Mexico 1970 – Just Like Watching Brazil
My support for the Ireland football team came after an early identity crisis. When I was eight, I supported England in the 1970 World Cup. It was the biggest event of my young life. My pestered dad bought enough petrol to fuel a convoy so I could collect Esso coins with the England squad’s faces on them. I also painstakingly filled my album of World Cup cards, and marvelled at a friend who could, at a glance, identify such exotic aliens as Enrique Borja of Mexico and Teofilio Cubillas of Peru. And we spent days playing ‘World Cup’ on the green outside our houses. This game, incidentally, bore no relation to the actual World Cup. There was one goalkeeper and any number of players shooting into the one goal. In every round, the last player to score was eliminated. I think it was called World Cup because we pretended that we were countries. Barry Howard always won, so we had to put him in goal if he wanted to play.
England was my team, not just because they had four Leeds players (Cooper, Charlton, Hunter, Clarke) in their squad, and three more (Reaney, Madeley, Jones) who didn’t make the final squad but who were still in my Esso coin collection. But also because they had Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters… all comfortably familiar faces from watching Match of the Day, playing against a bunch of foreigners on the other side of the planet. Also, their campaign song ‘Back Home’ was number one on Top of the Pops. I had a poster of the England team on my bedroom wall, beside the Leeds squad, Johnny Giles, George Best, Lynn Paul of the New Seekers and, bizarrely in retrospect, Ray Dorset of Mungo Jerry.
I knew nothing about the Ireland team, who had not qualified for Mexico ‘70. Czechoslovakia had won our group; when they beat us in Prague, Limerick’s Andy McEvoy had refused to go on as a substitute because ‘it was lashing rain’. We had also failed to qualify for the previous World Cup, in England in 1966. And, as I carefully affixed the Gerd Muller card into the West Germany page of my album, I had no idea that the real Gerd Muller was preparing for a friendly against Ireland. The Irish squad was travelling on an overcrowded train from Poland to West Berlin. FAI officials, fresh from their customary ‘good time’ (yes, that does mean drink and prostitutes) in Poland, sat on seats. The players sat on their cases in the luggage carriage. Back home, I was absorbed in the magical world of football, oblivious of the mysterious parallel world of the FAI.
I turned nine as the tournament started. As I expected, I saw the best football I had ever seen; but not from England. I had now discovered Brazil, with their alluring single-barrelled names like Felix, Gerson, Jairzinho, Tostao, Rivelino and Pelé. Their bright yellow shirts and flowing football made it seem appropriate that ‘Yellow River’ had just knocked ‘Back Home’ off the number one spot. I can still see their final winning goal. A meticulous flow of possession ends with Pelé gently passing the ball into an acre of open space at the right-hand edge of the Italian penalty area. Then, from somewhere outside the right-hand side of my television screen, Carlos Alberto hurtles into the empty space and slams a low shot into the net. 4-1. I had new heroes.