BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil honoured the great Pele on Thursday and the other eight surviving players from its maiden World Cup triumph in 1958, a victory that put the nation on the soccer map and paved the way for four more titles.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gave the nine men medals of honour at a banquet dedicated to their 5-2 final victory over hosts Sweden 50 years ago.
“You helped us understand … we could make Brazil a winner,” Lula told the players at the ceremony.
Brazil, the most successful soccer nation with five World Cup titles, is now in a footballing trough with coach Dunga’s men fifth in regional qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Dunga was jeered after the team stuttered to a 0-0 draw with Argentina last week and he has come under pressure to resign following a run of poor results.
Keen on remembering better days, television and newspapers have been running specials on the anniversary celebrations.
Long obsessed with the ‘beautiful game’, Brazilians can also now boast about being a major emerging market with growing diplomatic clout.
But before securing its first World Cup, Brazil was a sleeping giant.
Players recalled how the Brazilian flag was the only one of the 16 competing nations not to have been raised as they arrived in Sweden.
“In the 1950s Brazil was little known abroad, many thought Buenos Aires was our capital. After the Cup everything changed, we won international respect,” said Djalma Santos, a defender who played in four World Cups.
Pele, widely regarded as the greatest player of all time, was 17 when he burst on to the world stage with six goals in four games in Sweden.
He enchanted the crowds and helped clinch the first World Cup for a country outside its own continent.
With other big names such as Garrincha, Zagalo, Didi and Vava, Brazil’s 1958 squad are considered by many to have been the best ever.
“These gentlemen taught us how to play as a team with technique and beauty,” said Bengt Agren, who represented the Swedish soccer federation at Thursday’s ceremony and organised the 1958 World Cup.
In a special session on Wednesday, Congress also honoured its soccer heroes.
The 1958 team “turned Brazil’s most popular sport into an art recognised by the entire world”, said Senator Sergio Zambiasi.
An exhibition entitled “Heroes of 58, Shoes of the Homeland” in Brasilia’s modernist presidential palace recalls how Brazil eliminated Wales in the quarter-finals and thrashed France 5-2 in the semi-finals.
Amid the celebrations, Pele offered a word of caution on the prospects of winning a sixth World Cup.
“Brazilians have got used to winning a lot and now they need to have patience,” he said.