Every World Cup has star players, but in the 1958 World Cup, the world got its first look at the player who would transcend the sport and become its greatest icon. His name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, but he will forever be known as Pele.
Sweden were awarded the World Cup unopposed in 1950. The tournament used twelve different venues across Sweden with the National Stadium in Solna to host the final. The increasing interest in the World Cup lead to 55 teams entering before qualification whittled them down to 16 teams. Argentina were back, making their first appearance since 1934, while the Soviet Union entered for the first time. The controversial two-game group phase was jettisoned for the now conventional format of a three-game group phase followed by knockout.
Shadow of Munich
Sweden ‘58 holds the unique distinction of being the only finals to feature all four British nations, but in the spring of 1958, British football was reeling from the shock of the Munich Air Disaster. While the tragedy belonged to Manchester United, Munich cast a long shadow over the ’58 World Cup. England had been amongst the favorites for the tournament, but as many as six of their possible squad and crucially three of their first eleven in Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor and Duncan Edwards were amongst those lost to the disaster. Edwards had been key for England, having become their youngest debutant in 1955. At the time of his death, 21, he had already won 18 caps.
In a strange twist of fate, the need to rebuild lead England to give Bobby Charlton his England debut in the buildup to the World Cup and Charlton did make the squad. Northern Ireland, whose goalkeeper Harry Gregg survived the crash, also lost a key player in Jackie Blanchflower. The midfielder survived the crash, but never played again. Nobody, however, was more impacted by the tragedy than Wales manager Jimmy Murphy. Murphy had combined the Wales job with being a coach at Manchester United and had nurtured the ‘Busby Babes’ through their careers. He was only absent from Munich because he was managing Wales in a qualifier the week of United’s fatal tie in Belgrade.
The four groups kicked off simultaneously and in Group 1, holders West Germany got off to a winning start with ’54 hero Helmut Rahn scoring twice in a 3-1 win over the returning Argentina. Meanwhile, a fancied Czechoslovakia were stunned 1-0 by new boys Northern Ireland. West Germany would not have it all their own way in the group and were held to successive draws on both occasions, having to come from behind to secure a precious point with striker Uwe Seeler grabbing the crucial equalizer against Northern Ireland.
After their poor start, the talented Czech’s needed a win over Argentina in their final group game to have a chance to go through. The Czech’s got a perfect start with Milan Dvorak blasting in from outside the box in the eighth minute. Zdenek Zikan then finished off two fine team goals to give the Czechs a stunning 3-0 lead at the break. Argentina were shaken and couldn’t find their best in the second half. Two late goals from Vaclav Hovorka rounded off an emphatic 6-1 win and sent Czechoslovakia into a playoff against Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland were a fine side and had taken down Italy in qualifying. They featured Munich survivor Harry Gregg in goal, Tottenham legend Danny Blanchflower in midfield, and striker Peter McParland was a man in form having already bagged three goals in the group. For the rematch with the Czechs, Northern Ireland needed to play without Gregg. Understudy goalkeeper Norman Uprichard was picking the ball out of his own net when Zikan struck after just 18 minutes. Still, Uprichard turned in a heroic performance between the posts, keeping the Czechs at bay despite playing with a broken hand. At the other end, McParland equalized to send the game into extra time. It was to be McParland’s day, striking in the 97th minute to send Northern Ireland through with West Germany.
The ’58 World Cup never quite lived up to the incredible goal-scoring highs of the ’54 event. One man who seemed determined to challenge that was legendary France striker Just Fontaine. France were a free-flowing attacking team with an awesome frontline of Fontaine, Real Madrid’s Raymond Kopa, and Roger Piantoni. They made their intentions clear in their opener against Paraguay, with Fontaine scoring a hat-trick as the French ran riot 7-3.
The other fancied team in the group were Olympic silver medalists Yugoslavia. Goalkeeper Valdimir Beara was one of the best in the world, captain Branko Zebec stood as a defensive rock, and Todor Veselinovic emerged as a predatory forward. The Yugoslavs suffered a poor start, held to a 1-1 draw by Scotland. Next up were France, with the French taking an early lead through Fontaine. Yugoslavia countered and when France buckled from a corner, Alexsandar Petakovic equalized. In a close game, Veselinovic gave Yugoslavia the lead, but France appeared to have rescued a point when Fontaine equalized five minutes from time. However, Veselinovic wasn’t done and struck in the 88th minute to give Yugoslavia the win.
Yugoslavia squandered the chance to win the group as they were held 3-3 by Paraguay, while France completed a miserable tournament for the Scots with Kopa and inevitably Fontaine putting them out of sight in a 2-1 win to top the group with Yugoslavia joining them in the last eight.
Sweden Rise to the Occasion
Group 3 pitted ’54 runners-up Hungary against hosts Sweden, newcomers Wales, and Mexico. Following the Revolution of 1956, Hungary’s golden team had broken up. However, several key players did remain; notably Nandor Hidegkuti, Gyula Grosics, and Jozsef Bozsik. They faced a tough opener against Wales. Having shouldered an enormous burden at Old Trafford, Wales manager Jimmy Murphy had an ace up his sleeve in towering striker John Charles. The ‘Gentle Giant’ was coming off an incredible first season at Juventus. Bozsik gave Hungary a dream start, but Charles soon equalized to earn a draw.
Meanwhile, Sweden kicked off their campaign in Solna’s Rasunda Stadium by thrashing Mexico 3-0. Sweden were not a team of superstars, but did have a core of savvy veterans in goalkeeper Kalle Svensson, midfielder Gunnar Gren, and skipper Nils Liedholm. Going forward, Agne Simonsson who scored twice against Mexico, was a potent striker. Next up came the big test against Hungary: The Swedes passed with flying colors, thanks to a brace from winger Kurt Hamrin to book their quarterfinal place.
Wales were held by group-whipping boys Mexico, but toughed out a 0-0 draw with Sweden, while Hungary thrashed Mexico 4-0. Second place would be decided by playoff in an almost-empty Rasunda Stadium. Hungary went on the front foot and Lajos Tichy’s fine striker gave them a first half lead. Wales were indebted to goalkeeper Jack Kelsey for keeping them in the game. Early in the second half, Wales equalized through Ivor Allchurch. As Hungary pushed for a second goal, Wales winger Terry Medwin got clear to put Wales into the last eight.
Group of Death
Plenty grumbled about FIFA’s controversial geographical seeding, none more so than Austria, who managed to get the toughest teams from each pot in Brazil, England, and the Soviet Union. Brazil were the favorites, as the star turn was the sublime creative midfielder Didi. Other star names included left back Nilton Santos and inside forward Mario Zagallo. Centre-forward Jose Altafini got Brazil up and running with a brace in a routine 3-0 win over Austria.
Although weakened by Munich, England still had some fine players in the veteran pairing of Billy Wright and Tom Finney returning for their last World Cup. The team also featured gifted inside forward Johnny Haynes. England opened in Gothenburg against a strong Soviet team that included legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin and talented dribbler Valentin Ivanov. The Soviets went ahead early and when Alexsandr Ivanov made it 2-0 after 55 minutes, the win looked secured. However, England fought back with Derek Kevan halving the deficit. Bobby Robson thought he had equalized, but the goal was controversially chalked off. England then won a penalty which Finney converted on 85 minutes for 2-2. It was, however, a point gained at a cost with Finney injured and out of the tournament.
Then came the highly-anticipated clash between England and Brazil. The game didn’t live up to its billing, with Brazil struggling to break down the English defence, ending 0-0. Meanwhile in Boras, Ivanov was on the scoresheet to give the Soviets a 2-0 win over Austria. Frustrated at how England had blunted his team’s attack, Brazil coach Vicente Feola decided on a change, bringing in striker Vava, right winger Garrincha, and 17-year old forward Pele; moving from 4-2-4 to a 4-3-3. Vava got the early breakthrough and bagged a second in a 2-0 win, but it was his dazzling young striker partner Pele who got the plaudits.
England were also expected to progress, but eliminated Austria proved stubborn opponents with goals from Haynes and Kevan putting the score at 2-2. England thought they had won when Robson scored, but the goal was ruled out for handball. He insisted he hadn’t handled the ball to no avail in a moment that would find an echo for Robson as England manager 28 years later. It meant another playoff this time between England and the Soviet Union. England made changes, but surprisingly didn’t bring Bobby Charlton into the team. In a tight game, Anatoli Ilyen scored on 68 minutes and an inspired Yashin kept England at bay to send the Soviets through.
The Boy King
For the quarterfinals, the talk of the tournament was of the young Pele. A seemingly supernaturally gifted player, Pele had been the catalyst for Brazil’s dynamic win over the Soviet Union. Now the world waited to see if he could repeat the trick against Wales. Brazil dominated possession, but struggled to breakdown a tough Welsh defence. Garrincha prodded constantly down the right wing, but the goal wasn’t forthcoming. In the 66th minute, Pele’s moment came, as a sublime piece of skill saw him wriggle free of his marker and prod home the only goal of the game to send Brazil through and score his first World Cup goal.
The next opponents for Brazil were France, who overwhelmed Northern Ireland 4-0. Fontaine did the damage with two more goals. In the other half of the draw, West Germany kept their run going with Rahn again the difference in a hard fought 1-0 win over Yugoslavia.
The use of playoffs to decide three of the runners-up spots in the group phase clearly had an impact in the quarterfinals, with the playoff winners all playing their quarterfinals just two days later while their opponents rested. The Soviets were the final team hit by that problem, as they traveled to Solna to face the host nation. Again it was Sweden winger Hamrin who got the breakthrough with Simonsson securing the 2-0 win in the 88th minute.
Solna hosted a blockbuster semifinal France against Brazil. This was always going to be a straight shootout between the two best attacks in the tournament. Vava got things started with a neat finish in the second minute. seven minutes later, Fontaine rounded the goalkeeper to equalize. With halftime approaching, Brazil took the lead with a thunderous long range effort from Didi 2-1 at the interval.
The second half became Pele’s show. First, he put away a tap in for 3-1. Then Garrincha raided down the right, found Pele in the center, who worked an opening and pushed home for 4-1 on 64 minutes. The same combination worked again 11 minutes later as Garrincha crossed and Pele thundered home his hat-trick. As the minutes ticked down, Piantoni got in on the act for the French with a fine solo goal, 5-2, but Brazil were in the final.
For their semifinal, Sweden faced holders West Germany in what became a bitterly-contested tie. Tensions flared up before the game with the Germans protesting at the lack of seats for their fans, even threatening to pull out of the match.
The dispute was settled and when the teams took to the Gothenburg pitch, Hans Schafer gave the champions the lead after 24 minutes. Eight minutes later, winger Karl Skoglund equalized, but only after a clear handball in the buildup from Leidholm. Tempers flared, tackles flew, and the decisive moment of the game came when West Germany’s Erich Juskowiak was red carded for a foul on Hamrin. Sweden’s Sigge Parling was spared the same fate, despite an awful challenge on Fritz Walter. Sweden made their advantage count in the dying minutes with Gren and yet again Hamrin scoring to secure Sweden a home final.
France met West Germany in the third-placed playoff in a meaningless, but entertaining game. The French won 6-3 with Fontaine adding four goals, winning the golden boot with an astonishing 13 goals; a mark that is unlikely to ever be bettered.
Date with Destiny
Brazil were favorites in the final, but the 1950 final cast a long shadow. With both teams having yellow shirts and blue shorts for home kits, a draw was held to determine who should switch. The Brazilians boycotted, so Sweden got to wear their yellow shirts. Needing a second kit, Brazil were going to wear white, but wearing the colors of the 1950 final seemed like tempting fate and Brazil wore blue jerseys.
Brazil started by knocking the ball around with confidence, but it was Sweden who got the opener. Liedholm dribbled his way into the box and got away a shot to the bottom corner to make himself the oldest scorer in a World Cup Final. Garrincha teased away down the right side as Brazil probed for a response. His cross was prodded home by Vava for 1-1 after nine minutes. Brazil were hitting their stride, and just beyond the half hour mark, Vava was there again with a near identical goal for 2-1.
The second half belonged to Pele. On 55 minutes, he chested the ball, spun his marker, and powered home a sumptuous volley for 3-1. The play was so specular from the Brazilian that the partisan Swedish crowd applauded. Pele remains the youngest player to score in a World Cup Final. Zagallo got in on the act on 68 minutes to make it 4-1 and game over. The Swedes to their credit continued to fight and were rewarded when Simonsson reduced the arrears to 4-2 on 80 minutes. The last act, however, belonged to Pele, who headed home in injury time 5-2. On their victory lap, Brazil carried a Swedish flag to the appreciation of the crowd sealing Brazil’s reputation as popular champions.
The 1954 World Cup proved a tough act to follow, as the knockout phase in Sweden never lived up to its predecessor. However, Pele and Brazil provided pure magic. The notion of Brazil as the team the world was waiting to see every tournament was born in Sweden. They remain the only South American team to win a World Cup in Europe. Feola’s switch in players and formation proved revolutionary with the 4-3-3 becoming the template the likes of Ajax and Barcelona would take to new heights in the decades that followed. There were other players who left an indelible mark in Sweden; notably Fontaine, Garrincha, Rahn, Yashin, Kopa, Didi, Charles and Leidholm. However, no player has impacted World Cup history more than Brazil’s iconic ten.