The history of the FIFA World Cup is decorated with the names of unforgettable stars, famous referees, mastermind coaches, unbeatable goalkeepers and assertive leaders. But football is a team game and the other characters - hidden away from the public eye and the flashing cameras - played and continue to play a huge part in the world’s biggest football competition.
Mário Américo, who died in 1990 aged 77, was the masseur for the Brazilian national team during its most successful period. But he started his career when the team was still wearing white – something which changed after they spectacularly failed to claim the world title in 1950 in an infamous incident known as the Maracanazo (or "Maracanã Blow"). To say the defeat was felt around the country is an understatement.
“We spent a lot of time in isolation, four months between the cities of Araxá and Rio de Janeiro. This proved to be in vain because journalists and politicians broke our concentration and we were hounded by fans,” explained Américo. “Lots of relatives and various players were looking at the list of businesses and industries that would pay them a bonus for winning, which never came about.”
Américo’s work as the national team masseur took him to the 1954 FIFA World Cup in Switzerland. Eager to scout the competition, he went to see what the Hungarians – who were the tournament’s favourites – were doing in training before their matches. He saw that the Europeans were doing gymnastic exercises in the changing rooms before heading out onto the pitch. He rushed back to tell coach Zezé Moreira and, from then on, the Brazilians took up the practice of alongamento - or stretching before playing.
At the 1958 FIFA World Cup in Sweden, his reputation as something of a natural leader preceded him and he had become more than just the physiotherapist: he had become part of the team. Vicente Feola, the coach that won Brazil’s first World Cup, nicknamed him pombo-correio (or “carrier pigeon”) due to his leather pouch, which is on display in the FIFA World Football Museum.
But Américo's role within the team was not limited to healing and passing on tactical messages - in fact, his toughest job for the team had nothing to do with either. After the Final of the 1958 tournament, Feola asked him to get his hands on the match ball – the one that Brazil had just won their first world title with. Diligent and loyal as he was, Américo ran on to the pitch as soon as the match was over. After snatching the ball from French referee Maurice Guigué, he ran for the changing room.
Security staff chased him but Américo was too fast and he was able to reach the changing room with just enough time to stash away the match ball, grab a replacement and return to the pitch before asking for forgiveness for the brincadeira - or “trick”. Throughout the entire incident, he had his medical pouch wrapped around his waist.
In 1962 and in 1970 he enjoyed central roles within the team. In the Brazil teams that are still hailed as the “greatest of all time”, Américo was a constant and welcome presence. But all good things come to an end and after the 1974 FIFA World Cup in West Germany, he went into politics. Two years later, in 1976, he was elected as a city councillor in São Paulo, where he was in charge of attending to athletes and members of the public at the Physiotherapy Institute in the north of the city.
Such was the distinguished career of a man who took part in seven FIFA World Cups. A man who could be seen running lightning-fast with his pouch onto the pitch to treat his players...and perhaps to carry out other orders too.