Since 2002, Brazil has managed to maintain the bragging rights of being the most successful nation in World Cup history with five Jules Rimet trophy wins, and some incredible performances along the way that are etched forever in World Cup folklore.
With the nation’s first chance to host the finals in 64 years set to come this summer, we’ll be taking a look back at Brazil’s 10 best performances in World Cup history, with the top five entries – their triumphs in the Final – ranked in terms of how memorable each one was. From the heroics of a 17-year-old Edson Arantes do Nascimento – better known as Pelé – in Sweden in 1958, to the two-goal performance against Germany by Ronaldo in Japan 44 years later, Brazil has plenty to be proud of in terms of footballing greatness on the international stage. With the entire country watching them on home soil this summer, the pressure is on like never before to bring back the trophy, as they couldn’t quite do it in 1950 against Uruguay at home.
In addition to Pelé and Ronaldo, Brazil has plenty of other World Cup heroes to take pride in: Romario, Jairzinho, Garrincha; the list goes on and on. But with young guns such as Neymar and Oscar expected to lead the offensive rush for Brazil this summer, the weight of the world will be placed upon their shoulders in June, even if many of Brazil’s current crop of players have not previously played on such a high level internationally.
With that in mind, those newer players have a staggering reputation to live up to, and the teams on this list that Brazil – the only nation to qualify for every World Cup finals – have fielded in World Cups past have earned their place among the most entertaining teams the tournament has ever seen. Here are the top 10 performances Brazil has ever put up at the World Cup.
10 Fourth Place -- West Germany 1974
Four years after winning the trophy for a third time with arguably one of the best World Cup sides ever assembled, Brazil managed to only make it out of their group from the skin of their teeth behind Yugoslavia, as they only had an edge over Scotland on the basis of goal difference. In the second round, the same thing happened: the Seleção finished second behind the Netherlands as they lost 2-0 to the Dutch despite wins against East Germany and Argentina with Rivelino and Jairzinho providing goals. The Brazilians eventually lost 1-0 to Poland in the third place match.
9 Third Place -- France 1938
Brazil’s first top-three finish at a World Cup tournament happened to come during the last World Cup staged prior to World War II, held in France in 1938. During a tournament that had only 16 teams at the time, the Brazilians triumphed over Poland and Czechoslovakia prior to losing to eventual champions Italy (who repeated their victory from 1934) in the semifinals. A 4-2 victory over Sweden ended up giving Brazil third place, with forward Leônidas having the bragging rights for highest goal tally of the tournament, finding the back of the net seven times (including twice in the final).
8 Third Place -- Argentina 1978
Brazil’s campaign at the 1978 World Cup finals on the soil of continental rivals Argentina did not get off to a flying start, as they drew twice and only won once (1-0 against Austria) to barely make it out of the group stage. Their tournament improved as they reached the second round, however: big wins against Peru and Poland – thanks to players like Zico and Roberto Dinamite – were to come, though a 0-0 draw against the hosts sent them to the third place match, which the Brazilians won 2-1 over classic late-stage World Cup rivals Italy.
7 Runners-Up -- France 1998
Although perhaps not among the greatest individual teams Brazil has ever fielded at a World Cup finals – two of their big players, César Sampaio and Dunga, were plying their club trade in Japan by this point – the Seleção still put up a solid performance in France up until the final against the home country; topping Group A before beating Chile, Denmark and the Netherlands in the knockout stages. After Ronaldo nearly missed the final following a seizure he suffered the night before, Brazil’s performance in the final was poor against an excellent French team that captured its maiden Jules Rimet trophy on home soil.
6 Runners-Up -- Brazil 1950
Ahead of the first time Brazil got to host the World Cup finals, the stage was seemingly set for the Brazilians to capture their first ever World Cup trophy on home soil. However, in the one World Cup tournament that had not seen a winner decided by one final match, Uruguay toppled Brazil as well as Sweden and Spain in the four-team final group by winning 2-1 in the last match. The team topped their qualifying group before making it to the final round, but ended up falling short to Uruguay despite scoring 14 goals in that round to Uruguay’s seven.
5 Winners -- Chile 1962
Already qualified for the 1962 finals as defending World Cup champions, Brazil’s team arrived in Chile with the pressure on for them to repeat their previous triumph. And triumph they did: the Seleção beat Czechoslovakia 3-1 in the final thanks to goals from Amarildo, Zito and Vavà. Unfortunately for 1958 superstar Pelé, an injury during the group stage forced him out of the tournament early, with Garrincha given the leading role for the rest of Brazil’s campaign. The Botafogo star did so in style, racking up four goals in the tournament: two against England and another two against the hosts.
4 Winners -- Korea/Japan 2002
Brazil’s last World Cup win came when critics were previously doubting them, as they lost team captain Emerson to injury prior to the tournament and Ronaldo – one of the “three Rs” alongside Rivaldo and Ronaldinho – was just recovering from a ruptured tendon in his knee. However, it didn’t take the Seleção long to silence their doubters: they cruised through the group stage and the knockout rounds to face Germany in the final, where Ronaldo sent two goals home past Oliver Kahn to seal victory for Brazil, win the Golden Boot award and tie Pelé’s World Cup goalscoring record in the process.
3 Winners -- USA 1994
Led by head coach Carlos Alberto Parreira and boasting an offense featuring Bebeto, Dunga and Romario, Brazil triumphed in the first World Cup finals ever hosted in the United States in the first World Cup final match decided on penalties. Following Roberto Baggio’s missing of Italy’s final spot kick, Brazil won their first World Cup trophy in 24 years, even if the Brazilian side itself wasn’t one of the country’s deepest of all time. After topping Group B with wins against Russia and Cameroon, Brazil went on to beat the host United States, the Netherlands and Sweden before facing the Azzurri in the final.
2 Winners -- Sweden 1958
Brazil’s first ever World Cup win was at the 1958 finals in Sweden – the first finals staged in Europe ever to not be won by a European nation. Prior to their last group stage game against the Soviet Union, Brazil’s scoring was provided by José Altafini and Nilton Santos; however, head coach Vicente Feola ended up playing a 17-year-old Pelé in the game. While he didn’t score against the Soviets, the teenage forward’s inclusion in the starting 11 paved the way for his excellent performances in the knockout stages; scoring against Wales once, France three times, and then twice against the hosts in the final.
1 Winners -- Mexico 1970
With players like Pelé, Jairzinho and Rivelino in tow, Brazil’s team at the 1970 finals in Mexico has been called the greatest team ever assembled at a World Cup finals, period. It isn’t hard to understand why: the team won every single qualifying match they played prior to reaching the finals, and then proceeded to keep their flawless streak alive when the finals actually came. Goals in the final against Italy from Pelé, Gérson, Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto sealed the deal for the Selecão, and the team’s attacking style of play combined with their winning record makes them the greatest team to ever play in a finals tournament.