The World Cup starts in a few minutes time, when Brazil play Croatia. As usual, it will bring me on a four-yearly journey back to my childhood in Willow Park on the north side of Dublin. I turned nine as the 1970 World Cup began in the exotic faraway land of Mexico, located somewhere in the deepest recesses of our black and white television sets.
In the months leading up to the tournament, my pestered dad bought enough petrol to fuel a convoy so I could collect Esso coins with the England squad’s faces on them. I also painstakingly filled my album of World Cup cards, and marveled at a friend who could, at a glance, identify such exotic aliens as Enrique Borja of Mexico and Teofilio Cubillas of Peru.
My childhood friends and I were too young to be infected by the Irish sociological schizophrenia of supporting English club sides while hating the England national side. Many of us supported Leeds or Chelsea, who had just played in the 1970 FA Cup Final, and we also supported England in the World Cup.
England was my team, not just because they had four Leeds players (Terry Cooper, Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter and Allan Clarke) in their squad, and three more (Paul Reaney, Paul Madeley and Mick Jones) who didn’t make the final squad but who were still in my Esso coin collection.
But it was also because they had Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters… all comfortably familiar faces from watching Match of the Day, playing against a bunch of foreigners on the other side of the planet. The foreign baddies also proved their mettle before the tournament even began, with England captain Bobby Moore was arrested and detained in Colombia after he was falsely accused of stealing a bracelet.
Equally importantly, England’s campaign song ‘Back Home’ was number one on Top of the Pops. “Back home, they’ll be thinking about us when we are far away, back home, they’ll be really behind us in every game we play…” I had a poster of the England team on my bedroom wall, beside the Leeds squad, Johnny Giles, George Best, Lynn Paul of the New Seekers and, bizarrely randomly in retrospect, Ray Dorset of Mungo Jerry.
I knew nothing about the Ireland team, who had not qualified for Mexico ‘70. I was even unaware of my local club side, Bohemians, who I later spent most of my childhood weekends supporting. I discovered later that Czechoslovakia had won Ireland’s qualifying group.
As I carefully affixed the Gerd Muller card into the West Germany page of my album, I had no idea that the real Gerd Muller was preparing for a friendly against Ireland. The Irish squad was travelling on an overcrowded train from Poland to West Berlin. FAI officials, fresh from their customary ‘good time’ (yes, that does mean drink and prostitutes) in Poland, sat on seats. The players sat on their cases in the luggage carriage.
Back home, I was absorbed in the magical world of football, oblivious of the mysterious parallel world of the FAI. As I had hoped, I saw the best football I had ever seen; but it was not from where I had expected. I had now discovered Brazil, with their alluring single-barreled names like Felix, Gerson, Jairzinho, Tostao, Rivelino and Pelé.
England beat Romania 1-0 in their opening game. Alan ball lofted the ball into the penalty area, and Francis Lee headed it on to Geoff Hurst, who turned and beat a defender before shooting a low drive into the corner of the net. England then faced Brazil, who had also won their opening game, against Czechoslovakia.
England against Brazil was an incredible game. Gordon Banks made one of the best saves in the world, stopping a powerful header from Pele, the best player in the world. Bobby Moore made a perfectly-timed tackle to stop the unstoppable Jairzinho, that was later immortalised in the lyrics of Baddeil and Skinners Three Lions song. And Pele taunted the England defenders before passing to Jairzinho to score the winning goal for Brazil.
England qualified for the quarter finals by beating Czechoslovakia, then lost dramatically to West Germany after losing a two goal lead. Brazil won their quarter final against Peru, and then won their semi-final against Peru. They then faced Italy in the final, who had beaten West Germany in the other semi-final.
Brazil won the final 4-1 in one of the most perfect displays of football I have seen. I can still see their winning goal. A meticulous flow of possession ends with Pelé gently passing the ball into an acre of open space at the right-hand edge of the Italian penalty area. Then, from somewhere outside the right-hand side of my television screen, Carlos Alberto hurtles into the empty space and slams a low shot into the net. 4-1.
I had new heroes. Three years later I saw Brazil play live in Ireland, in a friendly match against an all Ireland team put together by Johnny Giles of the Republic of Ireland and Derek Dougan of Northern Ireland. After that match, I got Derek Dougan’s autograph in the Lansdowne Road car park, and his car ran over my foot as he tried to drive through the throng of fanatical schoolchildren. Not quite as glamorous as Mexico 1970.
I remember Mexico 1970 every four years, whenever the latest World Cup Finals begin. Today a new generation of Brazilians take on Croatia in the opening match. The next month will be fun.