Gianluca Vialli used to say the right-back is the worst player in every team. The theory goes like this: if this player was more solid defensively, he would become a centre-back, while if better on the ball, he would become a winger. So, according to Vialli, the full-backs are these weird in-between players that have to do their job but don’t excel in anything. And the left-back is better simply because there are less left-footed players, so they are brought up with more attention and care.
This was never the case in Brazilian football. Kids grow up in Rio, São Paulo, Porto Alegre and Recife listening to the story of left-back Nilton Santos storming forward to score a wonderful goal against Austria in the 1958 World Cup while the manager Vicente Feola screamed at him, ordering the player to go back while he ran, dribbled and finished with style. Nilton Santos, known as “The Encyclopedia”, is said to have crafted the idea of a full-back joining the attack. He and right-back Djalma Santos are considered two of the best players in the team that brought the first World Cup home.
In fact, the most iconic goal ever scored in the World Cup came from a Brazilian right-back. Carlos Alberto Torres, “The Captain”, smashed the fourth goal of the final in 1970, crowning the best side a World Cup has ever seen. His vitality and vision on the right could not be ignored, adding to the already amazing attach formed by Rivellino, Tostao, Jairzinho and Pele.
Marcelo, Dani Alves, Maicon, Alex Sandro, Danilo, Cafu and Roberto Carlos are among the dominating players in these positions at the top level in recent years. There is certainly something special about them that traces back to Nilton and Djalma, something the other nations were never quite capable of copying. But what is it?
During the 90’s Brazilian managers were almost as obsessed with 4-4-2 formations as the English ones, but there was a key difference: Brazil neglected the wingers altogether, favouring two playmakers centrally to supply the two forwards. It was more of a 4-2-2-2, which means the full-backs were the only players out wide.
This was only possible because the full-backs were already considered crucial parts of the team when in possession, combining physicality and technical skill. In the Brazilian game, full-backs were always responsible to offering width. There is a general rule (getting more flexible as the years pass and national styles mix) that “only one full-back go forward at a time”, but one of them has always to be forward, whether offering support or overlapping for a cross.
People sometimes still ask in Brazil: “do you think full-backs are primarily defenders or not?”
This probably sounds like a crazy question in Europe. No matter how Carvajal, Walker or Lahm are good offensively, it’s obvious their primary role is to lock the defence. Brazilian culture permits this kind of elucubration because these players were always seen as lethal weapons, not contingency plans.
Full-backs and skill: a perfect combination
Zé Roberto had great seasons in Germany for both Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich, but after a wonderful World Cup in 2006 playing as a kind of box-to-box midfielder, he went back to Brazil to play a single spectacular season for Santos as a number 10. He was simply fantastic that year, with goals and assists of every kind, and convinced Bayern to have him back.
Almost ten years later, at 40 years old, Zé Roberto arrived in São Paulo to be the captain of Palmeiras, the new richest club of the country. Despite the preferences of the manager and fans, he asked to play as a left-back, his original position in youth, and finished the year lifting the Brazilian Cup, renewed his contract and won the league in the following season.
Being more than comfortable on the ball doesn’t mean Brazilian full-backs don’t have to defend. They need to be consistent at the back, but it’s much more about positional intelligence than straight-forward tackling. Full-backs have to learn from an early age to occupy space and never leave a breach for the forward’s runs, which means it requires not only skill but also deep tactical awareness.
Junior was absolutely established as a right-back in Flamengo by the end of the 70’s, but when a newcomer arrived from the youth team, he had to switch to the left side in order to keep his place as a starter. The name of the young talent was Leandro, and he was a magician on the ball, considered one of the most skilled players in the mythical 1982 World Cup.
They formed a legendary pair for both Flamengo and the Brazilian national team. Leandro, however, had severe injuries throughout his career and stopped playing prematurely at the age of 30. When he was only 26, the worst injury happened on his knee and he couldn’t cope with the intensity of his full-back duties anymore. The solution? He became a central defender.
Leandro was always praised for his abilities with the ball and not so much for his defensive skills, but his intelligence and positioning helped him adapt quickly to his new position, where he won the league in 1987.
A history of great pairs
After Leandro and Junior came Jorginho and Branco, who played in 1990 and won the World Cup in 1994. When they left, Brazil had a problem in hand but found an almost permanent solution in Cafu and Roberto Carlos, who played three World Cups together (reaching two finals) and were absolute on the squad for over a decade.
Marcelo and Dani Alves dominated afterwards, with a little spell from Maicon. Players like Danilo and Alex Sandro, brought up together at Santos, and youngsters like Jorge and Zeca await their chance to shine.
Interestingly, we are talking about Nilton Santos and Djalma Santos, Leandro and Junior, Jorginho and Branco, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, Dani Alves and Marcelo. The history of Brazilian full-backs always comes in good pairs. They are so far from each other on the pitch, and rarely combine to create something, but one is so important to the other that they can only be seen together.
The tradition lives on. The torch lit by Nilton Santos is still being carried and passed through the generations. While in other countries full-backs are only expected to do a simple job, in Brazil they are the key to success.