How Brazil invented the back four

Mario Zagallo won two world cups as a player, and one as a coach with Brazil Source: Getty Images

Brazil are widely known for their 'samba' attacking football, but it was actually their invention of the back four that led them to international glory - a defensive system that is still used today.

“Don’t score any goals today, lads. Let’s go home at the first opportunity.”

Bobby Charlton recalls these words being spoken by one of the England squad during the 1962 World Cup in Chile – a homesick player anxious to head back as soon as possible.

It is a revelation that dampens down the widely held view that in some golden era of the past the players would give their all to represent their country, whereas today’s generation simply do not care.

Clearly some of this should be taken with a pinch of salt. But there is no doubt that the rise of competitions such as the Champions League have taken some of the shine away from national team football.

The FIFA World Cup, for example, is still huge. But these days no one expects to see great tactical revolutions at the tournament. And the congregation of the best players from all over the planet in a handful of major European clubs has shifted the balance of quality. 

Where once a national team was unrivaled group of excellence, these days the likes of Barcelona can put together the best elements from a number of different schools of the game.

Perhaps proof of the former pre-eminence of national team football is that one of the most important and influential matches in the history of the sport was a friendly – the type of occasion that these days often degenerates into a parade of second half substitutions. 

But when England met Hungary on November 25th 1953, things were very different. 

Last month was the 63rd anniversary of the game that finished 6-3, the first time that England had been beaten at Wembley by non-British opposition.

 

The significance of the match goes well beyond that. It is the 90 minutes when the WM system became obsolete.

WM was so ingrained in the game’s culture that when I first became interested in football in 1971 players were still frequently defined by how they fitted into its design.

The ‘M’ was the defensive half of the team – the base formed by a line of right back, centre back and left back, and the top by the more cautious midfielders, the right and left halves (indeed some still referred to the centre back as the ‘centre half,’ from the time before the 1930s change in the offside rule when he operated higher up the field.

The W was the attacking unit – the stem provided by the more creative midfielders, the inside right and inside left, and the front line by the right winger, centre forward and left winger.

The important detail about this conception of football was that essentially it transformed the game into a series of one against one duels. 

The right back matched up against the opposing left winger, the centre back against the centre forward, and so on. 

What was entirely lacking was the concept of defensive cover – and it was this which was so ruthlessly and brilliantly exploited by the Hungarians on that afternoon at Wembley.

They refused to play by the normal rules. 

The centre forward, Nandor Hidekuti, dropped deep. What should the England centre back do? If he stays in position, then Hidekuti has acres of space to set up the play. If he is followed then a huge gap opens up at the heart of the defence – and it was in this hole that Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis ran riot. 

In the memorable phrase of Geoffrey Green of The Times, the England defenders like “a fire engine rushing to the wrong fire.”

In the future, a more organised fire brigade would be used to deal with the blaze more efficiently. It was called the back four.

Pioneers in its development were Brazil – the land where, according to superficial football mythology, defence has never been a priority. Few stories have ever been so wide of the mark. 

Brazil had their own wounds to lick, and their own problems with WM. It had let them down in the dramatic final match of the 1950 World Cup, when in front of their own fans in the giant, newly built Maracana stadium, their defence had been unable to deal with Uruguay’s right winger Alcides Ghiggia. 

The key problem – the lack of defensive cover – was one they would address. 

Defences were anyway being put to the test on a weekly basis in domestic football – how on earth could local teams deal with strikers such as Leonidas and Ademir, respectively top scorers of the World Cups of 1938 and 1950? 

With a couple of Central European coaches giving a helping hand, Brazil came up with the idea of the back four. Its dominant idea – that there should always be cover.

When they unleashed it in the 1958 World Cup they did not concede a goal until the semi final. 

“We always had a spare man at the back,” explained, who played in that team. 

“When the opposition played with two strikers then our holding midfielder would drop back into the space between them. With just one striker then one of our centre backs marked and the other was spare. Always having a spare man meant that we weren’t running risks.”

Brazil learned the lessons of their 1950 loss to Uruguay, and hit back to win the World Cups of 1958 and 62. 

 

England learned the lessons of the 1953 loss to Hungary and hit back to win in 1966. 

Alf Ramsey was England’s right back when Puskas and company waltzed their way through the defence. He arrived at the same conclusion as the Brazilians – that WM was dead, and the defensive solidity of the back four was the solution.

In their generosity, the great Hungarian side gave England another opportunity to learn. 

A few months after the 6-3, the sides met once more, this time in Budapest. The score this time was even more emphatic. 

Perhaps on May 23rd 2025 we can look back and celebrate the 71st anniversary of 7-1.