Beautiful game

Back Home: England and the 1970 World Cup

Jeff Dawson <em>Orion, 331pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0575071

The unrepeatable demonstration of how the beautiful game should be played, given by Brazil in winning the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, lingers in the memory, and here Jeff Dawson relives that wonderful tournament through English eyes. It's an interesting idea, but the author faces considerable hurdles. He was only seven years old at the time, and because many of the major participants (such as the captain, Bobby Moore, and the manager, Sir Alf Ramsey) are dead, he had to be content with interviewing the team doctor, nine of the 23-player squad (though not Bobby Charlton or Gordon Banks) and several commentators who were there (but, amazingly, no foreign coach, player or journalist).

Written, misguidedly, in the present tense, the book is essentially a match-by-match account culled from newspaper, television and film archives. But using reports that were filed on the hoof under time constraints, without subsequent reassessment, has obvious dangers, especially when you are writing about Brazilian football, where shadow and substance are frequently joined at the hip. Inaccuracies of reporting and interpretation abound.

Yet when the author escapes the detail of all those match reports, illuminating material comes to the surface. Newly released cabinet papers reveal how the then foreign secretary, Michael Stewart, intervened to have Moore released from his wrongful arrest in Colombia (for alleged shoplifting) in time to play in the first match in Mexico. Medical records point to how the enthusiastic use of hotel room services was quite possibly responsible for the stomach upsets that blighted several players. And the account of an earlier complaint in Mexico over allegedly stolen jewellery - which Ramsey hushed up at the time by settling the bill from his own pocket - revives the suspicion that a young member of the team was involved.

The 1970 World Cup was a landmark for the game, not only because of its joyous football, but also because it ended an era of soccer innocence (which was admittedly fraying at the edges already). The political winds of change sweeping through the world did not leave football untouched, and when, in 1974, the Brazilian Joao Havelange replaced the Englishman Sir Stanley Rous as president of Fifa, and took over a programme of enlarging the finals from 16 to 32 teams, there followed an exponential increase in merchandising, sponsorship and endorsement activities.

Yet the influence of television was already being felt in Mexico, with matches played in the midday heat to allow for peak-time viewing in Europe. Today, TV rights are traded for megabucks for more than one tournament at a time, giving supra-national companies the power to withhold the transmission of games in those countries not meeting their financial demands.

After Mexico, the England team were absent from the world stage for 12 years, suffering a severe lack of continuity in coaching and management (in those years, there were seven national coaches and several caretakers). Moreover, England failed to follow the lead of Mexico in building a magnificent new national stadium, and the lack of an authoritative voice in the inner councils of the world game contributed in no small part to the rejection of England's bid to stage the 2006 World Cup, which went instead to Germany for a second time. It is possible, however, that European pressure may make this year's tournament, in Japan and South Korea, another watershed. The time is right for a Premier League-style concept next time around - with only the top countries playing one another - as well as other Euro-driven changes.

Back Home ends with an account of the glorious 1970 final, in which Brazil thrashed Italy 4-1. It's a pity that the author of this decent and well-illustrated book did not trust his instincts to escape more often from the shackles of urgent match reports - because his heart is in the right place, even if his pen isn't.

Ernest Hecht is the founder and managing director of Souvenir Press. He has attended nine of the past 11 World Cup finals