Pelé’s finest hour – captured by FIFA

IT IS good to see the official FIFA film of the 1970 World Cup is available to watch on the BBC’s archives at present, a cinematic treat that was very much of its time. Like other FIFA films, there is an air of naivety and cliché around the narrative, a glimpse into “FIFA Land” or at least how the governing body would like the world to look. It has the spirit of a scout jamboree about it.

In 1970, the script centres on a small boy who blags his way into key matches at the World Cup with his mother wondering where the hell her son has gone. This blond-haired, blue-eyed lad was certainly not a boy from Mexico City, but more likely he was plucked out of a drama school in Zurich or Munich. He leaves home in search of Pelé, Charlton, Riva and Beckenbauer, cadging a lift from a US journalist and his girlfriend.

The lack of reality in this story has been made more bizarre by time. The football-mad Martin’s mother would be in big trouble in today’s cynical world. Martin somehow works his way into stadiums, dressed as a cub scout, sitting among a crowd of Mexicans or suited and booted with a jaunty cravat around his neck. There’s simply no way he can be stopped, but meanwhile, his Mama has no idea where he might be, finally spotting him on TV in a stadium while she is nursing another of her children.

We see Brazil in their pomp, all improvisation and agility, as well as the formidable Italians, making their way to the final. England’s game with West Germany is featured with the Mexicans rejoicing and being “ever hostile to England” as the 1966 winners capitulate after being 2-0 ahead.

The legendary “game of the century” between Italy and West Germany gets substantial coverage, with the brave young Franz Beckenbauer taped-up after dislocating his shoulder. This was a riveting contest but the 4-3 win for Italy denied everyone the chance to see the second best side from Mexico ’70 in the final, the exciting West Germans and the competition’s leading scorer, Gerd Müller.

Certainly, you get the feeling the Germans would have made a better fist of the final against Pelé and his ball-juggling pals. It would seem unlikely that they would have lost 4-1 in the Azteca Stadium.

The film is a period piece with stadiums emblazoned with advertising of the time – Cinzano, Martini, Philips, Hertz, Zeiss of Jena and Marlborough. But there are similarities to the modern day in that Brazil – like Argentina 2022 – were the team everyone wanted to win. The reason was primarily to reward an icon of the game – in 2022 it was Lionel Messi, in 1970 it was Pelé, playing in his last World Cup.

It was so marvellously colourful, those Brazilian yellow shirts standing out against the most vivid of crowds in a bold stadium that was built to impress. Little wonder we remember Mexico 1970 and Pelé for leaving us with such wonderful and enduring memories.

Disappointment is inevitable at most World Cups

IN 2018, there was a great deal of enthusiasm about the World Cup in Russia. The narrative was very positive, it was said to be the best competition for some time after a series of disappointments. However, in recent years, there has been a trend to claim everything current has a legitimate claim to be “best ever”, a tag that has been handed to teams like Manchester City and Liverpool because they happened to win the Premier League. In 2014, some sections of the media have argued that Brazil 2014 was the greatest World Cup, only to be usurped by Russia 2018. Such examples of “presentism” appear to ignore the players that gave the World Cup its mass appeal – Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas and Zinedine Zidane, to name but a few.

World Cups over the past 30 years have been intensely marketed and rammed down everyone’s throats. They seem to go on for ever and there are too many games that fail to capture the imagination. Football governing bodies never know when to stop expanding, complicating or monetising their competitions, taking the deluded view that more is best. The fact is more teams and more games translates to lower quality. The more teams you add, the more the field becomes diluted.

This never gets discussed properly, the driving force behind the World Cup is television and corporate advertising. More games means more air time for products and sponsors. The real product on show isn’t a sugary, carbonated drink or low quality fast food, but the game of football. As a result of this commercialisation, the World Cup has doubled in size since 1966 and in 2026, it will comprise 48 teams. There will be more games, a longer competition and a somewhat attritional experience for even the most ardent supporter of international football. From a quality perspective, World Cup 2026 will surely see a drop in standards.

There’s no doubt the last two World Cups have been the salvation of the competition. It went through a mediocre period that extended from 1990 to 2010, six tournaments that were often yawning spectator experiences, with the exception of one or two games. The mythical Italia ’90 has been revered because of what came after the football – the return of English clubs to Europe, the idea of the Premier League, a lull in the culture of hooliganism and the beginning of respectable football. But in truth, Italia ’90 was mostly dire and full of defensive football and the lowest ever scoring rate in a World Cup. USA ’94 was marginally better and of those that followed, only 1998 in France and Germany’s grand show of 2006 were truly enjoyable experiences.

More often than not, the World Cup has let people down. Expectation is too high given the competition is usually held at the end of a gruelling domestic season. It is not unreasonable for players to be tired, injured or emotionally drained after nine months of intensity. There’s always an injury or two to key players, depriving the World Cup of top talent.

In the past, one of the attractions of the World Cup was the chance to see foreign players, star names who were known only by reputation and rumour. Globalisation has changed all that – and it is not a negative thing – but it has robbed us of the sense of wonder that accompanies the unknown, a glimpse of seeing those stars from a far-off place.

By contrast, just look at the composition of the 2022 squads – almost 20% of the 32 national squads play their football in England, 10% in Spain and 10% in Germany. More than half of the players heading to Qatar are employed by clubs in Europe’s big five leagues. Bayern Munich have 17 players representing them at the World Cup, one more than Manchester City and Barcelona. Only a third of the 832 squad members play in their domestic leagues – only two participating countries have squads drawn completely from home, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. At the other end of the scale, Senegal have no domestically-employed players and Argentina and Serbia have only one apiece.

Globalisation also means teams are more technical than ever and so the gaps in class can be closed, resulting in damage-limitation performances that are not necessarily good to watch. Humiliating thrashings are increasingly rare, the last six-goal performance was in 2018 when England beat Panama 6-1. The no-hopers are still present and although African teams fare better than when they first arrived on the scene, CAF is no nearer getting its first World Cup winner.

The duration of the World Cup means it is difficult for any team to sustain the sort of campaign that Brazil mounted in 1970 in the old 16-team format, even though the team of Pelé played just one less game than the 2022 winners will play. Brazil provided a benchmark that every World Cup winner is measured by, but it was a different, more innocent time. Club football is far more demanding in 2022 than it was 50 years ago, which makes it almost impossible for the World Cup to satisfy us consistently every four years. In order for the protagonists to be fresher, at the peak of their powers and fit to compete at the elite level, they don’t need close season competitions (indeed, mid-season competitions) that compromise quality and merely present the spectators with battle-worn individuals. FIFA, at some point, must consider if they are truly doing justice to a football institution. We struggle with 32 teams, so expansion to 48 will possibly do more harm than good.