“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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Why the past 12 months have been the worst of my lifetime

We desperately need a return to calm and moderation.

Twitter is a weird phenomenon: a deeply selective, wholly unreliable Survation or YouGov in your pocket, with an even bigger margin for error. I’ve been tweeting for a year now, but I’m still useless at guessing what is likely to attract attention; so I was taken completely by surprise at the end of last week when a comment I jotted down received thousands of Likes and retweets. “It’s a year since Jo Cox was murdered,” I wrote: “the worst year for Britain in my lifetime. We badly need a return to Jo’s concept of moderation now.”

Fairly anodyne, you would have thought, but it seems to have touched a nerve. Clearly many other people feel that the past year, with its violence and disasters and wholesale political instability, has been a bad one. For days afterwards, my phone kept buzzing as more people retweeted it. There were, as always, a few contrarians who objected that other years since 1944 must have been worse; some said “much worse”. But that isn’t really true.

After D-Day, we knew the war was going to be won. Despite the bombs, the country was proud of itself and pulling together, and the likes of my father were hoping for a better world as soon as it was finished. The year of the Suez crisis, 1956, was pretty bad, but Anthony Eden was gone directly, and Harold Macmillan’s phoney self-confidence convinced people that things would be all right – and anyway the economy was growing impressively.

The period of the Heath government had awful moments: 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday and IRA attacks, was especially bad. Yet there was nothing like the appalling Grenfell Tower fire to divide the nation. And 1974 was humiliating for the government, but our membership of the European Economic Community offered a certain stability. We had a different, more forelock-tugging relationship with our political leaders then. The news bulletins used to talk reverently of “the prime minister, Mr Wilson”; now they just say “Theresa May”.

Today we have a prime minister who is held to have been mortally wounded by a series of personal failures and miscalculations; a governing party that has been self-harming for years over the question of ­Europe; an opposition that, until just recently, was regarded as hopelessly incompetent and naive; an economy that could be damaged by an ill-judged Brexit agreement; and a new vulnerability to terrorism, in which one atrocity quickly overlays the memory of the last.

There’s a newly hysterical tone in British society, which had always seemed so reassuringly reliable and sensible. The crowd that stormed Kensington Town Hall as though it were the Bastille or the Winter Palace mistook a man in a suit for a Tory councillor and beat him up. It transpired that he was an outside contractor who had spent much of the week helping the Grenfell Tower victims.

Above all, what was until recently the world’s fifth-largest economy has suddenly found itself on the edge of a trapdoor in the dark. “Back to the Thirties”, some people are saying. “Venezuela”, say others. Even Brexiteers who feel liberated and excited at the prospect of getting out of the EU can’t know if it’s going to work. Friends of mine who voted Leave because they were fed up with David Cameron or thought things needed a shake-up now show a degree of buyer’s remorse. Perhaps, like Boris Johnson in the BBC2 drama Theresa vs Boris, they thought the country was so stable that nothing bad would actually happen.

We’ve entered a period of sudden, neurotic mood swings. The opinion polls, unable to cope, tell us at one moment that Jeremy Corbyn is regarded as dangerous and useless, and at the next that a growing number of people see him as the national saviour. The Prime Minister’s “safe pair of hands” are now deemed too shaky to carry the country’s china. Ukip polled over 10 per cent in 450 seats in 2015, and in only two seats in 2017.

If any further evidence of neuroticism is needed, there is the longing that people have to be enfolded in the arms of a comforting authority figure. For some, it was the Queen, calming everyone down with a message of unity, or Prince William, hugging a grieving woman after the Grenfell Tower fire. For others, it was Corbyn doing the right human things while Theresa May walked past the tower ruins awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

It feels like being back in 1997, with the huge crowds in the Mall or outside Kensington Palace demanding to be comforted after the death of Diana. Then, the Queen was blamed for not being the mother figure we seemed, disturbingly, to want. Tony Blair had the right words at that time, and no doubt he would have had the right words after Grenfell Tower. But is it merely words and gestures we need?

It’s a bad sign when countries feel that they need an individual to sort them out. It’s because of its system, based on openness, inclusiveness and the rule of law, that Britain has grown strong and wealthy. Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in June 2015: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She was murdered by a fanatic who screamed, “This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!” The year that those words ushered in has indeed been the worst in my lifetime. The government slogan “Keep calm and carry on” was invented in 1939, when all-out German bombing seemed imminent. It is easy to lampoon but when it was rediscovered a few years ago it became popular, because it spoke directly to our national consciousness. We’ve never had more need of calmness than now.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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