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How the 1970 World Cup in Mexico changed the face of global soccer forever

MEXICO CITY — The 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico stands alone as a landmark event featuring a parade of innovations vital to soccer’s development. It was the first World Cup to be globally broadcast, the first to be played outside of Europe and South America, the first to feature staples such as penalty cards and substitutions, and the first to realize significant commercial potential.

In short, Mexico ’70 — which kicked off 50 years ago May 31 — left a deep imprint in the sport’s collective memory.

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In and of itself, the tournament’s quality of play passes the test of time a half-century later in what is lauded as one of the best World Cups ever. It featured legends such as Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks and Teofilo Cubillas. It was won by a dominant Brazil side determined to seize an unprecedented third title, led by one of the game’s greatest players in Pele.

Beyond the pitch, the first of Mexico’s two World Cups to this point is truly the first of its kind. Without its successes, it would be difficult to imagine the tournament’s return to Mexico in 1986 and 2026. In many ways, Mexico 1970 was a modern event that more closely resembles the championship’s most recent edition, Russia 2018, than it does the one that preceded it, England 1966.

To accurately gauge the impact of 1970 as a watershed moment, it’s necessary to compare and contrast how things used to be.

A legend comes to life

Before: Brazil’s best player, bruised and battered coming off the 1966 World Cup, is almost left off the 1970 roster.

Mexico ’70 catalyst: FIFA’s rule changes, advancements in technology and marketing, and his sparkling play introduces him to a wider audience.

After: Pele becomes a worldwide icon, cements his legacy as one of the greatest sports figures of all time and helps soccer flourish in the U.S.

As a world champion with Brazil in 1958 and 1962, Pele was unquestionably the most famous player in the world. That’s an amazing feat given his limited exposure on television outside of Brazil, where he played most of his club career with Santos. But La Selecao‘s rough experience in its quest for a three-peat at England 1966 almost cost the sport a great deal more.

Pele was pummeled by rivals, missed one game because of injury and left another after a series of hard fouls. Calling it “the worst moment” of his career, Pele later admitted he contemplated retiring from the international game.

“The reason why I said I wasn’t going to play [with the national team] was because of my injury in the 1966 World Cup,” Pele said in an interview with ESPN. “That was my third World Cup. I thought that after so many injuries, I wasn’t sure if I was healthy enough [to keep playing].”

Pele ultimately decided to press on, but the striker was nevertheless in danger of missing the 1970 tournament outright as he butted heads with outspoken Brazil manager Joao Saldanha.

Saldanha, a former player and journalist, is credited with laying the foundation for Brazil’s title in Mexico, but he wouldn’t be around to celebrate it. During a pre-tournament friendly against Argentina, the manager chastised his biggest star to the shock of fans. “Saldanha thought Pele was not doing defensive work and publicly admitted he was considering dropping him,” Jonathan Wilson wrote in his book, “Inverting the Pyramid.”

“This was the farewell, and I left as a world champion.”

Pele, on the 1970 World Cup

Pele wrote in his autobiography that he believed Saldanha told reporters he tried to take him off the national team because the star suffered from nearsightedness: “It had never affected me throughout the years, but Saldanha carried on as if he had discovered a very serious deficiency in me.”

The row with Pele proved to be the final straw for Saldanha as head of the national team. The manager had butted heads with reporters over tactical decisions and, according to Wilson’s book, stormed into a hotel with a loaded handgun in search of Flamengo coach Dorival Knipel, better known as Yustrich, who had slighted Saldanha in a radio interview.

When Saldanha was fired, Brazil cited his “emotional instability” as the reason. Pele’s former teammate, Mario Zagallo, took over as coach and made it clear there would be no scandalous omissions on the roster.

Still, the physical play of the ’60s had taken its toll on Pele. From 1961 to ’65, he averaged nearly 54 goals a year in all competitions. But from 1966 to ’69, that average was cut in half. Concurrently, grueling exhibition tours with Santos left him drained.

Brazil’s quest for a third World Cup win and Zagallo’s support seemed to rejuvenate Pele in 1970. The new yellow card added elements of strategy and nuance never before seen. The introduction of substitutions removed rough play as a competitive advantage, as injured players could now be replaced.

Pele’s last World Cup provided the final masterstroke to a legendary international career. Throughout Brazil’s dominant run in 1970, the team’s offensive play ran through Pele almost exclusively, to the point where 53% of the team’s 19 goals in all six games were either scored or assisted by the then 29-year-old. Only four players in World Cup history — David Villa, Diego Maradona, Romario and Paolo Rossi — have had a bigger offensive impact.

Better still, Pele’s last dance with the national team was, for the first time, a real-time affair shared by millions. Facilitated by the satellite transmissions beaming the World Cup live around the world for the first time, his magical exploits immediately entered the zeitgeist.

The iconic images of Pele jumping into the arms of teammate Jairzinho after scoring Brazil’s opener in the final against Italy, his curling run around Uruguay goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz before shooting just wide in the semifinal, and his thrilling attempt from behind the halfway line against Czechoslovakia are forever entrenched with the player’s lore.

To those fortunate enough to watch on color TV, another first for the World Cup, Pele’s transition from grayscale to the suddenly bright canarinha yellow jersey represented the sports version of Dorothy stepping out of Kansas and into the Land of Oz.

Pele’s soaring global popularity after 1970 incited a final act as the U.S.’s first and arguably biggest pro soccer signing. He joined the NASL’s New York Cosmos in 1975 after a three-year negotiation, serving as an ambassador for the game’s growth in one of the world’s last holdout markets.

“I liked the idea that my presence could favor the development of soccer,” Pele wrote. “It was a different challenge.”

His presence in America produced sellout crowds, prompted mainstream media and television networks to cover the sport and prompted other stars of the day like Beckenbauer, George Best, Johan Cruyff and Eusebio to sign in the U.S.

Azteca takes its place in cultural lore

Before: A mammoth stadium in Mexico City is completed in 1966 to compete for Olympics and World Cups.

Mexico ’70 catalyst: The venue hosts “The Game of the Century” between Italy and West Germany and sees Pele lift Brazil’s third World Cup trophy amid rapturous support.

After: Estadio Azteca joins the ranks of Wembley and Maracana as temples of soccer, forging a mystique that would grow when it hosted the World Cup for a second time.

A collection of moments so epic that occurred on Azteca’s pitch have become embedded in the cultural fabric of the game, moments recognizable as “The Game of the Century,” “The Goal of the Century” and “The Hand of God.” No other place has seen two of the consensus best players of all time lift the World Cup trophy in Pele and Diego Maradona.

The 1970 semifinal match between West Germany and Italy launched a string of epic feats within the walls of Azteca. After Karl-Heinz Schnellinger scored a last-gasp goal to equalize at 1-1, the 30 minutes of extra time prompted a chaotic finish thanks to the sweltering conditions and a place in the final on the line.

With five goals, three lead changes and German captain Beckenbauer playing on despite a dislocated shoulder, the match was destined for a favorable spot in the soccer history. When Italy finally locked down the win with a 4-3 result, the encounter was enshrined with a plaque outside the stadium.

“The Azteca pays homage to the national teams of Italy (4) and Germany (3) who starred in the ‘Game of the Century’ for the 1970 FIFA World Cup,” it reads.

A few days later, the World Cup finale saw Italy take on Brazil. Despite the venue’s neutrality, the Mexican crowd had a clear favorite.

“The stadium was falling apart with the euphoria of 105,000 fans clamoring for Brazil,” Pele wrote. “They were all with us!”

As such, the payoff was spectacular: a 4-1 win in which Pele starred, scoring the match’s opener and pulling the strings offensively en route to his country’s third title. Two major events headlined by global superstars, in the space of less than one week, ensured Azteca’s place in the discourse when listing soccer’s symbolic places of worship.

The Azteca’s imposing vertical architecture, massive capacity and atmospheric uniqueness sitting 7,350 feet above sea level also bequeathed its most notable tenant, the Mexican national team, with a palpable advantage virtually unmatched around the world. In 54 years, El Tri has lost only two World Cup qualifiers there, while winning both the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup on its ground.

Built in the run-up to both the 1968 Olympic Games and the 1970 World Cup, Azteca was meant to host big events from the start. The stadium’s original capacity topped out at 107,494 spectators, later expanding to 114,600 for the 1986 World Cup. For those two competitions, it regularly sold out.

The concrete colossus has seen many events beyond soccer in the last half-century. It has accommodated presidents, popes and Paul McCartney. It has seen championship prize fights and NFL regular-season games. However, the exploits of 1970 have tied it intrinsically to the history of one sport for eternity.

“Azteca stands for the glory of football itself. The modern ball game. The sport that moves the sun,” Zachary McCune wrote for The Cauldron.

When Maradona and his “Hand of God” dismantled England with two of the most iconic goals in history 16 years later, it didn’t take long before comparisons were immediately drawn to 1970.

Marketing ball gets rolling

Before: Official products are a rare, slim revenue stream for FIFA.

Mexico ’70 catalyst: Adidas and Panini create iconic, globally consumed products.

After: FIFA products are big moneymakers, licensed throughout the World Cup cycle.

As the audience for the World Cup increased, so too did commercial appeal. Mexico ’70’s expanded reach meant companies had a chance to sell their wares worldwide, penetrating territories they could only have dreamed of to that point.

Undoubtedly, the most iconic product associated with the 1970 World Cup is its official ball, the Adidas Telstar. The 32-panel design — 12 black pentagons and 20 white hexagons — remains the ubiquitous visual representation of a soccer ball to this day. The ball itself had been in use as early as 1967, named as a tribute to the historic satellite — launched earlier in the decade — that made the worldwide broadcast possible, partly because of its resemblance to the space-faring white orb dotted with dark solar cells.

Designed to replace the drab, brown leather balls supplied by different companies since the competition’s outset in 1930, Telstar’s color scheme was pivotal in allowing viewers to easily track it on screen, regardless of whether audiences watched in color.

Adidas supplied only 20 Telstar balls for the entire tournament, necessitating alternatives. The quarterfinal match pitting West Germany and England, for instance, used a brown ball. The first half of “The Game of the Century” semifinal between Italy and West Germany saw an all-white model.

It didn’t matter.

“Nothing can take away the excitement and experience of physically opening the packet and touching the sticker or the card.”

Mark Warsop, CEO of Panini America

The Telstar was so well received, Adidas sold 600,000 balls after the tournament, according to FIFA. To this day, Adidas remains the official ball of the World Cup. The original design for the 1970 tournament proved so popular, its color scheme became the norm, with every World Cup ball until 1998 featuring in black and white. The Telstar 18 was introduced for the most recent event in Russia, throwing back to the original depiction but including an unmistakably modern touch: The pixelated detailing on the ball and embedded chip mark the perfect progression from the satellite to the digital age.

Adidas’ star role on the pitch found itself mirrored by Panini’s collectible sticker album off it. In the run-up to Mexico, the Italian company partnered with FIFA in an effort to stoke excitement for the tourney with its album — the first of its kind for the World Cup. Fans around the world immediately took to it, prompting comparisons to the tradition of collecting baseball cards in the United States decades prior.

“Back in 1970, all the players’ pictures we acquired were in black and white,” said Mark Warsop, CEO of Panini America. “We [painted] all of the photos so that the stickers could be in color.”

Although Panini has adapted to today’s trends with the development of a virtual album distributed via their official app, the company has managed to top sales of its original creation with each passing World Cup. “Nothing can take away the excitement and experience of physically opening the packet and touching the sticker or the card,” Warsop said. “It’s a piece of memorabilia and you can’t 100 percent replicate that in a digital format.”

The collectible craze spawned by the albums encouraged other companies to create merchandise for ensuing tournaments. Over the years, the official product market has expanded to include toys, video games, posters, apparel, mascot figurines, trophy replicas, and even less conventional items like a branded foosball table.

Licensing deals from those products have contributed to FIFA’s ever-growing income after 1970. In 2018, the organization generated more than $4.6 billion dollars in revenue, thanks in large part to the Russia World Cup. The FIFA video game series alone has sold over 282 million copies since its debut in 1993, making it one of the most popular franchises in the world.

From 1975 to ’78, FIFA made just $12 million from marketing, according to SportBusiness.

When former FIFA president Joao Havelange died at age 100 in 2016, obituaries around the world were quick to cite one of his more notable quips about his tenure from 1974 to ’98: “When I took over, there were 20 dollars in the safe. When I left, there was more than $4 billion dollars.”

The world’s game finally goes global

Before: The first eight World Cups are played exclusively in Europe or South America.

Mexico ’70 catalyst: Mexico’s Guillermo Cañedo lobbies FIFA for years in an effort to win a hosting bid.

After: Four of the next 12 World Cups are played in North America, Asia or Africa.

The 2026 World Cup will mark Mexico’s unprecedented third time around as host, as the country will share duties with the United States and Canada. It’s hard, however, to imagine the country’s status as one of FIFA’s favored hosts without the tireless lobbying that led to Mexico’s selection for the 1970 World Cup.

Through its first eight iterations, the World Cup ping-ponged between Europe and South America, soccer’s two most developed markets to that point, while nursing slow but steady growth elsewhere.

That changed in 1963 when Mexico City was awarded the 1968 Summer Olympic Games, the first to be held in Latin America. The infrastructure promised to the IOC in the form of Azteca’s construction (and later, the Cuauhtémoc and Nou Camp stadiums) benefitted the country’s World Cup bid a year later. However, what is remembered now as a logical next step in FIFA’s desire for worldwide growth was actually a somewhat contentious negotiation spanning years.

After his election to a post as FIFA vice president in 1962, Guillermo Cañedo served as Mexico’s chief mediator between Sir Stanley Rous, the global soccer body’s president, and the Mexican Football Federation, which Cañedo had helmed since 1960.

As FIFA’s congress convened in Tokyo for the final vote to determine the 1970 host country, Mexico and Argentina competed as the only options. By that point, Cañedo had been lobbying for years. In 1978’s “Historia Oral del Mundial” by Matias Bauso, an account of the history of the tournament, Cañedo is quoted as saying he had visited 77 countries in three years, in some cases going back to the same place six times, in his attempt to secure the bid.

Still not convinced voters would pick Mexico, Cañedo famously made a final push in Tokyo to impress voters, displaying a mock-up of the massive Azteca, under construction at the time. The gambit worked, and the sport’s biggest showcase finally broke away from the duopoly of Europe and South America.

Rather unexpectedly, Mexico would also host the next World Cup outside of Europe and South America 16 years later. When Colombia cited economic concerns for pulling out of hosting the 1986 tournament three years before that World Cup, Mexico stepped up. Cañedo’s experience and connections with key figures within FIFA assured that the country would become the first to organize two World Cups, despite a competing bid from the United States.

“The politics of soccer make me nostalgic for the politics of the Middle East,” former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who aided the American delegation, said upon losing the bid.

Cañedo, who died in 1997, was in demand following his successful organization of the 1970 World Cup. After Argentina succeeded in its effort to host in 1978, he was invited to go on a media tour of the country but criticized the country’s lack of progress to that point.

“He became a celebrity. His words had huge repercussions,” Bauso wrote in his book.

The World Cup wouldn’t add to its list of host continents until the turn of the century. Japan and South Korea shared duties in 2002, and South Africa’s bid won out for 2010, leaving Oceania as the only confederation to have never hosted the tournament. Today, FIFA’s claim of soccer as the global game holds water in part to its willingness to expand beyond its comfort zone in the 1960s.

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