Nilton Santos: Footballer

Double World Cup-winner who began his career up front but went on to pioneer the role of attacking full-back

With a debonair bearing that oozed style and confidence, and handsome looks topped off by a fashionable pencil moustache, Nilton Santos might have been an idol of the silver screen. In fact he was left-back in one of the most revered football teams of all time, the Brazil side which lifted the World Cup in 1958 and retained it four years later, an elegant performer both solid and scintillating. Poignantly, two of his closest comrades in the Selecao rearguard, right-back Djalma Santos (no relation) and goalkeeper Gilmar, died earlier this year.

Nilton Santos, nominated by his incomparable compatriot Pele as one of the 125 greatest living footballers in 2004 and named in the world team of the 20th century by journalists in 1998, complemented his muscular, more down-to-earth full-back partner perfectly. Endowed with magnificent all-round technique, he was a composed and complete performer who could have excelled in any area of the pitch. Tall and powerful but never a thunderous tackler in the manner of his namesake, he was expert in nicking the ball away from opponents with crisp, beautifully timed challenges and intelligent interceptions, born of his acute positional sense. As a result, he tended to remain injury-free, unusual for a defender of his vintage.

Santos was also a pioneer of the exhilarating overlap in an era when most full-backs ventured forward only rarely. Never were his attacking instincts illustrated more vividly than at Uddevalla in Sweden in the Brazilians’ opening game of the 1958 World Cup, which ended in a 3-0 win over Austria. After winning the ball deep in his own territory, he carried it to the halfway line, where he passed to Jose Altafini. Then, instead of retreating to his defensive slot as was expected of full-backs at the time, he continued surging forward, accepted a return pass and scored with a powerful shot.

As Santos dribbled, his coach Vicente Feola had been close to apoplexy, fearful of the gap being left at the back, and he was heard to shout: “Crazy, crazy... Oh, well done!” That spectacular manoeuvre fired the imagination of full-backs the world over, and the game became all the more entertaining as a result.

Santos made his initial impact with the Rio de Janeiro club Botafogo, joining from junior football as a 23-year-old attacker in 1948. At first he wasn’t thrilled by the suggestion that he should switch to the back line, but he did so and put his inimitable stamp on his fresh role. He became a loyal one-club man, helping to garner serial silverware, including the state championships of 1948, 1957, 1961 and 1962.

But it was in the international arena that he made his most indelible mark after collecting the first of his 75 caps in a 5-0 drubbing of Colombia in spring 1949. Soon he became a regular in the yellow No 3 shirt, delighting the fans with his cultured methods, though it was for untypical pugilism that he hit the headlines during the 1954 World Cup finals in Switzerland. Brazil’s quarter-final clash with the marvellous Hungarians was expected to be a classic, but instead it descended into an undignified scrap, entering folklore as the Battle of Berne. Santos and the Magyars’ captain Josef Bozsik, who also happened to be a member of his national parliament, were sent off for fighting as the South Americans lost 4-2.

The left-back had another day to forget when he captained Brazil in their 4-2 defeat by England at Wembley in May 1956, getting the runaround from the wing wonder Stanley Matthews, but it was a different story two years later in Sweden, when he didn’t miss a game on his majestic Pele-inspired team’s way to the world crown.  His display against the Swedish star winger Kurt Hamrin in the final was hailed as a masterpiece as Brazil won 5-2, the occasion garnished further for Santos by the brilliance of his protégé, the right-winger Garrincha.

Several years earlier Santos had been nutmegged on the training pitch by an awkward rookie, whom he urged Botafogo to snap up. They did so, the maverick Garrincha hit the heights and the two became close, with the younger man invariably moderating his notoriously wild behaviour when around Santos out of respect for his mentor. That was just one of many insightful interventions in the affairs of club and country by Santos, who was known as “The Encyclopedia” for his comprehensive knowledge of the game.

Come the 1962 finals in Chile, by then deployed in a more central defensive position, he was ever-present again as Brazil retained the Jules Rimet Trophy, beating Czechoslovakia 3-1 in the Santiago final. That was the international swansong of the 37-year-old, who played on for Botafogo until 1964 then took up coaching. His contribution to the game was aptly summed up by Zito, one of his most eminent team-mates, who said: “When you played the ball as much as he did, the position didn’t really matter ... Nilton Santos wasn’t a defender or a full-back. He was just a star, it was as simple as that.”

Nilton Reis dos Santos, footballer: born Ilha do Governador, near Rio de Janeiro 16 May 1925; played for Botafogo 1948-64; capped 75 times by Brazil 1949-62; died Rio de Janeiro 27 November 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Solution Architect - Contract

£500 - £600 per day: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Solution Architect is requir...

360 Resourcing Solutions: Export Sales Coordinator

£18k - 20k per year: 360 Resourcing Solutions: ROLE: Export Sales Coordinato...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Telesales Executive - OTE £35,000+

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest developer of mobile...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue