By so many standards the 1970 World Cup in Mexico was far and away the best. There were so many stand-out moments they would fill a book, and probably have. Best goals, best team, best player etc, etc. But, and perhaps surprisingly, the pinnacle iconic moment for many was the save from Gordon Banks to deny Pelé’s header. It is so highly regarded as the best save of all time that it is forever known as ‘that save’.
England went to Mexico as World Cup holders and Gordon Banks set a new record by just being there. He became the first English goalkeeper to compete in successive finals. And at the heart of the team were players who had lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy four years earlier; Banks, Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton and Geoff Hurst, so optimism was high.
From an England perspective, and more so for us fans, we knew that at some point the holders would have to face Brazil, Pelé et al.
It was the first World Cup televised in colour but even then, nearly 50 years ago, the power and influence of television that is omnipotent in 2014, was already flexing its financial muscle. European broadcasters insisted on noon kick-offs – in Mexico in high summer!
Problems for England started ahead of the game when some Mexican fans, favouring Brazil, spent the night before the game driving up and down past the England team hotel honking horns and generally making sleep disturbing mayhem. By the early hours the damage was done and several England players had to move rooms.
The high noon kick-off and England in white with Brazil in yellow made viewing back home awkward to say the least.
Eleven minutes gone and what the watching world then saw was sheer magic from every conceivable football perspective. It was the height of finesse from both attack and defence which is the very essence of football – which, in the wake of that World Cup, Pelé christened The Beautiful Game.
Carlos Alberto, who defined the art of the attacking full-back, slipped the perfect pass into the path of Jairzinho, who left scorch marks on Terry Cooper as the Leeds man was left in his wake. The flying winger hit the bi-line and hit a cross of sheer perfection towards the far post with Gordon Banks seemingly stranded at the near post. Removing several England defenders out of any effective resistance the world waited as Pelé rose.
From a standing jump, Pelé seemed to hover for several seconds, with a smile already on his face in anticipation, nay expectation, of the ball hitting the net. The powerful neck muscles of the best player on the planet hammered the ball downwards into the sun-baked turf at the kind of angle that would see it bounce upwards in to the roof of the net. But then the England keeper defied the laws of physics, gravity and all known logic to produce a save that is revered to this day.
When the ball left Jairzinho’s foot Banks was woefully out of position. Yet he managed to turn and sprint along his line, but was still in transit as Pelé headed the ball. What made Gordon’s save extra special was the fact that when he dived full length to get his hand to the ball he had the time and instinctive presence of mind to flex his wrist under the ball, and with the flat of the fist bat it upwards in front of the bar and to safety.
Those closest to the incident heard Pelé scream ‘goal’ as soon as the ball left his forehead. In the blink of an eye between Pelé making contact with the ball and landing back on his feet Gordon Banks had covered 24 feet, sideways.
Gordon recalled afterwards;
“You have to look at who the save was from and the awkwardness of what I had to do to even get my hand on it. I had to anticipate how high it was as it wasn’t dropping alongside my dive but was bouncing a couple of yards in front of me. That meant I had to anticipate how high it would come off the hard surface just to get my hand to it.”
While the football world lauded ‘that save‘, and still does to this day, Gordon’s thought afterwards summed up the man. He said;
“I remember thinking afterwards, ‘Banksy, you lucky prat'”.