One of the greatest goalkeepers in football history, Gordon Banks of England, passed away earlier today. Banks was a member of England’s World Cup winning squad of 1966, and had an amazing record – conceding just 57 goals in 73 international appearances, and keeping 35 clean sheets. But for a car accident that injured one of his eyes, his career would have been longer. Banks was ranked as the second best goalkeeper of the twentieth century by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, and was FIFA’s goalkeeper of the year six times.
And yet, amazingly, he is remembered not for all his honours and trophies but for one save. A save that almost every football critic considers to be simply the greatest of all time. Such universality of thought is almost unheard of in as opinionated a community as football punditry.
Which just tells you how good it was.
It happened on June 6, 1970 at Guadalajara in Mexico during the World Cup. It was a Group C encounter but for many people, it was almost the “final before the final” because it featured two of the teams that many considered to be the finest in the tournament – defending champions England, lead by the brilliant Bobby Moore, and the champions of 1958 and 1962 and the people’s favourites, Brazil, who came to the tournament with arguably one of the greatest teams of all time, featuring the likes of Tostao, Gerson, Rivelino, Jairzinho, and of course, the little matter of Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or simply, Pele.
Now, high-profile encounters like these often peter out into slow, strategy driven affairs with both teams content to conserve energy and players. Not this time around. The England vs Brazil match of the 1970 World Cup is considered by many to be one of the greatest matches of football ever played. It was end to end stuff and both teams stretched each other with some fantastic football – England’s carefully organised if energetic play contrasting with Brazil’s effervescent and impulsive flair. It was also a match featuring perhaps the best and worst goalkeepers of the tournament – England’s amazingly solid Gordon Banks and Brazil’s flappy bird Felix.
The defining and most memorable moment of the match came in the first half. Brazil’s Jairzinho charged down the right flank and went past England’s Terry Cooper and crossed the ball to Pele who was a few yards away from the English goal. Pele, always good in the air, headed the ball down solidly towards the empty goal and actually turned away, screaming “goal.” There was simply no way anyone could have stopped that header into the corner of the goal.
Gordon Banks saved it.
To this day, no one quite knows how he did it. Because Banks was actually at the left side of the goal when Pele headed the ball into the right corner. But somehow, defying a lot of physics and biology, Banks not only dived and reached the ball, but actually was able to twist himself in the air to knock the ball over the goal. Just parrying the ball would have been a massive feat. To send it out of play was the stuff of legend. Banks himself could not believe what he had done. “I thought it was going in the top corner,” he would recall at the unveiling of his statue (yes, he has one in England) in 2008. However, he breathed a sigh of relief when it went over, and with typical understatement muttered, “Banksy, you lucky prat.”
Pele was stunned and confessed to Banks that he thought he had scored. “You and I both,” a sheepish Banks responded. His skipper, the unflappable Bobby Moore, however, was not as impressed. “You are getting old, Banksy,” the man with the nerve of a James Bond is believed to have muttered. “You used to hold on to them.”
Banks would ultimately be beaten in the match by Jairzinho, as Brazil ran out 1-0 winners. Brazil would go on to win the World Cup and the team would be stuff of football legend. England on the other hand, would fritter away a 2-0 lead against West Germany in the quarter finals, let down, ironically by their goalkeeper, Peter Bonetti who had a poor match – Banks was unfit due to food poisoning.
But the match of the tournament was undoubtedly the one between the 1966 champs and their predecessors. And it would not be remembered for who won or who lost, or even who scored the goal that mattered, but for a goal that was saved. It was the stuff of which legend was made. And the man behind the legend breathed his last today.
Rest in peace, Banksy. Heaven could not be in safer hands.