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Legends: Zico

Total Football is bringing you a series of features on some of the greatest players to have ever played the beautiful game.

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We launch our new Legends series today - and where better to start than with one of the most exciting players of all time...

The King of Rio

When Brazilian reporters are prompted to start swooning and gushing praise at the very mention of your name, you know you’re a worthy addition to the prestigious canon of great footballers. 

A famously demanding tribe of fans, Zico has long been considered the most idolised player in Brazil since Pele – quite an accolade. Graced with swan like composure, staunch discipline and an unstoppable shot from dead ball situations, his rapid rise to the ranks of greatness was hardly a surprising one.

A fanatical Flamengo fan as a boy growing up in the slums of downtown Rio, teenage Arthur Antunes Coimbra was soon spotted during a futsal tournament and snapped up by his boyhood idols.

Flamengo sought to create a world beating team comprised solely of Brazilian nationals, staying true to club motto “we make our own successes”. When he began his career, there were doubts about his lack of physical presence, but these were soon dispelled as Zico went on to play a key role in Flamengo’s domestic success – raking in four league titles, a Copa Libertadores and an Intercontinental Cup along the way.

Along with Socrates and Falcao, he was also an integral part of the Brazilian national side, though, rather unfortunately, his international efforts often ended in disappointment (through no real fault of his own).

Brazil’s record in the World Cups from 1978 to 1986 betrays the true impact of Zico’s legend - one such illustration of this bad luck being in 1978 when his stoppage time header against Sweden was contentiously disallowed. The subsequent finals where he featured were hampered by injury and the aging team of players around him.

In spite of this, Brazil only ever lost one match in the three finals that had Zico in the team (eventually being dismantled by Paulo Rossi’s dogged Italian side in 86).

Bigger stage 

Flamengo’s decision to release Zico to play in Europe for Italian minnows Udinese shocked the footballing world. Some were quick to argue that his talents deserved a bigger stage.

At the time the Udinese’s fan-base was so small it would’ve struggled to fill the Maracana stadium. One journalist even compared his move to “fitting the engine of a Ferrari into a Volkswagen”. But the deal was finalised in a matter of hours and ambitious little Udinese had signed their talisman.

He stayed in Italy for two uneventful seasons before making his triumphant return to Flamengo. With 508 goals in 751 games, Zico is undoubtedly a club hero was soon immortalised through Brazilian musician Jorge Benjor’s song - “Flamengo’s number 10” - a testament to his unique relationship with the club.

After a brief stint playing in Japan, Zico was then appointed as Minister of Sports by the Brazilian president Fernando Collo DeMello, a role he greatly relished during his reign in charge. Following this, Zico turned to coaching.

This part of his career has seen him explore regions far afield from his native Brazil, the only country he ever truly felt comfortable playing in. Zico has managed some of Europe’s top clubs (CSKA Moscow, Olympiakos, and Fenerbace to name a few) and now prepares to take the helm of the Iraqi national team.

But as a player Zico’s ability has gone unsurpassed. He possessed strength and skill and a footballing brain that could find a way through the toughest defensive back-line. Unlike most athletes today, Zico’s career was never marred by speculation over his personal life, frequent dips in form or petty feuds over wage packets.

He maintained a philosophy of loyalty, discipline and hard graft, for that he should be further applauded.

In the shadow of his success, Zico puts most modern day footballers to shame.

By Chris Kelso

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