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The Greatest Footballer you've never heard of - Didi

Cristiano Ronaldo, Pele, Alfredo di Stefano, and Real Madrid - what do they all have in common? The man they call Mr. Football.

“Most have been forgotten. Most deserve to be forgotten. The heroes will always be remembered. The best. The best and the worst. And a few who were a bit of both.” – George R.R. Martin 

As ever, the man’s right, isn’t he? Man’s stay on Earth is finite, and most of us dissolve into obscurity as soon as we depart it. There is nothing that can be done about it... unless you are one of those characters that stride the planet and hold all in front of them in awe, characters that inspire us, characters that make us move heaven and earth to get a glimpse of them, characters that bring joy and happiness to untold millions, heroes in other words... those kind never die. 

Most of them, anyway. Life, though, is a lot harsher than we make it out to be. There are some men, who, despite being lauded as heroes during their peaks slowly slip into the shadows, unnoticed by an uncaring world that’s just looking for its next great hero... men whose names echo around in the vast emptiness of history without finding an escape route to the present... heroes who are forgotten. 

This is the story of one such man... 

This is the story of Didi. 

The man who invented Folha Seca – The ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’ Freekick

I can hear the football aficionado's head nearly burst in indignation... ‘it’s Juninho’s technique that Ronaldo copied’  and they are right. That knuckleball technique of hitting the ball in such a way that it generates massive power and physics-defying dip is a masterful, and often unstoppable, way of taking a free-kick when going for goal. I used the Ronaldo simile merely because it’s him that’s got it to the wider world’s attention, but it is the Brazilians who are the true masters of this particular art, something they call Folha Seca – dry leaf – after the way the ball’s trajectory mimics the form of a dry leaf in the way it goes up and suddenly takes a dip at the end.

Before Juninho, there was Zico – arguably the greatest free-kick exponent the world has ever seen – but even before him, there was Waldir Perreira... Didi. It was he who came up with this unique way of hitting the football, and as with any great invention, it was born out of sheer necessity. 

The streets may be the birthplace of true football, but it's not always the safest. Didi, as with many Latin American greats, grew up playing football on the streets and dusty fields of a small town; in his case Campos dos Goytacazes, 150 km north of Rio. Growing up, Didi had always been the most skillful player in his area, and as such was the subject of some pretty shoddy, physical, treatment from the bigger boys in the area who simply didn’t like the fact that this kid was so much better than them. In one particularly bruising match, Didi injured his leg rather seriously. The open wound was allowed to fester and it got so bad at one point that the doctors attending the 14-year-old’s knee said that it might need to be amputated. 

Somehow, though, he recovered... well enough to feature for several youth teams in and around the area – São Cristóvão, Industrial, Rio Branco, Goytacaz, Americano, Lençoense, and Madureira before the giants that are Fluminense came a-calling. Before his injury, Didi had been renowned in his locale for the sheer power of his free-kicks, but post-it he found that he couldn’t smack it with the same kind of ferocity. Therefore, in order to ensure his freekicks were still A-grade, he had to come up with something else, something out of the box and thus was born the short back-lift, and a two-toed stab of the ball that Cristiano Ronaldo would popularize more than half-a-century later. Soon, he’d make it to the Brazil team, and it was one such trademark free kick that beat the Peruvians and helped A Selecao qualify for the 1958 World Cup. 

"From that point," wrote Didi much later, "such kicks became a sort of trademark of mine, and everyone asked me, to the point of driving me to desperation, exactly how I did them."

How he did it might have been a mystery. But how he kept doing it, was not.

 "Above all," he wrote, "a lot of practice, and constant practice. For instance, when I joined Botafogo [also of Rio] from Fluminense, in my first period with the club, the Botafogo coach did not care for my long practising with free kicks, and, for a time, the skill was lost to me. The press said, 'Such a pity, Didi has forgotten his famous kick.' All that happened was that I was not getting the constant practice, and this experience taught me how vital this practice was."

As talented as he was, as natural as his ability was, it was his incessant practice that made him a true great of the game... a man so inspirational that a young Edson Arantes de Nascimento was forced to say:

“I’m nothing compared to Didi,” he said. “I’ll never be anywhere near as good as he is. He’s my idol, the guy I look up to. The very first picture cards I bought were of him.”

For the uninitiated, you may know Edson Arantes de Nascimento better by his nickname... Pele

The man who was better than Pele

When we think 1958 World Cup, we think a 17-year-old Pele. The Black Pearl’s subsequent meteoric rise and overwhelming influence was so great that we tend to forget most of the main orchestrators of that famous first triumph... and there was no one more important for the team than Didi. 

Playing their virtuoso 4-2-4, Brazil swept all in front of them with Didi acting as the fulcrum in that midfield. He was the original deep-lying playmaker, pinging passes first-time and splitting defences with an insouciance that would have made Andrea Pirlo envious. His brain functioned at a level far above anybody – on either side –

“He was too smart at times. He would pretend that he was going to cross the ball to one side of the pitch, and then cross it to the other. It sometimes confused us instead. He would shout, ‘No, you idiots, I’m trying to confuse the other team!” – Pele on Didi

He was voted into the team of the tournament that year – again Pele stole the headlines with his hat-trick against France in the semifinals, but it was Didi’s easy mastery of the game that won the game for the eventual winners as he dominated the French midfield that contained the legendary Raymond Kopa:

The final against Sweden so showcased his immense ability to keep calm – when Sweden took the lead early on and the stadium lost it’s collective mind, Didi picked the ball out of the net, and with it under his arm slowly started walking back to the centre. Mario Zagallo came running to him and shouted “Come on Didi, we are losing” with an aim of making the great man move faster. Without a flicker of difference in his manner, Didi turned to him and told him “Calm down. We are still a better team than they are. We will turn this game around soon enough.” Four minutes later Brazil equalized. Before scoring four more without reply. 

Didi was their general, their inspiration, and his mere presence spread a surreal calm amongst his teammates. He never looked flustered, he never looked hurried. In fact, even his style of play was dictated by that early injury... he abhorred physical contact and never slid in for a tackle or tried to strong-arm his way through defences. He used his brain to find spaces where most couldn’t and his ability to make sure he did exactly what was needed to exploit that space. He rarely ever liked to, as they say in the colloquial, “mix it up” . 

This philosophy was going to be very important for the next chapter of his life.

The man who was to replace Alfredo di Stefano

Then, as now, Real Madrid were obsessed with getting the flashiest new toy in town. Back in the summer of 1958, there were none flashier than Didi. Los Blancos signed him and presented him to the world as the heir to the throne of Alfredo di Stefano. He was exactly the kind of player who Madrid could build a team around.. a man whose footballing intelligence was unquestionably brilliant and whose pedigree was impeccable. There was just one problem, though, di Stefano was not ready to be replaced:

“They say you’ve come to replace me. Well, you’re too old and not good enough,” – di Stefano to Didi. 

What followed was a year or so of drama, rumours, insinuations, and controversy that would have put the best telenovelas to shame. With the Spanish media completely behind the di Stefano camp. The common perception revolving around the notion that he was not fast enough, not quick-thinking enough to fit into the European footballing scene... as La Vanguardia contemptuously put it "Didí has not yet managed the speed necessary to play in Spain". One match report even indicates that di Stefano got so tired of Didi’s laconic style that he used to take the ball off him just to hurry things along, or alternatively, to stamp his authority on the game and let the upstart know just who was boss. 

Here’s a glimpse of how the Spanish media viewed the whole thing at the time:

- Madrid-based newspaper ABC, October 27, 1959... Real Madrid vs Osasuna

‘Didí and his millimetric passes, he did it 6 times in 90 minutes. Didí who prides himself of a prodigious shot only did it twice against Osasuna's goal. Didí, as super-technical as he is, had the rare technique of being almost always close to the ball but apparently with the intention of checking what it looks like rather than what it feels like, for he touched it very little. Overwhelmed by the velocity of the naive Pamploneses, he almost never caught up with them, pulled back late, sought for his place with delay and intervened in the game less than we would have wished. This is not relevant when the other forwards suffice to get the win. But when a tough game comes along, a battle, without rest, a truceless combat, then Didí will be a big hole through which RM's defeat will arrive’.

‘It is time to proclaim the following in all honesty: Didí is a phenom, a wise man of football, a world champion, etc. etc. But he must urgently rise his game or opportunity must be given to Mateos first and then Rial. Either one has done much more than the Brazilian. If he does not step up, either one of them will outperform him today’. 

Di Stefano’s constant desire to dictate play stifled Didi

- Barcelona-based newspaper Mundo Deportivo, November 23, 1959... Real Madrid vs Malmo

"Didí, a bit withdrawn, was the orchestrator and delivered good passes which were well celebrated by the public like the one for Canario's second goal. A compensation for the booing he earned in other occasions due to his absolute lack of fighting spirit".

- On the same match, this is what the always contemptuous ABC had to say

"(...) Because despite his halo, which he has yet not justified here, the Brazilian Didí is incapable of directing the game of the European champion even when the RM forward line has men that would not need a Didí to direct them and would handle themselves well with a much less reputed name behind them. All this showed in the first half but also the second".

Didi’s main issue with Spanish football was that it was too rough:

“Human intelligence and reasoning ability divides us from the animals,” he once said, “so what is a football player who depends solely on his physical strength?”


He hated that the fans valued displays of passion and that greatest of intangibles, heart, above pure footballing nous:

“My shirt and socks would still be spotless by the end of a match and they [the Spanish fans] couldn’t get their heads round it. I used to have to grab a handful of mud and smear it across my shirt. Why should I have to do that, when I could attack and put our strikers through on goal? The fans used to get so angry.”

All this eventuated in him coming to loggerheads with Real Madrid’s Napoleonic dictator-general, Alfredo di Stefano. 

There are conflicting reports from the time, ranging from di Stefano having an issue with Didi’s wife (a journalist back home) spewing vitriol against the Argentine in articles defending her husband to suggestions that di Stefano was jealous, and angry, because the Madrid hierarchy who owed so much to him had proclaimed that they would replace him with Didi. One thing was clear though... when it came to Didi vs di Stefano, there was only ever going to be one winner in Spain.  

Epilogue

After returning from Spain, he rejoined Botafogo and guided them to further domestic glory as he slowly recovered from what he referred to as “my so-called failure, something that proved the greatest disillusionment in my life”. He led Brazil to a second successive World Cup title in 1962, his presence calming nerves after Pele was injured early on in the tournament and allowing Garrincha to run rampant further up the field. His only great disappointment? Not having been able to play against di Stefano after the latter pulled out of Spain’s match against Brazil... for he "utterly desired to show them the kind of player I was"

He needn’t worry, though.

His legacy will live on long after death, as will his philosophy. For Didi, his philosophy of brain over brawn was not just a close-minded, romantic ideology. For him, it reflected everything he’d done to go from selling peanuts on the streets to make sure his family had something to eat to playing for Real Madrid as the galactico of his time. He lived by that code, he fought by it, and he died by it. For that, he will always have our undying respect.

There can be no greater compliment for the Waldir ‘Didi’ Perreira than the fact that If ever there was someone for a young aspiring footballer to look forward to, it was the man they called Mr. Football. He will forever remain one of this beautiful game’s greatest heroes. 

(Didi, born October 8, 1928; died May 12, 2001)


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