Didi: The Ethiopian Prince
When remembering Brazil’s World Cup winning sides of 1958 and 1962 it is easy to focus entirely on Pele and Garrincha. The twin giants of Brazilian football made such an impression at the two tournaments that so many other great characters fade into the background. For the emergence of a boy who would be king and a little bird so captured the imagination of the world at large that many other heroes were forced into the periphery.
The result of the natural fascination with Pele and Garrincha is the marginalisation of a host of other legends. From goalkeeper Gilmar, to full-backs Djalma and Nilton Santos and the likes of Mario Zagallo and Vava in attack, Brazil possessed all-time greats in every position. No man’s legacy has been more frequently forgotten though than Didi.
Waldir Pereira, known to the world as Didi, did not have it easy in his quest to become a professional footballer. Born, as with so many Brazilians of the era, into great poverty in the city of Campos he came close to have his leg amputated at the age of 15 following an injury playing street football. While mercifully his leg healed more quickly and more fully than expected, he used the incident as a greater spur to prove his ability throughout his career.
On recovery he joined the youth team of Sao Cristovao, but following brief spells with a series of clubs, he made his professional debut with Americano. Not that he stayed there long. Indeed it was only when he joined Fluminense in 1949 at the age of 21 that Didi was finally able to settle down. He quickly impressed for the Tricolores and represented Rio in a match against Sao Paulo to celebrate the opening of the Maracana stadium in 1950, scoring the first ever goal in the cathedral of Brazilian football.
By 1952 Didi was ready to make his debut for the Brazilian national team against Mexico. At the time Brazilian football was still recovering from the Maracanazo disaster, losing at home in the final match of the 1950 World Cup to Uruguay. The national team had not played a single match in almost two years since that fateful day and Didi was one of five debutants to take to the field for new coach Zeze Moreira. That match saw a comfortable 2-0 victory for Brazil, with both goals coming from Baltazar, and Didi played well enough to retain his place going forward.
From then on Didi was a fixture for the Selecao and by the time the 1954 World Cup came around, he was already a focal point of the team. Brazil began the tournament against Mexico and handed them a 5-0 thrashing Didi was renowned in Brazil at the time for his “folha seca”, or “dry leaf” free-kicks. Due to the injury that Didi had suffered as a boy he kicked the ball in such a way that it took a dipping and swerving trajectory, akin to a falling leaf. When Didi scored the second of Brazil’s goals with just such a free-kick the world became aware of his special talents.
Didi then helped Brazil through to the quarter-finals with the equaliser in the 1-1 draw against Yugoslavia. Remembered as the Battle of Berne due to the levels of violence witnessed, Brazil’s quarter-final against Hungary was a match for the ages, but saw the Selecao crash out 4-2. Didi hit the post in the second-half, but at this stage Brazil were no match for the Magical Magyars.
In 1957 Didi made the switch across Rio from Fluminense to Botafogo. That first season he won the Rio state championship, and was in imperious form for the Lone Star club. For the national team he was increasingly the focal point of a maturing side. Didi had begun his career as an inside-forward in the mould of Zizinho, linking play and creating chances for the striker. As Brazilian tactics evolved he was moved into a deeper midfield role, while one of the remaining half-backs was shifted deeper into defence to create a 4-2-4 formation.
The result of this for Didi was that he was increasingly involved in every passage of play. His partner in midfield (initially in 1958 Dino Sani and later in the tournament Zito) was required primarily to break play up and provide the ball for Didi. Didi could also drop deeper to collect the ball for his back four and spray penetrative passes behind opposing defences.
At the 1958 World Cup Didi’s influence came to the fore. Indeed, while he scored only once in the tournament (an incredible effort from 30 yards in the semi-final against France), he was involved in almost every good Brazilian move. The only game in which he was truly nullified was against England in the group stage as Bill Slater man-marked him and prevented him receiving the ball. Had Sweden been wise to the threat he offered they might have done likewise. Instead, manager George Rayner was forced to rue his mistake afterwards, “It was impossible, he was masterful” he reflected on the way that Didi contributed to a 5-2 defeat for the hosts.
By the late 1950s Real Madrid had already captured a collection of the world’s finest players. Di Stefano, Puskas, Santamaria and Kopa had all been recruited by Santiago Bernabeu to his personal project. No wonder then that in 1959 Didi joined them in Spain. It was to be the greatest mistake of his career.
For in Madrid there was one undisputed master: Di Stefano. Ferenc Puskas had fitted into the team by altering his game, converting from a creative inside-left into an out and out striker. Raymond Kopa too had moved from a central playmaking role onto the right wing. How then could Didi, the ultimate midfield maestro, fit into a team with the original total-footballer?
Puskas would later suggest that the real reason that Didi had failed in Spain was that he had put on the weight the Hungarian had lost, but in truth it was always going to be a hard task to accommodate two incredible playmakers in one team. After a brief spell on loan in Valencia, Didi opted to return to Botafogo. While often looked on as an unmitigated failure, Didi’s time at Madrid was not without its high points. He scored six times in 19 games, a respectable return for an essentially creative player.
Back in Brazil, Didi certainly showed no signs of the excess weight that Puskas alluded to in carrying Botafogo (along with Garrincha, Nilton Santos and Quarentinha) to consecutive Carioca championships in 1961 and 1962 (though his appearances were more fleeting in the second season due to injury). If anything, Didi’s desire to prove himself burned even more brightly during his second spell in black and white, after the ignominy of his time in Spain.
When the 1962 World Cup came round, Didi was in prime form and joined by so many of the victorious 1958 team few could back against Brazil. They began by beating Mexico 2-0 but the second game (a 0-0 draw with Czechoslovakia) was most notable for an injury to Pele which ruled him out of the rest of the tournament. The final group match proved satisfying for Didi as two late goals from Amarildo knocked out Spain (and thus prevented Di Stefano from ever playing in a World Cup match).
Victories over England and host nation Chile took Brazil through to a final against Czechoslovakia. Didi’s influence in these games was not as dominant as it had been four years earlier, but he remained an enormous factor in the way that Brazil could strangle and subdue opponents. The final saw a terrible error from the previously unflappable Villiam Schrojf when he handed a goal to Brazil after Masopust had put Czechoslovakia ahead. From there Brazil didn’t look back and second-half goals from Zito and Vava secured a second World Cup for Didi et al. Few to this day have matched that remarkable achievement.
Didi returned to Botafogo following the World Cup triumph, but at 33 he was nearing the climax of his career. A brief spell with Vera Cruz in Mexico brought down the curtain on what had been a glittering football journey. Didi had always enjoyed tremendous success against Mexico so perhaps it was fitting that it should all end there.
What set Didi apart in a golden era of playmakers was his unhurried and languid style that afforded him time and space in even the most congested midfields. No matter what pressure was applied to him, he managed to glide through games with a sereneness that spoke volumes about an intrinsic confidence in his own ability. He conducted the team from deep with a level of certainty that instilled belief throughout the team. When times were tough (and even Brazil in this era didn’t always have it all their own way) you could rely on Didi to bring order amidst the chaos.
Certainly there were contemporaries who played with more swagger and showmanship. Undoubtedly there were better goalscorers, dribblers and more fearsome tacklers. What Didi demonstrated (his free-kicks aside) was not material for the showreel. Yet at a time in which our appreciation of the possession game has never been higher, has there ever been a greater exponent of the virtues of such play? For that reason alone it’s time to celebrate the “Ethiopian Prince”.
Didi’s Career Honours
FIFA World Cup: 1958, 1962
Copa Oswaldo Cruz: 1955, 1958, 1961, 1962
O’Higgins Cup: 1955, 1961
Pan American Games: 1952
Atlantic Cup: 1956
Brazilian Champion (Roberto Gomes Pedrosa Tournament): 1962
State Championship: 1957, 1961, 1962
Tournament Home: 1961, 1962, 1963
Colombia International Tournament: 1960
Pentagonal Club of Mexico: 1962
Copa Rio: 1952
State Championship: 1951
UEFA Champions League: 1959, 1960
Ramon de Carranza Trophy: 1959
World Cup’s top player: 1958
Posted on 14/11/2011, in 3. The Classics, 7. Special Guests and tagged 1958, 1962, Brazil, Didi, Garrincha, Gilmar, Nilton Santos, Pele, Vava, world cup, Zagallo, Zeze Moreira, Zito. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.