How Pele inspired Brazil to redemption at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico

‘I’m not dead!’: How Pele inspired Brazil to redemption at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico… 50 years on it will be remembered as the tournament that changed the face of football forever

  • It has been 50 years since Brazil won the 1970 World Cup v Italy in Mexico 
  • Many consider that team to be the greatest ever – at the greatest World Cup 
  • Brazil had been written off after crashing out in group stage at England 1966 
  • The Selecao got fitter and stronger and had the perfect campaign to win the cup 
  • Inspired by a fired up Pele, Brazil etched their names into the history of football    

It’s the colours you remember first. That shirt, thick and yellow, bright as the summer sun, those circles of green cotton around the neck and biceps, on top of tight blue shorts.

As soon as the image forms, all memories of the most beautiful team in World Cup history crash back into your mind in a rolling flood.

Pele leaping into Jarzinho’s arms, punching the air in ecstasy, after scoring Brazil’s first goal in the final. Pele, again, rolling the perfect pass to his right for captain Carlos Alberto to complete the perfect goal with an emphatic flourish. Pele, topless this time, heaved high upon the shoulders of team-mates and fans alike, exalted and immortal.

Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winning side will be remembered as one of the greatest teams ever

The likes of Pele, top left, Rivelino, top right, and Carlos Alberto, bottom middle, all had something to prove after their 1966 failure 

It is little surprise that most of them involve the genius with No.10 on his back: the player many believe to be the greatest ever, the heart of a team many believe to be the greatest ever, winning the World Cup many believe to be the greatest ever.

Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of Brazil’s triumph over Italy in the final at Mexico 70, the tournament that not only etched those Selecao names into legend but changed the face of football forever.

It was the first World Cup to be broadcast across the globe, and the first to be shown in colour. Millions watched as Joga Bonita, the beautiful game, captivated everyone who had the pleasure of seeing these magicians in yellow and green.

Though while it will be remembered as the coronation of the finest side ever assembled, for those who played it was a story of recovery and redemption.

Pele soaks in the celebrations as he lifts the World Cup trophy after beating Italy in the final

‘It seems amazing to say this now but a lot of people in Brazil did not give us a chance at that World Cup,’ Rivellino, one of Brazil’s heroes in Mexico, tells The Mail on Sunday. ‘They thought we wouldn’t qualify from the group.’

Four years earlier, when England had triumphed on home soil, reigning champions Brazil had done just that. Successive 3-1 defeats to Hungary and Portugal had sent them home before the knockout stages. They had been caught out, so claimed Alberto, by ‘power football’. To their artistic eye, football was based more on fitness and strength than skill and finesse.

Pele had injured his knee against Portugal and, aged 25, considered retirement from the national team. Rumours spread about his dodgy eyesight. There has been little signs of the Brazilian team recovering their form under new coach Aymore Moreira.

It was not until Joao Saldanha took over in 1969 that the Selecao revitalised. He improved their fitness, made them stronger. In June, as a precursor to their battle in Mexico, he led Brazil to a 2-1 win over world champions England in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil were under pressure in 1970 after being dumped out in the groups at England 1966

Yet just before the World Cup, Saldanha criticised the country’s military dictatorship and, perhaps more dangerously, dropped Pele for a friendly against Chile. Hours later, he was sacked.

The Brazil squad, with Pele reinstated, flew to Mexico a month before the tournament, staying in a city called Guanajuato, to prepare themselves for the intense heat and altitude.

‘It was endless boredom’ says Rivellino. ‘Our resolve to win that World Cup was tested. The food was awful, it was hot as hell and every night we had to check our rooms to see if there were scorpions.

‘Everyone complained but Pelé. He was fired up because in 1966 he got an injury against Portugal, Brazil were knocked out and many people in Brazil said he was finished. After we won the title, he entered the changing room screaming non-stop: “I’m not dead! I’m not dead!”‘

Pele had been fired up to win with Brazil in Mexico after getting injured at the previous cup

Brazil’s side was packed with creative, attacking flair. Four of their front five played as No.10s for their clubs: Pele, Rivellino, Gerson and Tostao.

The moustachioed Rivellino scored Brazil’s first goal of the tournament, the equaliser in a 4-1 win over Czechoslovakia. His rasping free-kick earned him the nickname Patada Atomica, ‘Atomic Kick’.

Pele scored his first of four goals in the finals. Yet it was his effort from the halfway line, that drifted just wide, that many remember. Rivellino remembers it too.

‘He always saw what was going to happen before everyone else. He got a ball at the halfway line and three or four players yelled at him: “Pass! Pass!” I was about to scream “What the f… are you doing?” But then I saw their goalie running, desperate, to avoid the goal. Pele missed by inches. It would be something unbelievable. I thought: “oh, that’s what he meant!” I shut up.’

If that game gave Brazil a boost of confidence, it was their second game that proved their worth. England, the world champions, stood against them. A squad that Alf Ramsey claimed was stronger than the one who had lifted the trophy on home soil four years earlier. Brazil came away with a 1-0 win.

Brazil faced off against World Champions England in the group stage and won the game 1-0

‘The manager of Brazil was s***-scared of England,’ striker Francis Lee told The Mail on Sunday. ‘He thought that England would beat them and that is why there is so much celebration when they didn’t. I thought we should have won it.’

Together they created yet more memories that have lasted half a century.

There is not a football fan alive who has not seen Gordon Banks spring to his right, chuck out his hand and claw Pele’s header, which had bounced just in front of him over the bar. ‘I started to run to celebrate,’ says Rivellino. ‘And then I saw the referee pointing to the corner. It was something out of this world.’

That would be the closest Pele would get that day. Alan Mullery, the Tottenham midfielder, never let him out of his sight. ‘I met him about two years ago at a dinner in London,’ Mullery tells The Mail on Sunday.

It was the game that saw Gordon Banks make one of the most memorable saves from Pele

‘I left my table to go and say hello to him. He was sat next to a pretty young lady. As I approached, he turned to her and said: “See that man there, I have scars on my leg from playing against him”. He rolled his trousers up and showed this girl a couple of marks on his leg. Then he gave me a hug.’

Mullery claims he lost a stone in weight during that game, such was the intensity of the heat and humidity while marking the best player in the world.

‘They were probably the best 10 footballers that have been called a team,’ he says. They had 10 players who could play in any position. I can’t remember the name of the goalkeeper because he never had anything to do.’

Lee remembers it. ‘I had a diving header from six or seven yards that hit Felix on the shoulder and should have gone in. He was the luckiest bloke in the world to save it but he did. I was told that, in Brazil, they rate that save better than Banks’s.’

Brazil captain Alberto poses next to England skipper Bobby Moore before their clash in Mexico

England captain Bobby Moore, who had been wrongly accused of stealing a gold bracelet before the tournament, produced a majestic tackle to dispossess Brazil’s leading goalscorer in the tournament Jarzinho. Lee puts it best: ‘Bobby was a great player. Not the quickest in the world but he read the game like the Beano.’

In the end, it was Jarzinho, nicknamed the ‘Hurricane of the Cup’ and still the only player to score in every game at a World Cup, who earned Brazil their win. Moore and Pele, both topless, exchanged shirts after the game in another image for the ages.

‘It was our most difficult match, no doubt,’ added Rivellino. ‘It was a game of chess. They could have scored first. After the match, we thought it was probable we would meet England again in the final.’

Brazil, inspired by Pele, just kept getting better and better as they raced through to the final

They wouldn’t. West Germany sent England home after extra-time in the quarter-finals despite Ramsey’s side being 2-0 up until the 68th minute.

Brazil kept getting better. Further wins over Romania, Peru and Uruguay saw Brazil secure their place in the final against Italy.

It was in their semi-final with Uruguay that Pele scrambled the brains of goalkeeper with his legendary dummy. Uruguay goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz’s raced off his line as Pele tracked Tostao’s through ball. Instead of taking a touch, Pele let it run, while running around the keeper on the other side. All that was missing was the finish.

Pele hugs Gerson in delight as they toast their victory following a famous World Cup win

There was nothing missing in the final. Pele headed in Rivellino’s cross, Gerson fired in a second and Jairzinho added his seventh goal of the tournament.

It’s the last goal that everyone remembers. Already 3-1 up, and only three minutes left, Brazil could have been content to coast to glory — but not this team.

Their perfect campaign finished with the perfect goal.

Tostao, Alberto and Jaizinho are jubilant after scoring the perfect goal to wrap up a 4-1 victory

Alberto lifts the Jules Rimet trophy high with the Brazil team carving their names into history

Eight outfield players touched the ball from start to finish. Clodoaldo dribbled past four players in his own half. Tostao found Pele just outside the box, screaming to him that Alberto was making a run on the right. Pele, with no more than a glance, rolled the ball into the space. Alberto latched on to it and smashed it past the goalkeeper.

The celebrations began. By the time Pele returned to the dressing room, fans had stripped him of his shirt, shorts, socks, boots and shin pads. He emerged in his under pants and sombrero.

He proclaimed to his team-mates that he was still alive after all. So, too, are the memories he and that beautiful team created. Ones that, now 50 years old, go on being remembered forever.

Additional reporting by Alex Sabino and Janet Tappin Coelho

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