Brazil’s qualification campaign was a miniature version of the World Cup itself, a series of six games, played home and away against three of its leading South American rivals, Paraguay, Venezuela and Colombia.
It began on 6 August 1969, with a comfortable 2–0 win over Colombia in Bogotá. Saldanha’s gamble of playing Tostao and Pelé together paid off as the Cruzeiro man scored both goals, the first pouncing when Colombian keeper Lagarcha could only parry a 30-yard Pelé free kick. Four days later, against Venezuela, in Caracas, Tostao was the hero once more, breaking seventy-seven minutes of deadlock with a brilliant solo dribble and shot. In the final quarter of the game Pelé scored twice and Tosta^·o completed a hat trick in an unlikely 5–0 thrashing.
By the time they took the pitch in Asuncion seven days later, the match against Paraguay, who had also twice won away from home, had the look of a qualification decider. After a goalless and virtually chanceless first half, the breakthrough owed as much to luck as inspiration. Left-back Valentin Mendoza, harassed by Jairzinho, slashed at the ball in an attempt to clear his lines. The Paraguayan keeper Aguillera could only look on helplessly as the sliced kick ballooned over him into the goal. The fluke broke the Paraguayan resistance and three minutes later Jairzinho scored himself. Edu added a
third on the final whistle to flatter Brazil with a 0–3 scoreline. The goals took Brazil’s tally to ten in three matches, but more importantly saw off their only real challengers.
Four days later on 21 August they were back at the Maracana^· facing Colombia in the first of three matches to be squeezed into ten days. When Pelé set Tosta^·o up for the first it looked plain sailing but Colombia equalized when Mesa dispossessed a sleepy Gérson and beat Félix, the small Fluminense goalkeeper Saldanha had selected in all the qualifiers to date. The visitors almost took the lead moments later when Félix was caught off-guard by a speculative long shot. By the second half the Colombian keeper Lagarcha had left the pitch with a damaged hand and been replaced by Quintana. Rather than weakening their defence, the reserve went on to turn in one of the best performances of the year at the Maracana.
There was little he could do when Segovia mistimed a tackle on Tostao leaving him with another, short-range shot to score. He was equally powerless when an Edu free kick hit a defender’s leg and deflected into his goal for the third. After Colombia clawed their way back into the match with an astonishing 40-yard shot from Gallego, however, he pulled off a string of magnificent saves. For a while Colombia threatened to draw level. Pelé extended Brazil’s lead but was then replaced by Paulo Cézar of Flamengo. At the same time Saldanha substituted Gérson with Rivellino, the rising star of Corinthians in Sao Paulo. The modifications did the trick as Rivellino scored four minutes from time. Jairzinho rubbed salt in with a sixth at the death. If it had not been for Quintana and the post, Brazil could have hit double figures. The Colombian was given a standing ovation by the Maracana as he left the pitch.
The hard-fought win put Brazil within one game of qualification. Within three days they had booked their place in Mexico. In front of a crowd of 123,000, Tostao got off to a flier in the return against Venezuela, scoring in the seventh, twenty-first and twenty-fourth minutes for one of the fastest hat tricks ever seen in international football. Pelé’s passing had contributed to each of the goals and he was again the provider in the thirtieth minute when Jairzinho scored. In injury time in the first half, he added his own name to the score sheet with a penalty. With a 5–0 lead going into the second half, Brazil understandably relaxed. Venezuela even managed to hit the post as they were given a free rein. Pelé rounded off the win with the best goal of the game, a weave of inter-passing with Tostao and Jairzinho which ended with a stunning shot past Fazano.
By the time the stubborn Paraguayans came to Rio on 31 August there was no spoiling the party. A vast 183,000 crowd packed the Maracana. Paraguay once more mounted admirable resistance. But it was Pelé who had the final say in the group, pouncing when Aguillera failed to hold on to a ferocious shot from Edu.
Within Brazil there was a sense that the good times were ready to roll once more. Saldanha had suffused style with organization and in Pelé and Tostao unearthed a goalscoring partnership that promised to outshine anything even Brazil had seen before.