In the previous two World Cups of 1950, and 1954, the preceding British Championships had doubled as qualifiers. This practise was brought to an end as a result of widespread protests. Amusingly, all four British Home Nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) qualified, thereby providing exactly one quarter of the finalists in the 1958 World Cup. Nonetheless, the four teams were much weaker than they could have been. England only sent twenty players whereas the rules permitted twenty-two. But the big disaster was the Munich Air Crash of 6 February 1958, which not only wiped out the guts of the Manchester United team of the day (eight players died), but deprived England of many players (Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor and Roger Byrne spring to mind) who would have been certainties for selection.

International politics still kept the game in its thrall. The Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 occurred when the Hungarian team was abroad. Many of their better players decided not to return home. Thus the “Magic Magyars” were no more, their vulnerable successors failing to progress from the first round group games. The Suez Crisis of 1956 and the associated war between Egypt and Israel had the footballing consequence that none of Israel’s opponents in the Africa and Asia group would play her in the qualifying tournament. Fifa arranged a qualifying match between Wales and Israel which was easily won by the Welsh. Wales had come second to Czechoslovakia when qualifying and had won the drawing of lots amongst the runners-up for the right to contest this final place. In future World Cup qualifying competitions Israel would have to face European opposition, preventing a rerun. “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war”, and at least teams from both sides of the Iron Curtain were competing against each other.

Fifa had still not adopted a system of rotation between the two footballing superpower continents Europe and South America. Hence Sweden became the second consecutive post-war host from Europe. Although the tournament was unable to grab the Swedish imagination until it looked as if Sweden, seemingly incredibly, might actually win. The flag waving by Sweden supporters in the semi-final was considered excessive by Fifa, who also banned any cheer leaders for the final. A big boost to Swedish potential had been the decision of the Swedish FA to rescind existing policy and to actually employ Swedish professionals who plied their trade abroad. Not to be overlooked, apart from home advantage, was that Sweden had the oldest selection of players available. The confidence and organisation provided by their coach, the Englishman George Raynor, made Sweden a formidable competitor.

The divisional system of 1954 was retained; however, the disastrous seeding system in which the top two played the bottom two was dropped in favour of an all-play-all. There would be far more games played than formerly. Deliberately playing to lose would be riskier except possibly for the last of the three first round games, if both teams had already qualified. No system is perfect and this was definitely an improvement, however, Pool Four was far and away the strongest of the groups.

The geographical spread, because of Near Eastern politics, was not as impressive as in previous World Cups. From Europe were: England, Scotland, Wales, Sweden, the Soviet Union, Hungary, West Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, Yugoslavia, Austria and Northern Ireland. From the Americas: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Mexico.

This was the World Cup in which Brazil would finally realise her potential, the World Cup from which would emerge a new star: Edson Arantes do Nascimento, popularly known as Pelé, a name he had acquired at the age of nine. Many a great footballer had a particularly formidable arrow in his quiver; Pelé, however, seemed to be without a weakness: he was exceptionally fast and agile, his superb sense of balance created an impression of grace no matter what position his body adopted; he had a powerful shot and a heading ability that was stunning, no opponent was safe from being out jumped, outrun, out dribbled, or being “nutmegged” (slipping a ball between a rival player’s legs and running round his back to collect it). Most important of all was his sense of anticipation, the ability to be in exactly the right position at exactly the right time, a footballing brain par excellence. His accomplishments on the field of football provide the measurement that must be used should anyone claim to be the greatest. Born on 23 October 1940 in Tres Corações, Minas Gerais State in the east of Brazil. Perhaps the high altitude helped Pelé become such an accomplished athlete with superb stamina. The son of a professional footballer, Pelé was discovered by the Brazilian international Valdemar de Brito, who had featured for Brazil in the 1934 World Cup. Pelé played professional football for the Brazilian club side Santos for most of his career, retiring in 1974. He briefly returned to professional football, played for the New York Cosmos, finally retiring on 1 October 1977. Pelé was to play for Brazil in the 1958, 1962, 1966 and 1970 World Cups. At club level Santos won the Sao Paolo State League eight times in eleven years. A special act of the Brazilian Congress forbade Pelé’s transfer abroad, a boon for Santos, and a shame for European fans who were thus largely restricted to watching Pelé play in internationals for his country. That is to say, watching in the flesh, for the age of television had arrived and this World Cup was filmed.

The divisions were:

Pool 1: West Germany, Czechoslovakia, Northern Ireland and Argentina.

Pool 2: France, Yugoslavia, Paraguay and Scotland.

Pool 3: Sweden, Hungary, Wales and Mexico.

Pool 4: Brazil, England, Soviet Union and Austria.

As previously mentioned Pool 4 was the most testing of the groups. England, although weakened, still provided tough opposition, even though they no longer had available all of the players who had defeated West Germany, the unconvincing champions of 1954, by three-one on their home ground of West Berlin. Hard though it is to believe, Brazil almost failed to qualify, just scraping through at the expense of Peru, yet they had many great players as well as the incomparable Pelé, including Garrincha, Didi, Nilton Santos, Zito and Vava. Indeed Pelé was not introduced until their third match in the competition. The Brazil-England game produced no goals, thus England were to return as the only side not to concede a goal when facing the Latin American giants; alas the lack of punch in the weakened forward line meant that there had been little threat to the Brazil goal either, save for a penalty claim that should have been allowed. The introduction of Pelé was sufficient to dispatch the Soviet Union, absolutely essential if Brazil were to go through to the next stage; a measure of the Soviet’s footballing strength can be given by mentioning that they were to move on and capture the inaugural European Championship in 1960. Austria, who had played so memorable a part in the 1954 finals were no slouches either, despite coming bottom of the group. Their solitary draw at the expense of England was to cost England dearly.

Pool 2 was perhaps the next most formidable of the groups; Scotland having qualified at the expense of Spain, many of whose players featured in the formidable Real Madrid sides that dominated the European Cup, which was open to the club sides of Europe who had won their domestic leagues. France, in Juste Fontaine, found a forward who seemed to score almost at will, transforming an unfancied side into deadly opponents, a team that only the genius of Brazil was to defeat. Yugoslavia for a long time had produced powerful sides playing neat attractive football, the class of ’58 was to prove no exception.

The hosts Sweden were lucky to be in the weakest group of them all, Hungary being a pale shadow of their 1954 selves. Wales, even with the redoubtable John Charles, who was later to be revered by the fans of Italy’s Juventus, were not expected to be more than respectable opposition, given their difficult, and lucky, qualifying method. Mexico had still to even avoid defeat in the many World Cups they had played in, this time they made a difference, their draw with Wales forcing a play-off match between Magyar and Welshman for the second qualifying spot.

Pool 1 was by no means weak, although if there was a weak team in it it would have to be Argentina, cruelly quartered in effectiveness by Italian poaching. Not that this did Italy any good as Northern Ireland still managed to qualify at their expense. One should not underestimate this Northern Ireland team, for it included Danny Blanchflower, the captain of the great Tottenham Hotspur double winning side of the 1960-61 season. A warning to the other members of Pool 1 was additionally provided by a one-nil away win over England in 1957, in which goalkeeper Harry Gregg had played one of his greatest games. The Northern Irish players played as a team and with great determination. Their spirit was such as to dispose of the highly fancied Czechoslovakia. The Munich air disaster deprived the Irishmen of the services of Jackie Blanchflower, the injured brother of Danny. Yet Manchester United’s goalkeeper Harry Gregg had survived Munich and played (for that matter he had turned out for Manchester United just three weeks after Munich). Northern Ireland were only able to send out seventeen players, a significant five short of the permitted twenty-two. Beaten three-one by Argentina, Northern Ireland bounced back to hold the reigning world champions West Germany to a draw, a match in which Harry Gregg had defended his goal playing with only one leg functioning properly, only a very late West German equaliser prevented an upset. Northern Ireland were therefore forced to play Czechoslovakia in a playoff for the second qualifying spot. Surely their luck had run out, for not only was Gregg injured, forcing the Irish to put the unfancied Norman Uprichard in goal, but they were missing Tommy Casey too. This, coupled with Czechoslovakia’s six-one crushing of Argentina, made the Czechs firm favourites to go through. An impression that was not diluted when Czechoslovakia when one-nil up as a result of a goal from the unmarked Zikan in the twentieth minute. Northern Ireland refused to give up, their no-surrender mindset enabling the prolific goal scorer McParland to equalise with less than a minute to go before half time. Norman Uprichard, who had already twisted an ankle in the first half, broke a bone in his hand, a terrible handicap for a goalkeeper; trouble comes in twos, so left half Bertie Peacock complemented Uprichard’s injury by straining a muscle. Somehow the Irish prevented Czechoslovakia from scoring a goal. So the game went into extra time. It was then that Billy Bingham Northern Ireland’s outside right demonstrated a masterful understanding of human nature, he persuaded his exhausted team mates to engage in gymnastic exercises. The Czech players, hardly less exhausted than the Irish, couldn’t believe what they were seeing; the worm of doubt gained a hold on them. The Czech catastrophe was complete when McParland scored in the one hundredth minute from a beautiful Blanchflower cross. The Argentine players, who had come bottom, were greeted with sackfuls of rubbish when they returned home.

Sticking to the script of the 1954 World Cup the competition now entered a knockout stage. West Germany won a rather uneventful quarterfinal one-nil against a subdued Yugoslavia. Northern Ireland, following their heroics against Czechoslovakia collapsed four-nil against France. A stubborn Welsh team, playing without the injured John Charles, managed to hang on grimly until the magisterial Pelé finally broke their resistance after seventy-two minutes. The Soviets lost rather tamely to Sweden by a two nil score line.

The tournament now began to attract much more interest in Sweden, as the belief started to enthuse the home crowds that their team might actually win. Perhaps the increased liveliness was engendered by the presence of cheerleaders on the pitch in Gothenburg before the match against West Germany had begun. At first it looked as though home advantage would count for nought when Schäfer scored for West Germany; but then the Swedish crowd started to roar and chivy their side. Liedholm of Sweden illegally handled the ball when passing to Skoglund for the equaliser, an offence missed by the referee which incensed the West German players. An injury followed by a sending off would have finished all but the greatest of teams in an era without substitutes; yet the score remained at one-one until the eight-second minute, after which the Swedes quickly scored again. The match left a sour taste, so it occasioned no surprise when Fifa banned the appearance of any cheerleaders in the final.

Brazil were now functioning as a team, which made them irresistible, even though Juste Fontaine of France opened the scoring in the ninth minute. A second half hat trick from the matchless Pelé finally put the game out of reach. The five-two score line was not at all flattering to the South American titans.

The 1958 World Cup final was to be between the oldest and slowest team, Sweden, and the most exhilarating, Brazil. The ever optimistic George Raynor, Sweden’s inspirational manager, enthused his players with the observation that Brazil had yet to go a goal down in a match in the 1958 Finals; the path to victory was simple, just score first. Then the drawbacks to Brazil’s 4-2-4 formation would lead to panic and a Swedish victory. Twenty-four hours of rain before the final only helped to encourage this optimism, as such weather traditionally helped European sides in their battles with South American teams.

On the sodden field Gunner Gren passed quickly to Nils Liedholm who threaded his way past one defender and the weak challenges of two others. One-nil to Sweden, perhaps Raynor was right? The crowd, far quieter than in the semi-final, would see. But Brazil summed to more than Pelé, Garrincha on the right wing skipped past his marker to the base line, quickly whipping in a pass that Vava is able to ease in, one each now. And the demolition of the theory that Brazil would fold after going behind. Pelé then piled on the pressure thumping the goal post with a hard shot from distance, it was clear who was on top now. After more than half an hour’s play, Garrincha links up with Vava in a reprise of the first goal. Thus the Swede’s themselves were one down, would they panic? No, there would be no more goals before half time. Cometh the second half, cometh the man; Djalma Santos passed the ball diagonally to Pelé who has his back to the goal and two defenders behind him, ten minutes of the second half had been played; the Brazilian maestro, only seventeen years of age, controlled the ball with his chest, letting it fall onto his right foot, swivelling to his right he then flicked the ball over the Swedish defenders, charging in to collect it as it dropped, he then smashed the ball past a helpless Svensson in goal for Sweden. A two goal cushion and a time for Brazil to show-off their skills, a battered Sweden were forced to chase the ball to comical effect; Zagalo of Brazil then put paid to any lingering dreams, his powerful drive increased the lead to four-one. Yet Sweden did not collapse, Simonsson’s industry finally resulting in a consolation goal, four-two. A back heel from Pelé and a quick run into the penalty area left him beautifully place to head home the last of the Brazilian goals. Perhaps for the first time the World Cup had a convincing winner, and the winner’s name was Brazil. Brazil also showed great sportsmanship and vision; after the match was over the Brazilian players saluted their hosts by doing a lap of honour with the Swedish flag.

© 2006 World Cup Years Ltd.