Mexico 70: An introduction to the greatest show on earth

Mexico 70 - the 1970 World Cup

The World Cup of 1970, held in Mexico, was one of the most anticipated versions of the event. The competition had finally seemed to grab the attention of the world.

In 1958 a teenager helped Brazil win for the first time, and it was just what the tournament needed to grow up. 1970 was when the World Cup moved from a teenager to an adult.

After the Second World War, FIFA was desperate to make their tournament into a rival for the Olympics. It was launched back in 1930 to allow countries to field professional teams when the Olympics were primarily amateur-only. This caused resentment and complexity for those who ‘played by the rules’ only to find they came up against teams of paid players.

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The 1950 tournament had the shock of Brazil losing at home to Uruguay in the Final Match. In front of 200,000 people, the majority of who expected nothing less than a home win, Uruguay picked their pocket and walked off with their second world title.

Two things made it worse for Brazil. Not only were Uruguay their fiercest rivals on the pitch at that stage, but they had refused to take part in the two European tournaments of the 1930s. This was in revenge for what they perceived as a snub for European nations missing from their own tournament in 1930.

Uruguay had only competed in two World Cups and won them both.

In 1954 Hungary was far and away the best side in the world. Cruised through the group stages, designed to make sure they made it to the knock-out stage. Then they cruised through that too, beating the other two best teams in the world to reach the Final.

They were up against West Germany. Nowhere near the fearsome prospect they would become. They were a country still reeling from the effects of war, both economically and psychologically. No one had heard of any of their players and the bookies had stopped taking bets on a Hungarian win.

Hungary were two goals to the good inside the first eight minutes. Astonishingly the Germans came back to win 3-2.

Now the World Cup brand was getting some traction.

But what it really needed to capture the public’s attention was a superstar player. Four years later they got their wish.

Coming of age

A 17-year-old Pelé arrived in Sweden in ‘58. The youngest player to play in a World Cup. He scored a Semi-Final hat-trick against France and followed it up with a double in the Final as Brazil lifted the World Cup for the first time.

In 1962 they retained their title. This was done mainly without Pelé, who lasted one and a half matches before tearing a thigh muscle.

England, the mother country and inventor of the game, had finally joined the party by lifting the trophy for the first time in 1966. They were still one of the best teams in the world in 1970. There are some who believe the team Alf Ramsey selected for 1970 was stronger than the one he had in 1966.

1966 had taken the imagination, not just because it was in England and the host nation won, but also because television technology had advanced further and made the competition more accessible.

Four years later FIFA planned to take full advantage of this. With much of Europe now enjoying colour television this was the first World Cup audiences would be able to watch in that format. With satellite technology now further developed, they had the prospect of being able to watch them live.

This World Cup saw the birth of the pundit panel in Britain. Originally the birthchild of Coventry City chairman, Jimmy Hill, he persuaded bosses at ITV to bring in some lively characters to debate the issues of the day on each game. Lively is certainly one way to describe some of the discussion and so successful it was ITV claimed better viewing figures than BBC for the only time.

Characters such as Malcolm Allison (Manchester City manager), Derek Dougan (Wolves and Northern Ireland international), Pat Crerand (Manchester United and Scotland) and Bob McNab (Arsenal and England) often argued and clashed with their views but there was no doubt this was the perfect recipe to get the audience back home to tune in.

They were very much of their time, though. Seems clear they’ve had one or two ‘sharpeners’ before going on and in some of the programmes Allison filled the studio with cigar smoke. But the debate was what many of the watching public had been calling out for. Hill came up with a format which replicated discussions heard in many pubs up and down the country.

New ideas and innovations

FIFA too, had grand plans for this tournament. It was the first to be held outside Europe or South America and it would be broadcast on television to a worldwide audience for the first time. It had taken them a while and slowly but surely FIFA was waking up to the marketing prospects of their tournament. In 1970 the Olympics was head and shoulders above any other sporting tournament. Mexico built the Aztec Stadium in 1966 purely for the Games two years later. It would now be the venue for FIFA’s crown jewel.

A number of features once considered irrelevant were now potential money-spinners. The ball. Why would it matter what the ball looked like? That was the thinking back then. Not any more. The Adidas Telstar became the first celebrity in ball fashion.

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32 panels, 12 black pentagons and 20 white hexagons, it provided the ideal visual option for those watching on tv. It didn’t matter whether you were watching in colour or black & white, it still stood out. The rather drab brown ones of the past were now consigned permanently there.

A measure of its success was that FIFA reported 600,000 balls were sold after the tournament. The black and white colour scheme became the staple diet for World Cup balls thereafter.

With a proper functioning marketing department in full brainstorming mode, FIFA planned to make the draw into such a spectacle as to properly whet the public’s appetite.

One innovation that would be rolled out for the first time was the introduction of red and yellow cards for the referees. English ref, Ken Aston, had come up with the idea back in 1966 after driving home from the England v Argentina game.

Whilst sat at traffic lights he hit upon the idea for cards to give the spectators in the ground, and the television audience a way of following what was going on. During the match he’d just witnessed there was confusion over whether Jack Charlton had been booked or not. Of course, that match was infamous for the dismissal of Argentine skipper, Rattin, who took an age to leave the pitch. Aston argued had there been a card shown to him, not only would he have been in no doubt what had happened but the public watching in the stands and on TV would know too.

Another new innovation would be the use of substitutes. Prior to this if a player was injured during a game they either carried on or went off leaving their side to continue with just ten men. The 1970 World Cup gave teams the option to make up to two substitutions during the game.

With a host of new ideas and innovations, the growth of the tournament around the world attracted one or two complaints about favouritism for some parts, mainly Europe. FIFA was under the influence of Sir Stanley Rous and with football in Europe being far more developed than anywhere in the world, other parts of the global game were being held back. And they felt it too.

Success for Brazil was one of the factors that helped Joao Havelange launch a bid to wrestle control from the old guard within FIFA and produce the spark that ignited the growth of many unloved parts of the world game.

A bigger qualifying campaign

In 1966 all 15 African countries boycotted the qualifying campaign on the back of FIFA’s decision to award one place for Africa, Asia and Oceania. The African Confederation argued qualifying was expensive enough for countries to organise, let alone stand the lottery it could all be for nowt if they had to face off in a further qualifying round against others from Asia and Oceania.

In 1970 they were back as FIFA conceded the argument giving Africa their own qualifying place.

Morocco claimed it, for the first time in their history. Happy days FIFA initially thought but then reality kicked in. Another nation that would be there for the first time was Israel.

Israel had defeated Egypt in the Six-Day War in 1967. Three years later they were then battling a coalition of Arab states, known as the War of Attrition. As nearly every Muslim country had an objection to Israel, once Morocco qualified FIFA knew they would have an issue with the draw. Morocco duly threatened to withdraw from the tournament.

Desperate to protect the integrity of the tournament, FIFA agreed to keep the two nations apart until at least the Semi-Finals.

But that wasn’t the end of any disagreements. As the Olympics was soon discovering, the bigger an event becomes the more you expose conflicts between nations who want to be heard.

El Salvador and Honduras were having their own neighbourhood dispute. When the two met in one of the qualifiers it gave the respective governments an excuse to whip up anti-feeling and the result was a minor war which lasted for a few days.

El Salvador qualified for their first trip to a World Cup to make it three newcomers.

New teams to negotiate would’ve been enough for some, but it was the conditions at the host nation that caused most concern for every nation.

All of them had to give serious consideration to the altitude and the heat.

Preparing for the heat and the altitude

Most countries took the opportunity to send their players to Mexico on a short trip a few months before the tournament to get them used to the conditions.

This didn’t suit the Belgians who pretty quickly got ‘cabin fever’ from spending too much time in their hotel as homesickness kicked in.

Bulgaria had the strangest idea. Bearing in mind the country was still under the iron grip of a communist regime run mainly from Moscow. The powers that be took the extremely odd decision to concentrate solely on altitude rather than temperature. They sent their players to Belmeken, about 2,000 metres above sea level. This matched León for height, but it was the ‘polar opposite’ in terms of temperature being in the mountains and freezing cold.

Sweden suffered for being too slow with their planning. After playing a couple of pre-tournament friendlies in Mexico City and Puebla they stayed in a lovely hotel in Mexico City. But unfortunately for the players they soon discovered the Italians had already booked the hotel and so they had to skulk off to Toluca and stay in, what was an old people’s home.

England took their own food and water as a precaution as the English were still pretty suspicious of other countries. But they were also warned to be extremely careful about security issues and risk of kidnapping. England had a 24-hour armed guard. All the teams were watched by at least two police cars whenever they went training.

Of course, England had, had their own distractions to contend with. They’d spent time in Ecuador before moving onto Colombia in a bid to get the squad used to high altitude.

Two Bobby’s one necklace

Once they’d checked into their hotel in Bogota a few of the players explored the shops on the ground floor. They’d been warned against going out into the streets and certainly not in groups of less than three. Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton meandered into a jewellery shop. Charlton was looking for a necklace for his wife. They looked at a piece, asked the price and once they discovered it was worth more than his house, they pair left and sat down on one of the sofas in the hotel lobby. Suddenly the shop assistant came running out saying a necklace had gone missing accusing Moore of stealing a bracelet.

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The pair protested their innocence, started to help look for the item and offered to be searched. This was never done, instead the police were called and Moore was carted off,

It was laughable if it wasn’t so serious, to think of two of the most unlikeliest thieves you could meet, Moore and Charlton.

The incident soon exploded into an international one. Eventually, the squad, including their captain, were allowed to leave on a flight back to Quito to play a couple of friendlies. Moore played and the whole team believed the saga was over.

They were due to fly back to Bogota before moving on to Mexico City. Once they landed in Bogota, Moore was re-arrested and this time they detained him. The squad flew to Mexico City without him.

Moore was placed under house arrest and a date for a court appearance was set.

The story by now was a global one. Eventually, when it came to court the case unravelled on lack of any evidence. He was freed and allowed to join up with the squad with their opening game just a few days away.

Uruguay arrived a month before the tournament kicked off. They’d received advice from doctors it would take that long to fully acclimatise.

The altitude was the biggest fear for the players, though. It made it difficult to recover from sprints. Energy levels were sapped far quicker than they would normally expect. Even walking in 35-degree heat was tough.

The Italians had to change their approach to the way they played. Traditionally they would defend and then hit teams on the counter. But that was tougher at altitude as players needed more time to recover and this was when their opponents would attack them.

To compound the issues the Bulgarians had already experienced in their snow-capped preparation, there was another unbelievably ludicrous decision their communist regime had for them. Deny them free access to water. They were given 0.2 litre cup of water three times a day. And that was it. The players obviously devised various ways of deviously getting hold of water and hiding it from team officials, but in the end they just didn’t have enough and consequently ran out of energy.

For all their home advantage familiarity, the hosts suffered a major setback on the eve of the tournament. They were taking this World Cup very seriously. The players had been in training camp five months before the whole thing kicked off. They played 13 friendlies, including a couple of games against Dundee United, who were over for a short tour.

But just days before they opened the festival, Alberto Onofre broke his leg in training. It came about in a collision with teammate, Juan Manuel Alejándrez as rain lashed down. Onofre had started in the warm-up matches so they had no time to practice with a replacement.

Mexico just had to make the best of things as they prepared to take on the Soviet Union in the opening fixture. The excitement had already reached fever pitch.

We will be covering the tournament on a day-by-day basis so you can follow its progress as if you were there. You can follow the twists and turns of each team’s fortunes as they look to get out of the group and into the knock-out phase.

Among the many sources for research I have used, much of the information regarding teams’ preparation for the tournament have come from the excellent “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Inside Story of the Legendary 1970 World Cup” written by Andrew Downie.

Before we get going with the tournament we will take a look at the qualifying phase over two days, before moving into a day-by-day account of Mexico 70.

See you tomorrow – until then!