We can, enjoyably, argue about almost anything in football – players, coaches, referees, goals, results. It is what gives the game its universality. A handful of generalisations are commonly agreed: among them, that for half a century Brazil have been probably the most consistently watchable of national teams and, prior to that, Stanley Matthews was the world's best-known player.
These two strands of history are echoed at Wembley on Wednesday when, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the FA's foundation, England play Brazil. Their first encounter was in 1956, the occasion distinguished by Matthews, provocatively aged 41, having a creative hand in all England goals in a 4-2 victory.
If down the years Brazil – and players such as Ademir, Didi, Pele, Garrincha, Jairzinho, Socrates, Falcao, Romario, Bebeto, Juninho, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka – have captivated audiences across the globe, so too for 33 years did Matthews.
In my youth, before TV, when legends were established merely by the written word or passed by word of mouth, there was a story, probably apocryphal, of a crowd gathering in St Peter's Square in the late 30s to see a visiting England team appearing in company with the Pope. An English spectator asks an Italian which one on the balcony is the Pope? "Not sure" was the reply, "but the one on the right is Stanley Matthews."
This week's friendly coincides with the 55th anniversary of Matthews having become the first recipient of the Ballon D'or award, just won for the fourth time running by Lionel Messi. The Argentinian's mesmeric brilliance is catalysed by performing with cup-dominant club and national teams. Such widely visible promotion among voters was nonexistent in the three phases of Matthews's fame, pre-war, wartime and postwar.
A career stretching from 1932 to 1965 – interrupted in its prime with Stoke, Blackpool and back at Stoke – only concluded when he was 50 and still leaving accomplished defenders gasping dumbly in the wake of his pace. Like Messi – or Pele, Alfredo Di Stefano or Diego Maradona – he could take the ball within inches of the opponent's toes: then, with a shimmy, leave them for dead. "It was like playing against a ghost," recalled Johnny Carey, a celebrated Eire fullback and the captain of Matt Busby's first great Manchester United team.
On that May afternoon in 1956, England's prospects were uncertain. Would the emerging Latin Americans – defeated World Cup finalists of 1950 by Uruguay, England having dissolved against USA – inflict a second home defeat on the founding fathers, following that by Hungary two and a half years earlier? Attacking extravagance was already Brazil's hallmark: now their fulcrum was Didi (Waldir Pereira), a mercurial link-man from Fluminense of Rio, who would mastermind their World Cup victories at Sweden '58 and Chile '62. Visiting Wembley was the last leg of a preparatory European tour.
"A few days earlier he'd lost to Italy," recalled Didi – nowadays frail in retirement – "and we wanted to put on a show." Part of that show, it was supposed, would be Nilton Santos, captain and one of the most formidable left-backs. He was to be a key figure in the 1958 final, subduing Sweden's tenacious winger Kurt Hamrin. How would the veteran Matthews fare?
Never mind having shared in the 1953 humiliation by Hungary, Matthews's remarkable career was conspicuous for intermittent highlights: the pre-war 6-3 slaughter of Germany in Berlin – "Matthews risks everything, can do everything" wrote Berlin's Fussball; his dribble past five Belgian defenders for a goal, during a 5-2 drubbing, which both teams paused to applaud; the imperishable last 20 minutes of Blackpool's 1953 Cup victory against Bolton.
So magnetic was his appeal, he was, unbelievably, adored by the Scots. The Hampden Park record of 137,000 was established with his presence, likewise that at Manchester City's Maine Road (80,000). Earning £1 per week as groundstaff boy when he made his Stoke reserves debut in 1932, he would today have put David Beckham in the financial shade. His name on the team-sheet add ed 10,000 to many First Division attendances. Returning aged 45 in 1960 to Stoke, struggling at the foot of the old Second Division, the attendance for his first match against Huddersfield leapt from 7,000 to 35,000.
Repeatedly selected/dropped by an amateurish, pre-Ramsey FA committee – only 37 appearances during England's first 87 post-war matches and partnered by 17 different inside forwards – Matthews returned by public demand against Brazil, alongside the debut of young Duncan Edwards. Also included were Manchester United's ill-fated Tommy Taylor and Roger Byrne.
Public faith in Matthews was as enduring as his own fitness. In successive seasons, 1954 and 1955, he had destroyed at Wembley two outstanding fullbacks: Werner Kohlmeyer, of West Germany, recent World Cup winners, and, in a 7-2 rout, Scotland's experienced Harry Haddock. To such a degree was Kohlmeyer bamboozled that the 100,000 crowd regularly laughed out loud: he never played again. "Once he had gone past you," Haddock recalled "there and then not there, it was as though he'd forgotten about you. It was a devastating yet treasured personal experience."
It was to be an experience for Nilton Santos (nutmegged above left). Though Brazil exhibited their flamboyance, Matthews shredded his opponent's reputation: enticing him to within kneecap range like a matador, leaving him in a heap, having lunged off-balance for a vanished ball.
The maestro's touch led to each of England's goals, Brazil having drawn level soon after half-time after going two down early in the game. As Didi reflected: "The play of Matthews was an exhibition of his genius – an extraordinary player in the same class as Garrincha. I never thought a player that age could do what he did."
Would Matthews have excelled in today's super-fit, defensive era? I think so. The game was then physically harder, but his supreme ball control would have had contemporary players floundering.
The esteemed chronicler Arthur Hopcraft observed: "He compelled attention, which was very often his principal value when he was playing for England. It did not matter, least of all to Matthews, which of his side puts the ball in the net... When he moved with the ball, shuffling, leaning, edging ever closer to the defender, he was always the man teetering to the very brink of disaster, and we waited breathlessly to see whether this time he would fail or whether yet again he would come swaying back at the last possible moment to run on clear and free... The sadly impassive face, pale lips and hooded eyes, had a lot of pain in it, the deep hurt that came from prolonged effort and the certainty of more blows. It was a workers' face, like a miner's, never really young, tight against the brutal world even in repose... He was representative of his age and his class, brought up among thrift and the ever-looming threat of dole and debt."
The inscription on the statue in Matthews's boyhood town of Hanley reads: "His name is symbolic of the beauty of the game, his fame timeless and international, his sportsmanship and modesty universally acclaimed. A magical player, of the people, for the people."
Boys from Brazil: How Matthews compares
Position Outside right
Caps 54 (1934-1957), Goals 11 goals (0.2 per cap)
Caps 60 (1979-1986)
Goals 22 goals (0.36 per cap)
Caps 92 caps (1957-71),
Goals 77 (0.83 goals per cap)
Caps: 98 caps (1994-2011)
Goals 62 (0.63 per cap)
Caps 94 (1999-present)
Goals 33 goals (0.35 goals per cap)
Caps 50 caps (1955-66)
Goals 12 goals (0.24 goals per cap)