“Suddenly, a bloke comes dashing through and he’s had a shot at goal and the ball went wide, and we started looking around to see who we’d got to blame for this. We couldn’t find it. We found out it was their full-back. See, they didn’t care. I never went up there like that.”
Those were the views of a decidedly unimpressed member of the Arsenal squad after a 5-1 win over Fluminese during a tour of Brazil in 1949.
At that time, the pre-eminent tactical system of the day would have been a 2-3-5 and barring a few exceptions this was, roughly, how you could expect most teams to line up. Much in the same way that any UK game from the 70s throught to the 90s would feature some variation of 4-4-2; it was just how things were done back then. The ‘full back’ as we’d understand it today was not seen as a position that could, or even should, offer any kind of attacking threat. That simply wasn’t its function. During this era, it would even be rare for a designated ‘defensive’ midfielder to stray too far north of the halfway line.
Sea-changes in any sport come about rarely but the 1950s saw perhaps the biggest upheaval football has experienced to date with Brazil deploying their back 4 for the first time to the grand audience at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. They employed a 4-2-4 system that was not only successful but was quickly adapted throughout the rest of the footballing world. Old systems were rendered redundant overnight. As with any new system it will fail or succeed based on the personnel to fill it and how well they understood the role. In that sense Brazil had the perfect duo to flawlessly fill the new roles.
Nilton Santos and Djalma Santos (no relation) were the left and right full backs respectively and it was Nilton Santos, in particular, who set the precedent for what a full back could be both defensively and as an offensive outlet. As blasé as we may be now about seeing a full back flying down the touchline, whipping in a cross and generally contributing to attacking play, back then it was completely alien. Opposition teams found this incredibly perplexing and often – like the gentleman from Arsenal – seemed almost offended by the fancy notions of these defenders running past the halfway line with not an ounce of shame.
Nilton Santos certainly didn’t let that hold him back. He even broke all conventional full-back decency when he scored against Austria in that 58 World Cup, a surging run featuring a couple of classic give-and-go’s. While Brazil’s coach at the time, Vincente Feola, has to be credited with going with the concept from the outset at such a big space, it was Nilton’s pitch-perfect execution of the role that announced the arrival of the attack-minded defender and through it changing the fabric of how the game would be played for generations to come.
Originally an attacking player, Nilton Santos was converted to a full back at Botafogo – where he spent his whole career – and was known as ‘The Encyclopedia’ due to his detailed knowledge of every aspect of the game. By the time he was basking in the glory of successive World Cup wins in 58 and Chile in 1962 he had 10 years at Botafogo under his belt. Accounts from that time underline that his influence throughout the squad was worth almost as much as his calm, silky defending.
It has been claimed that it was at Nilton’s insistence that a 17-year old Pele was brought to the 58 World Cup and he strongly recommended the signing of Garrincha to Botafogo, having been terrorised by the winger in a training game: “You have to sign this guy so I don’t have to play against him”.
Indeed, Garrincha looked up to Nilton Santos as something of an idol and he would even curb his legendary drinking binges when Nilton was around, for fear he’d think less of him. During the 1962 World Cup with Pele injured Santos, then 37 and well past his peak as a player, he goaded Garrincha into a number of top performances by telling him he’d heard the defenders from the opposing nation had been talking about how they were going to stop him. A cute piece of gamesmanship but it displayed a canny ability to man-manage even Garrincha, a feat beyond most.
As a player, Santos was said to have had it all. Unfortunately, he’s from an era where not much actual footage exists. There’s a few YouTube compilations that some brave soul has painstakingly put together and they give a sense, however fleeting, of a tall, elegant player comfortable with both feet strolling his way through games.
There’s some real highlights, including him lazily knocking the ball over the heads of advancing opposition attackers and making an absolute slipper out of a winger near the touchline. He looks easy on the ball and is always eager to advance up the park and launch an attack.
Again, none of it seem all that remarkable until you remind yourself this guy was, essentially, making this role up on the fly and perfecting it so that in the future when a coach shows a young player how to attack as a fullback he’s teaching what Nilton Santos invented.
There is a whole generation of players out there who are partially lost to history because of the lack of available footage. Nilton Santos was one of a host of great players from the mid-1950s through the 1960s that we simply don’t have enough material on. That shouldn’t detract from their achievements, especially of players like Nilton Santos who raised the bar and changed the way the game was played.
While prevailing attitude at Nilson’s time was one of derision towards the way he played, he himself was a lot more enthused about how football developed after his time;
“I have never envied today’s players the money, only the freedom they have to go forward”