When football reached its pinnacle: The story of Brazil at Mexico ’70

At Mexico 1970, Brazil, as indeed world football, reached its peak. It was the first World Cup to be broadcasted across the world in color, and the men in canary yellow performed on a level seldom touched before or since, and routinely reduced opponents to wide-eyed spectators at a footballing masterclass.

“We didn’t know much about the world. But then again, the world didn’t know much about us, either.” – Pele

However true in 1958, the same couldn’t be said when teams assembled in Mexico in 1970. By then, the world knew all about Brazil and had pored over videos and planned strategies to stem the samba tide. Brazil needed more structure even as it thrived on the [substantial] natural talents of its individual elements. They needed tactics, teamwork and leadership. And they had the perfect man to help them do that.

On July 16, 1950, an 18-year-old soldier had taken part in the pre-game festivities at the Maracana and decided to stay on. He had watched, with the rest of his countrymen, as the night turned dark and the soul of the land was broken. He had imbibed the sense of failure, yet sworn to change it, to defeat it. In 1958 and 1962, Mario Zagallo held good to his promise, a key player in Brazil’s back-to-back world championships. In Mexico in 1970, at the age of 39, only six years older than the senior-most player on the team, he was a surprise appointment for the manager’s position. The appointment came on the heels of the dismissal of Joao Saldanha, another surprising but more turbulent choice.

Zagallo, on the other hand, had a poise and reassuring presence beyond his years. The calmest man Pele had ever known believed that as long as he encouraged players to work together, he could play as many talented players as he wanted. Every player was encouraged to speak up and take part in team meetings and decisions, and he was confident enough in his knowledge and tactical acumen not to be a dictator. If Brazil were going to create history, they would do it together.

By the time the tournament rolled around, the core group of players had been playing together for a year and a half.

In Mexico, Pele was 29. Only a year younger than Waldyr “Didi” Pereira had been in 1958. The Ethiopian Prince had been calm, composed and poised, something the teenage Pele admired and needed during his first taste of life outside Bauru. Now, he felt like he needed to grow up. To be worthy of the legacy of the best player at Sweden 1958 who had always believed in him even when he couldn’t quite see straight.

“There comes a moment in every person’s life when they realise they need to live for others, and not just for themselves.”

This insight wasn’t triggered by football, but by something far more commonplace. The birth of Kely Cristina, his first child, in 1967.

“She changed the way I looked at everyone – including my teammates. I came to deeply relish the feeling of looking after others, of helping people. I realised that if Edson was capable of this, so was Pele.”

Mexico would bear witness to the culmination of this desire.

World Cup 1970 was special even before a ball was kicked. It was the first iteration to be staged outside South America and Europe; it would also be the first to have worldwide colour broadcasts, the first to allow substitutions, and–no I’m not joking–yellow and red cards. Where it wasn’t special is with regards controversy. Show me one World Cup without one. Here, the issue was the country’s height and heat, conditions not every team would be used to.

But, all concerns took a nose dive down the 7347-foot difference in altitude once the games actually began and the world watched as Brazil lived out one of the greatest narrative cycles in the history of the sport. The cycle had been set in motion in England in 1966 when Brazil lost to Hungary for their first World Cup loss since 1954 in Switzerland where they had lost to the same country’s Marvelous Magyars. If they wanted to be champions again, on Mexican soil, Brazil would have to confront and defeat a “procession of the most horrifying, disturbing ghosts from Brazil’s football past”. It would need not only Edson Arantes do Nascimento, but also every single member of that squad – Carlos Alberto, Clodoaldo, Gerson, Jairzinho, Rivellino, Tostao – a squad that since has been called the greatest of all time, the Beautiful Team.

Brazil vs England became the most-watched event in history (twenty-nine million watched in England alone, almost the same as the number who had tuned into the first moon landing just a year ago). Before the game, someone had sneaked into Pele’s room and stolen all 14 of his shirts as souvenirs, and they had to organised a special airlift from Mexico City to organise a shirt for the next game. Irrespective, Brazil beat the defending champions 1-0, despite one of the best saves in World Cup history by Gordon Banks to deny what seemed like an inevitable Pele stunner.

When Brazil played Uruguay in the semifinals, the  51, 261 fans at the Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara witnessed the slaying of a dragon that had haunted Brazilians for twenty years. They scored three in response to Uruguay’s one and for a moment Pele and his teammates allowed themselves to soak in the present. “It was a tremendous sense of accomplishment, in ways that almost didn’t seem rational.”

But Mexico City awaited and the men in yellow and blue couldn’t rest for long. At an altitude of 7200 feet above the sea lies the largest stadium in Mexico, named after the country’s Aztec heritage. A stadium then on its way to iconic status, playing witness to many moments of World Cup history, including the infamous “Hand of God” in 1986. June 21, 1970 was just the start of its story.

For two countries polar opposites in their footballing identities – ginga vs catenaccio – Brazil and Italy found themselves in pursuit of the same glory. Years ago, it had been decreed that if a country ever won three World Cup titles, they would be able to keep the trophy permanently. Brazil and Italy were the only two teams to successfully defend a World Cup and so it almost seemed like fate that they would decide who was worthy enough for the ultimate honour, in this first ever final played between former world champions.

Italy had conceded only four goals in the entire World Cup up until that point – a span of five games. But, by the 86th minute, Brazil were assured of the championship…and then all eleven of its players combined to score a goal that is now considered one of the greatest goals in World Cup history. What Pele calls the “fusion of athletic ability, good coaching and teamwork”.

A 1970 World Cup Commemorative Stamp featuring Brazil.
A 1970 World Cup Commemorative Stamp featuring Brazil.

Imagine, a Brazil fan, crowded in front of the television, jostling with his family and neighbours for a glimpse of his heroes. Imagine then the grainy images as Tostao begins his move on the left of Brazil’s 18-yard-box. Before the flickering screen can adjust the edges of one player, the ball moves to another, then another until the ball is on the other end of the pitch.

Pele, with the penultimate touch, chooses to pass to his good friend and Santos teammate, Carlos Alberto. As a defender, the captain’s chances of scoring a goal are limited, but he doesn’t disappoint. Even before the ball is smashed into the goal, you are bolted in place by the sheer anticipation of the moment that will come when the referee blows for time. In that moment, as all the onrushing, jubilant players in blue and yellow converge at the side of the Italian goal, you feel unbearably connected to the ongoing story of your country through the medium of this most demanding, exhausting, but most magnetic of sports.

That day was the culmination of Brazil football’s most famous narrative cycle; yet, it was equally the culmination of Pele’s personal story. For the man, 1970 was far more special, because he went from being the guy racing towards goal in Sweden to the one assisting a teammate to score a comprehensive winner. The fourth goal that day in Mexico City was as much a microcosm of Brazil’s tournament as Pele’s winner in 1958 was for that team.

“I finally realised the full potential of what a group of players can do together. I saw the true power of a team.”

This was a team that prayed together throughout the course of the tournament (an idea triggered by something Pele’s wife Rosa told him), but never to win it; they had asked only that nobody get injured and that God would help bring them all of them close together and keep their families safe. For Pele, that night at the Estadio Azteca emphatically proved that they were greater than the [considerable] sum of their individual abilities. Some of their best goals in that tournament were proper team-goals, where a teammate selflessly set up for another, like the goal Jairzinho scored versus England, when Tostao could have taken a shot at goal from his position, but chose instead to pass.

Looking back, Pele acknowledges that Brazil needed to lose in 1966 to be able to achieve what they did in 1970, whether him as an individual or the team as a unit.

Brazil’s 1970 World Cup win was special for many reasons – a record-breaking third title; winning all games on their way to the title, including each of their qualifying fixtures; Pele the only player to ever win three world championships; Jairzinho’s as-yet unrivalled record of scoring in every finals match; Coach Mario Zagallo the first man to win the World Cup both as a player and a coach.

But most importantly, in a tournament characterised by positive, flowing, attacking play, Brazil went a step further in crystallising these qualities into something that sparkles even 48 years later in a completely unrecognisable footballing spectrum. Flamboyant, sometimes outrageous, but never needlessly so, with a languid quality that belied their razor-sharp concentration on creating space and music with the ball. They earned their redemption and passed into legend showcasing the best of what the sport is capable of; the beauty that is possible when we work together in sync, in tandem, as opposed to individual flashes of brilliance.

“To win without magic, without surprise or beauty, isn’t that worse than losing?” – Eduardo Galeano

Brazil’s football and political fortunes have always been inextricably entangled. A continuing cycle of great hope and growth, followed by success, followed by great disappointment. But, it’s the only country that has participated in all world championships till date, scoring the highest number of goals, winning the most number of matches; the only country to win five titles, though never at home. The latter abscess, compounded by home-soil humiliation to Germany in 2014, will have to wait until it is excised and even then might leave scars to be traced by the coming generations. But Brazil, if nothing, cannot ever be removed from the football that is deep within the heart and soul of this vast, complicated, turbulent country, where every loss is nursed, every win celebrated, and both stored away with equal passion.

“[Football] is the connective tissue in a country defined by different cultures crashing together in violence and beauty.” – David Zirin, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil

It’s fitting, then, that this greatest of World Cup teams got to permanently take home a trophy whose prestige went above and beyond its handsome gold-plated and lapis-lazuli-encrusted exterior. Originally titled “Victory”, the Jules Rimet trophy symbolised the beliefs of the inventor of the World Cup, a visionary who had a dream about the good football could do for the world, teaching them the values of hard work, team-work, comradeship and fair play. And after 1970, I’m sure the Frenchman, who passed away in 1956, would have added “the very best of what the beautiful game can offer.”


“The Maracanazo: Brazilian Tragedy and the 1950 World Cup,” Written by Matthew Schorr (2013), World Cup 2014, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/world-cup-2014/world-cup-2014-fan-guide/anglophone-version/the-1950-world-cup-brazilian-tragedy/ ‎(accessed on (May 16, 2018)).



Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.