The 1970 World Cup match between Brazil and England looms largest in the English imagination of Pele for many reasons. Perhaps the most powerful is the vibrancy of the TV footage.
This was the first World Cup to be televised in colour, although few saw it that way at the time. It would be another six years before colour TVs outnumbered black and white in England but the pictures have endured in a way that no previous World Cup can equal. This is a match which still crackles, more than 50 years later, a world away from the lumpen mess of the oft-repeated 1966 final.
Pele, who has died aged 82, was a Technicolor player in a black-and-white era. He had wanted to retire from international football after being non-metaphorically kicked out of the ’66 edition. Mexico ’70 was his last dance, a tournament billed as Latin flair vs European physicality.
At a time when transcontinental clashes were a novelty, much of the build-up focused on that clash of styles. The Group 3 match between Pele’s team and the world champions was thought to be the most intriguing Europe vs South America match since Hungary vs Brazil in 1954, the “Mighty Magyars” winning 4-2 in the Battle of Berne.
England came to Mexico as “a team of drunks and thieves” by the estimation of one Mexican newspaper: Jeff Astle had arrived in the country visibly inebriated having misjudged his alcohol intake in an effort to calm his flying nerves and Bobby Moore was caught up in a farce with a bracelet in a Bogota hotel jewellery shop.
In the estimation of The Telegraph’s David Miller, Brazil were “an oasis of entertainment in the contemporary desert of functionalism”.
Their forward line was terrifying but they looked vulnerable at the back. Joao Saldanha, the team’s manager during their qualifying campaign, said: “Brazil are like a short blanket in the winter time. If you pull it up round your neck, your feet get cold. If you put it round your feet, your neck gets cold. When the attack is good, the defence is no good at all.”
Watching the game now, Pele still looks special. Playing deeper by this stage in his career, he is not full of flair – rather, his performance crackles with industry and menace. He is marked out by his gait and shape. There is a solidity to him, a sort of heavy charisma which he has in common with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
On the ball, he has a steady grace, a caresser in an era of punchers. He could mix it, too: at one point, he barges the otherwise imperious Bobby Charlton off the ball. Later, after being brought down by Alan Mullery for what would be a clear penalty today, the England midfielder offers a conciliatory arm which conveniently also clocks his opponent on the chin. Pele simply shrugs it off.
In truth, this was not his best game. He is reasonably well dealt with by Mullery and in common with every player on the pitch, his passing accuracy is wayward by modern standards. Instead, it is Jairzinho who is Brazil’s firecracker, and he sets up Pele for Gordon Banks’s greatest moment.
Carlos Alberto finds Jairzinho with a perceptive pass from inside his own half. Jairzinho then exposes Terry Cooper by being first too quick, and then too clever, before delivering a cross. Pele responds with the paragon of a header, rising highest, straight body, arms pointed down, before nodding down into the turf. The ball is surely bouncing inside Banks’s right post?
No. “I heard Pele shout ‘goal’ as he headed it, which was followed by a massive, almost deafening roar,” said Banks to The Observer in 2003. “Even though I’d got a hand to it, I thought he must have scored. Then I realised the crowd were cheering for me.”
Pele called it the most sensational save he had ever seen and while he was a man sometimes given to hyperbole, he surely had a point.
The game remained tight until the 60th minute when a rare Moore mis-step allowed a Tostao cross to reach Pele. His control was beautiful, killing the ball, shifting it and his bodyweight at once to transfer possession seamlessly with the outside of his boot to Jairzinho.
Here, Pele is a conduit for the ball: it seems to pass through him with an ease entirely absent elsewhere on the pitch. He seems a precursor to his modern successors, showing the panache of Mohamed Salah, the fizzing potential of the Brazilian Ronaldo. Jairzinho scores and Brazil hang on despite Astle missing an easy chance and Alan Ball hitting the post.
In injury time, Pele nearly lobs Banks from long range. The effort does not quite rank alongside his other effort against Czechoslovakia from the same tournament – probably the most famous long-range goal that never was – but has added drama courtesy of a close camera angle which means the viewer cannot see Banks at the time of the shot. “This man’s clairvoyant,” says David Coleman, commentating for the BBC. The magic lingers.
After the game, there is a famous embrace and swapping of shirts with Moore ahead of what many observers thought would be a rematch in the final. “The first big battle in the great soccer struggle for power between the Old World and the New ended in favour of Latin America at the Jalisco Stadium here yesterday; but this long, gruelling war is by no means over,” wrote Donald Saunders in The Telegraph.
In fact, England would bomb out in the quarter-finals then take an enforced 12-year sabbatical from the tournament. Pele, a three-time winner of the trophy at just 29, would not play in another World Cup.