England, Brazil and me

The four-yearly cycle of hope and disappointment is complete. England’s early departure from yet another World Cup got me thinking about how much things have changed since the first one I can remember.

Everyone who loves football has one World Cup that seems frozen in time. For me it’s 1970. I was six years old when England won in 1966, old enough to realise that something important was happening but not quite old enough to realise what it was. West Germany 1974 and Argentina 1978 were memorable but by then I was a bit more cynical and England failed to qualify for both of them. To the ten-year-old me, though, Mexico 1970 was a thing of wonder, an almost impossibly exotic version of the game I played with my friends in the school playground.

Some of this is to do with age. As with David Hemery and Mary Peters winning gold at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 or Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon in 1969, it happened when I was old enough to appreciate what was happening but young enough to be seeing it for the first time. Add weeks collecting stickers for my Soccer Stars Album and I was hooked:

SS cover

But I think it’s more than just age. For a start, events like the Moon Landing really were happening for the first time. Then there was the context. As I mentioned in my post on Neil Armstrong last year, live TV broadcasts from outside a studio were still a rarity. The three TV channels (and there were still only three) did not start broadcasting in colour until November 1969. Colour TVs themselves were still a rarity because they were so expensive and anyone who did have one would have a house full of neighbours for big games at the World Cup. Everything before Mexico 1970 was in black and white.

And then there was the football. The story of the tourament now seems more like mythology than history thanks to endless replays of the Gordon Banks save, the Pele dummy, the quarter final between England and West Germany and above all that Carlos Alberto goal in the final against Italy. Watch any of those clips and you’ll get a sense of how the games transmitted via live satellite look and sound like they are coming from a different planet – but so too did the football. TV is one of the reasons the Carlos Alberto goal is so memorable: the way he magically appears from outside the shot makes it seem like only Pele could possibly have seen him. But watching again the other thing that stands out is the moment of casual, almost ridiculous skill by Clodoaldo in his own half. This lot played football we could scarcely begin to imagine:


The names of the players from that great Brazilian team – Tostao, Jairzinho, Rivelino, Pele, Gerson – became a running commentary as we repeated them over and over again in the school playground. But we also knew that England had these guys:


As the cover of my Soccer Stars album says loud and clear, England were world champions. Most of the key players from 1966 – Banks, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Alan Ball, Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst – were still there alongside manager Sir Alf Ramsey. But with new players drafted in alongside them the 1970 team has a fair claim to be the best England side ever to go to a World Cup.

England lost an epic game with Brazil at the group stage but everyone seemed to expect them to meet again in the Final. West Germany, losing finalists in 1966, were in the way. The omens were not good when Gordon Banks was taken ill and replaced at the last minute by Peter Bonetti but everything seemed on track as England led 2-0 with just 22 minutes to go. We all know what happened next: Charlton and Peters substituted to save their legs for the Semi Final, a hapless performance by Bonetti, a German fightback and England on the way home, beaten 3-2 after extra time.

Turning point

And that’s where I start to see things with hindsight. Looking back from 44 years later, Mexico 1970 seems like a turning point in more ways than one.

First, there was politics. Although I didn’t know it, even at the time it was seen that way. It’s hard to appreciate now, with England limping home after yet another early World Cup exit, just how high expectations were in 1970. The prime minister Harold Wilson had won one general election in the wake of the 1966 triumph and he had called another for 18 June, just four days after the game with West Germany. A 7.5 per cent opinion poll lead for Labour at the start of the election became a 31-seat majority for the Conservatives on polling day. This was ‘the World Cup defeat that lost an election’.

Then, there was England’s sense of itself. Watching the Quarter Final again, it’s noticeable that the Mexicans in the stadium are cheering for West Germany. England were already unpopular in Latin America after Ramsey’s ‘animals’ comment about Argentina in 1966. That was compounded by incidents on a pre-tournament trip to Mexico in 1969, Ramsey’s prickly relationship with journalists and England’s highly publicised decision to bring their own food rather than trust the local fare. When the team arrived in 1970, the Mexican press dubbed them ‘drunkards and thieves’ and a huge consignment of burgers and sausages was impounded and burned for breaching import regulations.

All of that came back to haunt them before that fateful Quarter Final. It was not just that Banks fell desperately ill after drinking a bottle of beer. The Germans flew to Léon but England were told the runway was not long enough and had to endure a five-hour journey in a coach with no air conditioning. The night before the game the England players were kept awake by rowdy Mexican fans banging dustbin lids outside the hotel while the police did nothing to stop them.

Whatever really happened, the back story to Mexico 1970 seems indicative of England’s relationships with the rest of the world – and those were about to change for ever. The price on the cover of my Soccer Stars album is 2/6 (12.5p to younger readers). It’s a reminder that as well as ruling the world in the game that we gave the world, we still stood proudly aloof with our pounds, shillings and pence. Johnny Foreigner could count in convenient multiples of ten if he chose, but we knew there were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. We also knew from endless war games in the playground that we had won the Second World War. OK, we had a bit of help from the Americans and the Russians, but we had no need of the Germans and French or ‘Europe’ and ‘the Continent’.

And yet within two years of England throwing away that two-goal lead against West Germany all of this had changed. We abandoned the threepenny bit, tanner and half crown for decimal currency in 1971 and we signed the accession treaty to join the European Community in 1972. If you’re a UKIP supporter (or a certain type of England fan) nothing would ever be the same again.

The 10-year old me knew none of this of course. I was disappointed England were out but never dreamed I would still be waiting for another World Cup victory 44 years later. The 54-year-old me looks back in amazement that anyone ever thought England could win a World Cup played in the heat and altitude of Mexico against teams as good as Brazil.


Football and footballers have changed completely too. Although this was the World Cup, football globalisation had yet to happen. Brazil were not just unusual because they were brilliant, they were also one of the few multi-racial teams. Footballers playing outside their own country were still a rarity and all of the Brazilians played in Brazil. The Iron Curtain was still up so no East European player moved West. Migration to Europe had yet to have an impact on the national teams. The only ‘foreign’ players in the English first division were Irish. This meant that World Cup games, especially those between teams from different countries, had a genuine air of mystery and clash of styles.

In contrast, players from the major European leagues dominate the 2014 tournament. The search for talent is global and players move to Europe as young teenagers. Most teams play European-style tactics. Those Brazilians from 1970 come from a different time as well as a different planet.

Yet for all that the 2014 World Cup has so far been the most exciting for years with more goals and more unexpected results. Football may be globalised but national rivalries and national pride remain intact.

But there is one country that bucks the globalising trend – or rather that only embraces one side of it. The bloated English Premier League has players from all over the world but a lower proportion of them are qualified to appear for the national team than anywhere else. How curious then that so few English players ever move to clubs outside their own country. It’s hard to think of any currently playing in the other major European leagues. Is that down to the wages on offer in England? The language barrier? Cultural factors? The same Little England mentality on display in Mexico 1970? Our players not being good enough? All of the above?

Whatever the reasons we are so reluctant to experience it, is it any wonder that the rest of the world teaches us how to play football once every four years?


2 Comments on “England, Brazil and me”

  1. Well said, Jules. I’m now lost in my own childhood memories and longing for proper footballers again and only three TV channels but without a hint of J Saville, thank you very much!

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