The Ringer’s 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup, a podcast by Brian Phillips, tells the story of some of the most iconic goals and players in the history of the men’s FIFA World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story involves a mesmerizing team goal from Brazil that changed the World Cup forever.
1. The Perfect Goal as an Engine of History
I have a question for you about history.
This is a series about history, after all. We’re here to talk about the history of soccer. Makes sense for us to take a second to figure out where we stand on one of the big questions of the discipline.
Here’s the question.
Do you believe that one moment can change everything?
Do you believe that one era can end and another era can begin in the course of a single moment?
There are different ways to look at this question. You might subscribe to the notion that historical change is always incremental, structural, and slow. That it’s impossible to identify one revolutionary moment because you don’t even know the world has changed for a long time after it happens.
Or you might subscribe to the notion that history is more responsive than that. More alive than that. That history is always up in the air, and one spectacular instant can shift it decisively in one direction or another.
On June 21, 1970, the great British soccer announcer Hugh Johns and the great British defender Bobby Moore are the commentators for the English broadcast of the men’s World Cup final, contested by Brazil and Italy at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
Bobby Moore is still an active player at this point. Captain of the English national team. He’s only available as a TV analyst for the final because England lost in the quarterfinals—they blew a two-goal lead against West Germany.
Brazil is beating Italy 3-1 in the 85th or 86th minute. Late in the game. And Johns and Moore are talking about whether Italy might be able to come back from a two-goal deficit the way West Germany did.
Hugh Johns: Well, it’s late in the game now, but is it long enough for Rivera to change the course for Italy?
Bobby Moore: I very much doubt it. They look very, very tired at the moment, Italy. … And when Brazil get into a situation like this, they’re very, very difficult to beat.
The announcers don’t know it yet, but the passage of play they’re watching right now is about to stake a claim to being one of those spectacular instants.
They’re about to watch a goal so celebrated that it’s often called the best of all time, the perfect goal. They’re about to watch a goal that arguably taught millions of people around the world a new way to appreciate soccer. They’re about to watch a goal so important that I’m not even opening this essay with a tangent. Because what else could you possibly talk about, when you’re talking about this goal?
The announcers don’t see what’s happening right away. If you were watching a moment that changed history, would you know it as it was happening?
Johns: Yes, it would be cruel to say it, but giving away a two-goal advantage could only happen once in the 1970 World Cup. And we know who did that. I don’t think Brazil are going to do that here.
You have to picture this moment in 1970s color TV. It’s still a little shocking to see the World Cup in color in 1970. This is the ninth World Cup. Forty years have passed since Lucien Laurent scored the first-ever World Cup goal.
In those 40 years—with a little pause in the 1940s for a small World War—the tournament has spread around the world. People all over the globe have gone from following the results in newspapers, to listening on radio, to watching live on television.
1954 was the first World Cup broadcast on TV. But this World Cup, 1970, is the first one that’s broadcast in color.
The green grass. The colors in the crowd. Brazil’s bright-yellow shirts. If you’re watching at home, in 1970, you’re seeing all this for the first time.
A moment ago, when Johns was talking about giving away a two-goal advantage, the crowd started cheering. The announcers don’t really note it. But Brazil has stolen the ball way back in their own half. And they’re building a passing move.
This Brazil team has already captivated the world with their astonishingly fluid and graceful and attack-minded style of play. They play with four forwards, a lot of the time. That’s a lot of forwards.
Yellow shirts making intricate patterns against the green background on your TV.
Five passes into this current move, the ball arrives at the feet of a guy in another bright-yellow shirt, the midfielder Clodoaldo. He’s 20 years old. Four Italian players come at him, one after another, like henchmen in an old kung-fu movie. And Clodoaldo dribbles past each one of them. It’s after he beats the third of those guys that the crowd wakes all the way up.
This whole match, Italy’s left back and team captain, Giacinto Facchetti, has been trying to get forward and attack. Facchetti is one of the greatest defenders of all time, a genuinely pioneering player. One of the first true attacking fullbacks in the modern sense.
But this whole game, Facchetti has been getting forward. And because of Italy’s defensive scheme, he’s required to mark Jairzinho, Brazil’s great winger, who often pulls him out of position when he goes back. This has been leaving a dangerous gap on Italy’s left. Bobby Moore has already mentioned this in his commentary.
Now, Clodoaldo beats the last of the four kung-fu henchmen, the midfielder Antonio Juliano, and passes the ball to Brazil’s other great winger, Rivellino, near the touchline. But he’s on Italy’s right side, Rivellino, so even though Facchetti is once again out of position, the situation doesn’t look all that dangerous.
Now, however, Rivellino passes the ball forward to Jairzinho, a player known as the Hurricane because he scores flurries of goals. Jairzinho is a good 8 or 10 yards outside Italy’s penalty area, on the left side of the pitch. His left, Italy’s right. And as Italy’s scheme demands, Facchetti has gotten back to mark him. Facchetti has been dragged all the way over onto the wrong side of the pitch.
And now Jairzhinho fakes Facchetti out with a little stutter-step and uses the resulting space to pass the ball to another fairly well-known Brazilian player who’s waiting in the middle of the pitch outside the box.
That fairly well-known player holds the ball while Brazil’s right back, Carlos Alberto, comes tearing down the pitch into the space left empty by Facchetti.
Ready to receive the pass from Pelé.
And now Hugh Johns—the commentator, genuinely one of the best who ever did it—wakes up to the fact that something amazing is unfolding before his eyes.
Johns: Jairzinho, faced by Facchetti. Oh, that’s not a bad ball for Pelé on the right side! It’s Carlos Alberto! Oh, what a great goal that was! Carlos Alberto!
2. Technicolor Wonder
Oh, what a great goal that was. It is probably the only serious rival to Maradona’s 1986 solo goal against England—see the first installment of our series—as the greatest World Cup goal of all time. It cemented Brazil’s 4-1 win over Italy as they won their third World Cup in four tournaments. But that’s only part of what makes it so crucial to the history of the tournament.
We are here today to talk about Jairzinho. We’re here to talk about Carlos Alberto. And yes, we’re here to talk a bit about Pelé. We’re here to talk about the Technicolor wonder that was Brazil at the 1970 men’s World Cup in Mexico.
A World Cup that’s still considered by connoisseurs of fun—and I consider myself a connoisseur of fun, as long as I don’t have to drive anywhere—to be the fun World Cup nonpareil. The funnest World Cup ever played.
And yes, by the way, I know that’s not the correct use of the word “Technicolor.” Technicolor is a specific set of film-coloration processes deployed during the Golden Age of Hollywood between the 1930s and the 1950s—I have Google too, Brad.
Brazil’s shirts were very yellow. Also they kind of played like they were in an MGM musical. It fits.
Can one moment change everything? Can one passage of play express the beauty of a sport so eloquently that it changes the way that sport is imagined—that it transforms the terms in which that sport is idealized—around the world?
Maybe. I don’t want to open a whole can of nationalist worms by saying what country is the most important, soccer-wise. But I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Brazil has a special place in the game.
Brazil means something to soccer. We’re going to talk about what that is.
Brazil already had a special place in the game by 1970. They’d won the World Cup twice. No one had ever won three. The way it worked was, if you won the World Cup, you got to take the trophy home and keep it for four years.
Remember the Jules Rimet Trophy? The winged woman holding up an orb? The trophy that was stolen in England in 1966, and recovered by Pickles the dog?
We talked about all this way back in Essay 7.
That was the trophy you got to hang onto for four years if you won the tournament. It had been bouncing around from country to country since 1930.
Taking the trophy home—that was great! You wanted to take the trophy home. What you didn’t want was to have to give it back four years later.
Well. There was this strange little rule in 1970. This rule is no longer in effect, but back then, the rule said that if you won the World Cup three times, you got to keep the trophy permanently. The World Cup was yours.
Up to this point, no one’s gotten to keep the trophy permanently, not even the thieves who tried to steal it.
That’s what Brazil is playing for in 1970.
Two other countries had also won the World Cup twice. Italy and Uruguay. They’re playing for the same all-time bragging rights. Well, Brazil beat Uruguay in the semifinals. They’re not going to get it.
As for Italy … the Jules Rimet Trophy, had, in fact, already lived in Italy for many years, because the head of the Italian football association had hidden it in a shoebox under his bed during World War II to stop the Nazis from taking it. Now the Azzurri are trying to beat Brazil and bring the trophy back to Italy.
They’re not going to bring the trophy back to Italy. Sorry, guys.
We’re going to talk about all that. We’re going to talk about Tostão, Pelé’s strike partner in 1970, who started the move that led to Carlos Alberto’s goal way back near the Brazil penalty area, then ran like 80 yards up the pitch to be in a position to alert Pelé that Carlos Alberto was coming down the right flank.
That’s how great this goal was. It didn’t just include brilliant ballhandling, brilliant passing, and brilliant shooting. It included brilliant talking.
Clutch talking. That’s what I’m doing right now.
We’re going to talk about aesthetics. We’re going to talk about history. We’re going to talk about how we conceive of the possibilities encoded within games themselves. We’re going to talk about cool shirts.
Most of all, we’re going to talk about a term that I don’t think we’ve used so far in this program.
I think—incredibly—we’ve done 17 essays without saying these words out loud.
It’s time to say it. We’re going to talk about the idea of the beautiful game. Where it came from. What it means. What’s so important—important to me, anyway; maybe to you, too—about the idea that a game can be beautiful.
This is not a soccer essay, this is the radiant heart of the color yellow. We are curious yellow!
Let’s turn on our thick TVs.
3. Pelé Weeping
The best book I’ve ever read about the 1970 men’s World Cup in Mexico is called The Greatest Show on Earth: The Inside Story of the Legendary 1970 World Cup.
The Greatest Show on Earth. Perfect title for a book about this magnificent circus of a tournament. Maybe every World Cup book should be titled after a circus phrase? My magnum opus about the 2022 World Cup will be called There’s One Born Every Minute.
The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s a really good book. A recent book. It’s by a writer called Andrew Downie, the Brazilian soccer correspondent for Reuters. And it’s an oral history organized by game, so it basically gives you every game in the tournament as remembered by the people involved in it, 50 years later.
Very cool. Check it out. So many great details.
The Brazil players, a lot of them, remember that before the games, they’d sing on the bus. They’d sing samba songs. Maybe you’re familiar with the idea that Brazilian soccer has been influenced by the musical tradition of samba and by the performance tradition of Carnival in Rio.
Rio de Janeiro. Gateway to Brazil. Its startling beauty is dramatically framed by nature.
They sing samba on the bus. Jairzinho plays a drum and leads the songs. On the morning of the final, it’s rainy. They’re riding the bus through Mexico City on this cloudy day. The drum is going. The team is singing.
And Pelé suddenly starts crying. He doesn’t know what’s hit him, but out of nowhere, he unexpectedly begins to weep. Here’s what he tells Andrew Downie about it. He says:
I had a rattle in my hand and I pretended that I had dropped it under the seat of the bus. I stayed bent down until it was over. I didn’t want them to see me. I was, after all, the most experienced guy there and I needed to transmit calm.
Pelé is 29 years old in 1970. He’s in his absolute prime. He’s already won two World Cups. And he’s bent down sobbing on the bus on the way to the Estadio Azteca while the rest of the team sings and shakes rattles and plays drums.
And wow. I don’t know. This image shook me. I’ll be honest. This image made me realize that as much I think I know the 1970 Brazil team—and 1970 Brazil is widely considered the greatest team of all time; you can’t be a soccer fan for long without knowing a lot about them—as much as I think I know about this team, I actually have kind of a hard time seeing them clearly.
You know, sometimes it’s the most legendary teams, the teams you think you know the best, that are the hardest to see on a human level. Because the mental picture of Pelé crying before the match made me see these guys in a whole new way.
Their vulnerability. Their uncertainty. The fact that all this history—this is a series about history—wasn’t written yet when they were creating it. They didn’t know how any of this was going to go.
Brazil’s 1970 World Cup side is a team that captivated the world. The first World Cup broadcast in color, and here comes this joyful, free-flowing, creative, attacking side, playing a kind of soccer no one had ever seen before. Or at least had never seen like this before.
Brazil scored 19 goals in six games in the 1970 World Cup. That’s not a record. Hungary scored, like, nine goals in every game in 1954 before losing in the final. That’s not even that much of an exaggeration. But 19 goals in six World Cup games is a lot.
This team was the coolest thing on the planet in 1970.
And whenever a sports team is this immediately beloved, what happens? Well, they inevitably generate a lot of clichés. At first, the way we talk about them seems fresh and exciting. Then it’s taken up by the general culture, where it gets recycled into brand marketing and slogans and table-setting pregame commentary. And it loses all its freshness and starts to seem kind of deadening.
I mean, samba football. One of the reasons I found that scene on the bus so startling is that I’ve gotten used to seeing the idea of samba football as basically a cliché from Nike ads. I try to kind of filter anything involving samba out of my mental picture of Brazilian soccer. Not out of any disrespect to the musical and dance tradition of samba—which is deep and fascinating and important in Brazilian culture—but because the association seems so tainted by years of cheesy commercial exploitation.
But here’s the Brazilian team actually singing samba on the bus on the way to the stadium. And it’s not cheesy or commercial at all. It’s just a bunch of young guys living through an incredible moment and choosing this way to experience it.
Pelé himself is another example. Pelé is the most famous soccer star who ever lived. For 40 years, it’s been easy to look at Pelé as a kind of corporate invention, not exactly a real person.
Maradona was more or less immune to being reduced in that way. Maradona was such a mess, was such a 50-car pileup of chaos and ego and honesty and problems that you could never see him as a logo or something that had ever touched a focus group. The challenge with Maradona was not to see him as a cartoon.
But Pelé, in his long retirement, has tended to toe the line. He’s been much more Michael Jordan than Mike Tyson. He liked his sponsors. He liked getting paid. He liked overseeing his legacy. He liked the way FIFA sells his legacy. He liked his position in the game.
So it’s been tempting to see him as kind of another cliché. The role alongside Sylvester Stallone in Victory, or Escape to Victory, whatever that movie is officially called. The big loopy signature in the corner of the dorm-room poster where he’s doing the bicycle kick.
You filter that stuff out, which means, in a weird way, that you end up filtering Pelé out. He’s so omnipresent in the game that he becomes invisible.
And I’ve been thinking about this a little more this week because of the news that Pelé is in the hospital. Unconfirmed but widely circulated reports have said he’s receiving end-of-life care. And I’ve been thinking that if this isn’t the moment to reconsider him—to try harder to see him as the person he really was—then what is? But reconsidering him means somehow finding a way to move past the cliché. And that’s not easy.
And then you see him crouched down on a bus, crying his eyes out, hoping his teammates will think he’s looking for a rattle. And you realize he didn’t know what was going to happen in the match he was about to play any more than anyone else did. And he could be just as overwhelmed by the stakes as anyone else.
For me, this is useful to remember. If one moment can change everything, the people who create that moment are living through it in the present. They don’t know the outcome in advance. The greatest soccer team ever assembled can also be a bunch of guys dealing with their nerves by singing on a bus on the way to the biggest game of their lives.
4. The Beautiful Game
There is a question hanging over this essay like an unexpected tear over a strategically dropped maraca.
The question is, what do we mean when we call soccer “the beautiful game”? What does it mean for a game to be beautiful? And of all the games in the world, why is soccer the one that’s been tagged this way? Why is soccer the game that’s most explicitly associated with beauty?
This is a tough one. There are two reasons this is a hard question to talk about. The first reason is that—well, it’s the whole cliché problem all over again. There’s no phrase in soccer that’s a wearier cliché than “the beautiful game.”
The moment you drop those words into a sentence, you might as well pour a Gatorade over your head and declare that you’re going to give 110 percent, leave it all on the field, and take the playoffs one game at a time. If it takes an effort to see Pelé as a fragile human being, it takes an even greater effort to see the notion of “the beautiful game” as a concept that’s alive. That’s relevant to the way we experience sports.
The second reason “the beautiful game” is a hard concept to delve into is that … I mean, have you ever watched a soccer match? Take five random minutes of a randomly selected soccer game. You’re probably not going to see a ton of beauty, in that situation? No offense to soccer. But five minutes of your average, I don’t know, Sparta Rotterdam vs. Go Ahead Eagles match is not necessarily a feast for the senses.
And I mean, soccer wasn’t invented to be beautiful. In the early years of the game, when it was played in English boarding schools and then taken up by workers in industrial cities in the North of England, it wasn’t seen as all that different from rugby or gridiron football.
It was muddy. It was violent. The word “fluid,” in the early years of the game, was less likely to refer to a neat passing move than to a substance leaking out of your body after a tackle. We’ve already talked in this series about the first World Cup, in 1930, which included one player losing four teeth and another player playing an entire half with a broken leg. And that was in the same match!
The whole design of soccer almost goes out of its way not to be beautiful. We talked about this way back in the first installment of this series. The Maradona essay. Almost every other sport you can play gives you something to make you seem stronger or tougher or more graceful than you actually are. Most sports add something to the human body.
You get a bat. You get a racket. You get a ball that bounces on a hard floor. You get a helmet. Whatever.
So what does soccer do instead? Soccer looks at the human body and goes, “Nope. Too graceful. Gotta make it clumsier!” Soccer takes something away from you—your hands—with the result that everything you do becomes 10 times harder. The most elegant athletes in the world suddenly look like lumbering buffoons.
Compare a random five minutes of a random soccer game to five minutes of a random NBA game. Watching soccer might as well be watching babies learn how to walk.
The ball is so hard to control. The action looks so confused. The forces at work on the pitch are so complex.
The players are trying to cope with swarms of other players, with wind speed, with random divots in the grass, and they’re trying to do it with these ridiculous little stubby paddles at the bottoms of their legs.
The game is muddled, a lot of the time. It becomes hard to tell what’s happening on purpose and what’s happening by accident.
And that’s the sport that we collectively agreed to call “beautiful”?
Kinda odd, right? The term itself may have become a cliché, but … yeah. To me, there’s something pretty fascinating—something intriguing—about that mismatch.
It’s intriguing to me that somewhere along the way, we started seeing beauty in a game that seems deliberately alien to it.
5. O Jogo Bonito
So OK. “The beautiful game” is an English phrase, obviously. In Brazil, the term is jogo bonito.
Brazilians speak Portuguese, of course. Footnote 1, see colonialism. I speak English. Footnote 2, see Footnote 1.
You sometimes see the Brazilian idea of the beautiful game rendered as joga bonito. J-o-g-a instead of j-o-g-o. Nike built a whole ad campaign in the ’90s around joga bonito. English speakers are sometimes confused by the difference—as I was, until I Googled it 10 seconds ago.
So here’s the quick explanation for why you see it spelled different ways. It’s basically the same concept, just with a slightly different inflection.
Jogo, with an o, is a noun. Joga, with an a, is a verb. Jogo bonito means “the beautiful game,” joga bonito means “to play beautifully.”
The Nike campaign was “play beautifully.”
Jogo bonito. The origins of the term are disputed. Some people say the English used “beautiful game” before the Brazilians used “jogo bonito.” Some people say the opposite. Doesn’t really matter.
The phrase, in both languages, starts popping up around the 1950s. It didn’t become the default nickname for the game until a long time later—really not until the ’70s, when Pelé put it in the title of his autobiography.
Soccer in Brazil dates back to the late 19th century, when it was introduced by expatriate Europeans. In its early years, the game was elitist. It reflected the racism and classism of Brazilian society as a whole. You couldn’t play for a league team unless you came from an approved background and had a certain amount of money.
Can’t imagine those jogos were all that bonito.
But over the decades, the game spread through all classes of Brazilian society. Poor people turned out to be better at it than rich people, a lot of the time. Hard to believe, I know.
Like samba itself, soccer became a symbol of unified Brazilian identity, a fact that either highlighted its power to effect positive social change or demonstrated its utility as a tool of established power, depending on the year of the academic journal you’re reading.
Either way, the result was that Brazilian soccer produced stars who were almost indistinguishable from folk heroes.
Players like Didi, who played in the ’40s and ’50s. A player who grew up so poor that he sold peanuts on the street. A player who invented the kind of curving free kick, the dead-leaf free kick, later used to great effect by Cristiano Ronaldo. Though not so much lately?
He’s kind of bad at them now. I don’t know. Not the point!
There were players like Garrincha, who grew up in extreme poverty in a backwater city. Who, as a child, was certified by a doctor as a “cripple,” because he’d been born with one leg shorter than the other. And who was such a masterful dribbler that he became legendary for beating his man, stopping and waiting for his man to catch up, and then beating him again.
These players thrilled the imaginations of Brazilian fans. They thrilled imaginations in a way that went beyond winning and losing or eking out yards in the mud.
They made the game look cool. They make it look stylish. They made it look happy. They made it a story you could enter into. You could see yourself in the mischievous bent-legged kid making bigger and stronger players look like clumsy fools.
Garrincha won the World Cup alongside the teenage Pelé in 1958 and won it again in 1962 in Chile. Pelé was injured in ’62. Garrincha was the best player in the tournament.
That year there was an incident when Brazil was playing England in the quarterfinal. A stray dog ran out onto the pitch. The great English striker Jimmy Greaves, bless his heart, got down on his hands and knees to coax the dog over. And the dog peed all over Greaves. And supposedly, Garrincha later won the dog in a raffle among Brazilian players and took it home as a pet.
I hope that’s a true story. That’s what the beautiful game means to me.
You can get a sense of the wonderful unpredictability of Garrincha’s play by listening to the English soccer commentator gasp “what’s he gonna do?” just before Garrincha scored against England at the World Cup in 1962.
But Garrincha’s last year of international soccer was 1966, when England won the World Cup. That’s the Pickles World Cup. Pickles also met Jimmy Greaves, but declined to pee on him, as far as I know.
Point is, by 1970, the Brazilian national team was at the feet of a younger generation of players, who’d grown up with the models of Didi and Garrincha and their version of joyful, expressive soccer.
You had Pelé, obviously, universally regarded as the best player in the world in 1970. An icon at the age of 29. But interestingly, a player who hadn’t contributed in a major way to a World Cup–winning team since he was 17. A player who was feeling a lot of pressure to prove he could lead a team to the title as an adult.
You had Jairzinho. The Hurricane. One of the greatest wingers ever to do it. Phenomenally strong and quick. Decent drummer, also. Scored in every game in the 1970 World Cup. You had Roberto Rivellino. A player with such a dizzying array of feints and tricks that when Diego Maradona was boy, Rivellino was who he looked up to.
And you had Carlos Alberto. The captain of the team. The player who scored the last goal in the tournament. The goal we’re here to talk about today. A defender, improbably. A right back. But he liked to get forward.
Carlos Alberto was Pelé’s teammate at Santos. This is an era, by the way, in which most of the best Brazilian players stayed in Brazil for most of their careers. You didn’t have so much of the thing where all the best South American players leave for Europe as soon as they can, the way they do now.
And this is sometimes, somewhat confusingly, used as a cudgel against the Brazilian players of that era. Like, they’re overrated, they’re lucky, because they didn’t have to go up against top-class European competition.
I don’t know, friends. They went up against top-class European competition in the course of winning three World Cups in 12 years between 1958 and 1970. They did OK!
Top-class European competition didn’t seem like it was too hard for them in 1970.
Maybe it was the top-class European players who were lucky for not having to spend their club careers contending with Pelé and Jairzinho and Tostão and Rivellino and Carlos Alberto.
Just a thought.
Anyway, Carlos Alberto played with Pelé at Santos. And they had a great rapport. They knew each other’s games really well.
In The Greatest Show on Earth, Carlos Alberto told Andrew Downie that at the start of the move that led to his goal, he was hanging back because he was tired. He was catching his breath. Mexico City. High altitude. Takes it out of you.
And then he saw that the right side of the pitch was undefended, because Facchetti had drifted over to the left to mark Jairzinho.
And he says he thought, “If the ball goes to Pelé, I know it’ll come to me.”
6. Electric Light
1970 men’s World Cup. Mexico City. This is the first World Cup, incidentally, in which teams are allowed to use substitutes.
An exciting new life for fourth officials holding up number boards on color TVs.
Brazil is the pre-tournament favorite. Brazil tears through everybody. I’m not gonna spend a ton of time recounting these matches. Take the word “romp” and let your imagination romp with it. That’s about what it looked like.
Brazil won every qualifying match they played before the tournament. They won every match in their group. They beat the defending South American champions, Uruguay. They beat the defending European champions, Italy. They beat the defending world champions, England.
No draws and no losses from the start of qualifying to the end of the tournament. All wins.
That’s pretty good.
What was especially impressive about it was that they won all these games despite being, uh, maybe a little less than wildly passionate about defending. Undecided, you could say, about the advantages of playing defense.
They just loved to score. They loved goals. 1970 Brazil looks at this series and goes, “22? Not enough goals! Add more goals!”
1954 Hungary looks at this series and goes, “It should be 679 goals.”
Brazil played five players who were legitimate no. 10s. That is ridiculous. They loved tearing forward, moving the ball around, and celebrating.
My favorite soccer teams are the ones who, deep down in the marrow of their bones, would rather win 4-3 than 2-0. 1970 Brazil may be the template of that ideal.
I don’t mean to say they were an unprepared team, or that they played wholly through improvisation and instinct. They were really well-coached.
Mário Zagallo, the manager, had told them before the match that Jairzinho would be able to get Facchetti out of position and leave a space for Carlos Alberto to exploit. Specifically instructed them to look out for it.
The whole 1970 World Cup just had this feel-good quality that people always talk about when they look back on it. The matches were fun. The style of soccer was appealing. Not so much trench warfare in the mud. Something with a little more magic. A little more glamour. A little more beauty.
Is some of that exaggerated with hindsight? Probably. I don’t know. I wasn’t alive in 1970. I’m very youthful and dynamic, if you hadn’t noticed. But yeah, I’m sure there’s a rose-colored-glasses aspect to the memory of this tournament.
But even that seems significant. Because well—the advent of color television happened to coincide with a widespread adoption of attacking tactics and also happened to coincide with the explosion of popularity of the game around the world, an explosion that was largely due to Brazil and Pelé.
I guess it’s possible to look back at an event that was no fun at all and exaggerate how much you enjoyed it. But for the most part, the events whose fun content you’re most likely to mythologize—the events you transform into legends of pure fun—are the events that were really fun in the first place.
7. The Perfect Goal as an Emblem of Human Destiny
So this is where we are when the 1970 World Cup final kicks off. The game has evolved. The world is into it. Brazil isn’t the only team to see fluid as an adjective that can apply to ball movement rather than the blood trickling from a midfielder’s lower lip. But they’re the face—the unbloodied face—of what people feel as a new possibility in soccer.
The beautiful game is an idea that’s opened up, that’s legible, for hundreds of millions of people.
What we’re waiting for is a moment to crystallize that new sense of possibility.
Can one moment change everything? I don’t know. I think about this in my own life sometimes. Maybe you do too? Probably this is just because I’m older than I used to be, despite my youthful dynamism.
And you look at your life as it accumulates, and you have that Talking Heads feeling. How did I get here? Was it my own choices that got me here? Is this what I deserve? Or was it just some combination of entropy and random chance and historical structures interacting? Was it good luck, or bad luck, or no luck, or God rolling dice?
You look at five minutes of a random soccer match and it’s hard to tell intention from accident. It doesn’t look beautiful, because you can’t clearly associate outcomes and causes. You look at your own life and it’s kind of the same thing.
Is there a pattern here that would give this experience coherence to an outside observer?
I remember the summer after I graduated from college I was all set to move to Prague. A lot of young Americans were doing that in the ’90s, though I was a few years late to the trend.
I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with my life. I knew I wanted to be a writer. I had no idea how that was supposed to happen. About the extent of my planning was that I was going to get on the Trans-Siberian Railway and ride all the way to Mongolia. I was gonna move to Prague and ride a train across Siberia and one thing would lead to another and I’d be a writer.
Though I’d probably be a writer stranded in Ulaanbaatar, because I don’t think I had enough money for the return ticket. Details!
This was my big plan.
I changed it at the last minute. I already had the tickets and everything. And I very unexpectedly got offered a job, one I hadn’t even applied for, as an assistant editor at a famous magazine.
And I thought, well, if you want to be a writer, you need life experience. Score one for the Trans-Siberian Railway. And then I thought, if you want to be a writer, perhaps you should have some vague idea of how the publishing industry works rather than being marooned in the capital of Mongolia with all your life experience and no contacts.
And I took the magazine job. I regretted it almost immediately. And honestly, I still regret it. Instead of having an adventure in what was to me the great unknown, I spent a year copyediting book reviews while watching the clock tick toward the thrilling moment when I could go to lunch. What I learned about the publishing industry was that a lot of people aren’t as smart as they think they are—you and I are the exceptions, obviously—and working in an office is boring.
And I wonder, if I had gone to Prague, or to Ulaanbaatar, would my life be completely different now? Did that one decision change my whole future? Or would I have had one or two somewhat different years and then gone back to approximately the same life as the one I have now?
And I like my life now! Not complaining. Just pondering.
I realize these are not profound or original thoughts. That’s the whole point! These are commonplace thoughts. I think everyone has them. We all look back on our lives and think, if I’d just done this one thing differently, would I be smuggling gold out of Kamchatka right now?
Apologies to anyone who is actually smuggling gold out of Kamchatka at this moment. I’m sure you’re very satisfied with your decisions. And thank you for choosing 22 Goals as workplace reading for your various smuggling activities.
The point is, you can’t predict the future—that’s why you sob on the bus.
And you can’t untangle the past—that’s why you look back and wonder.
Anyway. When I watch Carlos Alberto’s goal now, a bunch of things strike me about it. But the first thing that strikes me about it is that he kicks the ball so hard when he shoots that both his feet leave the ground. One’s in front of him. One’s behind him. Head’s tucked down. Pelé has laid the ball off for him in this almost insultingly casual way.
Insulting to Italy, not Carlos Alberto. It’s so insouciant.
Pelé gently rolls the ball into the area, and like two full seconds pass, and then Carlos Alberto gets there. He’s sprinting for everything he’s worth, and he basically just sprints into the ball as he kicks it. Doesn’t alter his stride.
Bam. Both legs in the air.
The whole move leading to the goal demonstrates an incredible balance of skill, strength, speed, and power. Brazil is playing at the edge of their potential in every way.
Technically: Clodoaldo dribbles past four Italians.
Aesthetically: Jairzinho looks so ineffably cool as he fakes Facchetti out of his boots.
Tactically: The players remember in the flow of the moment what Zagallo told them about Facchetti’s positioning.
Rhythmically: Pelé holds the ball for what feels like a crazy long time before passing it, and he passes it what feels like a crazy long time before Carlos Alberto arrives, but every choice is perfect to the nanosecond.
They’re playing at the edge of perfection, and they’re making it look easy. Imagine if 110 percent wasn’t a sports cliché. Every move they make seems to happen at 110 percent and at the same time, to be totally relaxed.
It doesn’t matter that the game is effectively over by the time the goal is scored. It doesn’t matter that Italy is tired. What matters is that when you watch this goal, there is no doubt that in this moment, the game is being directed by will, not by chance.
Soccer puts high obstacles between you as a player and the possibility of realizing your intentions. And in this moment, those obstacles evaporate.
The players are playing together, and they are doing exactly what they want. In a spirit of what looks like pure joy, they’re imposing a pattern on a game that is hostile to patterns.
For a few seconds, they’re showing you what life would look like if you didn’t have to wonder. If your doubts vanished. If you were in charge of your destiny—if you were the captain of your soul—and it was wonderful.
8. The Game That Most Resembles Life
Do you remember the question we asked earlier? The teardrop over the maraca question? What does it mean when we call soccer the beautiful game? And how did a game that’s so inhospitable to beauty ever come to seem beautiful in the first place?
What I think when I watch Carlos Alberto’s goal is that soccer’s surpassing unbeauty is the key to soccer’s beauty. This is the game that most resembles life in the sense of that deep uncertainty. That feeling of being ambiguously at the mercy of forces you can’t untangle and can’t predict.
Think about the clock in soccer. It doesn’t count down. It counts forward. Time accumulates in soccer. Lifetimes pile up.
Play doesn’t stop, except at halftime. It doesn’t reset after every play, the way it does in football and baseball and tennis. There are no timeouts, the way there are in basketball. The game just moves formlessly forward. And most of the time the formlessness at least partly wins out over whatever the players are trying to do.
But every once in a while it doesn’t. Every once in a while, a team gives the game a moment of perfect form. And those moments are so arresting—are so poignantly, piercingly beautiful—because they’re so hard-won. And because you see those moments of perfect clarity against the very lifelike confusion and ambiguity of the rest of the game.
Soccer is the beautiful game because soccer is the game that tells you your imagination can win. What you see in your mind’s eye can become reality. At least for the length of that passage of play.
I think that feeling is what Brazil brought to soccer—what it symbolized for soccer fans—in the 20th century. And that goal at the Estadio Azteca was the moment when it became not just a nebulous feeling but an accepted fact that this is what the game exists to do.
This is what the game is supposed to look like.
After the match, the fans in Mexico City were so elated that they stormed the pitch, engulfed the Brazilian players, and stole their clothes. They were desperate for souvenirs of what they’d just seen. Pelé told Andrew Downie, “I was stripped of my clothes. I only had my underpants.”
As the captain of the team, Carlos Alberto was given the Jules Rimet Trophy. He says it looked so beautiful he wanted to kiss it, so he started the tradition of kissing the trophy before lifting it in the air.
The trophy—since we like to keep tabs on its whereabouts on this show—was taken back to Brazil. Remember, they got to keep it permanently. It was kept behind bulletproof glass at the headquarters of the Brazilian Football Confederation. It stayed there until 1983, when it was stolen again.
This time no dogs came forward to take the case, and the trophy has never been found.
FIFA designed a new trophy, and in classic FIFA fashion, they decided no one would get to take this trophy home at all. World Cup winners now get a replica trophy while the real thing stays at FIFA headquarters.
FIFA effectively awarded itself the everlasting World Cup.
Well. For what it’s worth, I don’t think I believe that one moment can really change everything. I think there are decisive moments, but the right conditions have to exist for them to become decisive, and those conditions have to develop over time, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
It’s complicated. Doesn’t really matter.
The much more important point is that the goal felt like a moment that changed everything. It gave people a new ideal, something to look back to and say, “Here, this is when everything changed.”
It made you feel that a moment could have that power. And that you could direct the course of that moment.
You are entitled to think that life can be like soccer, because so much of the time, soccer is like life.
I think that’s what we mean when we say that this is the beautiful game.
And oh, what a great goal it was.