There is something special about a World Cup final that grips you — an atmosphere creating anticipation among fans, sporting immortality for the winners, depression torments the loser, and for the selected referee the ultimate accolade and envy of his colleagues.
Repeatedly I am asked what World Cup Final I would consider the greatest of all time. Unhesitatingly, my reply is “Mexico, 1970 — Brazil 4 Italy 2 at the Azteca Stadium”. It was a classic of classics.
Brazil, then three times winners, became the permanent holders of the Jules Rimet Trophy, named after French-born FIFA president and a founding father of the tournament in 1929; it was made of gold with the winged figure of Nike, the ancient Greek goddess of victory, as the centrepiece.
After three nights of thunderstorms the sky still remained grey and uninviting but the temperature that Sunday morning of the 1970 Final was ideal for football in a perfect setting and on a pitch described by a journalist “as green as an Irish meadow.” There could have been no more appropriate backcloth for a game which captivated 100,000 fans in the stadium and millions around the globe.
Brazil re-affirmed the theory that there is no substitute for flair, skill and simple attacking play. Awesome is the word to describe Brazil’s second half show as Brito, Clodoaldo, Tostao, Pele, Carlos Alberto, Jairzhino and Rivelino had the crowd gasping at their artistry, pure poetry in motion. The inspiration came from midfielder Gerson who pulled all the strings. His team-mates relished every moment — that was a secret of success. “We had fun. We enjoyed it. We were relaxed,” Gerson revealed.
I was fascinated at how the Brazilians in the first half attempted to break down Italy’s famed catenaccio defensive system and by those quick thrusts from Italy’s midfield general Alesandro Mazzola, Luigi Riva, Roberto Boninsegna, Angelo Domenghini and Gianni Rivera. Italy made the mistake of allowing the Brazilians to come at them, permitted Gerson too much room and paid the penalty. In that drama-filled second 45 minutes few teams could have lived with the Brazilians who were in perfect physical condition, professionally prepared and, despite individual brilliance — each of them capable of winning the trophy on their own — operated as a team.
Their passing, long and short, was pinpoint accurate. Thoughts went back to the 1960 Real Madrid-Eintracht Frankfurt European Cup final and the Hungarian 1950s demolition of England at Wembley and Budapest.
Brazil swept into the lead after only 18 minutes, Rivelino crossing a high ball from the wing and Pele, the ultimate genius, outjumped the Italian defenders to power a header past goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi. Eight minutes before half-time Italy equalised, Boninsegna taking advantage of Hercules Brito’s slow back pass to hammer the ball over the line.
Only one team turned up for the second half. The majestic Gerson’s left foot put Brazil 2-1 ahead in the 65th minute when he hit the ball on the turn from the edge of the box — the adrenalin surge the Brazilians needed to produce even more lustre. Five minutes later Jairzhino struck and, yet again, Gerson was the provider when he floated a free kick to Pele who touched it on for Jairzhino to sprint into the goalmouth and score. There was no way back for Italy now.
Brazil had not yet finished the business and three minutes from time they produced the piece de resistance goal: Jairzhino to Pele, an elegant, almost nonchalant lay-off to his right for Carlos Alberto to thunder through and beat Albertosi for the goal of the tournament.
Yes, that was the greatest Cup Final of them all. A sporting cultural expression to lift the spirits and restore faith in the beautiful game.