The beautiful game: The Economist’s choice of five classic World Cup moments

The Economist has an article (click on the screenshot below) that describes five epochal moments in the World Cup. You can read the article, but I’ve also dug up videos of all five moments and put them below. I’ve also added the Economist’s introduction (indented) and an excerpt from each event

PELÉ was nine years old when he first saw his father cry. It was 1950, the year of the Maracanazo—Brazil’s devastating loss to Uruguay, at the Maracanã stadium in Rio, which cost the team the World Cup. The child promised his father that he would avenge the defeat. When the two countries next met in the tournament, in the semi-final of 1970, Pelé was playing. With the scores tied at 1-1, he chased a pass deep into Uruguay’s half. The goalkeeper rushed from his line. Their foot race was also the climax of a story, or rather several: the story of the game, of Pelé’s career, of his country’s recovery from the Maracanazo.

With its mortifications and sense of worldwide communion, the World Cup—which begins on June 14th—is a kind of global religion. It is a form of soft diplomacy and a safe outlet for nationalism. For many fans, it is a potent quadrennial madeleine, each tournament summoning memories of previous ones, the lost friends with whom they were watched, past selves. Sometimes the football itself can be cagey and boring. But, especially on its biggest stage and canvas, sometimes football is art. Individual moves can be balletic, a team’s routines exquisitely choreographed. Grand narratives unfold and crescendo, tragedies and unlikely triumphs that feature heroes, villains and occasionally players who contrive to be both.

. . . In 1982 Britain defeated Argentina in a war over the Falkland Islands. Four years later, having emerged from a military dictatorship, Argentina faced England in a quarter-final in Mexico. “We were defending our flag, the dead kids, the survivors,” Maradona, the team’s captain, said later. In the space of four minutes he scored the most scandalous goal in history and the finest. First he surreptitiously punched the ball into the net (the “hand of God”, he called it afterwards). For the second goal, he seemed to function on a different plane to the hapless Englishmen. He pirouetted away from two defenders, ran half the length of the pitch, rounded the keeper and guided the ball home. Argentina won the game and, redemptively, the cup.

Before and afterwards, Maradona’s life was chequered. . .

Greatness in sport, as in art, often comes from unseen, grinding effort. But sometimes it arises from sheer inspiration—a wind awakening a coal to brightness, as Percy Bysshe Shelley put it, or the “flash in the brain” that Johan Cruyff said he experienced at the World Cup in Germany in 1974.

Cruyff was a master of flicks, feints, impudent shots and passes that described arcing lines of beauty. But it was his improvisation in a match against Sweden that made him immortal. By his own account, he had not practised what he did upon receiving the ball near the corner flag, a Swedish defender in close attendance. Cruyff appeared to be heading away from the goal, until, in a quicksilver feat of dexterity and imagination, he tucked the ball behind him, swivelled and set off in the other direction. For an instant he seemed to be running in both directions at once.

The “Cruyff turn” has since been attempted by players everywhere. . .

[Tofiq] Bahramov officiated at the World Cup final of 1966, played between England and West Germany at Wembley Stadium in London. With the scores level in extra time, a shot by Geoff Hurst, England’s striker, rattled the crossbar and bounced down over the goal line. Or perhaps it didn’t: the German players claimed to have seen chalk dust, indicating that the ball hit the line and thus that the goal should not be given. The referee jogged across to consult Bahramov, who briskly nodded an affirmative.

England won 4-2. English fans mostly remember the fourth goal, scored in the final seconds as the joyous crowd spilled onto the pitch. But it is the third that is a work of art.

I remember this well; it was in the final between Italy and France in Berlin, 2006:

The match in Berlin was heading for a penalty shoot-out; Mr Zidane, France’s captain, had already scored one in the game. With ten minutes to go, an Italian defender muttered something to him (about his mother, Mr Zidane alleged; only about his sister, the defender maintained). Mr Zidane headbutted the Italian in the chest. He was sent off. France lost the shoot-out.

This implosion was a tragedy in the purest sense.

And Pelé tries to get his revenge against Uruguay in 1970:

According to the Japanese aesthetic known as wabi-sabi, beauty is not perfect but flawed and incomplete. Leonard Cohen expressed the same thought in “Anthem”: “Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” So, inadvertently, did Pelé, after he won the race with the Uruguayan goalkeeper.

Perhaps no one but Pelé would have done what he did next. He did nothing. His mind whirring faster than his feet, he did not touch the ball, as the keeper expected, but let it run on—hastily collecting it, after his coup de théâtre, on the other side of his opponent. Pelé shot towards the unguarded goal—but scuffed his kick and missed.

He still avenged his father and the Maracanazo. Brazil beat Uruguay and won the final, in which Pelé scored. Still, much later he said he had dreams in which, after that audacious moment of restraint, his aim was true: “It would have been so much more beautiful had it gone in.” He may be the greatest football artist of all time, but, about this, Pelé is wrong. The kink in the masterpiece is what makes it human.




  1. aljones909
    Posted June 17, 2018 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I watched all these moments “live”. Including England’s win in 1966. Quite devastating for a 12 year old Scot. I’ve mellowed – and wouldn’t mind at all if they do well in Russia.

  2. George Wilson
    Posted June 17, 2018 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m shocked and stunned that The Economist has included a moment of English triumph in their list.

    • Posted June 18, 2018 at 6:33 am | Permalink

      In football terms, it’s the moment of English triumph. It’s the only time England has ever won a major football tournament.

  3. Graham Head
    Posted June 17, 2018 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    I’ll refrain from commenting on Maradona as I would have to use language that might end up in me being banned from this website.

    • Angel
      Posted June 17, 2018 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      DAM aka D10S, the best ever! And the greatest WC gol ever against the “perfiduos Albion”

  4. Posted June 17, 2018 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I suppose it is called the Cruyff turn because he did it in the World Cup. But George Best was doing it for years before 1974. And most muddy, adolescent kids were copying him. or at least trying to.

    Villa played Barcelona in the 70s: Cruyff was substituted after 80 or so minutes of bossing the game, with Barca cruising 0-2 up. Villa drew 2-2. He was that good.

  5. Eduardo
    Posted June 17, 2018 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I still remember that move by Pelé against Uruguayan goalie Ladislao Mazurkiewicz whom I had met a few years earlier. Almost 50 years ago and I still remember where I was when I watched the game and the excitement.

  6. BJ
    Posted June 17, 2018 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Knowing the passion of soccer fans, I can’t imagine what it must have been like (must still be like) to have been an English fan when Maradonna did that. How terrible.

    I love watching soccer, but, being an American, I don’t often get to see it. I’m an ice hockey and tennis man myself.

    • Posted June 18, 2018 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      I speak as an England fan who watched the match live on telly.

      The second goal was pure brilliance such that any true football fan must acknowledge. In truth, Argentina and Maradonna outplayed us that day. Had the first goal been disallowed and the match ended in a draw to be decided on penalties, the result would have flattered us.

    • Posted June 18, 2018 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      I speak as an England fan who watched the match live on telly.

      The second goal was pure brilliance such that any true football fan must acknowledge. In truth, Argentina and Maradonna outplayed us that day. Had the first goal been disallowed and the match ended in a draw to be decided on penalties, the result would have flattered us.

  7. Dominic
    Posted June 18, 2018 at 3:16 am | Permalink

    The old balls were a different game – modern footballers would not have coped. many of the players of that era have dementia from heading the ball, like my namesake Nobby Stiles

    • Posted June 18, 2018 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      The dry weight of the football has been specified as 14-16 ounces since 1937. Prior to that, the weight was 13-15 ounces.

      The only difference is that wet footballs no longer soak up water and gain weight.

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