Odds are that the patrons of Spellow House on Goodison Row in Liverpool would not know the Chicago Bears if they ran through the bar with their helmets on—which is one of the charming things about Spellow House. But the talk is all football, nonetheless, and last week the "scousers" (natives) were caught up with the World Cup matches, as were an awful lot of people in a lot of other pubs around the world. They made up a record radio, TV and live audience, and 900 million soccer fans can't be wrong.
There was plenty to talk about. The World Cup may be the most widely followed event in sports, not bad for an affair that only started in 1930. And its enthusiasts will tell you further that the World Cup is the only truly international competition around today, considerably more meaningful and a whole lot more exciting than the Olympic Games, which also come off every four years. Three years back, some 70 teams began kicking each other lumpy in the eliminations. And this month, as the 16 finalists assembled in England for the championships, the sports scene took on shadings of the World Series, the Hambletonian and the Rose Bowl.
An estimated 35,000 fans were scattered around London, spilling over into the surrounding communities as well. Although thousands of tourists who came to England for the matches made small impact on London (a blasé city of eight million that is flooded with tourists at this time of year anyway), the Brazilian fans scattered through a considerable part of six hotels managed to make their presence felt. For one thing, Brazilians are extremely vocal, even for soccer fans. For another, their team was the two-time defending champion and a solid favorite to win once again.
Most continental fans stayed home until the day that their team was to play, then flew to England for the game, returning home as soon after as possible. Because of this, Air France scheduled 106 extra World Cup flights. When France played Mexico last week in Wembley Stadium the French fans marched in to the tune of la Marseillaise, and Air France flew 30,000 carnations over to cheer them up.
When Italy played Chile in another early game the Italians swamped the stadium, since it is much easier for Italians to reach Sunderland, in the north of England, than it is for the Chileans. But the natives of Sunderland cheered for Chile so that matters were almost even.
The players themselves were warned in advance to behave while in England, and Brazil even went so far as to forbid its bachelors to marry until after the matches. The romantic Italians, traveling through Europe on a pretournament tour, found themselves denied hotel chambermaids by the team manager, simply to insure against any adverse publicity before the World Cup began. The Swiss team, admittedly one of the weakest in the tournament, was weakened even more by the suspension of two key players who were observed returning to their hotel after curfew in the company of two young ladies. The Argentine team took quarters in the midst of Birmingham, because its players come from big cities and are accustomed to noise. And the Brazilian team, which had hunted around for solitude—practically nonexistent at World Cup time—finally settled down to peace and quiet and four gargantuan meals a day in the Lymm Hotel in Cheshire, some 20 miles from Liverpool.
But whatever the behavior of the teams off the field, measures were taken to insure that they would have no artificial stimulation once play began. Two players from each team, drawn by lot, were to undergo urinalysis after each match to make sure they were not being given pep pills.
Dr. Hilton Gosling, a plump, pleasant man, who is the medical director of the Brazilian team, immediately complained about the tests on the basis that the Brazilians were inveterate coffee drinkers and that their inordinate intake of coffee might show up as a stimulant in any kind of test. He was silenced by the British doctor in charge (who must be nameless by British law).
"Any Brazilian who drank enough coffee or tea for the caffeine to take effect," he said, dryly, "would never be able to finish the game anyway."
Once that issue was medically settled, Dr. Gosling had one final point to make. "We are better organized this time," he said. "In 1958, when we first won the cup, no one was expecting us. Now everyone is pointing for us. It will be more difficult, but I think we will win."
It was a bold enough comment to make any loyal Briton wince—especially the taciturn Alf Ramsey, a withdrawn man who has coached the British side for three years toward this championship.
"We will win the cup," Ramsey insisted, in a straightforward—and widely printed—direct quote. Part of the reason for Ramsey's confidence is that he has the respect of his players, although he never seems to satisfy the British sportswriters. It is a tradition in European soccer coverage that any sportswriter is more expert than any coach.
In fact it was clear last week that all of Europe was shot through with experts. Soccer statisticians figured that 2½ million spectators would pay five million dollars to attend the matches at eight stadiums; more than 1,600 journalists would send out reports in more than 30 languages; more than 700 radio and TV broadcasters would cover the preliminary matches'—and the final game would be seen by more than 400 million on worldwide television.
All of this was played, naturally, to the background strains of the World Cup March and, for the less martial, there was a World Cup rock 'n' roll song suitable for fruggers. There were cup-inspired neckties, T-shirts, puzzles and balloons—and, finally, a World Cup special police force, 24 roving anti-pickpocket experts from Scotland Yard.
The object of all this plotting and planning and hysterical behavior is a small, gold-plated trophy about the size of a beer bottle and not terribly impressive as trophies go. It was stolen four months ago, after it had been brought to England from Rio de Janeiro, and wasn't recovered until a dog named Pickles accidentally dug it up while looking for a bone in a suburb of South London. But the trophy itself means nothing, of course. What is important is what it means to the teams involved.
In brief, the World Cup works this way: the 16 teams are drawn into four groups of four each. In each bracket they play a round robin, each team playing one game against the other three. Two points are awarded for a victory and one for a tie, and at the end of the round robin the two top teams move into the quarter-finals; the bottom two go home. If a tie should develop within the group, the team to advance is decided on a peculiar goal-average system in which the number of goals a team has scored is divided by the number it has given up.
Pretournament odds had placed the favored Brazilians at 9 to 4 and the host English at 3 to 1, with Italy 7 to 1, West Germany 9 to 1, Argentina and U.S.S.R. at 11 to 1, Portugal (in the same group with Brazil) at 25 to 1 and the rest of the field scattered out until one reached Mexico and Switzerland at 200 to 1. But the local turf accountants were complaining that there was very little action, primarily because no one wanted to bet at 9 to 4 on—and certainly no one wanted to bet against—Brazil.
The main reason was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, who stands 5 feet 9, weighs 148 pounds, moves like a muscular ballet dancer and may be the best soccer player who ever lived. As an unknown 17-year-old, this marvel who calls himself Pelé led Brazil to its first world championship, and now, better than ever, he was back again.
Just before the opening game, Pelé was reputedly offered $1 million in American money to sign a contract with an Italian team following the World Cup, with another million dollars to go to his home club in Brazil. He turned down the offer. "He does not need the money, and he does not like the winter in Italy," a Brazilian official explained, shrugging. "And if he went to Italy, he would have to learn the language."
As a soccer player, Pelé speaks an international language, and more fluently than any of his contemporaries; and he began to speak early in the opening game against Bulgaria in Liverpool.
More than 3,000 Brazilian fans were carefully spaced through Goodison Park, home of the Everton team during England's regular soccer season, but. none of them was seated in the first three rows. The English have a firm suspicion of the ability of any Latin American to control his emotions. There were not enough Bulgarians on hand to worry about, although the Everton and Liverpool fans adopted Bulgaria and nearly outshouted the Brazilians during the course of the evening.
But they found little to cheer. Pelé and Garrincha (Portuguese for Little Bird) blew the Bulgarians out of contention with a pair of beautiful free shots. The free shots were well earned, since Pelé was marked with more savagery than good sense by Bulgaria's tall, dark, young defender, Dobromir Zhechev. To mark a man in soccer is to cover him man-for-man, and it offers considerable opportunity for mayhem for anyone so inclined. Zhechev was so inclined, and he tripped and held Pelé most of the evening.
But Pelé is a virtuoso at controlling the ball delicately with his feet, passing it accurately across the pitch to a teammate, striking it forcefully with his head and faking well when he does not have possession of the ball. And he is easily as mean a player as Zhechev.
The South Americans were not supposed to relish body contact, and obviously Zhechev's assignment in this game was to determine whether or not he could intimidate Pelé by tackling hard (not tackling as known in American football, but taking the ball away as it is dribbled by kicking at it). Zhechev seemed to have difficulty differentiating between Pelé and the ball.
Pelé ignored Zhechev for a long time. Then he came in over the ball and laid Zhechev out on the turf, drawing a penalty, but not a serious one. Coming in over the ball means kicking over the ball at the shin of an opponent, scoring him with one's cleats. Pelé did this with all the finesse he used on his free shot later in the game, and he discouraged Zhechev for the rest of the contest.
Pelé's goal came after he had been fouled and awarded the free kick. The Bulgarians set up a four-man wall 10 yards in front of him, but he kicked a wide curve around them and into the net. Later, Garrincha did the same thing from the other side of the goal, much as if Brazil had used a left-and a right-handed pitcher in the course of a baseball game.
In spite of such fancy footwork, some Brazilians who had come down by train from London were disappointed. They felt Brazil had not played well.
"We see the same old faces year after year," murmured one fan.
"The old," another said, sleepily, "are good enough."
That night, back in Spellow House, a regular named Alfie nursed his pint of bitter and blinked his light-blue eyes. "That Pelé," he said. " 'E 'ad them Bulgarians blowing for tugs, 'e did." Blowing for tugs is what American footballers do when they try to catch Gale Sayers.
"Yer right," agreed Alfie's pal. "I ain't seen a better player since Donnelly docked." Since everyone obviously knew who Donnelly was, they all nodded, and the talk went on through the night.
Pelé may have had the Bulgarians blowing for tugs, rightly enough, but all the combativeness of that opening match had left him with an injured knee. When Alfie and friends showed up at the stadium for Brazil's next match, with lowly Hungary, the great Pelé was on the bench. Hungary, in one of the several upsets of that first week's play, beat Brazil 3-1. It was the first loss for the Brazilians in World Cup soccer since 1954.
At week's end. England and Uruguay led Group 1; West Germany and Argentina were ahead in Group 2; the U.S.S.R. and Italy led Group 4—and Brazil was fighting for its life. Even with Pelé expected to return to action, Brazil needed a convincing victory over strong Portugal, the Group 3 leader, in order to advance.
And if they failed, as Alfie might say, "Wot a bloody shame."