The Brazilian Numbers Maze was a Formation Maze
By Gabriel Vogas
- Gabriel is a Brazilian copywriter, football researcher and author of the site Cultura FC. He previously wrote this piece on Portugal’s ‘backwards’ Euro 84 numbering
The Brazilian numbering system is unique in world football. While the number 5 plays in midfield as in most other South American countries, the defence usually reads 2-3-4-6. It is one of those traditions that everybody knows how to follow, but very few people even here in Brazil came to question, “How did we end up like this?”
Over time, Brazilian teams had many different numbers system, most of them a one-off experience like the 1962 WC 2-3-5-6 back line, the great Flamengo of Zico experiencing with a Dutch style 2-3-4-5 or the glorious 1970 WC team and its “Uruguayan” line of 4-2-3-6 (more on this one later).
Essentially, the origins date back to the introduction of the W-M system to Brazil via the Hungarian coach Dori Kürschner, who managed Flamengo in the 1930s. Flávio Costa got the job when he was sacked and introduced “the diagonal”, which consist in twisting the 2-3-5 to get to an “asymmetric W-M”.
One thing about the diagonal system is that it could be done by either side: starting with the pyramid system 2-3-5, if you twisted it with the left half dropping back, you ended up with a defence of 2-3-6; if you made the other way around, your back line would read 4-2-3. Below on the left is the Brazil team for the infamous Maracanaço, the defeat to Uruguay in the deciding game of the 1950 World Cup, while on the right is the Santos style.
Put the opposite half-back right beside the centre-back of this false line to form a proper four-players line and voilà, both systems emerge – 2-3-4-6 or 4-2-6-3.
Brazil, Flávio Costa and the diagonal all got blamed for 1950, so it seems that Brazilian football was quick to adopt the proper WM, as it appeared in the 1954 WC. But this trend was not always followed at club level, where the transition from the diagonal to 4-2-4 would be more directly.
As most squad numbers fans knows, these processes are a simplification of years of evolution and are not perfect logical: for instance, no matter which diagonal you used, the fourth defender was placed to be a central back to the left, when a more logical approach would be placing it to the side of where it came. In other words, it would be more logical in the very classic line if number 4, previous right half back, became a central back to the right, in a line of 2-4-3-6.
Two alternative systems honorable mentions
Brazil being large and sometimes lacking dialogue between our federated states (up to the 1960s, inter-state games would take place as often as international matches in Europe), there were other anomalies and one was a back line in the South that is important to note – it featured a defence numbered 2-3-6-4.
It’s unclear if this was an evolution directly from Hungary’s W-M back three of 2-3-4, from the Brazilian diagonal of 2-3-6 getting its fourth defender at the left, or even from the 2-3-4-6 with a swapping of jerseys in the left. Even if the last hypothesis is true, this back line was persistent enough to be considered a system of its own. One, however, that faded in the 80s.
Going back to the 1970 World team, the ‘Uruguayan’ backline traces its origins in an amalgamation of the two diagonal surviving systems. In qualifying matches, with almost the entire back line composed of Santos’ players, the numbering was Santos’ style: 4-2-6-3. But when the World Cup arrived, only Carlos Alberto, the right back and captain of the team, was still on the supposed starting 11. So, he preserved his club number (which required the centre-back on the right to wear number 2), while the left half of the defence remained in what was more traditional in their clubs (Marco Antônio, who was to be the starting left back with number 6, would eventually be replaced by Everaldo, 16, before the tournament began).
The success of that team prompted many clubs to follow its numbering, so a back line of 4-2-3-6, although rare, is not unheard up to this day.
By the time of the 1994 World Cup win, the Brazilian ‘back six’ was numbered correctly, though numbers 3 and 4, Ricardo Rocha and Ronaldão (‘big Ronaldo’ as opposed to Ronaldinho or ‘little Ronaldo’, as Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, an unused sub at the tournament, was known) respectively, were reserves to Aldair and Marcio Santos – Ronaldão was a late call-up for the injured Ricardo Gomes, who had been a starter prior to the tournament while Rocha suffered an injury that led to him losing his place.
Using a 4-2-2-2 system, the major discrepancy was the fact that strikers Bebeto and Romário wore 7 and 11 respectively. Careca, whose international career ended the previous year, generally wore 9 and Bebeto had played alongside him in 1993. Müller and Evair replaced Careca with Zinho wearing 11 but when Romário was chosen against Uruguay in a World Cup qualifier in September of ’93, he opted for 11 with Zinho moving to 9.
When Brazil won the World Cup for the fifth and most recent time, there was another oddity in that a three-man central defence was deployed, as Edmílson wore number 5 in a role that allowed him to step forward into midfield.
As with the 1970 final, there was just one Brazilian starter in the 2002 decider with a number above 11 – Emerson had been due to wear 7 but he was forced to withdraw injured and his replacement, Ricardhino, was only used as a substitute.
Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid is a really good book to read about the diagonal system, its origins, implications, merits and critics. But the correlation of the diagonal system and the different numberings in Brazil is found in Paulo Vinicius Coelho (aka PVC) A Escola Brasileira de Futebol, which is, in a nutshell, Inverting the Pyramid only for Brazilian football; unfortunately, the book is only available in Portuguese.