The hiatus caused by World War II left Italy as world champions for twelve years. There was much reconstruction work to be done in Europe, even five years after the end of the war that had brought tragedy to tens of millions; the Messina conference, which established the European Economic Community of six nations (West Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Netherlands) still lay in the future; Marshall Aid, given by the Americans, was only just starting to put Europe back on its feet. Thus it was eminently sensible to stage the World Cup in a continent that had escaped the ravages of war, not just sensible, but just too, for football was mainly played in two continents, and Europe had already hosted two of the three previous World Cups.

The four British Home Nations rejoined Fifa in 1946, an event celebrated by a 6-1 British win over a team selected from the rest of Europe which was played in Scotland that year. For the first time there would be British participation in the World Cup, with England installed by many as co-favourites alongside hosts Brazil.

The qualification tournaments provided elements of farce, humorously adumbrating the finals. National pride spurred the Scottish FA to state that they would only participate as British Champions, despite the British teams being offered two places. In the event the Scots came second after a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of England. Both the Scottish and English players protested as the Scottish FA insisted that their decision stood, there would be no Scottish football team that year in Brazil. This seemed to offer an opportunity to other Europeans to accept the spurned place, yet the word had spread that Brazil, a huge country, would not stage the World Cup in one or two towns, but over several, necessitating travel of thousands of miles. Portugal, offered Scotland’s place, refused to participate in Portuguese speaking Brazil. Turkey, which had qualified, withdrew; France, offered Turkey’s place, was no more enthused than Portugal. In the end only thirteen countries made the trip to South America, with the Soviet Union ensuring that neither herself, nor her satellites, would participate in the qualifying competition, never mind the finals. Argentina, which traditionally vied with Brazil for leadership of Latin America, refused to play in a competition hosted by her rival.

The finalists were: England, USA, Spain, Brazil, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Mexico, Chile, Sweden, Italy, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia.

Thus there was one team from North America, one from Central America, five from South America and six from Europe. Despite the chaotic nature of the qualification programme, this at least bore some semblance to the footballing map in terms of continents, and for the first time.

The Cup was named after Jules Rimet, the lawyer who had done so much to establish this competition, a tangible and deserved reward for the man who had kept it hidden from the occupying Germans during WWII, which ensured that it would not be melted down.

The decision was made to revert to a divisional system, which had first been tried in 1930, but later dropped in favour of a straight knockout. Unfortunately the divisions had been decided before the withdrawals and refusals to compete, thus some routes to qualify proved markedly easier than others.

The divisions were:

Pool A Brazil, Yugoslavia, Switzerland and Mexico.

Pool B Spain, England, Chile and the United States.

Pool C Sweden, Italy and Paraguay.

Pool D Uruguay and Bolivia.

Many of these groups looked unbalanced, not just in terms of numbers, but playing abilities too. In Pool B England seemed far and away the strongest side, with only Spain to worry about. In Pool D Bolivia had a simply dreadful record against former champions Uruguay. Thus it came about that the dominant theme of this World Cup was overconfidence; overconfidence breeds hubris, which is all too often the stage before nemesis. Perhaps the most even was Pool C; however, this was because of a tragedy, the loss of eight Italian players in an air crash in 1949 near Turin.

England, unimpressive winners in their first game with Chile, were expected to slaughter the workmanlike United States team. So confident was the team from the “land without music” that the thirty-five year old Stanley Matthews, whose sobriquet was “the Wizard of dribble”, was rested. In part due to Winterbottom’s (Walter Winterbottom was the manager of England, the first to be appointed) distrust of the allegedly selfish Matthews; for Matthews was famed for teasing defenders, inviting them to make a tackle, which more often than not left the opponent floundering on the ground as Matthews sped away, whereas more cautious souls would have passed the ball to a colleague. Playing on the right wing, Matthews provided an accurate supply of passes that would test and defeat defences in the top English division until 1965, when Matthews was fifty. In brief, Matthews was fun to watch, as well as being extremely fast over short distances.

Virtually the entire first half of the England-United States match was played in the American half, shot after shot rained down on the American goal, some hitting the bar, some glancing over. It seemed inevitable that there would be a goal, which indeed there was as Larry Gaetjens either headed the ball or it bounced off his head in the direction of Bert Williams, who was keeping goal for England! One nil to the United States after thirty-seven minutes, when many had thought that England would be three or four up at the least by this time. American defiance and a large slice of luck coupled together to produce the shock of the tournament, with what appeared to be a perfect legitimate goal from England disallowed. Nonetheless, England were not able to score even one goal in response. When the 0-1 result reached Fleet Street, many English newspapers corrected the obvious typo, reporting the result as a more plausible and palatable 10-1 to England! Indeed the United States were still to finish bottom of Pool B, yet their appearance had made a difference. A stunned England team played listlessly against Spain in their final match in Pool B, thus, even though photographic evidence was to prove that Jackie Milburn the famous Newcastle United striker had, contrary to the referee’s decision, scored a legitimate goal; there could not be much cause for complaint when England lost one-nil to unfancied Spain. Truly the first World Cup had been a humbling experience for the Homeland of football. Further ignominy was to be heaped upon England shortly after the World Cup was over, when, for the first time in the history of football, England failed to defeat continental European opposition when playing at home, Yugoslavia drew after being two goals down.

The final pool was to be contested by two powerful Latin American sides and two unfancied European. It was fortunate that the last match for Uruguay and Brazil was against each other, thus, in a sense, there would be a World Cup Final, even though none had been planned. It looked as though Brazil would coast to victory as their short passing game and overall skill with the ball resulted in demolitions of the two European teams. Uruguay, in contrast, struggled to defeat Sweden 3-2 and only drew 2-2 with Spain.

Thus the hosts Brazil only had to draw in front of nearly two hundred thousand fans to win the Jules Rimet Trophy in the new Maracana stadium. Given they had crushed Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1, the result seemed a forgone conclusion, hence a victory song was specially written for the presumed winners. Not for the first time in this tournament such presumption was to prove not merely inimical but fatal. Maspoli in goal for Uruguay played a blinder, the relentless barrage from the Brazilian forwards produced not one goal for the Home side for forty-five minutes. At least Brazil had not followed the England script in the England-USA match; furthermore, the half time score of nil-nil meant that Brazil were winning overall, Uruguay had to score. Three minutes into the second half the competition appeared to be over when Friaça put the Brazilians in front. Uruguay would have to score twice in just over forty minutes, something they had not done once in nearly fifty. Some commentators blame Brazil for not sitting on their lead and switching to defence; yet it appears harsh to this writer to condemn Brazil for playing to their strengths, their weakness was overconfidence. In 1805 Prussian Army officers had arrogantly sharpened their sabres on the steps to the French Embassy in Berlin, they were the army of Frederick the Great. On October 14 1806 this same army faced Napoleon at Jena and Davout at Auerstadt. The shock of the impossible defeats was such that subsequently whole Prussian battalions surrendered to troops of French cavalry. The Uruguayan goal, scored after sixty-five minutes play, drained the Brazilians, destroying the wellsprings of their confidence. The Uruguayans, previously largely confined to their own half, began to pour forwards. Yet it took a superb goal from Ghiggia, who had done much to create the equaliser, to slay the stricken Brazilians. Barbosa the Brazilian goalkeeper who sadly passed away in 2005 was blamed, unfairly, by many of his compatriots for this second goal. In fact it was a collective failure. However, one must salute the record of Uruguay, considering the World Cups as units, the score was: contested two, won two.

© 2006 World Cup Years Ltd.