Pele, Gordon Banks and that save

Pele scored more than 1,000 goals – but it is the one denied to him by England goalkeeper Gordon Banks which has stood the test of time as one of the World Cup’s most famous moments.

Pele, who has died aged 82, was at the height of his powers when Brazil’s mesmerising team faced defending champions England in the sweltering heat of Guadalajara during the group stage of the 1970 World Cup.

The contest, viewed at the time as the final which might have been, was edged by Jairzinho’s goal on the hour.

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It was, though, Banks’ brilliance in denying Pele what looked a certain goal during the first half which would see both men forever linked in football folklore.

Defender Carlos Alberto released Jairzinho to sprint down the right and the winger rounded Terry Cooper before clipping a perfectly-weighted cross into the England area.

Pele rose majestically and sent a bullet header down towards the corner, the ball kicking up off the hard Mexican turf and looking destined for the back of the net.

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The Brazilian was ready to celebrate, but Banks somehow flung himself across the goal to his right and with his right hand pushed the ball over the crossbar.

At the time, the 1966 World Cup winner did not realise just what significance those few seconds would go on to have – imprinted on the memory of all who witnessed the save and the generations since who have watched the footage.

Pele paid a personal tribute to Banks following the death of the former Leicester and Stoke goalkeeper in February 2019, again recalling the moment which continued to bind them together so many years later.

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“The save was one of the best I have ever seen – in real life and in all the thousands of games I have watched since,” the Brazilian said in a post on his official social media accounts at the time.

“When you are a footballer, you know straight away how well you have hit the ball. I hit that header exactly as I had hoped. Exactly where I wanted it to go. And I was ready to celebrate.

“But then this man, Banks, appeared in my sight, like a kind of blue phantom, is how I described him. He came from nowhere and he did something I didn’t feel was possible. He pushed my header, somehow, up and over.

Gordon Banks and Pele (PA)
Gordon Banks always shared a joke with Pele over his save at the 1970 World Cup (Dave Thompson/PA)

“And I couldn’t believe what I saw. Even now when I watch it, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe how he moved so far, so fast.

“I scored so many goals in my life, but many people, when they meet me, always ask me about that save.

“While it was indeed phenomenal, my memory of Gordon is not defined by that – it is defined by his friendship. He was a kind and warm man who gave so much to people.

“So I am glad he saved my header – because that act was the start of a friendship between us that I will always treasure. Whenever we met, it was always like we had never been apart.”

Pele described his old friend as “a goalkeeper with magic” and also “a fine human being”. It was a mutual respect shared.

Banks attended a tribute night to Pele in London held by the Football Writers’ Association during January 2018, which the Brazilian had been unable to attend as guest of honour because of health issues.

Former England number one Banks was in no doubt where Pele ranked among his generation.

“He was a superb player, something special,” Banks said in an interview on the FWA website. “I played against some great players, and he was the best player I ever played against.

“He just seemed to know everything about the game and brought in these new things which he had done himself, so all of that shows you just what skills he had got.”

Pele and Gordon Banks at Wembley (PA)
Pele and Gordon Banks shared a life-long friendship (Rebecca Naden/PA)

Banks could still recall the finer details of just how we went about pulling off what many believe remains the best save of all time.

“When we had training sessions (in Mexico), I noticed that when the ball was dropping in front of me, it was kicking up, not staying low like it did in England,” he said.

“I stopped back to do some extra shooting training to help me get used to it and that helped me make the save.”

Reflecting on the moment itself, Banks added: “Pele was around the penalty spot when the guy crossed it from the wing and I knew he was going to get up to it, because he could jump really high.

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“I knew that I had to come off the line to narrow the angle, then once Pele had punched it with his head down to my right-hand side, I knew I had to get over there very quickly.

“The ball was going in and as I dived I had to anticipate how high it was going to come up from the hard surface.

“As I reached across, I got it right, the ball hit the top of my hand and went off…but honestly, I thought it was a goal.

“I hit the floor and turned around, I saw the ball bounce behind the goal – and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, Banksy, you lucky t***’.”