Teenage sensation Pele could hardly contain himself after scoring his second and Brazil’s fifth goal of the afternoon in the Final of the 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden™. When the referee Maurice Guigue blew the final whistle at Stockholm’s Rasunda Stadium a few minutes later, the 17-year-old, overcome by the enormity of occasion, broke down in tears in the company of his team-mates, receiving a consolatory hug from the team’s goalkeeper Gilmar dos Santos Neves.
That memorable scene, recorded for posterity by Swedish cameras, would become a defining moment for the custodian, ten years Pele’s senior and a towering presence for his side during that unforgettable campaign. Given the keeper’s status in the side, it was only natural that the teenage tyro should seek solace from him.
“My goal sealed the World Cup and after it was all over I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know whether to shout out loud or cry,” said Pele in a recent interview with FIFA.com. “Gilmar was there. He was one of the oldest and most experienced players in the team along with Nilton Santos.”
Gilmar was indeed there, and not by chance either. Though not the captain of the side and though not immune to a tear or two himself after the trophy had been won, the experienced and highly regarded keeper set an example for his team-mates to follow, while striking fear into the hearts of opposing centre-forwards. His all-round skills and remarkable agility helped him become one of the finest Brazilian goalkeepers of all time and the only player in his position to win two world titles on the field of play (his compatriot Castilho was his understudy at Sweden 1958 and Chile 1962, while Italy’s Guido Massetti was also on the bench in their back-to-back FIFA World Cup wins in 1934 and 1938).
Worth the wait
The enduring image of the mighty Gilmar consoling the young Pele at the Rasunda that distant day also conceals an unusual fact. Though poles apart in terms of experience, both players were making their FIFA World Cup debuts at Sweden 1958.
Gilmar, who would continue to star for his club side Corinthians in the two years that followed Brazil’s landmark victory, made his first Seleção appearance in 1953 only to miss out on a place in the squad for the FIFA World Cup in Switzerland the following year. He would only nail down his place in the national side in 1955, by which time he had turned 25.
He was nearly 28 by the time he arrived in Sweden as Brazil’s undisputed first choice keeper, a reliable presence in a side that had just begun to strike a fine balance between attack and defence. Stylish yet fearless, Gilmar went the first four games of the competition without conceding a goal, a run that ended in the 5-2 defeat of France in the semi-finals. He would let in two more goals in the Final against the Swedes and conceded a mere five when Brazil retained their world crown in Chile four years later, when he was once again one of their outstanding performers.
It was at Chile 1962 that Gilmar made a career-defining double save in their final group match against Spain, a punishing encounter that very nearly ended in the elimination of the title-defending Brazilians. With his side trailing 1-0, Gilmar pulled off a fine stop to thwart Ferenc Puskas and immediately picked himself up to deny the Spaniards a goal from the rebound.
“The Spanish went so far as to say that save put them out of the tournament,” said the goalkeeper in an interview with the newspaper Jornal da Tarde years later. As it turned out, Brazil came from behind with two late goals to win 2-1. Though denied the services of the injured Pele, they would go on to retain their title.
Gilmar completed a hat-trick of world finals appearances at England 1966, starting his country’s first two games before being substituted by Manga in the defeat to Portugal, which consigned A Seleção to an early exit.
His club career was also hugely successful. An idol at Corinthians, where he played nearly 400 games in a ten-year stay, he went on to attain similarly lofty status at Santos, where he once more featured alongside Pele and where he enjoyed his greatest triumphs outside the national team.
“Even though I was a champion many times over with Corinthians, I had my biggest successes here (at Santos),” he once said. “We were a family with no egos in the way. We had a fabulous team. We didn’t lose many titles and we were a delight to watch, even for opposing fans.”
The ultimate keeper
Gilmar was just as important a cog in the Santos machine as Pele, Coutinho, Pepe, Dorval and Mengalvio. In his eight-year stay with the club he lifted trophy after trophy, including the 1962 Intercontinental Cup, secured after a superb win over Benfica in Lisbon, a performance he considered Santos’ finest during his spell there (Santos won 5-2 in the Portuguese capital to complete an 8-4 victory on aggregate).
Having earned the lasting respect of the football community over the course of a career that lasted nearly two decades and with nothing left to prove, Gilmar hung up his gloves at the age of 39.
Regarded by many as having redefined the role of the goalkeeper, he knew very well what it meant to stand guard between the posts and understood the responsibilities that came with the job.
“The goalkeeper is the team’s solo star, an artist all on his own,” he once said. “He dances to a different tune. He has to jump and then stand around doing nothing, things that no one else has to do. He has more responsibility than the forwards because it’s there that the game is won and lost. And at the end of the day everyone’s always got a shoulder to cry on, everyone, that is, except the goalkeeper.”
Pele, for one, can vouch for that.
Did You Know?
In his book Time dos Sonhos (The Dream Team), the journalist Odir Cunha wrote that Gilmar liked to go to bed early but suffered from insomnia and was usually wide awake when party-loving team-mates such as Dorval returned from a night on the town.
After retiring from football Gilmar owned a car dealership before becoming a national team supervisor in 1983, a post he held until the following year. Disillusioned with the direction the modern game was taking, he commented: “When I was playing, people didn’t ask for money for winning games.”
A Seleção paid tribute to Gilmar in 1969, recalling him to the side after a three-year absence for a friendly against the then reigning world champions England, his previous appearance having come in the defeat to Hungary at the 1966 world finals. In what would be his final game for the national team, played at the Maracana, Brazil defeated the English 2-1.
Gilmar suffered a stroke in 2000 and spent the last 13 years of his life in a wheelchair. He died of a heart attack three days after his 83rd birthday. “He couldn’t speak but he recognised us,” said Coutinho, his former Santos team-mate. “Whenever I spoke to him, his eyes would fill with tears.”