of the good things about growing older is the store of football memories we
gather over time. Remembering the
great players and celebrated encounters of the past gives some of us as much
pleasure as watching today’s matches.
football of the past didn’t mean much to me when I started following the
game as a youngster. It was what my
father, uncles and grandfathers talked about. But today I
look back on the football stars of my boyhood more than 50 years ago—Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Billy Wright,
Raich Carter, Wilf Mannion, Frank Swift and a host of others—with great
fondness. And 30, 40 and 50 years
from now, today’s young fans will look back on today’s stars—David
Beckham, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand and so on—in the same way.
am not among those old-timers who think today’s players do not hold a candle
to those of the past. As a
general rule, the players are fitter and faster.
They are better athletes if only because they have to be to play the
game as it is today, with its far faster pace, much tighter marking and much
more effective defensive formations and tactics.
The general level of technical skill also has improved. Today’s footballers enjoy the benefits of vastly superior
coaching and training methods and facilities, better diet and medical care,
increased concern for and sensitivity to player fitness, and much improved
playing equipment and conditions, including lighter balls with truer flight
paths, lighter boots of better design and immaculately groomed pitches
seldom impaired by inclement weather.
Performances have drastically improved in sporting events in which they are
precisely measurable, like athletics, and there is no reason to believe they
have not similarly improved in football. Nonetheless, I have always
believed the great stars of the
past, given the same advantages, would have been equally great had they played today, and that quite a few
of them remain beyond compare.
the past third of a century, England’s monumental encounter with Brazil at
the World Cup 1970 final tournament in Mexico has been not only my all-time
favourite England match but also the performance I regard as England's greatest ever—despite the result, a 1-0 victory for Brazil.
frenzy of anticipation began the moment the final tournament draw put England,
the World Cup champions of 1966, in the same group as Brazil,
favourites to regain the crown they had won at the 1958 and 1962
tournaments. The match was billed as pitting the reigning champions
against the once and future champions, the best team in Europe
against the best from South America, the world’s best defence against the
world’s best attack, the epitome of the Northern European style—tremendous
workrate, disciplined teamwork, determination, physical hardness and
courage—against the paradigm of the Latin style—individual brilliance,
creativity, superb technical skills, artistry on the ball and dazzling
atmosphere was electric on that long-ago June day when I joined 10,000 others
to watch the match live via satellite from Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara on the big screen
at the Inglewood Forum, then the home of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball
team. For once a match lived up
to its billing in every respect.
the holidays, a very generous friend, Donnie Moses, coordinator of the
Internazionale news list on the Internet, sent me a box of football-related
gifts, among them a videotape of this great match. I hadn’t seen it since the day it was played, almost 34
years ago, and I must admit I feared that,
viewed in light of the standards of today’s game, it would disappoint me.
To the contrary, the match was so enthralling I watched it twice, and
I’m quite prepared to view it again.
time I had the benefit of the match commentary, accompanied by occasional remarks
from Billy Wright, plainly not as comfortable behind the microphone as he had
been on the football pitch. When
I originally watched the game, deafening noise from both crowds—that at the
Inglewood Forum as well as that at Estadio Jalisco—had drowned out the
commentary. The crowd in Guadalajara overwhelmingly and vociferously supported
Brazil, just as the predominantly Latin American audience at the
and Brazilian fans had prevented the England players from getting proper
sleep, ringing the England hotel, blasting their car horns and setting off
firecrackers throughout the night.
The conditions, too, were highly unfavourable to England. The kickoff came at noon Guadalajara time, to suit European
television viewers, and so the match was played in searing heat, to which the
Brazilians were much more accustomed.
90 minutes that followed remain the most compelling of football dramas,
although the heat and altitude,
more than 5,000 feet, forced the players from both teams to pace themselves.
Both sides were close to full strength, albeit Brazil no doubt missed
the uniquely creative passing skills of midfield maestro Gerson more than
England did the more modest yet undeniable talents of right back Keith Newton.
world football community has consistently hailed the Brazil World Cup team of
1970 as the greatest national side ever assembled, yet England had the better
part of the play for most of the match, particularly in the scoreless first half.
Brazil went on to win the World Cup that year, of course, but the team
that played so devastatingly in all their other tournament matches were contained
by a superb English defensive display—with the single exception of the
brilliance from Tostão
that led to Jairzinho’s
unstoppable strike a third of the way through the second half.
even had more clear scoring opportunities than Brazil.
There was Bobby Charlton blasting the ball over the goal more than
once, perhaps because he did not calculate the effect of the altitude.
There was Francis Lee coming close on a couple of occasions from both
long and short range. There was
poor Jeff Astle, on as a substitute, shooting wide from point blank range in
front of an open net when it was far easier to score the equalizer than to
miss. There was Alan Ball
hitting the crossbar with an equalizing effort that had Brazilian keeper Felix
Gordon Banks’ wonderful save of Pelé’s header early on and Bobby
Moore’s immaculate positioning and incisive tackling throughout—time after time he
took on Brazil’s best and emerged with the ball directly at his own feet
ready to play it—what struck me the most about the England performance was the authority with which
England played as a team. For
much of the match, they imposed their game on the Brazilians.
Their positional play, their off-the-ball movement, their teamwork,
their anticipation and coordination in defence, their approach work on attack
were all simply superb.
match’s end, the Brazilian stars—first Pelé followed by Jairzinho and
then others—lined up to shake Bobby Moore’s hand.
They came to him in tribute to his stellar performance that day, surely
among the very best of his career. They
came although he pulled Jairzinho’s shirt on one occasion—and got away
with it—and although he was beaten by
in the play that eventually led
to Brazil’s goal. He was not
perfect, but he was close enough to it, and I doubt we shall see his like
game more than lived up to my memories of it.
Taking into account the quality of the opposition—probably the most talented national side ever
assembled—the importance of the occasion and the hostile
conditions, I have yet to see an England team perform as well.
It was—and is—a match for the ages.