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When goalkeeper Gordon Banks magically denied Pelé’s explosive header during England’s World Cup match with Brazil, he launched a 47-year debate about why this extraordinary save was the best ever.

Illustration by Mark Ulriksen

Illustration by Mark Ulriksen

June 7, 1970

Guadalajara, Mexico: World Cup, Group three match

Brazil 1, England 0

Goalkeepers don’t look at football the way normal people do. With every goal, no matter how superb, they—we—feel a faint disappointment. A goal is always something uncompleted, a pleasure cut short, a sort of sporting coitus interruptus.

It’s not that we can’t appreciate a marvelous goal, especially when there’s partisanship involved. But we still feel slightly cheated, for we’ve been denied the still more marvelous save. The great save is football’s ultimate achievement: brilliance trumped by a brilliance still greater.

Goalkeepers don’t expect you, dear reader, dear outfielder, to understand. We take pride in being misunderstood. We wouldn’t be goalkeepers without a taste for being outcasts. Albert Camus was a goalie—perhaps all goalkeepers are existentialists without knowing it, as if we’re suffering from an undiagnosed disease.

It follows that goalkeepers have a different understanding of the way the game works. Everyone who remembers Manchester United’s immortal treble of 1999—Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League—knows that it hinged on the FA Cup semifinal against Arsenal.

In most people’s recollection, the decisive moment came with Ryan Giggs’s mad gallop upfield to score the best and most significant goal of his life. But that’s wrong. That goal would never have been possible had Peter Schmeichel not saved a penalty from Dennis Bergkamp earlier in the piece.

Here’s the thing: You can argue forever about the greatest goal ever scored—and a billion beers have been drunk in an attempt to settle the point. (It was Bobby Charlton’s goal against Mexico in 1966, by the way.) But when it comes to the best save, there is more or less universal agreement: It was Gordon Banks’s save against Pelé in a World Cup group match in 1970 in Guadalajara in Mexico.

England were world champions, Brazil were favorites for the competition. They were the two best teams in the world; England-Brazil was seen as a rivalry that would last a footballing eternity.

The match was 10 minutes old when Jairzinho cruised round the England left back Terry Cooper, and his cross was the sort of thing any forward dreams about. And that forward was Pelé, who would still win most arguments about the best player—the best outfield player—that ever kicked a ball.

He rose with the balletic grace he always possessed and headed the ball with perfect coordination, perfect accuracy. Headed downward, just as he intended, the most devastating strike in football. Cross perfect, header perfect.

Gol!

A cry torn involuntarily from Pelé’s throat. On a thousand, ten thousand, a million occasions, he would have been right. On this occasion he was wrong.

England: Back row, from left: Assistant manager Harold Shepherdson, Brian Labone, Gordon Banks, Terry Cooper, Bobby Charlton, Martin Peters, Captain Bobby Moore, and trainer Les Cocker. Front row, from left: Alan Ball, Francis Lee, Alan Mullery, Tommy Wright, and Geoff Hurst.

England: Back row, from left: Assistant manager Harold Shepherdson, Brian Labone, Gordon Banks, Terry Cooper, Bobby Charlton, Martin Peters, Captain Bobby Moore, and trainer Les Cocker. Front row, from left: Alan Ball, Francis Lee, Alan Mullery, Tommy Wright, and Geoff Hurst.

Have you ever had the satisfaction of cracking a whip? A long, well-made whip, utterly suitable for its purpose? You send a wave along the whip that accelerates mightily, until at the moment of crisis the tip lashes out as if of its own will, passes the speed of sound, and cracks.

Impossibly, Banks’s body made that same whiplashing movement, that same rhythmic undulation at the same devastating speed. Banks seemed to crack himself like a whip, and at once he was on the other side of the goal, his right hand reaching for the ball.

The ball bounced in front of him. Had he merely got a palm to it Pelé would have knocked in the rebound. But he did better. Somehow, and again impossibly, he turned the ball upward, and it rose as if there were an invisible forcefield surrounding the goal. And then it was over the bar and gone and Banks was up on his feet again.

“I thought that was a goal,” Pelé said.

“You and me both,” said Banks.

The England captain Bobby Moore just laughed. “You’re getting old, Banksy! You used to hold onto them.”

So OK, a great save. The best ever? I met Banks years ago, 15 years after the save, and we had lunch and I listened as he talked goalkeeping. “I’ve made plenty of other saves that good,” he said. “But that one was on television—and in a World Cup.”

So why has this save, of all saves, gone down as the greatest of them all? It wasn’t as if it won the game for England or even saved it: Brazil won 1-0, Pelé laying off beautifully for Jairzinho to finish, goalkeeper no chance.

And it wasn’t as if the save set the tone for the tournament and for England’s future triumph—not at all. It all went badly wrong in the quarterfinals. The matches were held in the heat of the day, so that European audiences could watch them in the evening. It wasn’t a schedule deigned to maximize excellence or even health.

Banks collapsed before the quarterfinal: stomach cramps, shivering, vomiting. Naturally there were all kinds of conspiracy theories, that he was poisoned and so forth, but the overwhelming likelihood is that he was suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration.

England took a 2-0 lead against West Germany—their opponents in the final four years earlier—and all looked well. But then Banks’s replacement in goal, Peter Bonnetti, moved into the realm of nightmare and was at fault for at least two of the three goals that West Germany scored in reply.

Perhaps England would have won had Banks been playing. And perhaps the idea that England would have won makes the save on Pelé all the more beautiful, all the more significant. If England had beaten Germany they would probably have made the final against Brazil, and once there, they would certainly have played better than the woeful Italians … and a glorious counterfactual history opens up before us.

Alas, it was the end of England’s great rivalry with Brazil. It lasted precisely one match. This was the great team that never was, and after that desperate disappointment England went into decline, failing to qualify for the next two World Cups. England’s time of greatness is remembered above all by that save, by the moment that Brazil’s—and the world’s—finest player took on England and came off second best.

In 1963, the British boxer Henry Cooper knocked down a brash young American named Cassius Clay. Clay got up to win, but the clip of his brief collapse was shown again and again on British television, a perpetually teasing view of what might have been. In English eyes, Banks’s save has the same magic: the pure sporting beauty of futile heroism.

Brazil: Back row, from left: Captain Carlos Alberto, Brito, Piazza, Félix, Clodoaldo, Everaldo, and manager Mário Zagallo. Front row, from left: Jairzinho, Rivelino, Tostão, Pelé, and Paulo Cézar.

Brazil: Back row, from left: Captain Carlos Alberto, Brito, Piazza, Félix, Clodoaldo, Everaldo, and manager Mário Zagallo. Front row, from left: Jairzinho, Rivelino, Tostão, Pelé, and Paulo Cézar.

It’s not just English people who remember that save. It’s remembered because it was at the World Cup, seen by millions at the time football was sealing its Faustian pact with television. Here was one of football’s great miracles shared across the globe.

And above all, it mattered because of Pelé. It was his name that turned a moment of brilliance into one of football’s archetypal revelations of wonder. It was Pelé—and that made Banks the man who turned aside the thunderbolt.

It also matters that Pelé emerged victorious. It matters, in terms of these footballing legends, that the greatest goalkeeper of them all was in the end undone by the greatest outfielder. Goalkeepers always lose in the end. Most people prefer it that way.

People said that the save was “instinctive,” but that’s not quite right. A goalkeeper learns to mistrust his instincts. “I’m always telling kids not to anticipate,” Banks told me over that lunch. “I remember conceding some goals early in my career when I had made up my mind that the ball was going one way. When it went the other all my weight was on the wrong foot and I couldn’t move. Helpless.”

As they mature, goalkeepers acquire a new set of instincts, based on learned responses and a deeper understanding of the game. It follows that goalkeepers at their mature best are reading the game and anticipating in ways far beyond the tyro. “I look at some of the saves I’ve made and I wonder: Did anticipation help? Was there something in the shape of the body as the ball was being struck that told me where the ball was going?”

Two years after that save in Guadalajara, Banks was involved in a car accident and lost an eye. He was 34 and in his prime. More counterfactual history: The accident never happened, England never lost momentum, they qualified for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, they were too good for Brazil, for West Germany, for the Dutch Total Football team …

But no. What remains is the save, for in sport the truth can only ever be found in the action. There was the ball headed downward with ferocious force, there was Banks, Banks the whip crack, making that impossible save.

Gol!

Not today. Not ever. However often you replay the clip, Banks saves it every time. Even though, every time, it seems impossible.

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