David Owen ©ITG

Today (May 31) marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the most thrilling sports competition of my lifetime - the 1970 FIFA World Cup.

This is not an especially controversial, or original, opinion. Yet I know that I hold it in part because of when I was born: I was 10, the perfect age to be captivated by all that top-class sport has to offer. Mexico 1970 was new - since I could remember little of England 1966 - it was colourful; it was exotic; and, like Christmas, the build-up - with its endless speculation about how Mexico City’s high altitude, at not far off one and a half miles above sea level, might affect the football - had been interminable. When it finally arrived, I was ready to burst.  

Add to this the plain fact that I could scarcely remember a time when England had not been world champions of this, then my most beloved of sports. I could barely wait to take in every last pip and squeak of the process that would culminate, inevitably, with this status being confirmed. In hindsight, I suppose I was envious of those old enough to have experienced the previous World Cup in all its glory. 

There was a sports shop just up the road from our house that, as well as equipment, stocked a few books on an out-of-the-way shelf. I still vividly remember, a week or two before the big kick-off, going in there with the new husband of my step-grandmother, who was visiting us, and becoming enthralled with a shiny book with a canary-yellow cover. It was pricey - 12/6d (£0.63/$0.76/€0.70), or so I believe - so I was overjoyed when my new relative said he would buy it for me. The book was famous BBC commentator David Coleman’s World Cup ’70 Preview. I still have it. 

David Coleman's book in all its glory ©David Owen
David Coleman's book in all its glory ©David Owen

There is, of course, more to Mexico 1970’s stature as a seriously great sports tournament than my impressionable age.

One of my favourite cricket-writers, Jon Hotten, referred in a recent piece to something called "the availability heuristic". This, Hotten explained, held that "human judgement usually relies on the most easily recalled piece of information". In other words, "the players of the past get hazy, distilled down to one or two reducible facets".

Well, it is not just players; it applies to tournaments as well. Viewed in these terms,  the availability heuristic of the 1970 World Cup is that Carlos Alberto goal, which actually occurred just four minutes before the whole event’s conclusion. Okay, if you are English, you can probably also throw in that Gordon Banks save as well. 

The point is, with those two incidents as its most frequently dredged-up memories, Mexico 1970 could hardly fail to go down as a top-drawer sports tournament in the eyes of a lot more people than just 10-year-old me.

One more thing: cast your mind back and remember the dramatis personae. Present and correct in one 1970 World Cup squad or another were, Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Lev Yashin, the Bobbies Charlton and Moore, and Banks - all authentic and timeless giants of the beautiful game.

Not far below them, if below them at all, in football’s eternal pantheon you find Gigi Riva, Gianni Rivera, Gerd Müller, Willi Schulz, Uwe Seeler, Georgi Asparuhov, Giacinto Facchetti, Gérson, Jairzinho, Roberto Rivelino, Teófilo Cubillas, who was poised to burst onto the scene, and last but not least David Coleman’s cover star and a favourite of mine, Pelé’s partner in crime par excellence, the brilliant Tostão.

Tostão celebrates a goal versus Peru ©Getty Images
Tostão celebrates a goal versus Peru ©Getty Images

How could a tournament populated by that little lot fail to deliver? Spoiler: it couldn’t - though admittedly, after the opening match, you might be forgiven for wondering whether Mexico’s thin air would be too much even for them to cope with.

The dire 0-0 draw between the hosts and the Soviet Union (USSR), the Communist construct then in rude health and covering a vast swath of northern Eurasia, in front of more than 100,000 impassioned fans at the Azteca, was witnessed for the Birmingham Daily Post by a reporter called Alan Hubbard. Whatever happened to him, I wonder?

The "altitude-affected" Russians were "hardly able to raise a run in the final stages", Hubbard trenchantly reported. "As a World Cup opener, it was a technical travesty, littered with errors and indifferent football."

The next day was a rest day - the scheduling of individual games will appear bizarre to anyone who came of age in the 21st century, with matches frequently coinciding rather than being carefully staggered for the benefit of FIFA’s media paymasters - so there was plenty of time for the idea that altitude might wreck the tournament to gain traction.

Mercifully, it turned out to be wide of the mark. The first good game came on the next match-day - June 2, a clash between Peru and Bulgaria in León.

This featured the first goal of the tournament - a superbly worked free-kick scored by Dinko Dermendzhiev for the East Europeans, whose attacking options at this time were so numerous that Petar Zhekov, the 1969 European Golden Boot winner, had displaced Asparuhov at centre-forward.

When the energetic Hristo Bonev doubled the lead just after half-time, the game looked to be up for the South Americans. But in a high-octane last half-hour, the red-shirted Peruvians sensationally scored three times to provide a much-needed tonic for compatriots traumatised by a devastating earthquake.

When Cubillas lashed home the winner and promptly "disappeared under a heap of joyously happy Peruvian players", it was a fitting way for the 21-year-old - who would mature into his country’s best player since the days of Lolo Fernández and Alejandro Villanueva in the 1930s - to announce his arrival on the world stage.

While there were more stinkers - including pretty much the entirety of Group 2 featuring Uruguay, Italy, Israel and Sweden - great games came along at regular intervals after that.

Next day, football fans got their first glimpse of the exciting Brazilians, in a repeat of the 1962 World Cup final against Czechoslovakia.

They fell behind to a goal by another exciting young talent Ladislav Petras, but then cantered to a 4-1 win, in a game that also featured Pelé’s famous attempt to score with a shot from inside his own half which drifted just wide of Ivo Viktor’s left-hand post.

The Mirror’s Ken Jones was suitably impressed, though he thought he had spotted a weakness: "Marking on both sides was of schoolboy standard", he lamented.

Of course, as so often before and since, the Brazilian side’s defence was of nowhere near the calibre of its attack, which had averaged almost four goals a game in qualifying, and was to deliver at least three goals in every Mexico 1970 fixture, with the sole exception of the titanic clash with Sir Alf Ramsey’s England. 

Nevertheless, as coach Mário Zagallo explained to Tim Vickery decades later, in an interview published in The Blizzard, this slapdash marking was a tactic, and an astute one at that.

"Our method of defending was to position ourselves in zones, cover the space and not carry out man-to-man marking," Zagallo said. "If we had gone with high pressure marking then by the second half we would have run out of gas. So we saved our energy dropped back and then when we won possession, the technical quality of our team stood out."

The West German team, including Gerd Müller in the centre of the line-up ©Getty Images
The West German team, including Gerd Müller in the centre of the line-up ©Getty Images

While Zagallo’s men were struggling for the upper hand in Guadalajara, back in León, Morocco, only the second African team ever to appear in a World Cup final competition, had created a stir by going in for half-time against mighty West Germany with a 1-0 lead.

It did not last: after Helmut Schön had replaced Helmut Haller with winger Jürgen Grabowski for the second half, Beckenbauer and company fought back to win 2-1. The decisive goal, inevitably, came from Müller, who, sporting the number 13 on his back, would end up comfortably as the tournament’s leading scorer. But it was far from easy.

The next round of matches on June 6 saw the Soviet Union stir from their lethargy, hammering Belgium 4-1 and effectively securing their place in the quarter-finals.

Cubillas’ Peru also confirmed the promise of their grandstand finish against Bulgaria, making comparatively short work of a Moroccan side perhaps still recuperating from their efforts against West Germany, by beating them 3-0.

Next day - June 7 - was perhaps the most devastating evening of my life up to that point. A high-class chess-match in Guadalajara between England and Brazil, characterised by caginess and mutual respect, was decided by Jairzinho’s rifled finish on the hour from Pelé’s deft rolled pass.

Meanwhile, the revitalised West Germans swept aside Bulgaria by a 5-2 margin.

In the final round of group matches, played on June 10 and 11, a second consecutive Müller hat-trick saw off Peru 3-1, with all the goals scored in the first half.

At the same time, a hard-working Romania gave a Gérson- and Rivelino-less Brazil a shock, shipping two goals in 22 minutes, but then substituting their goalkeeper and pulling the score back to 3-2 with six minutes in which to fashion an equaliser. It did not come, and two-goal Pelé and his team-mates sailed on.

It was at the quarter-final stage that the tournament really caught light. The four matches, which all kicked off simultaneously at noon local time on June 14, produced no fewer than 17 goals.

The tournament ball ©Getty Images
The tournament ball ©Getty Images

Even the least memorable clash delivered high drama, with the tough, defence-minded Uruguayans first negating the slick-passing Soviets and then delivering a knock-out blow, courtesy of substitute Victor Esparrago, with just three minutes of extra time remaining.

The other match that went to extra time was West Germany versus England, the repeat of the 1966 final, which - to the stunned despair of 10-year-old me - brought down the curtain on a period of English footballing supremacy that has yet to be restored and initiated what is now half a century of hurt.

It was another of those Mexico 1970 comeback victories, with England, shorn of the defensive assurance that Banks - victim of a stomach upset - habitually provided, bossing the first hour only to wilt in the second.

Once again, Grabowski, introduced with his side 2-0 down and on their way out of the competition, was the catalyst of the recovery. I can still recall the mounting panic in our living room as the Eintracht Frankfurt man sent cross after cross spinning into the England penalty area. Grabowski, as one newspaper put it, was "the one who lifted the Germans off the floor".

Favourites Brazil got the better of Peru 4-2, in a festival of all-out attack.

And, as is their wont at World Cups, the Italians finally warmed to their task in the knock-out stages, befuddling hosts Mexico with around 20 minutes of champagne football in the second half. This after the talismanic Rivera had replaced hard-working Sandro Mazzola at half-time. This tactical move would be repeated in a barnstorming semi-final against the Germans three days later.

Gordan Banks made what is viewed as one of the greatest saves of all time at the tournament, denying Pelé ©Getty Images
Gordan Banks made what is viewed as one of the greatest saves of all time at the tournament, denying Pelé ©Getty Images

Once again, the two games coincided, with Brazil facing another South American opponent in Uruguay, their nemesis in a 1950 World Cup final still looked upon as a national catastrophe in South America’s largest country.

Once again, things did not go to plan for the men in yellow. They fell behind, to a 19th-minute goal by Luis Cubilla and there must have been those starting to wonder whether history would repeat itself until Clodoaldo advanced and guided home an equaliser on the stroke of half-time.

Things remained tense until the last quarter of an hour, when goals by Jairzinho and Rivelino finally repaid the Brazilians’ technical virtuosity.

This was also the match in which Pelé executed the masterful dummy on top-notch Uruguayan goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz which constitutes perhaps the most authentic stroke of genius of the entire tournament. Unfortunately, when the star striker caught back up with the ball, he fired wide.

In Mexico City, meanwhile, a quite astonishing game between the two European survivors was unfolding. This saw Italy lead for more than 80 minutes through an excellent solo goal by Roberto Boninsegna, only to concede a last-minute equaliser to the veteran West German defender, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, who was on hand to finish yet another Grabowski cross. 

There followed one of the most remarkable periods of extra time ever witnessed. First the Germans took the lead for the first time in the 94th minute of the game, only to concede twice before the first 15 minutes of additional time was up. 

They equalised again, through the stocky Müller’s 10th and final goal of the tournament, only at once to ship a heart-breaking - and decisive - fourth goal to Rivera’s carefully-struck half-volley.

The final, four days later, was yet another game of two halves, the first, evenly contested, the second a largely untrammelled display of Brazilian brilliance as the Italians, perhaps jaded by their semi-final efforts, at last wilted in the thin air.

That endlessly-replayed Carlos Alberto goal, laced into the bottom corner with the finality of any knock-out punch, was the logical culmination of the dominance his team had established. It is worth recording that Brazil used no substitutes in either the semi-final or the final.

The victory meant that Brazil - champions in 1958 and 1962 - were able to keep the 14-inch high gold Jules Rimet Trophy, the most elegant sports cup ever manufactured, in perpetuity. Sadly, it was subsequently stolen. 

The Dutch and Argentinian teams of later in the decade brought similar athleticism and élan to their football. But nobody played the beautiful game with more lithe, creative beauty than those 1970 Brazilians.