Banks, Pele And The Greatest Save Of All-Time 50 Years On

On this day in 1970, England and Brazil took part in a classic World Cup encounter
16:00, 07 Jun 2020

Bobby Moore is marking Tostão. Moore leaves him to cut out Jairzinho who has just received a marvellous curving through ball from the right-back Carlos Alberto. As Jairzinho pushes the ball forward, any potential cross from the Brazilian winger is slightly delayed, giving goalkeeper Gordon Banks time to analyse the positions of the attackers in the area.

“This is when I knew the true colour of adrenaline,” the great England shot-stopper would later recall.

It was the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. The score was 0-0. England and Brazil - the last two winners of the World Cup - had been drawn together in Group Three, alongside Romania and Czechoslovakia. Both had won their opening games before meeting at the Estadio Jalisco, Guadalajara on June 7, 1970.

The overall result would be 1-0 to the Canarinha, the South American side going on to reclaim their world champion crown (ultimately deposing the incumbents England) for their third Jules Rimet. England would meanwhile be knocked out in the Quarter-Finals by a vengeful West Germany, 3-2.

In the group stages, the narrow defeat Brazil imposed on England, courtesy of a solitary Jairzinho strike, however would ultimately be less remembered than the dramatic wonder save produced by Gordon Banks within the game. It was one of a plethora the Stoke City man would produce throughout the match in the Jalisco capital, but the one that perpetually makes its way onto the replay reels and has helped solidify the legacy of England’s only World Cup-winning match-playing goalkeeper.

“For me, this is only my opinion,” Gordon Banks told a congregation of devoted football fans in 2014 on a visit to the FA, all of whom giving the great goalkeeper their unwavering focus as he recounted in his recognisably homely Sheffield drawl, “That 1970 Brazilian international team is probably the greatest footballing machine I think I’ve ever seen play.”

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Jairzinho has the ball.

One rushing forward is Pelé, intent on launching an attack on Banks’ goal. Banks races from the near post to the centre. The cross comes in from Jairzinho. Banks anticipates Pelé will head it towards the inside of the right-hand post. Throughout his career, Banks would never ever stay on his line in normal-time, preferring to be two to three yards off, adhering to a self-imposed philosophy that if he had to reach behind himself to make a last-gasp save, it would already be over the line.

Pelé’s supposed marker Alan Ball, Banks later described, ‘must have stood in ready-mix concrete before he came out’, jumps later and lower than the Brazilian maestro. In the space of mere milliseconds, Banks not only has to position his body but anticipate the trajectory of the bounce of the ball from Pelé’s header, and predict the speed it will come at him. 

Banks dives, stretches out his arm, and glances the ball with the thumb-side of his right-palm.

“Once I made contact with the ball it was in the lap of the Gods,” he said.

The Verde-Amarela fans watching the trajectory of the attempt are ready to celebrate. Pelé is ready to celebrate. But the world’s greatest player has required the world’s greatest save.

“Honest to God I thought it was a goal,” said Banks.

He remains on the floor. He sees the ball which he had just seen rocketing skyward - supposedly towards the roof of his net - land safely behind the goal and bounce and trickle away in the direction of the gasping Estadio Jalisco crowd.

“I said to myself, ‘Banksy, you lucky sh*t.’”

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Across a 20-year career, Banks made a total of 510 Football League appearances - with Leicester and Stoke City, each of whom he won the League Cup with - and claimed 73 caps for England. Only his walk as part of that heralded collective up the steps of Wembley to receive football’s greatest prize from the Queen is as fondly remembered and vividly recalled as that denial of Pelé in Guadalajara.

1970 also saw Banks awarded the OBE. The save itself should have been enough to receive the accolade. Comprising an extensive list of football’s greatest stars of the 20th Century, the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) named Banks as the second best keeper, behind only Lev Yashin (notably, in the same study, Pelé was elected Player of the Century).

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England’s greatest ever goalkeeper died at the age of 81 on February 17, 2019, becoming the fourth member of the only Three Lions team ever to win the World Cup to pass away, following the earlier departures of Alan Ball, Ray Wilson and Bobby Moore, as well as head coach Sir Alf Ramsey. (Later that year, another member, West Ham and Tottenham legend Martin Peters who scored against West Germany in the final at Wembley, also died).

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“He was my hero,” his Three Lions successor between the sticks Peter Shilton said upon his passing. 

To have been blessed with someone as talented as Gordon Banks between the posts? England, you lucky sh*t.