won the World Cup under Zagallo in 1994, added: “I believe that Zagallo, in relation to the importance for football, especially Brazilian, he has the same importance as Pele. Zagallo has really always been a winner, a four-time world champion. Today is a sad day for football.”

Updated: January 07, 2024, 5:10 AM