“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.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era