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BOWLER’S DELIVERY: Giant steps are what you take…

It’s football what defies science mate, not moon landings

THERE’S a school of thought that argues that the modern world as we live in it now began 47 years ago today, on July 20th 1969 at the moment when Apollo 11’s lunar module touched down on the surface of the moon.

This is all very well, but most proper scholars will surely agree that the world truly changed with the advent of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, a tournament when we first actually made contact with beings from another world, masquerading as Brazilians. 

Retrospect suggests that it was the vibrancy of the colour that made that World Cup so transcendent, a tournament that wore the psychedelic garb of the 1960s in one last defiant gesture just as John Lennon was telling us that that particular dream was over. 

The reality though is that it was the football itself that provided the colour, for the bulk of the nation’s television sets could still only receive black and white pictures. We’ve since coloured the images in for ourselves over the years from repeated viewings of the golden moments of this most enduringly precious of tournaments but for most of us watching in monochrome, Brazil were not the team in the canary yellow shirts. They were just aliens, plain and simple.

The two events, moon landing and World Cup, are inextricably linked in my memory given that these most seismic of happenings tended to happen late at night so that those of us who were five or six at the time got to see most of it relayed through recorded highlights shown the following day, surreal in itself.

It seemed as if one dinnertime highlights programme featuring Neil Armstrong cavorting across a pitch reminiscent of the Baseball Ground was then seamlessly replaced by Frank Bough introducing the latest shots of Rivelino defying the laws of physics without need for recourse to this weightlessness business. It was just the same programme wasn’t it? Life was just perpetually this full of astonishing moments surely? This stuff was even better than “Stingray”.

This was still a world where the Likely Lads could plausibly avoid the England score all day long before watching highlights of a foreign international on “Sportsnight With Coleman” that evening. 

Thankfully however, there was no need for that, for the BBC had gone World Cup crazy and actually put a highlights show on in the morning, a decade and more before Bough re-emerged as a wholly different kind of breakfast television personality. This meant that you could gen up on the goings on before you headed off for school and not have to hide your head inside your PE bag every time somebody mentioned the word England. 

Those are deeply impressionable years, being five and six, and things seem to jumble together one way or another, becoming one great mass rather than individual, discrete events. 

Surely Buzz Aldrin was playing outside left for Bulgaria wasn’t he? Hadn’t Luigi Riva been inside the Lunar Module with Armstrong? Wasn’t the Sea of Tranquility just down the road from Guadalajara? Wasn’t that Michael Collins singing backing harmonies on England’s number one smash, “Back Home”? So many questions, so much confusion, so much exactly the same. 

Thank the Good Lord in his infinite wisdom for the provision of the sticker book. Of course, these were not stickers in the Panini sense of today, slick, self adhesive things with their fancy dan peel-off backing, a by-product of the space race itself I shouldn’t be surprised. Oh no, if you had a copy of the World Cup Soccer Stars Mexico ’70 book, you were into the realms of DIY. 

The stickers, printed on paper so wafer thin that they would not have troubled Mr Creosote’s digestion, had to be glued into the pages. This was a delicate business, requiring your tiny six year old hands to place a thin bead of gum across the top of the sticker. Adding any more meant that the sticker would then cover up the player biography written in the space where the sticker was intended to go, meaning that you could no longer read of exotic places like Sofia – wasn’t that a girl? In the World Cup? – and Casablanca. 

It demanded you acquire mastery beyond your years of those strange old glue pots that came equipped with a red funnel affair on the top, rubber that you had to slice through in order to let the glue out, the glue almost immediately doing what came naturally and gumming up the slit, a portent for a future of which I was still wholly innocent.

But the key thing with these “stickers” was that they were different to the Apollo 11 pictures that came with the boxes of tea, in the days when you not only got an “Oooo” with Typhoo, you got a little bit of card as well. Sturdier by far than the slivers of paper reserved for footballers, it seemed to scream out that walking on the moon was a greater achievement than playing in the World Cup, the kind of notion that was surely a split decision at best. 

Certainly, much as I’d sat in thrall at those grainy pictures coming back from the Moon through that summer of 1969, it was a bit difficult to get fully swept up in the sense of awe that seemed to strike the grown ups. After all, didn’t this stuff happen all the time? We were on the Moon, so what? 

I came to realise later that this was merely a function of age and the armour plated human ego that suggests that no life existed prior to our own, something I now understand when I see five year olds manipulating an iPad as though it’s an extra hand while I’m struggling to work out which end to plug in the adaptor. 

And the Moon, what’s so clever about that anyway? After all, I could see that every night, I only had to look up in the sky. But where was Mexico? I couldn’t see that, so surely that must be even harder to get to? One small step for man? Pah! What about bending the ball past a wall with this new fangled “banana shot” that the Brazilians could knock out at will?

Having grown up on a diet of Gerry Anderson cartoons, interplanetary excursions didn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility. But the things that happened in Mexico, they truly were impossible. Pele trying to score from the halfway line, dummying a goalkeeper on the edge of the box, Gordon Banks making a save when the ball already seemed past him. We’d never managed anything like that in the playground. This business was mesmerising. Why weren’t the BBC getting James Burke to explain all that while Pink Floyd noodled away in the background?

In some ways, I guess six years old was the perfect age to experience Mexico ’70 because it was football’s fairy story in many ways, not least because, in that rare twist for the usually imperfect game, it had the happiest of endings – it knocked Euro 2016 into the most cocked of hats, I can tell you that. 

The best team won and they did it by playing sublime football not just during the tournament but in the final itself and that game duly came to the most shattering of crescendos, an orgasmic climax with a goal that should be shown to any non-believers. 

If, after watching Brazil’s fourth goal in their demolition of Italy, you find someone whose soul is unstirred, let them jump off that cliff they’re edging towards. They’re beyond saving.

For that goal is a human achievement on an unparalleled scale, a feat of creative artistry akin to getting Dali, Picasso, Da Vinci, Monet, Manet, Rembrandt, Pollock, Michelangelo, Matisse, Cezanne and Van Gogh (Dutch playmaker) in one room together – yes, I know a few would have been a bit mouldy – to collaborate on one painting so all encompassing, so breathlessly beautiful that to simply gaze upon it would cause the brain to boil and the top of your head to blow off. Such instances where an entire combine are at the top of their game and come together to forge one blistering moment of shimmering perfection are few and far between. 

Harrying back into defence, Tostao eases the ball away from Italy’s Juliano and rolls it back to Brito on the edge of his own penalty area. The ball is handed gently on to Clodalado, to Pele. He plays a simple five yard ball to Gerson and lollops forward while Gerson knocks it back to Clodalado. 

Now the fairy dust descends. 

Clodalado strides and stretches, the ball always looking as if it might squirt from his grasp, yet never does it leave his absolute mastery as he skips and slaloms away from four Italians in the space of a dozen yards before picking out Rivelino on the left wing.

With the languid air of a man who has just stepped out of a balmy afternoon on the terrace in a Wodehouse novel, he uncoils his left foot and describes the ball 25 yards forward where Jairzinho collects it with the same prehensile ease with which a lizard flicks out its tongue and wraps it around a fly. 

Now, danger. 

The tempo switches from stroll to sprint, Jairzinho cutting inside and then rolling it across to the top of the penalty area to Pele, now just on the right side of the D. The world’s greatest footballer, playing his final World Cup game, four minutes left on the clock. Surely he is about to crown the greatest career in the most swashbuckling fashion?

Crown it he does, but it’s better than simply scoring from 20 yards. Much better. He rolls the ball from one foot to another, then with his left foot, he scoops it out to the right side of the box and sets off on a stroll forward What is he doing? There’s nobody there. It’s no wonder the old boy is retiring, he’s clearly losing it. So sad, and so close to the end too. Still, it comes to us all. 

And then there’s this blur and before you can work out what’s happening, the ball is in the back of the net. Carlos Alberto has appeared from nowhere, run onto the ball and, without breaking stride, has bludgeoned it beyond Albertosi and in. The greatest goal of all time.

But go back and watch the film again, with all that you know of science uppermost in your mind. You will see that Carlos Alberto is not there and then he is. I put it you, dear reader, that rather than merely galloping forward, the Brazilian captain was teleported into position a la Star Trek. 

And that is why the World Cup of 1970 was a far greater achievement than landing on the Moon. I rest my case.