Every four years, strikers from a host of countries converge on that ultimate festival of football: the World Cup. For many, this represents the pinnacle of their careers to date, the chance to prove themselves against the best and to write themselves into history. And each World Cup throws up a forward who is forever associated with that competition; often one goal in particular that lives on in collective memories.
Go right back to 1962 and we see Garrincha score a thundering shot against England in the quarter-finals. 1966 sees an exhausted Geoff Hurst hurtle towards goal before unleashing a piledriver past Hans Tilkowski – a shot that he later admitted was hit as hard as it was so that if he likely missed, it would eat up time recovering the ball.
In 1974, Gerd Muller shows his predatory instincts to spin on a dime and cause Dutch heartache. Four years later, Mario Kempes bursts through the Netherlands defence, hair billowing behind him. The list goes on: Paolo Rossi in 1982 against Brazil; Diego Maradona in 1986 against England; Roberto Baggio in 1990 against Czechoslovakia.
What these all have in common is forwards scoring goals that are forever remembered from those respective tournaments and often the first thing that you will think off when someone mentions their name and the competition. If I simply say the words 1998 and Zinedine Zidane, it’s likely your first thought is of his two goals in the final.
The list above has deliberately excluded one World Cup, the 1970 edition in Mexico. Yes that beautiful World Cup that was the first in colour with the shimmering heat haze and crackling commentary. And if you play the word association game once again and ask someone what first pops into their head when you mention that competition, the likely answer is Brazil.
Indeed, if you then ask them to name one player from that team, it is odds on they are going to say Pelé. Because while the Brazil side that won the tournament were arguably the greatest national team of all time (Hungary 1954 and the Netherlands 1974 might like to debate that), one player still managed to stand out from such illustrious company.
Just how great a striker was Pelé? Well, let’s start with 501 goals in 493 appearances for Santos between 1956 and 1974 – so yes, averaging a goal a game for 18 years. Ah, but I hear you say, ‘that is in the Brazilian league, which surely is not the same standard as European leagues?’ That is open to debate, particularly given the number of world-class footballers within the competition at the time.
Let’s then consider Pelé’s international record of 77 goals in 92 games. That includes playing in four World Cups against the top teams of those times. Faced with statistics such as those, it is hard not to argue that Pelé was extremely good at putting the ball into the net.
But that leads to an interesting observation. There is no doubt that the 1970 World Cup and Pelé are intertwined in people’s memories. One of the greatest goalscorers of all-time helped his side lift the trophy with four goals across the tournament, but oddly enough if you again ask people the first five things that come into their head when you say Pelé and 1970, I think you would be surprised to find that not a single one of them would be a goal scored by him.
Unlike the other strikers mentioned earlier, Pelé’s fame in 1970 actually came more from misses than goals. Yes, one of the greatest goalscorers is actually remembered better for misses and saves.
Memory 1: June 3, 1970
Brazil’s opening match of the tournament sees them pitted against a decent Czechoslovakia team. The game is only three minutes old when a ball across the area finds Pelé unmarked in front of an open goal, who then proceeds to place the ball over the bar. That miss is then compounded by the Czechs having the cheek to take the lead after just 11 minutes. Things are not going according to plan. But Brazil begin to regain their composure and, after 23 minutes, Rivellino thunders in a trademark free-kick.
As half-time approaches, Pelé receives the ball within the Brazil half and surveys the scene while moving slowly towards the centre circle. Then, suddenly, he smashes the ball goalwards. As the camera follows the flight of the ball, it picks up the Czech goalkeeper, Ivo Viktor, furiously backpedalling. In that split second after receiving the ball, Pelé has noticed Viktor has strayed forward from his goalline and decided to attempt to lob him. The Brazilian commentator describes the action perfectly: “Pele, Pele, Pele … almost,” as the ball just goes wide of the post.
It is important to bear in mind the context of this attempt. This is not a league match against Wimbledon where you are 2-0 up in injury time, so why the hell not have a go; this is an opening World Cup tie in which you are level. To even attempt such a lob on such a stage shows the audacity of Pelé. That is strengthened by the fact that, even though he actually missed, it is still remembered by all. Yes, David Beckham’s lob was fantastic, but he was standing on the shoulders of Pele.
Memory 2: June 7, 1970
Brazil end up with an emphatic 4-1 victory over Czechoslovakia, including a goal from Pelé before being overshadowed by a double from Jairzinho. But they face stiff competition in their group by being drawn alongside the reigning champions England, who arguably have a better team now than in ’66. And so the second match of the group between the two teams is always going to be critical in terms of who advances top.
The game kicks off at noon under a scorching Mexican sun – advantage Brazil in terms of weather. Just seeing a red-headed, freckled Alan Ball chasing the ball is the ultimate advert for sun cream.
Just nine minutes into the game, Carlos Alberto moves towards the halfway line with the ball before hitting a great pass into the stride of Jairzinho, who then beats Terry Cooper to take the ball to the byline before hitting a cross to the back post. And there is Pelé, who powers a header downwards towards the corner at a horrible height for any goalkeeper. But the ‘keeper happens to be Gordon Banks, who somehow gets across from the near post to the far. He doesn’t just palm it out but scoops it over the bar. Enter immortality.
As time progresses, the cult of the Banks save grows. It steadily becomes referred to as the greatest save of all time – as if that is something that anyone is really fit to judge. I personally would argue that Jim Montgomery’s double save against Leeds in the 1973 FA Cup final could give it a run for its money. But the moniker has stuck – aided in England by David Coleman’s commentary of the save being sampled into ‘Three Lions’.
Memory 3: June 7, 1970
They say a picture tells a thousand words. During the course of football history, there have been many iconic images – Maradona facing five Belgian defenders or Baggio hands on hips after his penalty miss – but one of the most famous is that of Pelé and Bobby Moore embracing at the end of the Brazil-England game. Embracing may be too strong a word given that it involves an Englishman in the 1970s, but there is a definite tenderness in the way Pelé touches Moore’s face while the latter clutches the Brazilian’s discarded shirt proudly in his hand.
It is an image of two legendary players who know that they have just been involved in a titanic struggle. It is an image of pure mutual respect. After all, in a game that, according to the English, had already produced “the greatest save of all time”, it had also, according to the English once again, produced “the greatest tackle of all time” by Moore on Jairzinho. It’s another moment sampled into ‘Three Lions’, ensuring it lives on for generations.
Memory 4: June 17, 1970
Brazil end up winning all their group games and then proceed to eliminate a useful Peru side in the quarter-finals. Standing between them and a World Cup final are their old foes, Uruguay. It has to be remembered that it was Uruguay who crushed the Brazilian nation by defeating them 2-1 in the 1950 World Cup at the Maracanã. Therefore any big game against Uruguay was always going to cause heightened tension for fans of O Seleção.
The game did not disappoint in that respect with Uruguay taking an early lead. As the half wore on, thoughts must have been flooding back to 1950. Surely Brazil’s greatest side weren’t going to be undone by their tiny neighbours again? But an equaliser just before half-time helped soothe frayed nerves.
With 15 minutes remaining, Brazil finally take the lead through a beautiful Jairzinho goal. A sigh of relief ripples through their fans, but is tempered by the memory that they also led at one stage during the Maracanazo. And so nerves continue to jangle until, with just one minute remaining, Pelé runs at the Uruguayan defence before setting up Rivellino to put the game beyond doubt.
As injury time commences, Brazil look home and dry. As the crowd awaits the final whistle, a through ball from Tostão puts Pelé though onto goal. The goalkeeper, Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, rushes out but it appears that Pelé will get to the ball first. Then it should just be a matter of touching it past the ‘keeper and rolling the ball into the unguarded net for the icing on the cake.
But this is Pelé, a player whose genius almost produced a halfway-line goal earlier in the tournament. To just go around the ‘keeper would be too straightforward. After all, Brazil have won the game. So instead, while running at full speed, Pelé just steps over the ball and lets it run on past a stunned Mazurkiewicz who is stranded in no-man’s land. Quick as you like, Pelé then spins to the right to chase the ball, hits it towards the net, and watches the ball roll agonisingly just wide of the post. It is a move that takes the breath away in a similar fashion to the Cruyff turn in 1974 and is perhaps the greatest goal that never was.
Memory 5: June 21, 1970
And so Brazil progress to the World Cup final and a date with Italy. The biggest stage in world football. After 18 minutes, Pelé opens the scoring with a header at the far post. But an equaliser by Roberto Boninsegna – he of the Coke can fame – sees the sides level at half-time. Thereafter, goals from Gerson and Jairzinho put Brazil firmly back in the driving seat.As the match approaches the end, Brazilian songs fill the Mexican air.
But there is one more moment of greatness to savour. Brazil retrieve the ball near their own penalty area and start to pass it around with one-touch football. The ball falls to Clodoaldo who almost drunkenly weaves past four Italian players before laying it off to Rivellino, who immediately passes it directly forward to the feet of Jairzinho. He brings the ball across the penalty area and then spots Pelé to his right. A short pass later and O Rei has the ball facing the goal just outside the area with an Italian defender before him.
We’ve all tried it during five-a-side or a Sunday league game – the infamous no-look pass. It is up there with the nutmeg as the ultimate flashy move. With a sixth sense, Pelé just holds the ball momentarily while, behind him, Carlos Alberto is streaking forward on his right-hand side. A heartbeat later and Pelé rolls the ball so, so casually to the right, sensing that Alberto is arriving. And without having to break stride at all, he drills the ball in at full speed. Brazil are world champions once again.
And the final, iconic images of the World Cup are of Brazilian fans rushing onto the field and basically stripping the players of all their kit as souvenirs. Pelé is down to his shorts before being hoisted aloft by fans and paraded around the stadium.
The Brazil team of 1970 was undoubtedly one of the greatest of all, setting a benchmark that has haunted subsequent Seleção sides for generations. And while the whole squad was fantastic, Pelé will always be remembered as the focal point. His four goals, including one in the final, helped push Brazil to victory, just like his goals had 12 years earlier in Sweden. And they were great goals, especially his first against Czechoslovakia.
But Pelé was such an outstanding player that it is more than just his goals that are remembered from 1970. Only Pelé would have the audacity to try to lob the goalkeeper from his own half. Only Pelé would have the nerve to dummy an onrushing ‘keeper and then retrieve the ball and almost score. Only Pelé could power a header so hard and so perfectly into the bottom corner that the resulting save would be described as the greatest save of all time. And only Pelé could finish off the greatest World Cup final team goal with a no-look pass to a colleague.
Pelé was an outstanding goalscorer but also, unlike many other greats in front of goal, so much more. It really wasn’t just about what he did that made him great; it is also the time and place that he did it. That’s what gets results.
By Dominic Hougham