Stellars Club

The number 13: the infallible superstition of Mario Zagallo

The history of football will always be linked to players, moments, matches and goals, but there is also a great stronghold for chance, beliefs and above all superstitions. Small individual actions without any rational justification can change the history of a match or a tournament. Superstitions in football are older than the sport itself and players, fans and coaches still rely on the extra help they can get from performing or repeating those little actions.

In the history of football, many of these superstitions have crossed borders and have become rituals. Whether in the form of curses like Bela Guttmann’s curse on Benfica. Whether it’s entering the field stepping with a certain foot or finishing the warm-up always shooting at goal before leaving for the locker room as Seedorf used to do. There are also superstitions that have reached a worldwide level such as touching the cup before a final because don’t even think about touching the trophy before a final (yes, it bears repeating). Or choose a specific jersey number because, as we have already talked about in Stellars, of the importance of the number you wear on your back . But one of the best known superstitions that seems to have worked the most is that of the number 13 and Mario “El Lobo” Zagallo.

Mario Zagallo (Brazil, 1931) is a former player of one of the best national teams in history: the 1958 and 1962 Brazil team that achieved two consecutive World Cups. In that World Cup in Sweden, where the enormous figure of a very young Pele was beginning to emerge, Zagallo scored in the final playing in his favourite position, the left winger. Zagallo’s legacy and his love affair with the World Cup had just begun.

Zagallo retired as a player in 1965 after seven years playing for Botafogo and became their coach. A year later he would combine his work with Botafogo with the Brazil national team. And not just any team, but the best team of all time: the Brazil of the 70s, the one with the five tens that took over just before that World Cup after the departure of Saldanha.

We all know the fate of that Brazil. World champions in 1970, they beat Italy in the final and made Pele a legend. But few, apart from the Brazilians, remember who was behind those players. Mario “Lobo” Zagallo coached that team. Pele won his three World Cups as a player but Zagallo also (two as a player and one as a coach).

After 24 years, a time of decline and a drought of titles for the Brazilian national team, Parreira called Zagallo to be the Canarinha’ s assistant coach for the 1994 World Cup in the United States, where Brazil were not among the favourites. It was there that Zagallo became Brazil’s emblem with his now famous superstition of the number 13.

The pastime of “Old Wolf” (as he is known in Brazil) is to combine words and dates that add up to 13 letters. More than a hobby, the cabala is a superstitious obsession that has always brought him and his national team luck. Zagallo’s life cannot be understood without that number: he lives on the 13th floor of a skyscraper, he played whenever he could with the number 13 on his shirt, his car’s number plate ends in 13 and he married his wife on the 13th. Zagallo made his superstition famous in that World Cup: he was sure Brazil would win because 58 (the year the Canarinha won their first World Cup) is 5 + 8 = 13 and 94 is 9 + 4 = 13. Zagallo had no doubt, Brazil were going to be champions.

And the Brazilians reached the final of that World Cup. Facing them were the favourites Italy with one of the great stars of that tournament. Roberto Baggio, who had scored five goals in the knockout phase. The match went to penalties with the score as it started 0-0.

Brazil and Italy were to play for the coveted World Cup in a penalty shootout on 17 July 1994 in Los Angeles. The shootout was as close as the previous 120 minutes of play. Brazil started off by failing, so did Italy. The two teams scored all the others until Massaro missed and Dunga scored. There was one left, if Brazil failed, they would be champions and the man who took the responsibility was the best player of that World Cup, Roberto Baggio.

At that time Zagallo, who had lived with Carlos Alberto Parreira, Thewhole penalty shootout with his back turned and without looking at the kick, he turned calmly and said to the coach “Now we can look”. The coach looked at him in surprise, “Why?” he asked the Wolf, nervous about the situation. “Because Roberto Baggio has 13 letters, he will fail”. And Italy’s 10 missed. And Brazil, and Zagallo, won their fourth World Cup.

The story continued in 2002. Brazil struggled mightily to qualify for the 2002 World Cup and few Brazilians were confident that their team could win the World Cup in Korea and Japan. Luis Felipe Scolari, then Brazil coach at the time, called on Mario Zagallo to support the team. Zagallo was indirectly present in another World Cup that would end up conquering Brazil with Ronaldo’s brace against Germany in the final. But he already knew they were going to come out on top because the phrase“Brasil Tetracampeão” (Brazil Tetracampeão) is made up of 13 letters.

Brazil’s history in the World Cup is written with the name of Mario Jorge Lobo Zagallo. You can’t understand one without the other and in Brazil there is a saying after the 4(+1) World Cups of the Old Wolf: “If you want something to work out well, call Zagallo”.

Dani Alves and his tribute

One of the most iconic Brazilian players of our time, Dani Alves paid tribute to this legend by wearing the number 13, Zagallo’s number, when he spent two years in the Paris Saint-Germain shirt:

“For me, as you know, important stories are written by their owners. The pages are not the most important thing, but what is written on them. I’ve always liked to change my numbers to pay homage to some people who somehow inspire me, people who have a lot of meaning in my life… This time it goes to our idol unforgettable old ‘Lobo’ Zagallo”.

Dani Alves to present himself with number 13

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