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Nilton Santos: The fullback who first showed the world how to attack

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Tall, powerfully built, elegant and versatile, he was usually cool under pressure, turned quickly for such a big man, tackled firmly and was always ready to surge forward and make use of his strong left foot. Yes you guessed it right – We are talking about Nilton Santos, who died on 27th of November 2013 aged 88 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

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Nilton Santos, who was born on May 16 1925 on Governador Island in Rio is regarded as one of the greatest defenders in the history of the game. He joined his first club i.e. Flexeiras, a local amateur team at the age of 14. He later joined Botafogo de Futebol e Regatas ( shortened as Botafogo ) – the club for which he played all his professional club matches.

He made his debut for Botafogo in March 1948 and went on to play 723 matches for them. He played for 17 consecutive years ( 1948 – 1964 ) for Botafogo and found the back of the net 11 times for them. He gained his first cap for Brazil in 1949 in the South American Championship – which was eventually won by Brazil. He represented the Selecao from 1949 to 1962 and made 75 appearances for them in which he managed to score 3 times. He was in the 1950 Brazilian World Cup squad but he didn’t made any appearences. He played an important role in Brazil’s 1954, 1958 and 1962 world cup campaign.

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At that time, the 2-3-5 formation dominated and all the teams (more or less) played with this formation. But a new formation started evolving during the initial years of 50s :- 4-2-4. This formation helped Nilton Santos and Djalma Santos ( Left back and Right back respectively ) to showcase their attacking skill while playing the role of a defender. The ‘full back’ as we’d understand it today was not seen as a position that could, or even should, offer any kind of attacking threat. During this era, it would even be rare for a defensive midfielder to start too far north of the halfway line.

Nilton Santos and Djalma Santos (no relation) played as left and right full backs respectively for Brazil and it was Nilton Santos, in particular, who set the precedent for what a full back could be both defensively and as an offensive outlet.

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Nowadays we can see many full-time backs like Marcelo, Dani Alves, Lahm e.t.c. who go past the halfway line and near the box to wipe in crosses and generally contributing in the teams’ attacking football, but in those days if any fullback even thought of doing these things then he was looked upon as an alien. At that time, the coach would have simply banned the player from the dressing room even if he did this type of things in the practice sessions. Opposition teams found this incredibly perplexing and often seemed almost offended by the fancy notions of these defenders running past the halfway line with not an ounce of shame. Nilton Santos certainly didn’t let that hold him back.

In a match against Austria in 1958 WC, Santos surged past the Austrian defence with a couple of classic give-and-go’s ( which was only a striker’s thing back then ) and eventually fired the ball into the back of the net. He broke all the conventional decencies of a full-back with than run. Vincente Feola, Brazil’s coach at that point of time gave full backing to Santos and he didn’t disappoint. His pitch-perfect execution of the role announced the arrival of attack-minded defenders. He changed the game and all the perceptions of people too.

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Nilton was originally an attacking player, but he was converted to a full back at Botafogo and was known as ‘The Encyclopedia’ due to his detailed knowledge of every aspect of the game.

By the time he was basking in the glory of successive World Cup wins in 58 and Chile in 1962 he had 10 years at Botafogo under his belt. He has always been labelled as a calm and silky person – much like his defending.