The 1974 fight for the world heavyweight boxing championship between the formidable champ, George Foreman, and his irrepressible challenger, Muhammad Ali, which features elsewhere in this series, was probably not the greatest bout of all time, yet it has accounted for more print, more film footage, more discussion, more anecdotes, than any other. When Norman Mailer wrote a book about it, he needed only to call it The Fight.
So it is with the 1970 World Cup final between Brazil and Italy. Of all the encounters down all the decades in the planet's most popular sport, it remains, more than any other, The Match.
As for whether it was the greatest footballing exhibition of all time, opinions vary. Those who attended the 1960 European Cup final in Glasgow, including a wide-eyed 18-year-old by the name of Alex Ferguson, then centre-forward with Queen's Park, have no doubt that Real Madrid's 7-3 defeat of Eintracht Frankfurt, engineered by Madrid's holy trinity of Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskás and Francisco Gento, is unsurpassed and probably unsurpassable.
Seven years earlier, moreover, Puskás had been rampant in one of the most influential matches of all time, a match which blew a hole in the received footballing wisdom of the era. The brilliant Hungarians stormed the sport's mightiest citadel, destroying England 6-3 at Wembley, in a game which inspired one of the great bits of sports-writing imagery, the peerless football correspondent Geoffrey Green observing in The Times that England's central defender and highly respected captain, Billy Wright, had been so bewildered by the way in which Puskás and his fellow striker Sándor Kocsis kept switching positions that he repeatedly evoked "a fire engine heading for the wrong fire".
There are other contenders for the greatest of matches. For sheer improbability, it's hard to imagine anything to equal Liverpool's comeback from 3-0 down at half-time to win the 2005 European Cup final against AC Milan. And the thrilling 1953 FA Cup final, in which Blackpool beat Bolton Wanderers 4-3, has its advocates; as does a match with the same 4-3 scoreline, the extraordinary 1970 World Cup semi-final between Italy and West Germany, in which five goals were scored within 16 minutes in extra time. But the enduring significance in the footballing annals of that semi-final is surely that it propelled the Italians into the final, where they came up against the Brazil of Pele, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Gerson, Carlos Alberto and Tostao - names that still have the power to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
The final did not yield a breathtaking finish. Unlike the semi-final, there were no pendulum swings of momentum from one side to the other. Brazil won comfortably, 4-1. And yet the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, on 21 June, 1970, is where the most dazzling virtues of the Beautiful Game fleetingly converged.
I was eight years old in June 1970, part of the generation that just missed out on being able to remember where we were when we heard the news that President John F Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas. For my generation, or at least the football-lovers among us, the 1970 World Cup final represents the first where-we-were-when moment of our lives. Prosaically, I was sitting cross-legged on the patterned carpet in the lounge of my parents' friends "Uncle" Ronnie and "Auntie" Sybil, whose bungalow in Hartley Road sported a handsome new colour television set encased in what looked like a walnut cocktail cabinet, with louvre doors.
Prior to that Sunday evening, I had never set eyes on a colour telly, and what colours they were: the Brazilian players in their canary yellow shirts and pale blue shorts, Italy in blue and white, the Azteca turf a vivid green and the crowd an ever-changing panoply of yellows, blues, greens, reds, like the end of a kaleidoscope. Never before had a World Cup final been beamed around the world in colour. Even had it been a turgid 0-0 draw, decided by a single scrambled goal in extra-time, the spectacle would have been destined to linger for ever in my memory. But of course it wasn't. How could it have been?
The Brazilian team in 1970 eclipsed even Hungary's in 1953, and indeed two marvellous England teams - that of the late Forties, which boasted a forward line of Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Wilf Mannion and Stan Mortensen, and of course the 1966 World Cup winners - as the finest international XI ever to grace a football field. The Brazilians were like ruthless master-swordsmen in the way they turned defence into attack, the killer thrust invariably administered by the man even today considered by most authorities to be the greatest footballer in the game's history, the incomparable Pele.
In 1958, aged just 17, Pele had blazed across the World Cup like a meteor, scoring two goals as Brazil overwhelmed the hosts, Sweden, 5-2 in the final. Four years later, Pele sat out most of the tournament with an injury, but that didn't stop his team-mates from retaining their status as world champions.
However, they lost it to England in 1966, after several players, but Pele in particular, had suffered some of the most egregiously vindictive man-marking ever seen, notably in the group matches against Bulgaria and Portugal. By the summer of 1970, the great number 10 was 29, supposedly the age at which most footballers reach their peak. But as it turned out, he played only five more games for Brazil after the 1970 final, so he must have known going into the tournament that it represented a last realistic chance to add to his two World Cup winner's medals. And there was a collective incentive too. If Brazil could win the gleaming Jules Rimet trophy for a record third time, they would take it home for keeps.
Pele to this day reckons that Brazil teams he played in before 1970 had contained more individual talent. The 1958 team had Garrincha - one of the most mesmerising dribblers ever to lay boot on ball - and the masterful midfielder Didi. But never had 11 players coalesced so perfectly. The only weakish link was Felix, the erratic goalkeeper, but he was accommodated by the team's brutally simple philosophy: however many goals the opposition might score, they would score at least one more. Overseeing all this was the 38-year-old coach, Mario Zagallo, the former winger who had played (and scored) alongside Pele in the 1958 final. But Zagallo had only been in charge for a couple of months, replacing the hot-tempered João Saldanha, the Botafogo coach who was also a prominent journalist and had been so vehemently outspoken in his criticism of the squad that in 1969 the Brazilian football association decided, to borrow a vulgar but nicely apposite phrase from the recent US President Lyndon Johnson: that it was better to have a man like that inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in. Saldanha duly obliged by waving a revolver under the nose of one of his own critics, the Flamengo manager. But more importantly he moulded a terrific team, its core lifted from Pele's club, Santos.
Brazil qualified easily for the World Cup but Saldanha was unable to see the job through, a victim both of his own fiery temper and his own integrity. Reportedly, when Saldanha was told that President Emilio Garrastazu Medici, who ran Brazil's ruling military junta, wanted a couple of his own favourite players in the team, he replied with splendid but sackable defiance that he in turn had some thoughts as to whom the President might appoint as ministers. With the tournament imminent and Saldanha gone, into this sudden and alarming breach stepped Zagallo, as imperturbable as his predecessor had been explosive. He was, Pele later said, "the calmest person I have ever known". And as a veteran of two World Cup-winning teams he knew what physical challenges lay in store for his players, especially in the Mexican heat high above sea level. "I could not refuse it, even knowing the obstacles I shall have to face," he said on taking the job.
This, then, was the lively backdrop to the Brazilian campaign to make the Jules Rimet trophy their own. But the Italians had the same juicy incentive, having also won the World Cup twice before, in 1934 and 1938. Otherwise, the contrast between Italy and Brazil was as striking as that between Saldanha and Zagallo.
While the Brazilians played with glorious exuberance, clinical efficiency was the Italian way, demonstrated above all by their "catenaccio" method, with its rigid emphasis on defence. In Italian catenaccio means "door bolt", and as a football strategy it was about metaphorically bolting the door at the back, often with a sweeper or "libero" playing behind three defenders as an extra insurance policy.
The theory was irreproachable - a team that doesn't concede a goal can't lose. But it wasn't much fun to watch, and in the group matches Italy surprised nobody by narrowly beating Sweden 1-0, followed by two sterile 0-0 draws with Uruguay and Israel. That said, the Italians had some wonderful players, appreciated scarcely less than Pele, Rivelino and Jairzinho and the English heroes Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Gordon Banks, by those of us glued to the tournament on our televisions (regrettably still monochrome in our house) back home.
Incidentally, "Back Home" was the name of the naff yet strangely stirring anthem sung by England's 1970 World Cup squad, and even today it holds the same emotive power over my generation as Vera Lynn singing about the white cliffs of Dover does on those 30 or 40 years older, causing us to gaze, misty-eyed, into the middle-distance. But it doesn't only evoke Alf Ramsey's England team. When my friends and I took our leather-cased football, the blessed "casey", to the local recreation ground that summer, we also squabbled over which of us would be the stylish Italian players Roberto Boninsegna, Gianni Rivera and above all the deadly striker Luigi Riva, who suddenly found his shooting boots in the quarter-final against Mexico, scoring two goals in a 4-1 win after Italy had trailed 0-1.
But if a four-goal comeback was uncharacteristic of the azzurri, it was nothing compared with what was to come. An early Boninsegna goal appeared to have settled the semi-final against West Germany, but then came a 90th-minute equaliser and that epic, almost operatically dramatic period of extra-time.
The exultant but exhausted Italians had only two full days in which to recover before the final, but the Brazilians hadn't exactly been taking things easily, scoring eight goals in their three group games, four more in the quarter-final against Peru and three in the semi-final against Uruguay. Their football had simply been captivating. As Garry Jenkins put it in his wonderful 1998 book The Beautiful Team, "each of their games seemed to be a drama filled with flashing free kicks, 50-yard passes and even longer-range shots. Their kit, their running, even their celebrations seemed more vivid and vibrant than anything I had witnessed before. Bobby Charlton still shook hands when he scored. Pele and company cavorted and congratulated each other like lovers at the end of a seven-year celebration."
The Brazilian players talked with their feet, yet paradoxically were never more eloquent than in the one match in which they had scored only a single goal, the defeat of Ramsey's England in Guadalajara on June 7. To beat England, still the world champions, they'd had to be at their effervescent best. Indeed, when Charlton later saw a film of the game, which was settled with a Jairzinho goal after an hour and was also blessed with arguably the greatest save there has ever been, Banks somehow defying both gravity and Pele, he suggested that it should be kept for posterity as a coaching tool.
"That is what the game at the top is all about," said the man who, as Jenkins observed, has never been prey to over-excitement or hyperbole. "There was everything in that, all the skills and techniques, all the tactical control, the lot."
The same was true of the tournament as a whole. Everything seemed to come together - the finest international team of all time, very, very good teams from England, West Germany and Italy, and two more formidable sets of South Americans in Peru and Uruguay, as well as the incalculable blessing of colour television - to produce a World Cup for the ages.
Only two questions remained as the last day of competition dawned. One concerned the weather. Mexico City had suffered a series of violent thunderstorms over the previous three days, and it wasn't until lunchtime on the Sunday that the rain finally eased and stopped. The other, of course, was far more pertinent. Would the 1970 World Cup get the final it so richly deserved?
It was not a foregone conclusion, much as it seems to have been now, looking back. The Italians might have erupted gloriously out of defence in the knockout stages, but against the Brazilians their catenaccio system would surely return with a vengeance. And Brazil, thrilling as they were going forward, could be decidedly shaky at the back. This was no day for the swaggering old equation - if you score two, we'll score three - to go wrong.
Happily for all those whose passion for the Beautiful Game had been consummated by this intense three-week love affair, it didn't. When the teams came out, the Italian players tossed flowers to the crowd, but as soon as the whistle blew, all the bouquets were claimed by Brazil.
Before 20 minutes were up, they were ahead. Rivelino hit an inch-perfect cross, and Pele - who else? - rose majestically to head the ball firmly down and past the Italian goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi, who was no Gordon Banks. It was a goal that established all kinds of records. Never before had a player scored in finals 12 years apart, and it was also the 100th goal Brazil had scored in the World Cup. Nor, after the disgraceful way in which Pele had been kicked out of the 1966 tournament, was it any more than the great man deserved.
Yet by half-time, Italy were level. Brazilian trickery was all very well, but there was a time and a place for it, and eight minutes before half-time, just outside the team's own penalty area, was neither the time nor the place.
The miscreant was the normally reliable midfield player Clodoaldo, who instead of a simple clearance elected to try a clever back-heel flick to Everaldo. Instead it found Boninsegna, who sprinted for goal. Felix, rarely the epitome of calm in such circumstances, dashed off his line. He and his defenders collided on the edge of the area, the ball broke free, and Boninsegna turned it in. 1-1.
It was not the worst moment of Clodoaldo's life or even close to it. When he was six years old, the youngest of 10 children, both his parents were killed in a car crash. But that didn't stop him wanting the Azteca turf to open up and swallow him whole. Clodoaldo and his team-mates were understandably dejected as they left the field for the half-time interval. But they had also heeded Zagallo's typically astute advice to conserve their energies in the ever-burgeoning heat, and in the second half the strategy paid marvellous dividends.
In the 65th minute, the team now playing with almost unbelievable élan given the pressure of the occasion, the magnificent midfielder Gerson, the best passer in a team of brilliant passers, compounded his growing influence by putting Brazil ahead. Nobody has described his goal better than the eminent sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney, who was there. "With that carefully schooled left foot," wrote McIlvanney, "Gerson first dragged the ball outside a tackle and then cracked it with the clean force of a one-iron aimed under the wind. It flew more than 20 yards in a killing diagonal and was still only waist height when it hit the far side-netting." 2-1.
Less than five minutes later Gerson helped to create Brazil's third, finding Pele as if with an assassin's cross-hairs. But the assassination was carried out by Jairzinho, to whom Pele coolly headed the ball. The score was 3-1, the Italian resistance was dead, and the Azteca had seen another record-breaking strike. Jairzinho had already scored in every round. His goal in the final completed a unique set.
It was the fourth goal, however, that would live most vividly in the memory of everybody watching. Scarcely four minutes remained on the watch of German referee Rudi Glöckner when, early in a move that would encompass 10 men, Clodoaldo, perhaps seeking atonement, set off on a fantastic, mazy dribble that was just as uncharacteristic as his earlier error. He passed forward to Jairzinho, who moved it on to Pele. Again, McIlvanney's contemporary description remains unrivalled. "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."
It was a goal that, like all sublime sporting moves, seemed preordained. Less then three years later, Gareth Edwards would complete its rugby equivalent, scoring a try for the Barbarians against the All-Blacks that we watched in a similar state of rapture, barely able to believe that none of the protagonists knew, when it started, exactly how it would finish.
On a grander scale, it seems hard to believe that nobody knew at the start of the 1970 World Cup how it was going to end. Garry Jenkins agrees. "In hindsight," he wrote in The Beautiful Team, "it seems natural that Pele and the 1970 Brazilians should have arrived in our living room the year after the first Moon landing. Tostao and Gerson, Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto, Rivelino and Clodoaldo shared more than their number with Neil Armstrong and his crew. They were, after Apollo 11, the second great event of the new telecultural age.
"It seemed fitting that their games were transmitted from Central America via a satellite in outer space. From their opening match against Czechoslovakia it was clear they were visitors from another footballing world." It was deliciously put, and rather shows up my inadequacy in concluding with a cliché about the 1970 Brazil football team and the final they so graced. But it is incontrovertible. We shall never see their like again.
Brian Viner is author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through The Sporting Seventies' (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)