South America: The All-Time World Cup XI


Selecting the ultimate South American XI from every tournament to date is an unenviable task, but if anybody knows how to whittle down the great and the good into one glorious team, it is Rob Fielder, author of the recently published Complete History of the World Cup. Find out who made the cut…


Image: Pressens Bild ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With the World Cup in Brazil looming, thoughts naturally turn to the players of the past who have illuminated the tournament.

Ever since Uruguay claimed victory in 1930 and Italy triumphed in 1934, the competition has been dominated by the continents of South America and Europe, with each vying for supremacy. The balanced nature of the rivalry can be clearly seen not only in the fact that they have between them won every one of the 19 editions held so far, but that neither continent has ever won more than two tournaments in a row.

Given that this year’s tournament marks the first to be held in South America since 1978, and that all seven World Cups held in the Americas have been won by a South American team, expectations are high for the giants of the Latin game.  As they strive to restore parity (Europe currently lead by 10 wins to nine), the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar will be seeking to emulate the exploits of so many heroes of the past. But if South America was asked to select their best ever World Cup XI, who would make the cut?

South America WC XIWith such a wealth of superb players to choose from it is almost impossible to select the finest side to represent such a storied continent. Many of the greatest World Cup memories come courtesy of great South American teams of the past, to the extent that it would be easier to pick 100 legends rather than just 11.

The selection process here has been to look purely at what they accomplished on the World Cup stage. The likes of Alfredo Di Stefano, Arsenio Erico and Arthur Friedenreich would be worthy contenders for a place in an all-time South American team, but they never featured at the game’s greatest competition. Moreover, an aim has been to reward players who displayed consistency and longevity in the tournament. Plenty of stars have shone brightly at a single finals, but by placing a premium on continued excellence it is possible to sift out some of the very greatest from their extensive cohort of rivals.

Note: All appearances and goals relate to the World Cup finals. Only tournaments where the player took the field (i.e. rather than as a squad member of unused substitute) are included.

Argentina: 1974, 1978, 1982 – 13 games, 0 goals

Argentina’s first-choice goalkeeper at the 1974 World Cup, Daniel Carnevali, was an unmitigated disaster. He was directly at fault for numerous goals, most notably in their opening defeat to Poland, seriously undermining hopes of glory. For the team’s final match, against East Germany, Ubaldo Fillol made his World Cup bow and went on to raise further questions about the inclusion of the hapless Carnevali.

In both 1978 and 1982 Fillol demonstrated that he was a goalkeeper of superb class and, somewhat unusually for a South American, immensely reliable. In marked contrast to his long-time rival Hugo “El Loco” Gatti, he was a pair of safe hands under pressure, a stay-at-home keeper who did what was expected of him, and more, rather than trying to make himself the focal point of the game. Arguably his most significant contribution at the World Cup came in the final of 1978 – a tremendous save to deny Johnny Rep after confusion in the Argentine area. He might not have been as crazy as some of his compatriots, but there has been no more consistent South American goalkeeper in the last 50 years.

Honourable mentions: Gilmar (Brazil), Ladislao Mazurkiewicz (Uruguay)

Brazil: 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966 – 12 games, 1 goal

Not many players can rival the impact of Djalma Santos at the World Cup. In 1958 Newton De Sordi had occupied Brazil’s right-back slot throughout the competition but was displaced for the final against hosts Sweden. Santos was regarded as the ideal man to limit the impact of dangerous left-winger Nacka Skoglund and after the match he was named in the team of the tournament, despite only featuring in a single game!

Santos was hardly a stranger to such accolades. Along with Franz Beckenbauer, he was the only man to be included in the team of the tournament on three occasions, highlighting both his remarkable consistency and an ability to elevate his game on the highest stage. Unlike the stereotypical Brazilian right-back (think Carlos Alberto or Cafu bombing down the flank) he was known primarily for his defensive ability rather than an exceptional contribution going forward. Yet he could deliver when required, playing a crucial part in the final of 1962 when he volleyed a high, looping cross from the right which caught out Czech goalkeeper Viliam Schrojf, leaving Vavá with the simplest of finishes to make the game secure. With that, Brazil became the last team to retain the World Cup.

Honourable mentions: Victor Rodriguez Andrade (Uruguay), Cafu (Brazil)

Argentina: 1978, 1982 – 12 games, 3 goals

Precious few defenders have ever matched the offensive threat posed by Daniel Passarella. The diminutive centre-back marked himself out as a constant danger at set-pieces, both taking free-kicks or penalties and attacking crosses with a leap that negated his lack of height. In Argentina he remains “El Gran Capitan” in recognition of the leadership qualities displayed as he marshalled the Albiceleste to the 1978 World Cup title. In that tournament he made two goals against Peru in the home team’s controversial 6-0 win that secured a place in the final and blasted a penalty against France to navigate the side out of a tough group.

In 1982 he was one of the few Argentines to enhance his reputation, with many observers regarding him among the tournament’s leading centre-backs despite the team’s early exit. Two goals, a thunderous penalty against El Salvador and a quickly taken free-kick against Italy, pointed to his continued menace in and around the opposition box. Sadly Passarella, while included in the squad for 1986, failed to make an appearance as the team roared to victory in Mexico. Frictions with Diego Maradona, his successor as captain, led to a bitter divide in the Argentine camp (exacerbated by allegations that Passarella had slept with the wife of former Albiceleste star Alberto Tarantini) and though Passarella supposedly suffered from colic, calf injuries and diarrhoea, it was difficult to think that he would have started even if fit.

Honourable mentions: Luis Pereira (Brazil), Carlos Gamarra (Paraguay)

Uruguay: 1950, 1954 – 7 games, 2 goals

The defining moment in both Brazilian and Uruguayan football history can be traced back to Obdulio Varela. As the two nations met in the deciding match of the 1950 World Cup, Brazil took a lead early in the second half through Friaça. Given that they needed only a draw to be sure of capturing their first world title and the way in which they had steamrollered Spain and Sweden in their two prior matches, it seemed that victory was now inevitable.

It was at that point that the legend of Varela was formed. Rather than hurrying to take the restart, to hunt out the two goals Uruguay desperately needed, the Uruguayan captain set off to pick an argument with the linesman, claiming offside. Varela knew that there had been no infringement but he sought to delay the match with his tactic and buy his team some time to gather their thoughts. By the time the ball had made its way to the centre circle for kick-off the mood in the Maracaná had changed from one of joy to one of hostility as the crowd made clear their displeasure with the Uruguayan skipper. The goals of Juan Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia soon followed, as Brazil suffered their greatest-ever footballing disaster (commonly referred to as the Maracanazo) and Uruguay their sweetest success. The debt owed to Varela will never be forgotten.

Honourable mentions: Jose Nasazzi (Uruguay), Oscar Ruggeri (Brazil)

Brazil: 1954, 1958, 1962 – 15 games, 1 goal

You don’t earn the soubriquet “the encyclopaedia of football” without being a special player, and Brazilian full-back Nilton Santos certainly met the criteria. He was among the squad for the 1950 trauma but it was only in 1954 that the Botafogo star made his mark on the biggest stage. His most famous contribution at that tournament was a dismissal in the quarter-finals against Hungary for fighting with the peerless Jozsef Bozsik in a match that came to be known as the “Battle of Berne”.

Yet Santos was a player of rare and subtle gifts. He did more than anyone to create the image of buccaneering Brazilian full-backs, getting forward at every opportunity and working in tandem with his left-winger, Mario Zagallo. A champion in both 1958 and 1962 (at the age of 37, only Dino Zoff won the trophy at more advanced years), he was a tremendously complete defender who ensured that opponents seldom got any joy down the left flank. A one-club man, there have been precious few defenders in history who could match up to the timeless brilliance of Nilton Santos.

Honourable mentions: Silvio Marzolini (Argentina), Roberto Carlos (Brazil)

Argentina/Italy: 1930, 1934 – 9 games, 2 goals

Only one man has appeared in a World Cup final for two different nations – Luis Monti. Nicknamed “double wide” for his ability to cover ground in the centre of midfield as well as his considerable stature, the Argentine was an integral part of the team that reached the climax of the 1930 edition. Indeed, Monti was the first man to score for Argentina at the World Cup with a free-kick against France that secured a vital win.

Renowned for the range and precision of his passing, Monti was also a notoriously uncompromising tackler; happy to take the man or the ball, and both if possible. After the tournament he moved to Italy with Juventus, joining his fellow Argentine Raimundo Orsi in Turin. Having converted to play for the Azzurri, he set about displaying the same range of talents that had been the hallmark of his time in South America. Italian manager Vittorio Pozzo was so impressed with Monti that he quickly became the fulcrum of the national side, and he was once again a huge influence as his adopted nation claimed victory at home in 1934.

Honourable mentions: Dunga (Brazil), Jose Leandro Andrade (Uruguay)

Brazil: 1954, 1958, 1962 – 15 games, 3 goals

Brazil’s ability to break their World Cup hoodoo owes as much to Didi as anyone. Prior to the final of 1958, the Sweden manager George Raynor had thought that an early goal would cause panic in the South American ranks and prompt victory for the home team. Instead, the measured calm of Didi (very much in the style of Obdulio Varela) as he lifted his colleagues’ spirits served to re-energise the Selecao.

If anything, it was typical of the composure and authority that Didi habitually displayed. A withdrawn inside-right, he was one of a new breed of midfield playmakers, content to occupy a deep position and run the game with startling authority. Furthermore, he was the man who made Brazilians famous across the globe for their mastery of free-kicks. The art of the “fohla seca” (they were said to move like a falling leaf) became his trademark with the way that they arced past goalkeepers and there were few better examples than the stunning strike he supplied against Mexico in 1954. One of the forgotten legends of South American football, Didi was a match for any of them.

Honourable mentions: Osvaldo Ardiles (Argentina), Rivaldo (Brazil)

Argentina: 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994 – 21 games, 8 goals

For many fans, great World Cup performances begin and end with Diego Maradona. The transcendent skills displayed in Mexico made the Argentine skipper the player of his generation and prompted innumerable comparisons with Pele. Yet for Maradona the World Cup story began in truth in 1978 when, as a precocious 17-year-old, he was omitted by Cesar Luis Menotti from the squad who would claim victory at home.

If anything, that disappointment gave greater impetus to his natural desire but his 1982 World Cup was a mixed experience. Already set to break the world transfer record in moving from Boca Juniors to Barcelona, he showed only flashes of his incomparable brilliance, scoring twice in a 4-1 win over Hungary but allowing his combustible temperament to get the better of him as he saw red for a disgraceful stamp against Brazil.

Memories of 1986 naturally centre on his two goals against England, each famous for their own reasons, but he demonstrated breathtaking virtuosity throughout the competition, with his performances against Bulgaria and Belgium of particular quality. Injuries hampered his involvement in 1990 but the spell-binding run he completed against Brazil to create the winner for Claudio Caniggia was vintage Maradona. Had he been fully fit, Argentina might well have been able to retain their crown. Meanwhile, in the USA in 1994 he looked to be back to his best in wins over Nigeria and Greece until a positive drugs test curtailed his participation. For both the right and the wrong reasons, nobody has enlivened the World Cup like Maradona.

Honourable mentions: Roberto Rivellino (Brazil), Teofilo Cubillas (Peru)

Brazil: 1958, 1962, 1966 – 12 games, 5 goals

If any man has a claim to rival Maradona for the biggest impact in a single tournament, it might well be Garrincha. The bow-legged maverick found himself thrust into the spotlight in 1962 following Pele’s thigh strain and immediately rose to the occasion. Aided of course by the likes of Didi and Pele’s replacement Amarildo, he was central to Brazil’s win in Chile. Indeed he saw off England in the quarter-finals and the hosts in the semi-finals almost single-handedly, playing with a verve and invention that the tournament has rarely seen. A red card for retaliation against Chile threatened his place in the final but in the event illness nullified his impact on the contest.

It all might have been very different had it not been for the strong will of Vicente Feola, the Brazil manager in 1958. The CBF had enlisted the help of all manner of advisers to aid their quest for victory, including a team psychologist whose battery of tests concluded that Garrincha was unsuitable to work even as a bus driver. Fortunately, Feola trusted his instincts, as well as the carefree winger – a sound decision given the two World Cup trophies he helped to lift. Remarkably it was not until the 50th and final match of his illustrious international career that Garrincha first tasted defeat, a 3-1 loss to Hungary in 1966. That, though, could not detract from the record of one of world football’s most bewitching stars.

Honourable mentions: Leonel Sanchez (Chile), Jairzinho (Brazil)

Brazil: 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970 – 14 games, 12 goals

In many ways the World Cup and Pele are inextricably linked. From his appearance in Sweden as a 17-year-old wunderkind to his swansong in Mexico, the Brazilian master illuminated the tournament with his unique brand of football. In fact it can sometimes be difficult to think about the competition without bringing the exploits of “O Rei” to mind.

Looking back now it seems strange that the Santos forward started the 1958 World Cup as second choice at inside-left behind Jose Altafini. Once he was included, initially against the USSR, things quickly changed. His goal against Wales proved decisive in the quarter-final and he followed that with a hat-trick against France in the semis. Throughout the competition he displayed a maturity beyond his years, not least in his first goal in the final; dinking the ball over the head of Bengt Gustavsson (described by John Charles as the best centre-back he ever faced) before volleying home.

By 1962, Pele had developed still further but injury curtailed his contribution and the same was the case in 1966, when the defending champions crashed out in ignominious fashion. Yet the prowess of the Brazilian star was displayed in all its majesty, in “glorious technicolour”, in Mexico. For there, along with his transcendent attacking accomplices, Pele gave the world some of the most magical moments in history. The goals he scored, while significant and spectacular in their own way, were just part of the story. Of equal magnitude were the bewildering array of near-misses, of tricks, turns and impudent, virtuoso skills. It was a tournament which, as John Motson said, “fulfilled all our footballing fantasies.”

Honourable mentions: Juan Schiaffino (Uruguay), Mario Kempes (Argentina)

Brazil: 1998, 2002, 2006 – 19 games, 15 goals

Another man to travel to the World Cup as a 17-year-old understudy was Ronaldo, though he would have to wait another four years before making his tournament debut. In France in 1998 the whole world got to see what fans of Barcelona and Inter had enjoyed in the prior two seasons: a phenomenon in action. His speed, hypnotic footwork and sheer joy for the game were evident throughout Brazil’s path to the final as he eluded veteran defenders as if they were school children. To this day there are still unanswered questions around the debacle that preceded the 1998 World Cup final but it was clear throughout that eventful contest that he was not fit to play.

The following tournament, in Japan and South Korea, offered ultimate redemption. In finishing the finals as top scorer with eight goals – the most since Gerd Müller notched 10 in 1970, – Ronaldo was the driving force in Brazil’s efficient, if uninspiring, victory. A brace in the final against Germany saw him win his own personal battle with Oliver Kahn, the man who had earlier pipped Ronaldo to the title of the tournament’s best player, to put an end to four years plagued by persistent knee injuries. When a much-maligned and fuller-figured Ronaldo scored three in 2006 he placed himself above Müller as the competition’s greatest-ever scorer. Certainly no man in recent years has left such a significant imprint on the World Cup’s illustrious history.

Honourable mentions: Vava (Brazil), Gabriel Batistuta (Argentina)

Rob Fielder is author of The Complete History of the World Cup, which is available now here. You can follow him on Twitter @ademir2z
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