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Born: Saturday 16 May 1925, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Few people in the history of football have played a greater role in revolutionising their playing position than Brazilian left-back Nílton Santos. His attacking instincts combined with defensive ability saw him become the first in what would be a very long line of exciting, offensively minded full-backs across successive generations of Brazilian teams. A one-club man with Botafogo, he also appeared in Brazil's first two World Cup winning teams.
Nílton Reis dos Santos was born in Rio de Janeiro on 16 May 1925. Growing up playing football on the beach, his most regular position was as a forward and it was that experience which would serve him well later in his career in his more famous position of left-back. Unlike many players, he did not come through the youth ranks before turning professional but actually had to wait until he was 22 years old to get his big chance. Spotted during his time serving in the air force, Nílton earned a trial with Botafogo.
He arrived wanting to play up front and was certainly technically gifted enough to have stayed there throughout his career. However, having signed him on Nílton's coaches eventually decided to turn him into a defender. Nílton knew the game inside out, enabling him to develop the excellent positional sense which made him such a strong defender. His passing and dribbling ability gave him the option to turn defence into attack in a variety of ways, often with runs up the left wing which became easier with the wider position taken up by left-backs following the introduction of four-man defences in Brazilian teams of the 1950s.
Nílton made his first team debut for Botafogo on 21 March 1948 and in his first season helped the team to claim the Rio state title with a dramatic 3-1 final day win over closest rivals Vasco da Gama. He quickly found himself drafted into the national team, being selected in the squad for the 1949 South American Championship. Brazil won the tournament with a play-off win over Paraguay, but Nílton was still very much a young up-and-coming squad player and appeared only once, coming on as a substitute against Colombia for his international debut.
Named in the squad for the 1950 World Cup on home soil, Nílton did not appear in the final tournament. Given the way that many of the team were left out of the national team following the disappointment of defeat to Uruguay in the final match, that may ultimately have been to his benefit. For much of the early 1950s his Botafogo team trailed in the wake of Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco in the league and were never able to finish higher than third during that time but with many of the 1950 team ignored, Nílton was now a regular with Brazil.
He formed part of the team that won the Panamerican Championship in 1952 and was a virtual ever-present in the South American Championship a year later. In Brazil's final round-robin game Nílton scored his first international goal against Paraguay to put his team ahead in a match which could have clinched the title. Disappointingly however, Brazil slumped to a 2-1 defeat which meant a play-off would be needed. That match resulted in another defeat to the Paraguayans and only runners-up spot.
In 1954 Nílton travelled with the national team to Switzerland for the World Cup. Brazil eased into the quarter-finals, but there came up against red-hot favourites Hungary. 2-0 down inside seven minutes, they were always chasing the game and eventually lost 4-2 in a violent match where Nílton was one of three players sent off. Although short of success at domestic level, he had persuaded Botofogo to sign the exciting youngster Garrincha and that allowed Nílton to develop the attacking side of his game further. With Garrincha drawing all the attention on the right wing, Nílton had more space to make forward runs on the left.
After helping Brazil to another second place finish in the South American Championship, in which he missed the crucial defeat to Argentina, Nílton finally enjoyed more success with Botafogo in 1957. Trailing Fluminense by a point with one game to go, a 6-2 win over their rivals clinched the state title. One year later Nílton travelled to play in his second World Cup and that tournament in Sweden would see him really shine on the global stage for the first time as Brazil used the new 4-2-4 formation which suited his game perfectly.
With Brazil leading 1-0 in their opening group game against Austria, Nílton embarked on a long run. Coach Vicente Feola urged him to get back, but Nílton kept going and scored a spectacular goal to put Brazil 2-0 ahead. It was a strike characteristic of a player who was one of the first defenders to score such goals from open play. Brazil cruised through the first round group and edged past Wales in the quarter-finals, before beating France 5-2 to reach the final. There was to be no repeat of the let down of 1950. Although they trailed early, they hit back to win 5-2 and Nílton and his team-mates earned a permanent place in the country's football history with Brazil's first world title.
Nílton appeared in the South American Championship for the final time in 1959, again missing out on the decisive game against Argentina as Brazil finished runners-up. However, the early 1960s were to prove to be the most successful years of his career as despite edging into his late 30s, he helped Botafogo to another state title in 1961. The team went on to win the Rio-São Paulo Tournament, emphasising their status as the finest club side in the country. The title was retained in 1962, when just as in 1957 Botafogo came from a point behind to beat the league leaders in the final match, this time denying Flamengo.
At the age of 37, Nílton went to his third World Cup in Chile in 1962. In the critical final group game against Spain, Nílton avoided conceding a penalty which could have left his team 2-0 down by simply moving to stand outside the box after a foul had been given, leading the referee (who had been well behind the play) to award a free-kick. Having survived that scare and despite Pelé being injured, Brazil cruised through to face Czechoslovakia in the final. That match would be Nílton's 75th and final international and despite Brazil falling behind, it was a successful finish as a 3-1 victory brought a second World Cup winner's medal. At the time, Nílton was the oldest ever World Cup winner and remained so until Dino Zoff broke his record aged 40 in 1982.
Nílton played on for another two years at club level, with his last major trophy coming when Botafogo and Santos were unable to arrange dates for a Rio-São Paulo Tournament play-off and were declared joint winners. He retired at the end of the 1964 season, having made well over 700 appearances for Botafogo. After the end of his playing career he spent time running soccer schools for underprivileged children, having decided never to coach at professional level on the grounds that it would be too stressful. In his later years he has suffered from Alzheimer's Disease and since 2007 has lived in a nursing home in Rio.
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- Published on Monday, 12 March 2012 17:37