The greatest memories from football matches are invariably goals or displays of attacking flair — a flowing team move, or a sensational dribble through the opposition defence, or a long-range strike, or a stepover. It is not often a moment of defensive genius gets celebrated for decades, so when it does happen you know it is incredibly special.
England goalkeeper Gordon Banks’ save from a Pele header at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico is one such more. The legendary Brazilian forward connected well with Jairzinho’s sumptuous cross from the right flank. It’s what strikers dream of doing, it’s what goalkeepers hate: a strong downward header.
In a photograph that captures the moment from the match , one can see Pele already starting to celebrate but England’s Banks pulled off a stunning reflex save to push the ball over the crossbar.
The setting was a group match in Guadalajara where Brazil took on defending champions England. The 1966 World Cup winners had Banks back in goal from the previous campaign. The legendary Englishman went on to make what is often referred to as the greatest save ever.
“As soon as I got my hand to it, I thought it was going in the top corner,” Banks recalled later as per a report in the Guardian. “But after I’d landed on the hard floor, I looked up and saw the ball bounce behind the net and that’s when I said to myself: ‘Banksy, you lucky prat’.”
England lost the match 1-0 (largely thanks to Banks’ heroics) and the custodian subsequently missed England’s quarter-final exit to West Germany through illness.
“I didn’t imagine that I could stop the ball and even though I got a thumb to it, I assumed it had gone in until I heard Bobby Moore applauding,” Banks said, as per Fifa.com, reflecting on that save. “He [Pele] headed it like all coaches tell you, which is down on the floor which makes it more difficult for the goalkeeper.
“I had to dive across and cover the actual speed and direction of the ball and then guess how high it would bounce from the ground. Pele was later quoted saying that he thought it was the best save he had ever seen, whether he still says that I don’t know!”
Well, Pele indeed believed that for a long time. When Banks died in February 2019, Pele wrote a touching tribute to his friend, remembering the moment and why he was glad:
For many people, their memory of Gordon Banks is defined by the save he made against me in 1970. I understand why.
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.
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. And I couldn’t believe what I saw. Even now when I watch it l, 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.
Banks was considered to be one of the best all-time keepers in world football, in the league of Lev Yashin, Dino Zoff, Oliver Kahn and Gianluigi Buffon.
Banks started his career at Chesterfield, after which he moved to Leicester City. He spent eight years with the Foxes, appearing in four finals. He lost both the FA Cup finals in 1961 and 1963, before finally winning the League Cup in 1964 but lost the 1965 final.
As a 29-year-old, Banks moved to Stoke City after falling out of favour at Leicester. Banks won Stoke’s only major honour, the 1972 League Cup before a car crash cost him an eye and a professional career at a time when he was still England’s number one keeper.
(With AFP inputs)
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