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The Brazil team that won nothing, but hearts

One of the side effects of prolonged exposure to sport is the danger of death by cliche and half-truth. In a certain context, Vince Lombardi might have said that winning was the only thing. In a flippant moment, Bill Shankly spoke of football being more important than life and death. Yet, there are thousands out there that swear by both statements, without pausing to think of how serious the original quote was.

Tony Currie of England and Zico of Brazil during an International Friendly at Wembley in London in 1978. Pic/Getty Images
Tony Currie of england and Zico of Brazil during an International Friendly at Wembley in London in 1978. Pic/Getty Images

The myths around victory are too many to name. Let's focus on just one for now – that history remembers only the victors. In that case, name me four players from the Greek side that won euro 2004. There should be bonus points if you can reconstruct at least two of the goals that they scored during the course of the competition. You don't even need to go back that far though. When Spain won the World Cup four years ago, they scored only eight goals.

Only twice, against Honduras and Chile in the group stages, did they manage to score more than once. That wasn't all Spain's fault. Most sides they faced showed not a hint of ambition, content to try and spoil and frustrate. But the football they played was also pretty sterile. It was effective, but it didn't exactly quicken the pulse. Compared to some of the majestic performances on view during their success at euro 2008, this was a Spanish side largely untouched by magic. Few outside Iberia will be writing paeans to the 2010 team in the distant future.

In the weeks ahead, you will read much about the immortal World Cup sides, and the coaches that led them to glory. If nothing else, that should convince you that there is more to life than success. Hungary in 1954, the Netherlands in 1974 and Brazil eight years later went home without the trophy. But decades after they were beaten, they are remembered with the kind of fondness that the Greeks, for example, could never inspire.

For my generation, that Brazilian side was the prime reason we fell in love with the game. Steve McManaman, himself a skillful and inventive player with Liverpool and Real Madrid, spoke for millions when he recently told eSPN: "To flick on the television and see these mythical gold shirts and watch the players strike free kicks or pass with the outside of their boot -- things you never saw in english football and that you would never have dreamt of trying on the playground, it was like living a dream."

That dream ended at the estadi de Sarrià in Barcelona on July 5, 1982. Twice, Brazil came from behind with brilliant goals from Socrates and Falcao, but they had no answer to Paolo Rossi's third. The team that had scored 15 goals in their five matches, including a 3-1 shellacking of Argentina, were out.

Zico called it "the day football died". Jonathan Wilson, who writes so engagingly on football tactics, expressed it better in The Guardian a couple of years ago. "It may not have been the day that football died, but it was the day that a certain naivety in football died; it was the day after which it was no longer possible simply to pick the best players and allow them to get on with it; it was the day that system won."

These years later, there are some that think of Tele Santana and the team he coached as failures. Socrates, who captained the team and whose magnificent goal against the Soviet Union summed up the team's ability to shift through the gears like a Lamborghini, didn't agree. "At least we lost fighting for our ideals," he said in an interview shortly before he passed away. "And you can compare that to society today. We have lost touch with humanity, people are driven by results.

They used to go to football to see a spectacle. Now, with very few exceptions, they go to watch a war and what matters is who wins." I cannot tell you about those Greek goals, or too many moments of magic from Spain's triumph. But I'll never forget eder's goal against the Soviet Union or his impudent lob against the Scots. As long as there is memory, Zico's free kick against Scotland will be recalled.

So too Falcao's fabulous finish in the loss to Italy. That team won nothing in terms of trophies. They did, however, win a million hearts. Socrates knew that. "Beauty comes first," he said. "Victory is secondary. What matters is joy."

The author is Wisden India's editor-in-chief

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