England v Brazil: A colourful but one-sided history

It's a case of the world's first against the world's best as the Football Association celebrates a milestone at Wembley in a fixture that has acquired a fascinating legacy
By Graham Lister

Association Football was born 150 years ago in England when the Football Association codified the laws of the game. The subsequent global spread of the sport’s phenomenal appeal owes much to its flamboyant interpretation by Brazil, the world’s most successful football exponents.

So it is fitting that England are hosting the Brazilians to celebrate the momentous events of 1863; fitting too that Wednesday’s special match will be staged at the iconic Wembley Stadium – not only a legendary venue but also the scene of England’s inaugural meeting with Brazil.

That first in a sequence of what this week will become 24 matches between the two countries took place partially beneath Wembley’s new floodlights on 9 May 1956. Intriguingly, the pair had been joint favourites to win the 1950 World Cup when it was staged in Brazil.

But the hosts fell at the final hurdle, while England, for so long feared by the rest of the world, suffered a humiliating loss to the United States and failed to make the final pool. By the time they faced each other for the first time in 1956, their respective footballing fortunes were tilting in opposite directions, though there was still a swish of defiance in the lion’s tail.

Wembley witnessed a fascinating clash of styles – and temperaments. The touring Brazilians oozed technical skill and ball-juggling panache, but seemed to lack tactical coherence.

England’s more traditional virtues bore early fruit as they went two goals up inside the opening five minutes. Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor – both of newly-crowned champions Manchester United – respectively started and finished the first goal, though there was a vital contribution from the evergreen Stanley Matthews, 41, in between.


Debutant Colin Grainger quickly added a second, but Brazil came back strongly, and drew level early in the second half through Paulinho and the cultured Didi. England reasserted control but contrived to miss two penalties, both saved by Gilmar.

The award of one of them prompted one Brazilian player to pick up the ball in protest and troop off with it, followed in single file by half his team-mates, the referee and England captain Billy Wright. But inspired by Matthews, who set up three goals, England had restored their two-goal lead by the end as Taylor and Grainger both scored again in a 4-2 win.

It would be Brazil’s last defeat against England for nearly 30 years.

Their next meeting was a group match in Gothenburg in the 1958 World Cup. Brazil, yet to unleash the injured 17-year-old Pele or unpredictable Garrincha on the tournament they were destined to win, dominated the first half. Vava hit the bar, goalkeeper Colin McDonald pulled off two vital saves and Eddie Clamp had to clear off the line. But England withstood the challenge and emerged with a point from a goalless draw.

In 1959, however, they lost 2-0 in Rio de Janeiro; then found themselves up against holders Brazil in the quarter-finals of the 1962 World Cup in Chile. Pele was again sidelined through injury, but Garrincha stole the show in Vina del Mar, turning England’s defenders inside out, scoring twice and creating another for Vava in a vibrant 3-1 win.

The FA’s centenary year, 1963, saw Brazil held to a 1-1 draw at Wembley, before the South Americans won four games on the trot against the Three Lions. The first of these, at Rio’s Maracana Stadium, was a 5-1 thrashing in the Taça das Nações (‘Little World Cup’), a tournament played in Brazil in 1964 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Brazilian Football Confederation, involving the hosts, England, Argentina and Portugal – the four countries perceived to be the favourites for the upcoming 1966 World Cup.

Pele, in devastating form, tormented England’s defence and was on target along with Rinaldo (two goals), Julinho and Roberto Dias. Jimmy Greaves, who scored England’s consolation, was left to observe: "Pele is on another bloody planet".

Five years later England went down in Rio again, but on this occasion Brazil were unconvincing, edging the game 2-1 with late goals from Tostao and Jairzinho. Then came the greatest contest between the two countries, under an unforgiving Mexican sun at Guadalajara’s Estadio Jalisco on 7 June 1970. It was the key match in Group 3 of that summer’s World Cup and Brazil, boasting arguably their best ever side, were gunning for a third triumph in the competition. In their path stood the defending champions, England.

The classic encounter was won 1-0 by the South Americans, but will forever be remembered for a remarkable save by Gordon Banks from Pele after 10 minutes. England had been on top early on but Martin Peters and Francis Lee both missed opportunities to score.

Then Jairzinho’s power took him past left-back Terry Cooper to the byline, and his cross to the far post was met by an airborne Pele whose precise downward header seemed destined for an apparently empty net. Suddenly though Banks materialised from the other side of the goal, diving sensationally to send the ball one-handed up and over the bar. Pele’s goal celebration was stillborn as the crowd gasped in disbelief.

Many journalists and pundits hailed that save as among the greatest in the history of the game; so did Pele, who told Banks as they prepared for the resulting corner: "I thought that was a goal." The goalkeeper replied: "You and me both, " before captain Bobby Moore wryly added: “You're getting old, Banksy, you used to hold on to them."

England continued to resist – none of their team emerged from the match less than 10 pounds lighter in weight in the blazing heat – but Moore was the epitome of cool, enjoying his best game for his country, typically leading by example and producing arguably the defining moment of his career when he executed a challenge of such precision and cleanliness to dispossess Jairzinho that it has been described as “the perfect tackle”.

Nevertheless, Jairzinho provided the game’s match-winning goal 14 minutes into the second half when the elusive Tostao dribbled past three defenders and passed to Pele, whose deft lay-off to his right allowed the powerful winger to race in and score.

Late on, Alf Ramsey introduced Jeff Astle from the bench and he immediately posed Brazil’s defence new problems; his header set up Alan Ball but the chance went begging before another Ball effort grazed the crossbar. Then Astle himself shanked England’s best chance horribly wide. Pele and Moore swapped shirts after the final whistle to produce what has become an iconic image, while at the hotel’s poolside the following morning a disbelieving Ball asked: “How could Jeff miss that chance?”

A 1-0 defeat for England in Los Angeles in 1976 was followed by two draws and another 1-0 loss, at Wembley in 1981, before England secured their only victory on Brazilian soil. The 2-0 triumph at the Maracana on 10 June 1984 was illuminated by an exceptional ‘Brazil-style’ goal by John Barnes, who weaved his mesmeric way past half the opposition before finishing coolly; it was arguably England’s best-ever goal. Barnes later set up Mark Hateley who headed home the second in a breathtaking win.

Another 1-0 victory in 1990 – England’s last success against Brazil – interrupted a sequence of three 1-1 draws before the teams met at Wembley in 1995 in the Umbro International Trophy, a prestigious friendly that would bring to a halt an unbeaten England home record that now stretched to four years. Graeme Le Saux had put the hosts ahead with a superb volley, but the game was significant chiefly for heralding the arrival on the international stage of one Ronaldo, who inspired the visitors to a 3-1 win.

Two years later England won the Tournoi de France in Paris after beating Italy and France, though they lost their final game 1-0 to Brazil for whom Romario scored the only goal after 61 minutes.

After a 1-1 draw at Wembley in 2000, the countries met in another World Cup encounter – a 2002 quarter-final at the Shizuoka Stadium in Japan. Michael Owen put Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side one up in the first half before Rivaldo equalised, finishing a move that began when David Beckham decided discretion was better than valour in a tackle and ceded possession. 

But the key moment of the game came when Ronaldinho’s teasing free-kick left goalkeeper David Seaman red-faced – not for the first time in his career – as it looped over his head into the net. The English press claimed Ronnie hadn't meant it, that the kick was a fluke; it mattered not as it sent Brazil into the semis en route to their fifth World Cup triumph.    

The next meeting after that produced another 1-1 draw – this time at the rebuilt Wembley Stadium in 2007. Brazil had been invited as the glamour opposition to launch the new era after England had spent seven years exiled from their spiritual home. And the hosts nearly celebrated with a win, David Beckham having set up a goal with a trademark free-kick which  captain John Terry headed home. But in stoppage-time Gilberto Silva supplied the cross from which Diego Ribas headed the equaliser to thwart the Three Lions.

A 1-0 victory for Brazil in Doha in 2009 was the most recent game between the two countries and took the overall record to 11 Brazilian wins, three English wins and nine draws, with Brazil scoring 31 goals in the 23 matches to England’s 19.

But it is the magic moments more than the bald figures which have imbued this fixture with its special appeal.