England Football Online
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Peter Young
4 January 2004
Looking Back:  My Favourite England Match
England Take On Brazil at World Cup 1970


One 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.  

The 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.  

I 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. 

For 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.

A 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 passing. 

The 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.  

Over 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.

This 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 Forum did. 

Mexican 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.  

The 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.

The 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 combined brilliance from Tostão and Pelé that led to Jairzinho’s unstoppable strike a third of the way through the second half. 

England 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 hopelessly beaten.

Beyond 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.

At 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 Tostão 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 again.

The game more than lived up to my memories of it.  Taking into account the quality of the oppositionprobably the most talented national side ever assembledthe 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.