“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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser