By Daniel Cochran
Brazil in the late 70s and early 80s are often cited as the greatest team not to win a World Cup. With players such as Sócrates, Zico and Falcão starring in midfield, the Brazilians had fans flocking to see them play on their many worldwide travels. A friendly match against the Seleção was not just a stern test, but also a feather in the cap of a country’s FA – and a strong step towards footballing legitimacy.
In 1979, the Brazilian squad travelled to the Middle East in preparation for Olympic qualifying. They first headed to Dubai in November for a double header in against UAE, before heading on to Bahrain (they afterwards visited Qatar and Kuwait). This was a significant coup for a region that hadn’t yet competed on the world stage (Kuwait only became the first Middle Eastern country to qualify for a World Cup 3 years later) and provided fans with a chance to see the legendary South Americans strut their stuff in the Gulf.
But this was not the Brazil who, just a few months before, had been knocked out of the Copa America in Rio. There was no Sócrates exuding cool in midfield; no Zico dribbling past hapless opponents. In fact, there were no players that anyone other than a diehard Brazilian fan might recognise.
The team that arrived in Isa Town on November 9th 1979 (on the heels of a 2-1 victory over UAE two days before) were all youth players. Many had played in the 1979 Pan-American Games winning team, and five of them would go on to feature in Brazil’s attempt at qualifying for the 1980 Olympics. However, none would play a full international for the national team. Despite the matches on their tour being classed by the hosts as official international fixtures, this was very much a youth team.
Bahrain had endured a mixed 1979. In March they gave a fair account of themselves in the Gulf Cup (finishing 4th). Later in the year they were thumped by hosts South Korea in the first round of the President’s Cup before rallying to reach the semi-finals (where they were beaten by Brazilian club team Vitória FC). Despite not playing the senior Brazilian team, Bahrain were still heavy underdogs.
In the end the game ended 2-0 to the visitors in front of a packed house at the Isa Town Stadium. Goals by Souza and Anselmo (7 goals in 10 games for the Olympic team) were enough to see off Bahraini resistance. 2-0 would have been a fine result for Bahrain at the time: they’d hosted the most iconic team in world football (albeit not the seniors), had given a good account of themselves, and a crowd of locals had been able to see the famous canary gold and green jerseys in the flesh.
Brazil finished their Middle East tour with 5 wins and a draw (Kuwait spoiling their perfect record with a 0-0 stalemate), but failed to qualify for the Olympics.