World Cup Tales: The Gentle Giant (1958)


Sweden, 1958

Between the second and third World Cups of the 1950s, FIFA was struck by tragedy as Jules Rimet, Henri Delauney and Rodolphe Seeldrayers all passed away. Englishman Arthur Drewery took the reins as head of FIFA, though his most notable contribution to the game by this point had been selecting the England team for the ill-fated 1950 Worl Cup campaign. The Jules Rimet trophy headed north in 1958, with Sweden having won the right to host the last World Cup of the 1950s at the beginning of the decade. It was another European-dominated lineup, with 12 of the 16 teams qualifying coming from UEFA, including Soviet Union for the first time. For the only time in the World Cup’s history all four nations of the United Kingdom qualified, though Wales’ campaign had been far from straightforward.

Drawn against a strong Czechoslovakia side as well as East Germany, Wales were eliminated after finishing second, but found themselves the beneficiary of a tournament boycott from a selection of African and Asian sides. Egypt, Turkey and Sudan among others had refused to play Israel in a playoff for a place at Sweden, and rather than offer the Israelis a bye into the tournament, FIFA insisted that every qualified team would have to have, well, qualified. As a result, Wales were given a second bite of the cherry, and this time they took full advantage, winning 2-0 both home and away to secure their debut World Cup appearance.

The lineup was completed by four sides from the Americas – Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Mexico. The round-robin format was reintroduced, thankfully, and the gimmick of extra-time in group games was banished to the bin marked ‘terrible ideas’.

Holders West Germany squeezed through their group after a convincing win over the returning Argentina in the opening game, joined by debutants Northern Ireland, while Brazil and the Soviet Union pipped England to the top two spots in Group Four. France, armed with 25 year old Reims striker Just Fontaine, blitzed Paraguay on their way to qualification to the knockouts alongside Yugoslavia, while the biggest shock of the opening round saw first-timers Wales see off the famous Hungary side in a play-off. That victory for a Welsh side boasting an array of attacking talent including Ivor Allchurch and Cliff Jones led to the pessimism of the FAW being exposed to the world – with the administrators not expecting their side to progress past the first three games, they quickly had to reshuffle the travel plans for the Wales team, having booked them on the first flight back to Britain following the last group game. As well from the likes of Allchurch, their unexpected progress was also thanks in no small part to the pioneer of the centre back/centre forward position.

John Charles arrived at the 1958 World Cup off the back of his first season with Juventus. Having spent eight years at Leeds United banging in a goal every other game, the Swansea born Charles’ versatility alerted Juve coach  Ljubiša Broćić, and the Italians coughed up £65,000, then a British record, to take the burly striker to Turin. Life in Italy started splendidly for Charles, as he scored the winning goal in each of his first three games on the way to becoming Serie A top scorer in his first season and winning the Scudetto. During his time with Juventus, Charles would go on to win two further Serie A titles, along with two Coppa Italias, and finish third in the 1959 Ballon D’or vote. By the time he left Turin to return to Leeds, Charles has netted 108 times in the Bianconeri and won a place in the hearts of Juventus fans – in 1997 he was voted the club’s greatest ever foreign player. Though he wasn’t the first British player to ply his trade overseas, Charles opened doors in the late 50s and a spate of his fellow Brits followed in his footsteps to Serie A. Gerry Hitchens joined Inter Milan from Aston Villa in 1961, and enjoyed eight years in Italy with spells at Torino, Atalanta and Cagliari, even missing out on a place in the 1966 England World Cup Squad due to playing his club football overseas. The roads to Rome weren’t always smooth however, and Denis Law and Jimmy Greaves both suffered unhappy spells with Torino and AC Milan respectively, before quickly returning to the UK when things went sour.

Either way, its clear that Charles was a pioneering footballer ahead of his time, and he was of course crucial to Wales’ World Cup hopes, netting the equaliser against Hungary during the first meeting between the two sides. Sadly, in the playoff game, Charles was carried off injured and ruled out for the remainder of the tournament, and Wales were knocked out in the quarter finals in a tightly contested game against Brazil – a seventeen year old striker called Pele netting the winner, probably the only notable moment of his career.

The semi-final line-up was completed by France, Sweden and West Germany, but the holders were outgunned (or outGunnard) by the hosts, as Gunnar Gren’s late goal ultimately booked the Swede’s place in the final where they’d meet a Brazil side purring with confidence – a Pele hat-trick (there he is again) seeing off France in a goal-tastic game. There would be a crumb of comfort for France and Fontaine in particular in the Third-Place Playoff – the Reims man earned himself the Golden Boot and a record that stands today, as four goals against West Germany brought his tournament total up to a remarkable 13.

This World Cup, though, will forever be remembered as the one that gave birth to a star. Sweden were put to the sword in the final by Brazil – a second five-goal salvo in a week rubber-stamped their status as champions, and Pele’s 90th minute volley remains an enduring image from the tournament. The ghosts of the Maracana could, somewhat at least, finally be put to bed, as Brazil became World champions for the first time. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

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