The 1970 Brazilian team played with sublime flair and spirit of adventure, writes Nirmal Shekar

Lost in a story of mythic heroism, my consciousness almost entirely subsumed by old man Santiago’s, and sure in my mind that the creator of the valiant, gaunt, craggy-faced Cuban fisherman was among the most gifted writers in the English language that one had ever come across, I had almost forgotten that The Game was on.

Then, a few minutes past 11 p.m. in what was then Madras, a telephone that would now settle comfortably in a vintage goods store and would command a decent price if it had been well preserved, rang shrilly.

“He scored, he scored! They are up, they are up!’’

My friend was breathless. I would be part of several special moments in his life over the next 40-plus years. But never once would he again live through the excitement of that moment on the night of June 21, 1970.

If there was one thing — perhaps the only thing — in the world that would see me put aside Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea, it was this: a World Cup final goal by the greatest player on the planet, Pele.

As difficult as it was to part with Santiago and his epic, three-day-long struggle with the big Marlin in the Caribbean sea, as hard as it was to relegate to the nether regions of consciousness the old man’s hero Joe DiMaggio, an American baseball legend, I allowed myself a few minutes of indulgence before returning to Papa’s novella, a taut, lyrical tour de force.

It would be several weeks before I would get to see the highlights of that match on screen, but even after 35 years as a professional sports writer, it still remains The Match, simply unsurpassable.

Muchas Gracias, Iniesta, Xavi, Fabregas and the rest of the Spanish conquistadors of 2010, but this columnist would always pick Mario Zagallo’s 1970 Brazilian side as the greatest-ever World Cup winning team in the history of the competition — until, that is, improbably, a better set of 11 players comes along.

Pele, Carlos Alberto, Gerson, Rivellino, Tostao and Jairzinho turned the mundane into something luminously poetic with lordly grandeur as they ran balletic rings around a very good Italian side for a 4-1 victory at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.

“It must be admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that ever penetrated into the ear of man,” wrote E.M. Forster in Howard’s End.

Epochal afternoon

Ten World Cups have come and gone after that epochal afternoon in Mexico City when a bare-chested Pele, flashing a winning smile, sat on the shoulders of his team-mates during the victory lap after the Azteca symphony.

Yes, there is no perfect measure of sporting value; but aesthetic value, subjective as it may be, is timeless. Beauty stretches the imagination; and in football, never quite as magically as it did on that day in Mexico City.

No other team in the last 44 years has displayed the ability to crash through a bolted door (Catenaccio in Italian) with such audacity and irresistible spirit of adventure as did Pele and his men.

The great man scored his last World Cup goal midway in the first half, but it was in the marvellous second half that the Brazilian orchestra almost rendered obsolete the distinction between sport and high art with the most eloquent pairs of attacking feet ever seen on the great stage.

It was a passage of play of such joyous vitality that viewers might have experienced the transcendental state that Stefan Zweig, writing about Franz Schubert’s music, described as “that mood of severe exaltation in which everything seems good and rapturous.”

In an era of soul-numbing digital distraction, instant obsolescence and over-rated sporting icons, it may be difficult to appreciate that apogee of sporting endeavour for what it really is in historic terms. But this hardly matters to those who were lucky enough to have seen it.

The fourth goal, scored by the captain, Carlos Alberto, showcased Pele’s Jogo Bonito at its very best. Over to Hugh McIlvanney, one of the finest British sports writers of the last 50 years…

“Carlos Alberto was coming through on an angled run with the intimidating directness of a torpedo. Pele, seeing him come, turned unhurriedly and rolled the ball into his path with the relaxed precision of a lawn bowler. Without having to check, deviate or adjust his stride, Carlos Alberto smashed the ball with his right foot low into the side-net behind Albertosi’s right-hand post.”

What a climax!

The game’s greatest player — Pele — could have hardly dreamed of a better climax to his career. “Our football comes from the heart,” Pele had always insisted. And it was never more so than in the 1970 final.

Then again, has any team in any sport ever come close to matching that Brazilian side?

Cricket lovers would probably think of Don Bradman’s post-War Invincibles, or Frank Worrell’s 1960s West Indians featuring the game’s greatest all-rounder, Gary Sobers, or maybe Clive Lloyd’s team of the late 1970s and Mark Taylor’s Australians?

But then, this is not merely about dominance, or about victories.

It is about transcendence. And the only time I saw a team come close to matching Pele’s 1970 band of alchemists was in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 when Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone put on a show that was the very definition of athletic perfection, to win the men’s basketball gold.

Surely, had Hemingway’s all-too-mortal — yet immortal on the literary landscape, thanks to the genius of his creator — Santiago been a football fan, he might have wanted to take Pele, and not the Yankee Clipper (Joe DiMaggio) out fishing.