“A kitten with a ball of wool”: The Brazilians by Danny Blanchflower - 4 January 1963

From the archive: Football legend Danny Blanchflower on the 1963 Brazilian team after their appearance at Wembley, "prince and heirs" to the crown of world football.

In an archive piece from 1963 the Tottenham Hotspur captain Danny Blanchflower - viewed in the game as a sort of Renaissance Man - wrote to commemorate the visit of the then world champions, Brazil. Even without some of their best players they posed a challenge for the England team, whom they met at Wembley.

Blanchflower is in an astute position to comment on the tactics of the visiting team. He notes the “casual rhythms” of the Brazilian midfield players, which frustrated the English attacks which “too often ... ended with the ball hopefully crossed from the wing to nobody in particular.” He marvels, above all, at their skilfulness and guile, maintaining possession and, in deadball situations, unleashing a “reverse banana shot” which led to their goal.

Given the country is soon to host the 2014 World Cup, the article serves as a reminder that though Brazil, then as now, are not “kings of world soccer”, they may well be “princes and heirs."

The Brazilians
4 January 1963

After consecutive World Cup triumphs in 1958 and 1962 Brazil established themselves as the true monarchs of world soccer and we had been looking forward to their 1963 tour of Europe. Before they arrived they announced their intentions as strictly experimental – the tour was a part of their team-building plans for 1966. Santos, Didi, Vava, Garrincha etc. were not to come but it seemed enough that we were to see Gylmar, Mauro, Zito, Amarildo and Pele, those bronze, coffee and black marvels whose names are now so familiar with soccer fans.

They lost their first game by a single goal to Portugal and though that seemed excusable it was something of a shock when the Belgians beat them by five goals and Holland taxed them with another single-goal defeat. However, before they came to England, they beat the West Germans by two goals to one, not as grand and convincing a performance on television as some of our daily newspapermen, who were there, wrote it up to be – though Pele scored an exciting goal – and that raised the expectations somewhat for the clash against England at Wembley.

Pele, the victim of a taxi’s argument with a tramcar, didn’t play, and Brazil were a disappointment to me at Wembley. England tried hard enough but they did not play well. If they had, they might easily have won by two or three goals. The defence, particularly Moore, was firm and efficient but the forwards were lured into mid-field delay by the casual rhythms of the Brazilians there, and when they neared the Brazilian goal they had not the room nor the imagination to break through the retreating defensive wall. Too often the England attacks ended with the ball hopefully crossed from the wing to nobody in particular and nobody was ever there to challenge for it. Still, England exerted most of the pressure and although they just managed to scramble their equaliser almost at the end of play, Brazil were a bit lucky to finish on level terms.

Brazil scored with a free kick; it must have been 30 yards out. Against this the common practice is for three or four defenders to form a protective wall blocking one side of the goal and expect the goalkeeper to look after the other half, the side open to the direct aim of the kicker. There has been much talk of the South American players swerving the ball around the wall and into the net where the keeper is least expecting it. They sometimes do but the whole thing has been greatly exaggerated by the likes of Kenneth Wolstenholme, the BBC television commentator. Pepe, the Brazilian outside-left, advanced to take the kick and Banks, the England keeper, must have had the banana shot in his mind. Pepe had taken three or four free-kicks the Sunday before in the televised game against West Germany and not one had finished anywhere near the target. This one, though, he hit hard past the slack wall of three England players. Banks swayed to anticipate the banana shot he had expected but the ball swerved a little the other way and into the side of the net Banks ought to have been protecting. I’m sure Pepe didn’t intend this reverse banana shot, but Banks looked foolish and no doubt it will all add to the myth.

The Brazilians are deceptive footballers, not easy to reduce to words on paper. Their control of the ball looks easy, their touch delicate. They remind me of a kitten with a ball of wool. It is remarkable how simply and effectively some of them take the ball down out of the air with their chest. They pass the ball more often with the outside of their foot whereas British and European players prefer the inside. Their great instinct is to keep possession of the ball rather than lose it by too readily taking a chance to break through, and thus their rhythm of play is smooth and relaxed like a flow of water swirling round searching for a small hole or crack in the other defence to surge through. In mid-field it can be almost siesta time – so relaxed that it can become boring.

In 1958 when I first saw them they inspired me with their play. Suddenly they would explode into the most exciting strike at goal – like a flash of lightning. Pele was just a 17-year-old then and although he did some startling things it was Garrincha who caused me most excitement. This little black figure with animal-like movement and speed would dart off bewilderingly and the whole stadium would gasp. Vava, too, forced his way through with great determination and strength. This is what I missed from them at Wembley – the sudden breakaway. There was no Garrincha, no Vava, no Pele. Their defence seemed capable and well-drilled although it lacked the composure of the 1958 squad. In mid-field they had nobody as crafty as Didi. And again on Sunday against the Italians they were disappointing. They are not kings of world soccer at the moment. But who is to say that they are not the princes and heirs? As they point out, their present intentions are strictly experimental. They have an 18-year-old called Ney who looks explosive to me. They’ll probably find another by 1966, and if they do not succeed again, then at least they will have the satisfaction of knowing they went about it in the right way.

The team that went on to win the World Cup were at Wembley in 1963. Photo: Getty Images.

Letters, articles and notes from the New Statesman's centenary archive.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.