It is about twenty to two. The sun of Mexico City is just beyond its apex, casting narrow shadows. The man in the blue shirt shuffles forward wearily, without real conviction.
From behind his right shoulder, a second figure appears; clad in brilliant gold. Casually, the gold shirt leans in towards the blue, pauses, then accelerates away. In the instep of his right foot is a football.
What happens next is hard to describe. There is something rhythmic about it, almost as if it is set to a magical beat heard only by the participants. The entire moment seems choreographed. But it can’t be, because the setting is a sporting arena, not a theatrical one.
Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. The ball rolls from the first gold-shirted figure to a second. Then a third, and a fourth. Each uses only a single touch. The friends of the man in the blue shirt are gathering, as if wanting to intercede. But they are not really present.
Suddenly the fourth figure explodes into life. Quick, quick, quick, quick again – four of the men in blue are offered the ball. And as each one moves forward to claim it, the figure snatches it from them and jinks away.
For a moment the drum-beat returns. Slow, slow. But then the rhythm changes once more, building towards its dramatic finale. To the left of the stage another gold shirt begins to dance. Left, right, left, right. The blue shirts try to follow him, but they cannot hear the music.
The dancer springs forward and rolls the ball to his side. It stops at the feet of a dark, stocky figure. Something about him is different; special.
Then he does an amazing thing. He stands perfectly still. For a moment the magical beat stops. Time stops. It is like a conductor had raised his baton.
Without looking the conductor brings down his arm and caresses – doesn’t kick, but caresses – the ball to his right. A final, violent blinding flash of gold, then an eruption of sound, and the curtain falls.
Carlos Alberto’s goal – the fourth in Brazil’s 1970 World Cup final victory – is the greatest moment in football. The Goal, The Team, The Match, The Tournament. It is what we watch football for; what we watch sport for. You could even argue it’s what we live for.
Next year football was supposed to be coming home. A World Cup in Brazil, the cradle of the game. The problem is, Brazil doesn’t seem to want it.
On Sunday, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who had gathered near to the Maracana stadium where Italy were playing Mexico in the Confederations Cup. It followed demonstrations which preceded Brazil’s opening match of the tournament against Japan. Last night, there was significant public disorder following further demonstrations in Sao Paulo Belo Horizonte and Brasilia.
As ever, those protesting seem to have a number of grievances. But the catalyst for the outpouring of anger does seem to be next year’s tournament. According to the BBC, those demonstrating on Sunday held up placards saying “We don’t need the World Cup” and “We need money for hospitals and education”.
Part of the problem appears to be that ordinary Brazilians fear they are going to priced out of – and excluded from – their own tournament. Another is the perceived corruption that has attended the awarding of contracts for the finals. But the primary reason for the unrest is a feeling that resources that could be spent on alleviating Brazil’s myriad ongoing social problems are being “squandered” on watching 22 men kick a ball around. Or twenty-one, if one of the teams includes Glen Johnson.
Football has changed a lot since that glorious afternoon in 1970, and not for the better. Growing commercialisation and corruption within the game’s governing body Fifa culminated in the grotesque decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a nation with a dubious human rights record, where games are currently scheduled to kick off in 115-degree heat, and which Fifa itself characterised as representing a “high operational risk”.
The last World Cup in South Africa was dismal, with sponsors seemingly outnumbering fans, the football undermined by a new official ball that seemed to have been designed on Blackpool pleasure beach, and players who seemed exhausted or uninterested.
At least that was my impression. But I had wondered if I was just becoming old, too cynical and too worn down by exposure to Matthew Upson.
Now I’m starting to think it’s not just me. If even the Brazilians are complaining about the presence of the World Cup, then we should all be getting worried, and Sepp Blatter in particular.
Compared with the award to Qatar, Fifa’s ludicrous president probably assumed he was on home banker when he gave the tournament to Brazil. That illusion was rudely shattered at the Confederations Cup opening ceremony, when Blatter found himself roundly booed, along with Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff. “Stars are always booed so I’m a star, you have to take it this way” was Blatter’s characteristically humble response.
There was a time when football was supposed to be the antidote to poverty. Or rather its placebo. But the demonstrations on the streets of Brazil show the extent to which football’s capacity for magic is waning.
In 1970 poor Brazilians danced in the favelas in celebration of their country’s victory. In advance of next year’s World Cup, and the Olympics that are to follow, the favelas are being bulldozed.
It’s tempting to decry this loss of sporting innocence. But in another sense, perhaps it is a good thing. It’s easy to point to a Pele, or a Zico or a Socrates, and hold them up as symbols of individual achievement, and Brazilian national pride. But did they really help shine the spotlight on the impoverished residents of Brazil’s shanty towns, or did they help to unwittingly hide them from view?
Carlos Alberto’s goal is a thing of beauty. But it never fed a hungry child, or built a new home, or delivered a newborn baby. Those Brazilians taking to the streets why so much money is being spent on a football tournament have a point.
It’s getting on for 50 years since the curtain fell in Mexico City. Perhaps we should leave it the people of Brazil to decide if and when it is raised again.