Gordon Banks died yesterday at the age of 81. Banks was an English goalkeeper, considered the best England has ever produced. In fact, he makes any credible list of the world’s all-time top-10 keepers, usually in the top half.
Banks was in goal for England when it won the 1966 World Cup. In the final, the only match I ever saw him play, West Germany put two goals past him. However, he had allowed only one in the previous five, a penalty kick by the Portuguese legend Eusebio.
Banks greatest claim to fame, though, came in Mexico during the 1970 World Cup in a match against Brazil. The 1970 Brazilian team might be the best attacking team in World Cup history. Starting five world class attackers, including Pele, the best ever, Brazil scored four goals against the defense-minded Italians in the Final.
Banks limited Brazil to one goal. In doing so, he made what many consider the greatest save in World Cup history. Some call it “the save of the century.”
Pele had outjumped his marker (Alan Mullery, I believe it was) and directed a bullet header downward and to Banks’ right. Pele says he was already shouting “goal” when he headed the ball. He recalled:
Like a salmon leaping up a waterfall, he threw himself to tip the ball over the crossbar. It was an impossible save.
Banks was less gushing. He said:
At first I thought “you lucky so-and-so.” But then I realized it had been a bit special.
England lost the match 1-0. However, the team advanced to the quarterfinals for a rematch against West Germany.
The night before the rematch, Banks fell violently ill, a severe case of Montezuma’s revenge. He rested in bed the following morning and afternoon and, feeling a little better, tried to make a go of it. Banks passed a perfunctory fitness test (he would later say it consisted of fielding one softly hit shot and tossing it gently back to coach). However, when Banks collapsed during the pre-match talk by manager Alf Ramsey, the team doctor ruled him out.
Banks’ absence was almost certainly decisive. His substitute, Peter Bonetti, allowed three goals, including two that commentators agree he should have stopped. Trailing 2-0, West Germany rallied to win 3-2 after extra time.
Banks played his entire top-flight career for English Midlands teams: Leicester City and Stoke City. Peter Shilton, second only to Banks in the hierarchy of English goalkeepers, also played for these two clubs, succeeding Banks at both.
Nowadays, both almost certainly would play for a London team, a Manchester team, or Liverpool. But neither ever did.
Banks also played for Cleveland. In 1967, hoping to capitalize on the buzz generated by the 1966 World Cup Final (televised on ABC’s Wide World of Sports), an American soccer league was organized. To get it started, the clubs imported British teams that were (or would have been) on summer break.
Washington imported Aberdeen. Los Angeles imported Wolverhampton, enabling them to live up to their name, “Wanderers.”
Cleveland imported Stoke City, branding them the Cleveland Stokers. Banks played seven times for the Stokers. A decade later, at age 40, he played 37 times for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
Banks’ time in America was largely forgettable. His save against Pele hasn’t been forgotten. It lives on in memory and on YouTube: