(Excuse me, but is it just me or are there others who still think such a sentence should only really exist in a parallel universe?) Pele marked the occasion by claiming the Belfast Boy as an honorary Brazilian.
“To me he never looked like a European,” said the great man. “He was a Latin player – a Brazilian player.”
George, of course, would have approved. I interviewed him once, just before the 1994 World Cup in America, when he expressed the hope that Pele’s successors would go all the way again.
Because on those occasions when Brazil exited a World Cup early, he said with feeling, for him the very heart of the tournament went with them.
I was especially pleased to hear him say it since it was precisely how I’d always felt about Brazil ever since, at a suitably tender and impressionable age, falling head over heels in love with the Mexico ’70 version – still, to this day, probably the greatest football team the world has ever seen.
The 1982 World Cup in Spain stands out as the most heart-breaking of those Brazilian exits to which Best mournfully referred. As it happens, They showed their famous game against Italy on ESPN Classic the other night and, like a true addict, I stayed up until the wee hours to see it through to the finish again, even though I knew the result would be the same – that dazzling side of Zico, Socrates and Falcao undone by the predatory instincts of Paolo Rossi. (Incidentally, one thing I hadn’t been aware of at the time is that a certain Marco Tardelli appeared to injure himself during the celebrations which followed Rossi’s third and decisive goal).
These days, the sight of the canary yellow and cobalt blue still triggers that ancient thrill even if the reality doesn’t always quite live up to the dream.
But, happily, football romantics now have a rival for their affections – for Brazil, read Barcelona.
That Barca are still in business in the Champions League – after yesterday’s draw, preparing now for a meeting with PSG – would be welcome news however they achieved it. But it was the scintillating manner in which they turned things round against Milan which has made their progress to the last eight one of the most uplifting football stories of the season.
It was also a timely reminder to media analysts to hesitate before jumping to conclusions, especially in an era when routinely hysterical coverage demands that defeat be written up as a crisis and back-to-back defeats defined as the end of an era. That was certainly the apocalyptic tone ahead of Tuesday night, based on Barca’s 2-0 loss to Milan in the first leg and successive domestic defeats by Real Madrid. And with Madrid also getting the better of Manchester United in the Champions League, there were even some excitable types purporting to detecting a seismic shift in the balance of power between Ronaldo and Messi.
Yeah, right. One old bit of wisdom always worth keeping in mind at this level is that form is temporary but class is permanent.
Of course, in the way of these things, Barcelona have now just as suddenly reclaimed the status of raging hot favourites to win the whole thing at Wembley in May which, in attaching perhaps a tad too much significance to that redemptive thrashing of Milan, somewhat overlooks the fact that, owing to their previous dip in form, the club’s presence in the competition still hung in the balance on Tuesday night right up until Jordi Alba’s fabulous fourth.
Still, there are clearly more solid grounds for favouring Barca now than there were for writing them off a week ago, especially since a low-key Madrid needed the referee’s help to see off Man U and Bayern Munich, at home, were unrecognisable from the side which had destroyed Arsenal in the first leg of their round of 16 clash.
The Gunners understandably received plenty of plaudits for their stirring attempt at a comeback in Munich but, in truth, theirs was a performance most uncharacteristically littered with sloppy passing, not at all like the Barcelona-lite to which Wenger’s teams traditionally aspire. Bayern, for their part, weren’t much better, perhaps suffering from a complacency deriving from the belief that they’d done all the heavy lifting at the Emirates.
In any event, Spain, Germany, Italy, France and Turkey march on to the quarter-finals, leaving poor old Blighty to lick its wounds and indulge in another bout of anguished soul-searching. United have most reason to feel aggrieved but, even if they’d managed to eliminate Madrid, you can’t help feeling that they’d have come a-cropper sooner rather than later. After all, it’s not like this hasn’t been coming for a while. Admirable though it was, Chelsea’s Champions’ League triumph last year was something of an aberration, a confounding of the odds and a victory for strength in adversity, which ultimately owed more to, as Big Jack would have said, their ability to stop the other lot from playing rather than playing a whole lot themselves. And the year before, I count myself very fortunate to have been at Wembley to witness the best team display I’ve ever seen in the flesh, as brilliant Barca ripped United to shreds.
Well, the good news is that they’re back and as brilliant as ever. And, after all those rumours about their demise, that was the most glorious thing about Tuesday night: it was just like watching, well, Barcelona.