Zico is number 17 in 90min's Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time series
There are a handful of truly generational players in history who, due to the evolving landscape of football, don't quite fit into the modern standard of greatness.
Nowadays, the balance of power between Europe and South America has shifted to such an extent that a player could never be considered one of the greatest on the planet, without hitting their peak in the money leagues.
But in the 1970s and the early part of the 80s, it was a different story. Though finances were by this point establishing Europe as the go-to destination, the playing field was much more even.
OTD 1953 Zico was born in Rio de Janeiro— Football Masters (@mag_masters) March 3, 2020
He is regarded as one of the best free kick specialists in history, able to bend the ball in all directions.
He played 94 times for Brazil from 1976–86 scoring 68 goals
FM will feature Brazil’s Tour of Europe (Spring 1978)
in Issue 6 pic.twitter.com/aT7a8jbJqP
The Intercontinental Cup, in many ways the predecessor to the modern Club World Cup, was not seen as a sideshow. It was typically a battle for dominance between the two continents, and until the late 80s, it was won, more often than not, by the South American contingent.
It's equally true that international accomplishments held much more weight in a time when club football wasn't the be-all and end-all. Nowadays, with the top clubs sometimes playing more than 60 games per season, international football can be treated as an after-thought, but this has not always been the case.
It was in this climate, when true greatness could be accomplished without ever leaving Brazil, when achievements for your country were as significant as significant as those for your club and when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were yet to raise the bar immeasurably with their 50 goals per season each, that Zico came to prominence as one of the best on the planet.
Happy Birthday to Brazilian legend Zico ⚽️— FIFA Museum (@FIFAMuseum) March 3, 2020
He is Brazil's fifth top scorer with 68 strikes, five of which occurred at the @FIFAWorldCup
In our collection we have his shirt from the 1986 tournament, the last of his career 朗 pic.twitter.com/DSGPCp13Za
The biggest tragedy of his sporting career is that he never lifted the World Cup, having had to settle for worldwide renown as the greatest player never to do so.
But that wasn't for the want of trying.
He would try his hand in Europe in the latter part of his career, but it was his accomplishments on his native continent that set him aside as a true footballing pioneer.
Though he was an attacking midfielder by trade, his direct style and unparalleled set-piece ability meant his strike rate was little short of freakish. The best four years of his career, prior to his move to Udinese from Flamengo, saw him hit the back of the net for Brazil at a rate of almost a goal per game.
He scored 27 goals in 33 international games between 1979-82, culminating in one of the most celebrated glorious failures in football history. The
A certain generation of football fans will recall the sheer brilliance of Zico, seen here in action during Brazil's second round clash with Argentina in Barcelona at the 1982 World Cup.— Magne L Karlsen (@magneleokarlsen) October 14, 2019
Pictured: Toninho Cerezo, Juan Barbas, Daniel Bertoni, and Zico. pic.twitter.com/5p9uPeIzOV
Things would wind down for Zico after his big money move to Udinese. By this point in 1983, he was the wrong side of 30, with injuries beginning to play catchup. Still, 30 goals in 53 appearances followed for the Italian side before returning to Brazil in 1985, where he would play out the remainder of his career before a jaunt to Japan.
#Zico didn’t win the #WorldCup with #Brazil but has been champion many times in his life, he was part of one of the best selections ever. He taught #Japan to play football, was a World Champion with #Flamengo and charmed #Italy by playing for #Udinese. Zico, forever Zico! pic.twitter.com/aM35IXIAjr— OldFootballPhotos (@OldFootball11) July 5, 2018
Zico's career trajectory might not fit the mould of a modern day great, but when someone is named by Pele as the player who came closest to matching his accomplishments, you know you've got a real one on your hands.
Unlike Pele, he never lifted a World Cup. But it speaks to his ability that, despite this, he remains just as well-remembered.
90min's 'Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time' can be found here.
Number 50: Luka Modric
Number 49: John Charles
Number 48: Hugo Sanchez
Number 47: Jairzinho
Number 46: Omar Sivori
Number 45: Paolo Rossi
Number 44: Paul Breitner
Number 43: George Weah
Number 42: Kaka
Number 41: Lev Yashin
Number 40: Gunnar Nordahl
Number 39: Kevin Keegan
Number 38: Hristo Stoichkov
Number 37: Gianluigi Buffon
Number 36: Johan Neeskens
Number 35: Xavi Hernandez
Number 34: Luis Suarez
Number 33: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge
Number 32: Andres Iniesta
Number 31: Rivelino
Number 30: Bobby Moore
Number 29: Socrates
Number 28: Sandor Kocsis
Number 27: Lothar Matthaus
Number 26: Ronaldinho
Number 25: Ruud Gullit
Number 24: Bobby Charlton
Number 23: Giuseppe Meazza
Number 22: Raymond Kopa
Number 21: Romario
Number 20: Eusebio
Number 19: Marco van Basten
Number 18: George Best