Gordon Banks: The save that denied Pele and defied gravity

It will be remembered as arguably the greatest save of all time and was the result of foresight, hard work and dedication.

But the man responsible for it – former England, Leicester and Stoke goalkeeper Gordon Banks who has died at the age of 81 – was typically modest and self-deprecating when recalling how he defied Pele, and seemingly gravity itself, during an iconic World Cup moment.

Pele was at the height of his powers when Carlos Alberto’s mesmerising team faced defending champions England in the sweltering heat of Guadalajara during the group stages of the 1970 World Cup.

The contest, viewed at the time as the final which might have been, was edged by Jairzinho’s goal on the hour.

However, it was a moment of brilliance from Banks in denying Pele what looked a certain goal during the first half which would see both men forever linked in football folklore.

Defender Carlos Alberto had released Jairzinho to sprint down the right before rounding Terry Cooper and clipping a perfectly-weighted cross back through the England penalty area.

Pele rose majestically into the air and sent down a bullet header which kicked up off the hard Mexican turf and looked set to fly into the back of the net.

Banks, though, somehow threw himself across to stick out his massive right hand and push the ball over the crossbar.

“The save was one of the best I have ever seen – in real life and in all the thousands of games I have watched since,” Pele said as he paid tribute to Banks on Facebook.

“When you are a footballer, you know straight away how well you have hit the ball. I hit that header exactly as I had hoped. Exactly where I wanted it to go. And I was ready to celebrate.

“But then this man, Banks, appeared in my sight, like a kind of blue phantom, is how I described him.

“He came from nowhere and he did something I didn’t feel was possible. He pushed my header, somehow, up and over. And I couldn’t believe what I saw. Even now when I watch it, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe how he moved so far, so fast.”

While Pele was shocked, Banks knew exactly what he was doing.

“When we had training sessions (in Mexico), I noticed that when the ball was dropping in front of me, it was kicking up, not staying low like it did in England,” he said in an interview on the Football Writers’ Association website in January 2018.

“I stopped back to do some extra shooting training to help me get used to it, and that helped me make the save. Pele was around the penalty spot when the guy crossed it from the wing, and I knew he was going to get up to it, because he could jump really high.

“I knew that I had to come off the line to narrow the angle, then once Pele had punched it with his head down to my right-hand side, I knew I had to get over there very quickly.

“The ball was going in and as I dived I had to anticipate how high it was going to come up from the hard surface. As I reached across, I got it right, the ball hit the top of my hand and went off… but honestly, I thought it was a goal.

Gordon Banks and Pele were good friends
Gordon Banks and Pele were good friends (Dave Thompson/PA)

“I hit the floor and turned around, I saw the ball bounce behind the goal – and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, Banksy, you lucky t***’.”

At the time, Banks could not realise just what significance those few seconds would go on to take, imprinted on the memory for all who witnessed his save and the generations since who have watched it on YouTube.

But the 1966 World Cup winner would always share a joke with his old friend over his part in Pele’s unique World Cup story.

“Whenever I saw him, he said: ‘Gordon, I travel all over the world and people talk about the goals I scored, but when I come to England, all they talk about is that save you made against me,” Banks said.

Gordon Banks
Banks, centre, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, left, and Pele (PA)

The admiration between the pair was mutual and Banks attended a tribute night to Pele held by the FWA in London in January 2018, which the Brazilian was unable to attend as guest of honour because of health issues.

“He was a superb player, something special,” Banks said. “I played against some great players, and he was the best player I ever played against.

“He just seemed to know everything about the game and brought in these new things which he had done himself, so all of that shows you just what skills he had got.”

Pele will no longer get to meet up with Banks, but will treasure the memories.

“I am glad he saved my header – because that act was the start of a friendship between us that I will always treasure,” Pele said.

“Whenever we met, it was always like we had never been apart.

“I have great sadness in my heart today and I send condolences to the family he was so proud of.

“Rest in peace, my friend. Yes, you were a goalkeeper with magic. But you were also so much more. You were a fine human being.”

Football Paradise Staff Reporter

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