Mexico 70 and that save: The story behind the most famous save ever

Mexico 70 1970 World Cup Banks save Pele

Ask anyone what’s the greatest save ever made, pound to a penny the most frequently mentioned will be Gordon Banks against Brazil in 1970.

It’s famous. The one all others are measured by.

Some of the hype behind it may have been because this was the first technicolour World Cup. There wasn’t that much live football back then, so the nominations weren’t that frequent. Whereas today, there’s so much football it’s easy to forget some of the candidates.

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Whichever way, that save from Banks is still regarded by many as the best ever. If it isn’t the best, it has to be the most famous.

But what did the characters involved in that particular performance think about it?

Thanks to Andrew Downie’s excellent book on the tournament The Greatest Show on Earth: The Inside Story of the Legendary 1970 World Cup you can find out.

I thoroughly recommend the book as it contains excerpts from interviews with the main protagonists collected over the years. It gives us a wonderful insight into the thoughts of players and coaches who were involved in the whole shebang.

The England v Brazil match in Guadalajara in 1970 was regarded by many at the time as the Final before the Final. The world champions of the past three tournaments went toe-to-toe in the searing mid-day heat.

It is one of the games when few people talk about the goal which decided it, rather the goal that didn’t.

The move begins with Carlos Alberto bringing the ball forward in the right-back position for Brazil. He plays a sumptuously weighted pass with the outside of his right foot down the wing.

England’s left-back was Leeds United’s Terry Cooper. He had the unenviable task of trying to mark Jairzinho, the man who’d taken over the right-wing position from the legendary, Garrincha. Jairzinho was that good no Brazilian coach would’ve wanted to have to choose between the two of them.

Anyway, back to Carlos Alberto’s pass. It had to be bent like it was as it went inside the full-back and curled towards the right with just the correct weight Jairzinho was able to take it on without losing any speed.

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As he reached the bye-line he crossed towards the far post. The ball took a bobble so he got under it to lift it which obviously took some of the power off the cross.

This was important.

Pelé was at the far post with Everton’s Brian Labone.

Pelé was the greatest player in the world. This was his fourth World Cup, he already had two winners’ medals in his locker. This was expected to be his last tournament. The previous two had been a personal disappointment. He was injured in the first game in 1962 and then in 1966 was literally kicked out of the tournament by heavy-handed treatment from Hungary and Bulgaria.

He was there to round off his international career with another medal.

Pelé was known for many things, nearly all of them better than anyone else could do. One of them was his prodigious leap.

With the cross given more air than he would’ve preferred, Pelé had to add his own power to the header rather than rely solely on the pace on the cross.

Pelé physique was often what people noticed when they first met him. Thighs like tree trunks but also incredibly strong neck muscles.

So when Pelé met the ball he gave it everything. Knowing Banks was regarded as the best keeper on the planet, his header would have to be good.

He aimed it downwards, right at the base of Banks’ right-hand post. Naturally, the keeper had positioned himself to cover his near post when the cross was made. Consequently, he was scrambling across his goal when Pelé headed the ball.

It was the best place to put the header. Any other height and a keeper would be able to reach it. Place it as low as possible, with enough power and even if Banks got his hand to it he’d have no chance of getting enough strength in his save to stop the ball.

That was the theory.

In practice, Pelé’s header was perfect, so was Banks’ save. He got down low and got enough power in his save to push the ball up and over the bar.

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It all happened so fast television struggled to capture it.

Banks picks up the story;

“I moved two feet off my line, expecting Jairzinho to cross to the penalty spot, in the belief that, since Pelé had now just entered our penalty area, I’d be first to the ball. Only Jairzinho didn’t aim for the penalty spot. He whipped the ball across to a point just outside my six-yard box, a yard or so in from my right-hand post. As I turned my head I saw Pelé again. He’d made ground fast and such was the athleticism of the man he’d already launched himself into the air. As an attacking header it was textbook stuff. He rose above the ball and headed it hard and low towards my right-hand corner. The moment the ball left his head I heard Pelé shout ‘Golo!’”

He went onto explain;

“Faced with a situation like that your mind becomes clear. All your experience and technique take over. One thing did flash through my mind: if I do make contact, I’ll not hold this. The ball hit the deck two yards in front of me. My immediate concern was how high it would bounce. It left the turf and headed towards my right-hand corner, but I managed to make contact with the finger of my gloved right hand. It was the first time I’d worn these particular gloves. I’d noticed that the Mexican and South American goalkeepers wore gloves that were larger than their British counterparts, with palms covered in dimpled rubber. I’d been so impressed with this innovation that I’d invested in two pairs. Those little rubber dimples did their stuff: the bouncing ball didn’t immediately glance off my hand and I was able to scoop it high into the air. But another through flashed through my mind. In directing the ball upwards, I might only succeed in flicking it up into the roof of the net. So I rolled my right hand, slightly, using the third and fourth fingers as leverage. I landed crumpled against the inner side netting of the goal, and my first reaction was to look at Pelé. I hadn’t a clue where the ball was. He’d ground to a halt, head clasped between his hands, and I knew then all that I needed to know.”

Banks was known for his modesty, so what he said next was hardly a surprise to those who knew him;

“Ninety-nine times out of a hundred Pelé’s shout of ‘Golo!’ would have been justified, but on that day I was equal to the task. It was really just about being in the right place at the right time – one of those rare occasions when years of hard work and practice combine in one perfect moment. As Pelé positioned himself for the resulting corner he turned to me and smiled. He told me he thought that he’d scored. So did I – and I told him as much. ‘Great save, mate’ he said.”

Pelé rates it as the best save of the World Cup;

“Banks made what was to my mind the best save of the World Cup. Not because it was my header. I just am recognising the fact. The header was hard, surprisingly hard, and in the corner. The keeper’s dive was instantaneous and efficient.”

Whenever the two met down the years Pelé would say to Banks that whenever he travels around the world people talk about the goals he scored. But when he gets to England all they talk about is that save.

Banks doesn’t actually rate it as his best. Of course, he’s proud of it, but he points to one he made a couple of years later as his best.

He was playing in the League Cup Semi-Final for Stoke City. They were up against West Ham United. The Hammers were awarded a penalty and Banks’ good friend from England duty, Geoff Hurst was to take it.

The pressure was really on both of them. They knew each other’s game so well. Banks saved it, pushing it onto the bar and over. Stoke won and reached their first major Final. They went on to beat Chelsea 2-1 to lift their first major trophy.

As many know Banks was eventually beaten an hour into the Brazil match with Jairzinho scoring the only goal of the game. It meant Brazil could go on and win the group, giving them, what they considered to be, a slightly easier route to the Final which also meant staying in Guadalajara. England finished second and had to travel to León to play West Germany.

Despite leading 2-0 and seemingly coasting, England eventually lost 2-3. Banks was ill and couldn’t take part in the game. His replacement, Peter Bonetti received a lot of criticism for letting in goals many believed Banks would’ve saved.

Ironically, Bonetti was the Chelsea keeper when Stoke beat them in the League Cup Final.

The final word on that save should probably go to England captain Bobby Moore. Right after the save, Moore said out loud;

“You’re getting old Banksy. You used to hold on to them”