“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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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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