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‘The Final Before the Final’ – Extract from THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

  26 Aug '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

The 1970 World Cup is widely regarded as the greatest ever staged, with more goals per game than any World Cup since. But more than just the proliferation of goals was the quality of the overall football, as some of the finest teams ever to represent the likes of West Germany, Peru, Italy and England came together for a tilt at the world title. Using brand new interviews alongside painstaking archival research, Andrew Downie has charted each stage of the tournament, from the preparations to the final, telling a host of remarkable stories in the players’ own words. In this extract we peer behind the curtain of the titanic group stage clash between defending champions England and Brazil – at the time considered by many to be ‘the final before the final’.


When the draw was made, the Brazil v England game was the biggest match of the opening round. It was a mouth-watering prospect, featuring the winners of the last three World Cups; the country that invented the game against the country that perfected it. It was a contrast of styles, of tempos, and of attitude. And before the teams even got near the Estadio Jalisco, the fun and games had begun.

Gordon Banks (England): We were staying at the Hilton Hotel in Guadalajara and hardly got a wink of sleep on the night preceding our game against Brazil. Hundreds of Mexican supporters held an all-night anti-England vigil in the street outside. They constantly chanted ‘Bra-zil’ honked car horns and bashed dustbin lids together.

Bobby Moore (England): Some of the Brazilian supporters – and I believe many of them were Mexicans – went too far in their fanatical loyalty and apparent anti-English feelings. When a crowd of them formed outside the Hilton Hotel sounding car horns, yelling and screaming and keeping several of our players awake most of the night before the game, it was hardly harmless and good-natured patriotism. I was lucky enough to be sleeping at the rear of the hotel so I was unaffected.

Martin Peters (England): Their aim was clear, to stop us from sleeping – and, unfortunately, they had a good deal of success. Bobby Charlton hardly slept, Gordon Banks was kept awake until about 3.00 a.m. and many of the team were forced to change rooms in the middle of the night and move to the back of the hotel. Why we couldn’t have been placed there from the start beats me.

Bobby Moore (England): Harold Shepherdson and Les Cocker, helped by a group of England supporters, tried to lure the mob away from the hotel. Disguised as players, they trooped out and into our coach and were driven around the block. Unfortunately, the Brazilian fans were not fooled, did not give chase and continued their vigil.

Gordon Banks (England): The England party had taken up the entire twelfth floor of the Hilton but the constant noise kept us awake all night. I was sharing a room with Alex Stepney of Manchester United. At one point a group of Mexican supporters gained access to the floor and banged on our door. I jumped out of bed and swung the door open just in time to see half a dozen Mexicans in their late teens and early twenties being chased down the corridor by a furious Jack Charlton.

Mario Zagallo (Brazil coach): While all that was going on our concentração had turned into an Aztec paradise. Not just inside but at the gate as well, where the samba was played daily. Whenever possible Brazilian players joined in and that went right to the hearts of the Mexican fans. Brito, Jairzinho, Pelé and Paulo Cesar didn’t just put on a show on the football field. They were the kings of samba. Our players didn’t take to the field for training matches or games in the early rounds without a bouquet of flowers in each of their hands. The flowers were handed over to fans. All the initiatives we adopted as a way of showing the Mexicans our friendliness were received with the utmost gratitude. The fact was that the Mexican people liked the seleção. The only thing they preferred was their own side. That festive expectation did not extend to the English. They gave the impression that they were Greek gods, two-faced ones.

Gordon Banks (England): We had only snatched a couple of hours of fitful sleep, but such was our motivation and state of mind, we couldn’t wait to get out there and face the Brazilians.

England’s decision to bring their own food and water, and even their own team bus, had infuriated the locals, who interpreted it as an offence. The anti-English feeling had long been present in Latin America and many of England’s rivals had not forgotten Alf Ramsey calling the Argentines ‘animals’ after their bad-tempered clash at Wembley in 1966. Many in the region interpreted his words as a slight on the entire continent and saw Ramsey as the archetypal haughty, stuck-up Brit. Before the game, the always nationalistic Zagallo used those factors to rouse his players.

Pelé (Brazil): England came into this game with a further disadvantage; they were actively disliked for having called the Argentinians ‘animals’ in the 1966 games. In our game with England the stands were full of Brazilian flags, held not just by Brazilians, but by Mexicans who wanted to see England beaten.

Mario Zagallo (Brazil coach): They arrived in Mexico carrying water, food and they even brought their own bus. They were so sure of themselves and they didn’t communicate much with anyone. The fans on the streets almost never saw them, because they only left their hotel if people begged them to. They gave the impression that they didn’t want to mix. The coach of the team went further; in interviews he went out of the way to be arrogant.

Bobby Moore (England): ‘The Mexican football fans need a devil and an angel,’ I was told. ‘Unfortunately, England was selected as the devil.’ Perhaps that explains in some way the attitude we encountered. I would like to stress that, as individuals, we were always treated with courtesy and warmth and made lots of friends. It was only when we stepped out onto the pitch that we were looked upon as Public Enemy Number One. The jeers, boos and whistles had no effect on our performance and perhaps they even increased our desire to do better.

Pelé (Brazil): The stadium was jammed when we got there, and we arrived in a festive mood. In the bus from our hotel to the stadium we had a little batucada going; batucada is the Brazilian word for the carnival rhythms beaten out on any object by any other object close at hand, such as fingers drumming against a matchbox, or hands slamming against a windowsill, sometimes while one is humming a carnival tune as accompaniment, sometimes not. Batucada has a beat to it; it is always morale building to a Brazilian – and we needed all the morale-building we could get.

Mario Zagallo (Brazil coach): The feelings of affection that the Mexicans felt for the Brazilians was obvious, as was the antipathy they felt for the English. I even warned our players in the dressing room before the game against England. The warmth of the Aztec fans could have affected their focus, and lead them to take their eye off the ball.

Players with both teams knew this was a match that could potentially decide the outcome of the group, and because it would decide who went where in the next round, by extension the whole tournament. Zagallo told his players the match was ‘the final before the final’ but the England side was not at all overawed. In fact, some of them believed they were the favourites going into the match.

Pelé (Brazil): This was really the most important game of the tournament. This was the ‘final’ so to speak. This was the meeting between the champions of 1958 and 1962, Brazil, and the present world champions, England, and it promised to be a great battle. People were looking forward to seeing how the Brazilian style of football – and attacking game – would fare against the English style of football, which was primarily defensive. But Zagallo decided that we would play their game. It would be a game of patience, he told us; a game of chess. The first one to make a mistake would pay for it, probably with the championship.


Andrew Downie is the Brazilian football correspondent for Reuters, and has lived in the country for almost 20 years. He has written on football for GQ, the Economist, the New York Times and the Guardian among others. He translated Garrincha: The Triumph and Tragedy of Brazil’s Forgotten Footballing Hero, and is the best-selling author of the critically-acclaimed Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher and Legend. Now based in London, he still spends much of the year in Brazil.


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    The 1970 World Cup is widely regarded as the greatest ever staged, with more goals per game than any World Cup since. But more than just the proliferation of goals was the quality of the overall football, as some of the finest teams ever to…

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