…In June 1970, I was a twelve-year-old schoolboy, hopelessly obsessed with the World Cup finals. I spent as much time as my father would allow glued to the household’s large, rather ungainly new colour television set. Russia v. Mexico, England v. Czechoslovakia and Rumania, highlights of Israel v. Italy, I watched the lot. What little spare time I had was spent poring over copies of Goal, Football Monthly or the old Daily Mirror and the dispatches of sunburnt scribes like Frank McGhee and Ken Jones.
Owing to some cunning forward planning, even demands that I get on with some homework failed to deflect me. My main school project that term was on the nations of the World Cup. With scissors and paste I had put together a guide to the sixteen participating countries on the back of a roll of old wallpaper. The roll now circled the classroom of the school’s most football-minded master, a man called Dennis Jones. Each section featured a potted history, a photo of the nation’s World Cup squad and a few relevant images. Italy were represented by the Pope and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. El Salvador, who had gone to war with Honduras after their qualification match, by a picture from an old World War II comic. God only knows what I used to represent Bulgaria and Morocco. Thankfully here my memory does fail me.
Football – or to be more precise, international football – had been something of a drug since I was seven or so. It was, of course, the previous World Cup – England’s World Cup, that had fired the whole thing off. Since then I had got terribly excited about Celtic v. Inter Milan and Manchester United v. Benfica on television. Thanks to a piece of inspired ticket acquisition by my father, I would soon see Cardiff City’s 1–0 win over Amancio, Gento and the gods of Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup in the unforgettable flesh along with 47,500 others at Ninian Park. Yet Mexico marked the dawn of a new, even more exciting era, and not just because this was the first World Cup to be beamed live from the other side of the world in glorious, living colour. One man, and one team, elevated it to the realms of magic.
In hindsight it seems natural that Pele and the 1970 Brazilians should have arrived in our living room the year after the first moon landing. Tostao and Gérson, Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto, Rivellino and Clodoaldo shared much more than their number with Neil Armstrong and his crew. They were, after Apollo 11, the second great event of the new, telecultural age. It seemed fitting that their games were transmitted from Central America via a satellite in outer space. From their opening match against Czechoslovakia it was clear they were visitors from another footballing world. (We should have guessed they’d carried out the same NASA training programmes as the astronauts.)
Brazil alone seemed to justify the extra money my father would now have to pay for upgrading his old monochrome licence. All coffee browns and ebony blacks, cobalt blues and canary yellows, their players and their playing came in shades I had never seen before. Each of their games seemed to be a drama filled with flashing free kicks, 50-yard passes and even longer-range shots. Their kit, their running, even their celebrations seemed more vivid and vibrant than anything I had witnessed before. Bobby Charlton still shook hands when he scored. Not that he was doing much of that as he melted in the Mexican heat. Pelé and company cavorted and congratulated each other like lovers at the end of a seven-year separation. Then there were the names: exotic, moody mononyms like Tostao (‘the little coin’), Gerson and Jair, Clodoaldo and Rivellino. For three weeks, I was mesmerized by them. They have occupied a sun-kissed corner of my memory ever since.
Their glorious summer reached its climax on that rainy Sunday, 21 June. In the days before the Final, I had feared for them. Part of Brazil’s magic, I realize now, lay in their fallibility. Their defence leaked like an old, rusted bucket. In Italy they faced the most cynical and professional side in the world. Wise men in Mexico were calling the Final a battle for football’s soul, a dance to the death between the free expression of Brazil’s samba football and the organizational coldness of catenaccio, the pincer defence that was Italy’s only gift to world football. The tactical complexities were a bit beyond me back then. I saw it as a contest between a collection of inspiring if occasionally naive geniuses and a bunch of Italian hitmen. I desperately wanted Brazil to win.
They did, slaughtering Italy with the most exhilarating football ever to win a World Cup Final.
Pele got them moving, leaping like the proverbial salmon to head past Albertosi. Every Pelé goal was an occasion, but this was special – the hundredth goal Brazil had scored in the World Cup finals. Even their eccentric keeper Felix played a blinder, making one great stop from Italy’s Sardinian assassin Luigi Riva. Gerson, their balding, eternally-chattering generalissimo, put them back ahead again after an uncharacteristic error by the young Clodoaldo had let in Boninsegna for an equalizer. Jairzinho bundled in a third to become the first player ever to score in all matches in the finals, then Carlos Alberto scored the fourth, a weave of interpassing started by the now redeemed Clodoaldo and the best goal of the lot. In years to come the phrase would pass peacefully into the obscurity reserved for the very worst sporting clichés. On 27 June 1970, however, it seemed as if the game of football truly was the winner.
The final whistle brought bedlam. Much had been made of the intimidating moat keeping the Azteca hordes at bay. Suddenly it seemed as if even the Brazilian fans could walk on water. Thanks to the miracle of colour television, I saw Tostao stripped down to a pair of blue underpants. Pelé was lost under the biggest sombrero in Mexico. The presentation was delayed by fifteen minutes as the players fought their way through the throng.
As Carlos Alberto lifted and kissed the Jules Rimet trophy we knew we would never see the old trophy again. Brazil had won it for the third time. It was theirs to take home back to Rio and keep. What we did not know was that we would not see football like this again. As the sun set on the Azteca that afternoon, so too a golden sporting age faded, never to return.
By the time Brazil came to defend their world championship in West Germany four years later, Pelé, Gérson and Tostao had all retired. Jairzinho returned, more muscled and sporting an Afro haircut straight from the Shaft movies of the day, but his rampaging runs were no more. Rivellino still fired in a free kick or two, but he was also reduced to squaring up to Billy Bremner of Scotland. It seemed as if the gods had fallen off their pedestal.
The freewheeling, fantasy football had gone, replaced by a pragmatic, European style. Europe – in the free-thinking form of Johann Cruyff and Holland – reverted to historical type and once more played the conquistadores. Cruyff and co. were a sight to behold. But Brazil were a heartbreaking shadow of their former extraterrestrial selves. After that, despite a brief return – naturally enough in a team led by Socrates – to the old philosophy in 1982, the real Brazil disappeared. So too, for me anyhow, did some of the magic of the World Cup.
Brazil finally won the crown again in 1994, sending the most passionate football nation on earth into deliria. I was in California when it happened and witnessed the scenes in Pasadena as the samba beat out. But it wasn’t the same. Theirs was a triumph of tactical nous and modest flair. Even Brazil’s most ardent fans do not claim the heroes of that win deserved a place on football’s Olympus. Talk of Bebeto and Romario, Dunga and Rai and grown men will nod in respectful acknowledgement. Mention Pelé and Tostao, Gérson and Jairzinho and you may see those same grown men cry.
Almost thirty years later, the shadow cast by the 1970 Brazilians seems longer than ever. This isn’t just sentiment, the statistics bear me out here. Videos of their campaign remain bestsellers. (So do their shirts, apparently the world’s most popular replica football clothing.) Few of football’s legion of new writers can resist referring longingly to their greatness. Even the best of the older ones, Hugh McIlvaney, admits they ‘may have represented the highest point of beauty and sophistication the game is destined to reach’
In the years since their triumph, FIFA and its potentates have moulded football into a global obsession and a multi-billion-dollar business. Yet like the multinationals it now conspires with, the game’s ruling body profits from a product as humdrum and homogenized as a Big Mac or a Diet Coke. As the game has got bigger so its teams and its players seem to have shrunk with it. When Pelé opened Euro 96 at Wembley, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. Perhaps we were crying for our lost footballing selves?
Over the years I had often wondered what had happened to those heroes of twenty-seven summers ago. Only Pelé, now Brazil’s sports minister, remained a world figure. Carlos Alberto joined him at the New York Cosmos, but I had seen or read nothing on the rest of that magnificent eleven. All manner of tales had drifted my way as time went by. How the team and its stars had been exploited for political ends by the then military dictatorship. How, mainly for political reasons, Pelé, Gérson and Carlos Alberto had refused to defend their title in Germany even though they were fit to play. How the intellectual Tostao had walked away from fame and football to become a near recluse. How one or two had tumbled into the sort of booze-hazed half-life that had put paid to the careers of geniuses like George Best and Garrincha.
In the spring of 1997, with the last World Cup of the century approaching, I set off to find them. The search would take me on a journey of 12,000 miles and to four major Brazilian cities and one minor one. A little of what I had heard turned out to be the truth, or close to it, at least. Most of the mythology turned to the disreputable dust I had always hoped it would. Instead I discovered a collection of stories that were sometimes colourful, often crazy but always compelling. The result was a book, first published back in 1998, that chronicled what happened when Pele and Tostao, Jairzinho and Gerson, Carlos Alberto, Rivellino and the rest formed that bewitching, beautiful team …
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