Mexico 1970’s colorful innovations and historic landmarks put world soccer under a whole new lens.
THE 1970 WORLD CUP in Mexico introduced concepts and innovations considered bold for the time, yet today it’s hard to imagine the game of soccer without them.
The most noticeable, to fans fortunate enough to consume matches that way, was the first World Cup broadcast in color. Suddenly, watching legends such as Pele, Jairzinho, and Uwe Seeler make history took on a fresh new perspective. But the spectrum wasn’t limited to the airwaves — the debut of red and yellow cards made for a much more streamlined experience when it came to keeping order and devising tactics.
Some developments were more subtle. Prying the World Cup away from Europe or South America was in itself a heavy lift. The paths to the debuts of the two countries were lined with challenges. And with substitutions allowed for the first time, one infamous replacement proved disastrous for a reigning champion. One notable “last,” the final awarding of the Jules Rimet Trophy, was the start of a mysterious new chapter to the prize’s fascinating history.
In comparing Mexico 1970 to other World Cups via images, it’s clear to see it had more in common with the 12 editions that came after it than it did with its eight predecessors.
FIRST PLAYER TO SCORE IN EVERY ROUND
How’s this for consistency? Brazil star forward Jairzinho scored in every round of the 1970 World Cup on the team’s way to the title. The feat was a first for a World Cup in which the champion emerged from a one-match final; Alcides Ghiggia scored in each of Uruguay’s four matches in the 1950 round-robin format. Jairzinho’s six-round streak netted him seven goals, but it wasn’t enough to land him the Golden Boot award. West Germany’s Gerd Muller took home that honor with 10 goals.
ARGENTINA’S FIRST AND ONLY FAILURE TO QUALIFY
The soccer skies were never darker for the albiceleste than they were for Mexico ’70, which marked the first time Argentina failed to qualify for a World Cup it planned on attending. Because of political reasons, the World Cup’s first runner-up in 1930 withdrew from the tournaments in 1938, 1950 and 1954 before making a quarterfinal appearance in 1966. Having lost the bid to host this World Cup and already unstable at manager, Argentina dug itself a further hole in losing its opening qualifiers away to Bolivia and Peru (pictured above). A home draw against Peru in the second leg was the final blow, costing Argentina one of three South American spots — Brazil, Peru, and Uruguay would represent the confederation in Mexico. Argentina would win the 1978 World Cup as the host country and again when the tournament returned to Mexico in 1986. However, their failure to secure a spot in 1970 remains one of soccer’s more prominent flops.
FIRST BROADCAST AVAILABLE IN COLOR
The satellite era ushered in a new way to consume sports in real-time. The 1970 World Cup was also the first to be televised in color — even though most viewers didn’t yet have access to the technology. Fans lucky enough to watch in color were treated to Brazil’s canarinha yellow, in all its glory, swooping in for a third World Cup title. On the other end of the spectrum, those watching in color at the pub probably learned that the Azzurri’s color scheme is nowhere to be found on Italy’s flag.
FIRST WITH ALTITUDE AS AN ISSUE
The first World Cup in North America meant participants would have to deal with strange new elements. As if the oppressive summertime heat wasn’t enough, Mexico ’70 also offered an unprecedented concern: sky-high altitudes, in particular the venues at Toluca (8,700 feet above sea level) and Mexico City (7,300). Scheduling officials didn’t help matters by insisting on noon kickoffs to accommodate audiences overseas. However, the harsh atmosphere didn’t prevent the 1970 World Cup from being among the best ever played.
FIRST AFRICAN COUNTRY TO APPEAR SINCE 1934
Since Egypt participated in 1934, the World Cup had not included African representation until Morocco broke through in Mexico. Between appearances, the qualifying process did not favor African nations, and as a result the confederation boycotted the 1966 World Cup to protest FIFA reserving only one spot among Africa, Asia and Oceania. With Africa assured of one spot for 1970, Morocco emerged as the representative. The country held its own against West Germany in its opener before falling 2-1. A 3-0 blowout loss to Peru and a 1-1 draw to Bulgaria concluded Morocco’s first of five World Cup efforts to date.
ISRAEL’S FIRST AND ONLY APPEARANCE
Israel joined El Salvador and Morocco in making their World Cup debuts, though it remains the only one of that group not to return. Representing a relatively new country, the Israeli players, led by stars Giora Shpigel and Mordechai Shpigler, relied on cohesion gained from playing in the home league — and a stroke of luck when North Korea refused to play Israel for political reasons early in qualifying — on their way to a berth. However, a tough draw put Israel in that year’s “Group of Death” with former champions Italy and Uruguay. After an opening 2-0 loss to Uruguay, the Israelis managed draws against Italy and Sweden to conclude their only World Cup appearance to date with two points.
FIRST TO SCORE IN FOUR WORLD CUPS
Pele remains the youngest player in a World Cup final when he participated at 17 against Sweden in 1958. He scored twice in that final for Brazil’s first crown and proceeded to add to his World Cup tally in 1962 and 1966. He made it four World Cups when he scored in Brazil’s opener against Czechoslovakia. Uwe Seeler joined him in the feat on the same day; the West German legend participated in the same World Cups as Pele had and reached the final in 1966. Germany’s Miroslav Klose and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo have since joined the two legends as the only players with at least one goal in four World Cups.
FIRST USE OF ADIDAS’ TELSTAR BALL
Adidas’ iconic Telstar, which would become the universally accepted soccer ball visage, made its debut at the 1970 World Cup. Only 20 balls were supplied at the time, meaning some matches were played with the anachronistic brown leather ball used in World Cups past. Ironically, as the tournament entered the age of color TV, the Telstar was designed for optimum visibility on black-and-white sets.
FIRST TO BE PLAYED IN NORTH AMERICA
Mexico paved the way for Latin American countries to stage the Olympics when it won the bid for the 1968 Games. With the 1970 World Cup, it was again in position as a litmus test — this time for an entire continent. However, the process to bring the World Cup to North America was a somewhat contentious negotiation spanning years. FIFA vice president Guillermo Cañedo, who had been head of the Mexican federation since 1960, was Mexico’s chief mediator, a man who pulled out all the stops in an effort to win the 1970 bid. Without his pitch, the Europe-South America stronghold might have taken longer to dissolve, and Mexico’s role in the successful joint North America World Cup bid for 2026 isn’t as prominent.
FIRST USE OF SUBSTITUTIONS
The USSR’s Anatoliy Puzach went down in history as the first World Cup sub, coming in for Viktor Serebryanikov in the 46th minute of the tournament opener against Mexico. But as with most experiments, some are destined to fizzle. With a 2-1 lead in the second half of a quarterfinal against West Germany, England manager Alf Ramsey brought in Colin Bell for Bobby Charlton — only to watch the Germans equalize six minutes later. Gerd Muller scored the winner in extra time. Ramsey’s tactical decision, presumably made to rest Charlton for a potential semifinal match, is widely blamed for England’s loss. Not one to admit errors, Ramsey said that if he had the decision to do over again, he wouldn’t change a thing.
FIRST USE OF PENALTY CARDS
Before 1970, refs in international matches often had trouble dismissing players because of language barriers. So with hostilities high at 1962’s infamous “Battle of Santiago” between World Cup host Chile and Italy, then again in 1966 between host England and Argentina, it was clear there was a need for a better way to hand down discipline. Famed English referee Ken Aston, a World War II vet, and former teacher, had a simple purpose when he arrived at the idea for penalty cards: Make sure he could communicate with players who didn’t speak the same language as he did. He applied the same principle used for traffic lights to convey the severity of a penalty to the offending party — yellow for caution, red for stop. FIFA tested the new system at the 1970 World Cup to some hesitation. However, it didn’t take long for the new system to take effect and earn rave reviews. The opener between host Mexico and the USSR saw five players booked, with Evgeny Lovchev drawing the historic first caution.
DEBUT OF PANINI WORLD CUP STICKER ALBUM
The debut of the Panini World Cup sticker album provided fans with a tangible connection and subsequently helped set the foundation for the global collector and sports memorabilia markets in soccer in the way baseball cards did in the U.S.
FIRST GOAL WITH NINE PASSES
Forget for a minute about the historic nature of the play. Perhaps no one moment better highlights the greatness of Brazil as a team or soccer nation, more than the sum of its considerable parts, than the nine-pass play that resulted in captain Carlos Alberto’s goal in the final against Italy. Consider the next-level detail involved when the eight Brazilians who touched the ball played keep-away against the Italians for roughly 30 seconds. Tostao intercepting an Italian possession deep in Brazilian territory, then rushing to the other side to signal the final setup. Clodoaldo deftly dancing through traffic on the other half, evading four defenders. Rivelino delivering a perfect long pass to Jairzinho down the left-wing. Pele distributing a seemingly no-look pass to Carlos Alberto, who capped with the perfect strike. The captain, who died in 2016, would credit Brazil’s preparation and teamwork for making plays such as the one that provided the 4-1 result look effortless. The play shines more as a once-in-a-lifetime moment than a mere “first.”
LAST USE OF THE RIMET TROPHY
The Jules Rimet Trophy, awarded to World Cup champions since the first tournament in 1930, was decommissioned as the official championship hardware with Brazil’s third title. One of the sports’ most coveted prizes endured a world war, a Nazi artifact task force, ransom, replication, and theft. It was stolen in the run-up to the 1966 World Cup in England and subsequently found in London by Pickles the dog, who became a national hero. The trophy appeared to be on its way to a happy retirement in Brazil, but it wasn’t to be: The original was stolen in 1983 and never recovered — though theories abounded that a replica made in 1966 to replace the stolen trophy is the real thing.