Brazil’s defeat to Uruguay in the final game of the 1950 World Cup at the Maracanã scarred Brazil so deeply the marks can still be seen today. While the Maracanazo was being suffered in Rio de Janeiro, in a remote peasant village in southern Brazil another battle, soaked in blood and mud, was shaping the rebellious and raging personality of the mastermind of the team that would define the Brazilian footballing style two decades later. There, João Saldanha, “João Sem Medo” (“Fearless João”), announced himself as the warrior he has always been.

Brazilian football is rife with myths and legends. The Brazilian sociologist Roberto DaMatta, for example, says that Brazil’s creativity in football (and in everything) stems from the fact that it is a country where the law is based on repression of the feeble by those with power; thus, it fosters a mindset in which people’s first reaction is to break the law and benefit from that, as the laws are unfair anyway. The reason the Brazilian flair is so sensational on the pitch is related to the fact so much creativity is demonstrated in its corruption and the mismanagement of public money. All the influential managers of the national squad were, for some reason, particularly suited to this culture.

Vicente Feola, Flavio Costa, Mario Zagallo, Luiz Felipe Scolari and others, in the imagination of the average citizen, were the most important people in the country. After all, politicians, military leaders and millionaires didn’t pick the starting XI of the Seleção. It’s not surprising, then, that their personalities and personal lives were picturesque, contradictory and rich in folklore. But none can surpass João Saldanha, who was responsible for putting together one of the most impressive teams there has ever been, the Brazil side of 1970. He was able to gather take number 10s from five major Brazilian clubs (Santos, Botafogo, Cruzeiro, Corinthians and São Paulo) and make them play together.

Five very strong personalities that were like prima donnas in their own clubs, but signed up for a very well organised team. Although a very rigid man in terms of discipline, Saldanha was averse to respecting hierarchies he didn’t recognise as legitimate. João Sem Medo was the man who added the last piece of the puzzle of Brazilian footballing identity that Uruguay’s destruction of the Seleção 20 years earlier had started.

Where there was weakness, he added strength; where there was complacency, he added grit; where there was uncertainty, he added confidence. His own personal history carved a complex, irascible character and that strengthened him in his work.

Although Saldanha was not even really a manager (he only led his dear Botafogo and the national squad), like a true artist he probably achieved a goal of which he himself could not measure the full splendour. In this sense, his journey to the village of Porecatu, in the state of Paraná, was an exercise of discipline and a lesson in courage, boldness and team building with others that is echoed by his 1970 team.

It’s not possible to say that the event was crucial to the build-up of the strong personality he already had, but, it is safe to say he didn’t return to Rio de Janeiro the same man that he had been before.

João Alves Jobim Saldanha had the hardness of the gaúcho character. He was born in Alegrete, a town 70 miles from Brazil’s southernmost frontier, a few weeks before the Revolution in Russia.

Saldanha was typical of people from Rio Grande do Sul, where ‘manliness’ was prized above all else. But even by gaúcho standards, he was fierce and fearless, hence the nickname “João Sem Medo” bestowed by the playwright and journalist Nelson Rodrigues, whose fictional characters were pretty much aligned with the richness Saldanha himself had.

Saldanha was the kind of man that stood up for his principles and was almost irrationally dragged into needless quarrels when challenged. Once, during an interview in Europe, a German reporter asked him about the recent slaughter of indigenous people in the Amazon forest and he left diplomacy aside. “My country killed fewer people in 500 years than yours did in 10 minutes,” he said.

On another occasion, when challenged by Alf Ramsey, who said that Latin American referees were dishonest, he asked, “So, tell me why you need a police force as good as Scotland Yard if the English are so honest?” His temper would mark his whole life, rarely for the worse. In the build-up to the 1970 World Cup, Brazil lived under the violence of military rule. The president was Emílio Garrastazu Médici, the worst of all the country’s military rulers, under whom torture, murders and lawless arrests were common. After an interview in which Médici said he would like to see the centre- forward Dario as a starter for Brazil, Saldanha replied, “The general didn’t listen to me when he named his ministry. Why should I listen to him now?”

Médici was definitely not trying to put Saldanha under pressure – it was an offhand comment at a time when the atmosphere was so toxic that any joke was welcome. Saldanha could have simply refused to reply, but that was the kind of concession he didn’t make. The cause of his sacking, a few weeks later, was never clear but that silly reply may well have sealed his fate. Although he had led Brazil through qualifying to play in the finals in Mexico and created a legendary team, he would never make it to the Estadio Azteca.

Eight days before the squad set off Mexico, he was replaced by the obedient Mario Zagallo, a man always eager to please the powerful and the establishment. One of Saldanha’s biographers, André Ike Siqueira, feels that the aggressive answer to Médici did decide the coach’s fate.

“There is no doubt that the military took him out,” he said, “but there is no proof of a direct order coming from Médici. Saldanha regarded Médici as the biggest killer in Brazilian history; a torturer, someone he scorned as much as he could. His success with the Seleção and the way he talked meant he had become a political problem for the rulers.” His retort to Médici was not the first time Saldanha had confronted the military right.

Upon arriving in Rio de Janeiro with his family his father bought a registry during the 1940s, Saldanha had joined the Brazilian Communist Party. One of the many idiosyncrasies of Saldanha’s life was that at different times he went to school with two pivotal figures of the 1964 military coup. While a child, he studied with Jânio Quadros, the populist 1960 president-elect whose resignation set in motion the political instability that led to the military takeover four years later.

Later, in Rio, he had an altercation with a fellow student, another Communist, Carlos Lacerda, who would later become the most important conservative journalist and one of the most aggressive critics of João Goulart, Quadro’s vice-president who took over following his resignation.

Despite his major role in Brazilian football history, João Saldanha didn’t have a footballing pedigree. He studied law and his link to football was a visceral passion for Botafogo, one of Rio’s big four clubs and, at that time, one of the biggest in Brazil. In 1948, Saldanha became a director of the club and declared himself inspired by two managers: the Hungarian Dori Kürschner, to whom he had served as an interpreter a decade before, and a less famous name, Italo Fratezzi, nicknamed “Bengala” (“Cane”).

In that year, something happened to trigger all the fury that a man like Saldanha could muster. Botafogo reached the Rio de Janeiro state finals to play Vasco da Gama. Before the first leg at Vasco’s São Januário stadium, directors of the home side had a highly allergenic powder sprayed in Botafogo’s dressing room, making the whole team itch frantically. He swore to have revenge. Before the second leg of the finals, Saldanha had Vasco’s dressing room painted minutes before the match with so much paint that the air was unbreathable.

He also served Vasco coffee laced with sleeping pills. “They had a big kettle with coffee in the dressing room and had a person watching their stuff at the door,” he said. “However, once the match was on, this guard left to see the match closer to the pitch. We had a secret entrance to the room and an employee of the club dropped the pills in the coffee. At that time, the players used to drink cold coffee during the matches like some sort of energising drink. In the second half they were so slow that we won 3-1.”

During the 1930s and 1940s, Brazil lived under periods of open dictatorship and periods of flawed democracy, although the same people tended to be in power. The country was always aligned with US policies. The Soviet Union and Communism were regarded as enemies of the state and the main Communist party, the “Partidão” (“Big Party”), was declared illegal and not entitled to stand at elections for most of the 20th century. Communists were harried and arrested and, not infrequently, killed. The claws of repression touched Saldanha in April 1949.

The Communist Youth of Rio de Janeiro was organising an event called Defesa da Paz e da Cultura (Defence of Peace and Culture). Instead of a meeting, the more than 400 delegates who had come from every part of country walked straight into an ambush. Saldanha, one of the event’s leaders, was informed that the police had infiltrated it with several agents disguised as students.

Just after the event had opened, heavily armed police forces stormed the room. One of the investigators yelled at Saldanha who struck him with a chair. Chaos descended and the police opened fire. One of the bullets hit Saldanha in the back and, bleeding and with a broken rib, he fainted while being taken to Souza Aguiar hospital.

Still recovering from the gunshot and under the watch of a policeman, Saldanha jumped out of the window and ran away. Friends alerted him that the police had been in his flat. Books, photographs and even furniture had been taken or destroyed.

He needed a way out and fled to Europe. In Paris, his political beliefs became stronger following classes he attended at a political science school (which he never seemed able to recall the name of). After that, he went to Prague where he received lessons and indoctrination directly from the Communist Party. At 33, he became an international correspondent covering Mao Zedong’s consolidation of power in China, even meeting Mao himself at least three times. It was only the beginning.

A few years later, Saldanha returned to Brazil to visit his daughters, but it wasn’t only his family that waited for him back home. He was handed a task by the Communist Party, but definitely not a reward. The party leader in Brazil, Luís Carlos Prestes, regarded Saldanha as disrespectful towards party hierarchy and decided he should be sent to an utterly irrelevant spot in Paraná state.

Acquainted with land-owning law and expertise in guerrilla warfare obtained during his time in Europe, he headed to an area adjoining the Paranapanema River to challenge the local politicians and their well-armed and ruthless jagunços – the violent and lawless henchmen of the big land-owners. On arrival, Saldanha was to meet a Communist liaison official in Porecatu.

His name was Gregório Bezerra. He was an elected congressman who had had his mandate revoked by the president Eurico Gaspar Dutra in 1946. In Porecatu, Saldanha was to indoctrinate the peasants under the supervision of the Communist Party. It was basic stuff, mainly theory and practical policy taught in very simple terms.

It was complicated by a confrontation over land possession issues, a problem that Brazil has faced throughout its existence. Huge tracts of land were often cheaply sold or given to rich men close to the government, but they always wanted more. And when they wanted more, they would send armed men to small farms run by peasants, usually on government land. The peasants would be expelled and the land taken. If the peasants resisted, they would be shot.

This scenario repeated itself countless times in rural Brazil. In 1942, the Paraná governor Manuel Ribas, emulating Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act, had decided to provide economic incentives for landless peasants to occupy densely forested areas owned by the government. Peasants could have the land officially given to them by the state in exchange for a temporary share of their gains. Hundreds of families signed up and there was hope. However, five years later, the new governor, Moysés Lupion decided that the deal was off, with no compensation. He then sold the land at knockdown prices to big landowners.

The justification he offered was that the land was occupied and it would make it hard to take. So it was. It took armed jagunços, with help from local authorities and law enforcement, to expel around 1300 families from six cities in the region. It was Saldanha and the communists’ help that gave them some hope. Saldana argued that the dispute should be settled with the government, but knew that they might need to fight.

João was not the first Saldanha to be engaged in social issues. His grandfather, after whom João was named, was a rich farmer in Livramento, where he stood for the Maragatos, federalists who wanted independence for Brazil’s southern states. He did not simply speak up for the cause: he spent almost all of his money helping it.

Saldanha had already recruited workers in the São Paulo factories that were to make the city the biggest industrial centre of Latin America and organised events in Rio. Porecatu, however, was the most difficult task he had been assigned so far and he didn’t travel in secret. Officially, he went as a journalist for the leftist daily Hoje, settling in Londrina, a city named after the British capital, 62 miles from Porecatu.

Lupion, the new governor, wasn’t shy about helping out rich farmers from Paraná and São Paulo. After years of hard work, replacing the forest with crops and, in some cases, equipping the farms with basic facilities, roads and even small villages, greatly increasing the value of the land, the peasants were stripped of their lands. When a few peasants protested, violence quickly escalated in what became known as the Porecatu War or the Revolta do Quebra Milho (Corn-Breaker Revolt). 

Mid-20th century Brazil was far closer to pre-Industrial Britain or France than to the modern country it is in parts today. The Brazilian population was largely rural and illiterate, there were very few paved roads and, outside the main cities, provision of electricity, water or sewerage was rare. In most of the territory, politicians would hardly ever be held accountable for anything they did. Lawlessness was rife.

The Party sent Saldanha to Paraná mainly to work on communications and notions of political organisation, but he couldn’t help taking sides. The guerrilla war that spread through the region was unexpected. Once in Porecatu, Saldanha became one of the leaders of the movement and was, much to Prestes’s distaste, far more concerned about his brothers in arms than about orders coming from Rio de Janeiro. And about Celestino, the nickname of José Ferreira de Souza, the landowners’ most well-known gunman. He was a thug widely accused of murder, rape and destruction. He was known to the police, but had freedom in the region to spread terror.

After cruelly killing one of the peasant leaders, Francisco Bernardo, Celestino became the number one name on the Communist Party’s hit list. In the aftermath of Bernardo’s death, the peasant leaders arranged a meeting to decide how to proceed.

The debate centred on whether or not to kill Celestino. Such an act would deepen the wounds, some argued, but doing nothing after Bernardo’s gruesome murder seemed equally wrong. Peasant fighters and Communist activists argued vehemently during the meeting. Saldanha voted against the killing, but when the decision was taken, he endorsed it.

An ambush was set the same night and Celestino was murdered by a group of fighters. Saldanha sent a message back to the Communist command: “Celestino is ours. We killed him, took his body to Apucarana [another city 60 miles from Porecatu] and tied him to a cross, just like they did to our man. We also left a message: ‘Morte aos capangas’ (‘Death to henchmen’).”

The radical events in Porecatu worsened Saldanha’s relationship with the command of the party and Prestes decided he should no longer act alone. He sent Celso Cabral de Melo, whose codename was Capitão Carlos (Captain Carlos) to replace Saldanha as commander.

The decision displeased many of the men in the fight.  The new leader was not fully respected and there was public opposition to some of his rulings, such as allowing alcohol and prostitution. Carlos was mostly a puppet of Prestes. Saldanha was obviously unhappy, but followed orders as far as he could.

There was some dissent among the peasants as well. The Party wanted to recruit fighters in the region and send them to other areas of conflict in Brazil, but most of them just wanted to have their lives back and bring an end to the violence. Saldanha had doubts about the loyalty of his replacement. He thought there was something strange about Carlos, but, passionate as he was, many felt his view was coloured by frustration. 

But on 17 June 1951, a crucial event proved Saldanha right as several members of the local group were arrested. It’s believed Captain Carlos had come to an agreement with the police and informed the authorities about the guerrillas’ plans. In jail, the peasants were severely beaten, while the supposed snitch left without any mark, “escaping” the very same day.

Saldanha’s paranoia about betrayals would remain for the rest of his life and suspicion over another betrayal, many years later, may have been decisive in his managerial career. Despite winning every game in the qualifiers for 1970, Saldanha was under pressure – as almost all Brazil managers almost all of the time.

He came to believe there was a plot to bring him down. Despite results, the press maintained that the team was not playing well and a few weeks before the trip to Mexico, a friendly match between Flamengo and Brazil was canceled in Rio de Janeiro.

Flamengo’s manager, Dorival Knipel, better known as Yustrich, was enraged when he was told the match would not happen. Yustrich was a figure of Brazilian footballing folklore. Temperamental, he often came close to assaulting players and rivals in the aftermath of heated arguments. It was not unusual for the “Homão” (“Big Man”) to engage in public spats with journalists, players, officials and fellow managers. Yustrich was said to be a disciplinarian, submitting his players to training sessions so intense that they were almost cruel. Asked about the canceled match, Yustrich gave a furious interview, openly criticising Saldanha and virtually accusing him of being behind the change of plan. They had been friends for a long time, but the accusation triggered Saldanha’s paranoia. Brazil had another friendly fixture in Rio, this time against a very small team – Bangu – and managed only to draw. Criticism from media and supporters intensified and Saldanha blew up following another Yustrich interview.

He went to Flamengo’s training camp, gun in hand, looking for Yustrich. As security staff approached him, he fired some warning shots and was still fuming when he left shortly after learning the manager wasn’t there. The following day, confronted by a journalist, he needed to be restrained from punching the reporter. Yustrich, on the other hand, told the press that he had been victimised and concluded, “The Army may need to intervene and make changes in the national squad.”

It’s impossible to be sure whether the episode really did lead to the sacking of Saldanha, but it certainly didn’t help his position. It’s also impossible to be sure that there was not a plot in motion, because Zagallo’s appointment was conveniently quick.

As violence escalated in Porecatu, the conflict entered a decisive stage. The murders and the arrests had made the situation untenable, with widespread repercussions. The new governor, Bento Munhoz, decided that a peaceful solution should be reached. He determined that a commission would evaluate the situation.

Officials then announced that the peasants would receive land as compensation, but didn’t offer any more details. The outcome was that a small number of the families were given some land somewhere else, with poorer soil, and many were simply left empty-handed. Saldanha had lived up to his principles in Porecatu the same way he did in all his life: stubborn, passionate and quite often, taking gut decisions. As unfair as it was, he was in favour of an agreement with the authorities. He knew Brazil well enough to see that it was the best option for the small farmers, mostly illiterate and with absolutely no resources of their own.

In the end, he regarded the whole episode as a victory: “Far less than they deserved, but at least guaranteed.” It was an unsatisfactory compromise for a man who found that life never quite lived up to his principles.