Name: Felix Milalli Venerando
Born: December 24, 1937, Mooca, Sao Paulo
First Professional Club: Portuguesa
Felix was born on Christmas Eve 1937, in the Italian-dominated Mooca area of Sao Paulo, the second of five children. His father worked as an engineer in a nylon stocking factory called Mussolini but it was his mother who dictated affairs at home.
A stern, strict woman, she – like most of the team’s mothers as it turns out – disapproved of Félix playing football. ‘She was against it,’ he says, shooting a plume of smoke skyward as we sit and talk in an office high above the workshop floor. ‘My mother never wanted me to play football.’ For Félix, however, there was no passion to compete with it. ‘I think it is in the Brazilian blood, every boy sleeps with a football under his pillow.’ It was while his son – and his wife – slept that Félix’s father surreptitiously helped his son fulfil his dreams. He would leave home for work at 5.30 a.m. with his son’s chuteira, football boots, hidden in his work bag. Félix would collect the boots from the Mussolini factory which was on his way to school. ‘It was our secret,’ he says with a conspiratorial smile.
Like every Brazilian boy he wanted to emulate Friedenreich and Leônidas, the great goalscoring heroes of the 1930s and 40s. ‘I was a centre-forward,’ he says. His courageousness – or perhaps emerging craziness – in throwing himself around on the streets soon marked him out as a promising goalkeeper, however.
Any disappointment he might have had at discovering his best position was at the non-glory end was relatively short-lived. ‘Here in Brazil if a player is no good playing in front, he’ll be a goalkeeper. But not in my case. I started playing in goal because generally nobody wanted to play there and I was very courageous. We played on the streets and I would dive on the pavements,’ he says, with an unsettling wink. ‘I started to like it.’
His deception of his mother continued even after he found a place in a junior side at the Clube Atletico Juventus, at their ground on the Rua Javari. Félix had found a post as an office boy in the dispatch department of a large company, Maquinas Piratininga, and had convinced his mother he was on the road to a career in accountancy. As it turned out, double-entry book-keeping was his route to a career in professional goalkeeping.
By now Santos had expressed their interest in having him join as a juvenil goalkeeper and he had begun to leave work early to travel to their ground an hour or so away. The great Gilmar, like Félix a product of Juventus, was already at the famous Vila Belmiro stadium on the coast. The director whose permission Félix would seek to leave work early also happened to be a director of Portuguesa. ‘He asked me: “Why am I setting you free to train for Santos? If you are good go to Portuguesa”.’ Félix showed the Portuguesa goalkeeping coach Valdinho de Morais what he could do. While Santos were away in Argentina, Sao Paulo’s then leading club snapped him up instead.
Félix’s role models were keepers like the star of Sao Paulo football, Oberlan Tacame of Palmeiras. ‘He was a phenomenon, a legend,’ he says. At Portuguesa he was groomed by Morais, who was one of the best goalkeeping coaches of his time. With his spindly legs and slight build, Félix hardly filled the goalmouth with a domineering presence. His nickname at Portuguesa was papel, paper.‘Because I was so thin.’
Yet he refused his coach’s advice to take up weight-training to bulk himself up. ‘I would have become a robot,’ he says. ‘I was always against body-building, except maybe a little bit for the legs, for the power to propel.’
His rail-thin frame wrapped in the red and green hoops of Portuguesa, Félix cut one of the more colourful figures in Sa^·o Paulo football. What he lacked in physical presence he more than made up for in bravery. At times his courage bordered on the reckless and he suffered a succession of injuries. He was also the most voluble goalkeeper in Brazil, often walking off the pitch hoarse from his efforts to be heard above the huge crowds at Sao Paulo’s great stadia, Pacaembu and Morumbi.
One way and another, Félix could not fail to catch the eye and by 1965 Aimore Moreira had drafted him into his vast squad for England. Félix played in a Brazilian XI against Hungary at Pacaembu. After a faultless display in what would prove a false dawn, 5–0 win he was hopeful of a place in Moreira’s final 22 for England.
When he relegated Félix to the azulona squad, ‘the unlucky ones’, Moreira may actually have been doing his career a favour. Both Gilmar and the second-string keeper, Manga, returned to Brazil in disgrace. Gilmar soon announced his retirement, Manga left for Nacional in Uruguay and Félix quickly emerged as the new No. 1 in a new-look Brazilian squad.
Félix was Saldanha’s first choice in all the eliminators and he had, by common consent, done well enough, keeping clean sheets against Paraguay, Venezuela and Colombia in the away matches. But when the quixotic coach returned from Europe, obsessed with the idea that his team was about to suffer something akin to the Luftwaffe’s assault on 1940s London, he dropped Félix for the bulkier, younger Leao of Palmeiras.
Félix fumbles for a new cigarette before he can bring himself to speak of Saldanha. ‘Saldanha alleged that I was thin, that I had no strong body, that I could not bear the shock of those big guys,’ he says, flicking fiercely at his lighter. ‘I was always courageous, I would dive at people’s feet. I had broken fingers, a broken jaw, I had fractured three or four ribs. If I was scared of crashing into these guys I would not have been in goal.’ Félix extends his right hand. One of his fingers is crooked grotesquely, a permanent reminder of his willingness to take the heaviest hits.
To be fair, some of the coach’s excuses did verge on the ludicrous. ‘Saldanha said it was the rainy season in Mexico and I would not know how to play with gloves,’ he says, arching an eyebrow. Félix made a point of playing in the Final with gloves.
When Saldanha finally tilted at one windmill too many, no one, not even Pelé, was happier to see Zagalo taking up the reins. ‘It was excellent for me,’ chuckles Félix. Zagalo reversed Saldanha’s decision, restoring Félix and dropping Leao from the squad. The younger keeper never forgave his replacement. On his final day with the squad, Leao threw a prima donna-ish tantrum effectively accusing Félix of being Zagalo’s puppet. ‘He left crying,’ says Félix, seeming to suggest that Leao may be from the less barmy branch of the goalkeeping union.
Félix still recalls the moment when Leao was later called back to the squad and to camp Guanajuato. ‘Zagalo asked my opinion and I said: “Call that boy”. The place was a castle, the door creaked and Leao came in. I said: “Congratulations”. He said: “Justice has been done!”.’ Félix shrugs. ‘I’m not the kind of person to keep rancour; I think he is.’
In the run up to the first match, a poll of Brazilian football fans gave Félix a resounding vote of confidence by naming him their number one No. 1. He put the fact that 92 per cent thought all three of the squad’s options inferior to Gilmar to the back of his mind.
At the age of thirty-three, Félix was comfortably the senior member of the squad in Mexico. ‘I was the ancient one,’ he says with evident pride. He roomed with the youngest player, the teenage Marco Antonio, his team-mate at Fluminense, where he had moved by now. With the squad’s other senior professionals, Gérson, Piazza, Brito and Carlos Alberto, Félix served on a five-man players’ committee that would represent the squad’s cause in meetings with Havelange, Zagalo and the men of the CBD. The quintet kept the younger players in line. Their message was clear: ‘You may have another chance but we may not.’ ‘We were a little bit older, we knew we would not play in the next World Cup,’ he says. ‘We said to each other. “Let’s see if we can finish our career in a good way”.’
If he was a father figure, he was also – with Brito – one of the squad’s two jesters-in-chief. Félix’s off-beam humour was no respecter of reputations. Everyone had to have a nickname. Brito was cavalo, the horse, Rivellino orelha, big ears. Piazza was PePe, Clodoaldo, corro, his nickname at Santos. Jairzinho, J. J. or furacao. Carlos Alberto was simply capita^·o. Pelé was far happier being called criola or negrao, neither of which needs translation, than he was being called, as Brito sometimes did, o rei, the king. ‘He was a simple man and he didn’t like that,’ says Félix.
Tostao arrived at Guanajuato, sensitive, nervous and insular, after a major eye operation. His parents had even followed him to Mexico, worried at his state of mind. Félix’s idea of a welcome was to provide him with his freshly minted, Mexican monicker. He took one look at Tostao, still badly marked from his surgery, and knew instantly what to say. ‘Cheer up egg-face,’ he laughs. He shoots me another one of his looks. ‘I thought it might brighten his mood a little.’
The intellectual Tostao may have found it hard to appreciate, but there was method in Félix’s peculiar brand of madness. The more positive and optimistic the atmosphere inside their fortress, the less the squad would worry about the ugly mood of pessimism swilling around back in Rio, Sa^·o Paulo and the rest of Brazil.
Brazil claims much that is unique in its football. The extraordinary fickleness of its fans and its press in particular is one of its unsung traits, however. The vast majority of the Brazilian media was convinced its squad was too weak in defence to mount a serious assault on the Europeans – England, Italy, Germany and Czechoslovakia in particular. ‘It is easier to find a giraffe than an optimist,’ mused the poet and football fanatic Nelson Rodriguez at the time. No one took more flak than Félix. ‘I was the most criticized player in the team,’ he says defiantly. ‘It was unfair but I’m the kind of guy who can swallow it.’