World Cup 1958: Remembering Wales' last international tournament

The Welsh side that defeated Israel in Cardiff in February 1958

The emotions released by that goal were greater than all the negative energy that the Luftwaffe exploded on Guernica 40 years earlier under the satisfied smile of Franco. Every picture of the goal on the walls of the bars says the same: ‘Are you watching Madrid?’

This was Phil Ball describing Jesus Zamora’s last-minute goal in Gijon to win Real Sociedad’s first league title in 1981.

It is amazing how another corner of the world had the exact same reaction on Saturday. And an entire country this time. Not just a city.

Wales’ 2-0 loss to Bosnia and Herzegovina will be remembered as one of most unusually great moments in the history of British football. One doesn’t usually taste sweetness in defeat. But for three generations of Wales fans, the defeat on 10 October 2015 is pure nectar.

Why all this fuss? Well, in case you missed it, Wales have qualified for their first major international football tournament as an independent nation since 1958.

That’s big.

Their only other tournament appearance 57 years ago, however, left an even more interesting and dramatic trail of history. It has almost become required reading in order to fully understand football in the British Isles. And the process began before the Welsh even booked their tickets for Sweden.

The fabulous Fifties

The year was 1958. Pizza Hut was formed in Kansas. Hanna-Barbera bade goodbye from Tom and Jerry. The Republic of Guinea became independent. Charles de Gaulle was elected the President of France. Bobby Fischer was off creating his own history.

And Wales were in Sweden – boasting a stellar squad from back to front, but looking more than a little of out place. Overawed, perhaps, by the occasion.

It seems difficult to blame them. The road that had brought them to one of the wildest corners of Europe had been an extraordinary one. They had only managed to qualify through fortunate circumstances. That story is immortal.

A well-stocked fridge

Qualifying rules decreed only the group winners would qualify for the World Cup. Wales, thrust into a group with Czechoslovakia and East Germany, would have at least fancied their chances.

After all, they had the legendary striker John Charles, one of the very few British footballers to have a hugely successful career outside Britain. There was also the Swansea hero Ivor Allchurch, who is still the club’s all-time top scorer.

He was joined by teammate Cliff Jones, who scored in qualifying and rode that momentum to Tottenham that same summer. Roy Vernon, who later went on to greater fame with Everton, also boosted the forward line.

North London was an important source of minerals. The elegant Terry Medwin and the prodigious Mel Hopkins represented its white half in the first-ever televised World Cup, while David Bowen and Jack Kelsey, the heroic goalkeeper who played a crucial role in the finals, ensured Arsenal was not neglected. Charles’ brother Mel helped bolster the defence.

Despite Des Palmer’s hat trick in the final game against East Germany at Ninian Park on 25 September, Wales were left feeling blue. Czechoslovakia beat the Germans a month later, finished top of the group and gleefully went through to the World Cup instead.

All over? Not so fast!

A twist in the tale

At first, nothing seemed untoward. 2400 miles away in Israel, there were similar parties (or plans for parties) going on because they were declared winners of their group by default. Trouble in the Suez Canal meant Egypt and Sudan balked at the prospect of playing Israel while Indonesia wanted to meet them on a neutral ground but were unable to.

This would ordinarily have sent them to Sweden, but FIFA did not want a team qualifying without even pulling on their jerseys.

Israel were compelled to participate in a playoff against one of the European runners-up to keep their spot. There was a draw of lots to decide the opponents for the Israelis.

Needless to say, Wales were the lucky winners and suddenly, a second golden chance had been dropped into their lap by the game’s apex body.

A golden second chance

Israeli keeper Hodorov made a name for himself with his performances in the 4-0 aggregate loss against Wales

The hearts must have been pounding on 15 January 1958 when Wales played Israel in Ramat Gan, district of Tel Aviv. Life rarely gives second chances. Football gives them even less frequently.

They needn’t have worried. The hosts were clearly beaten 0-2 and Wales started to believe this possibility was now a probability. The return leg on 5 February obviously seemed far more important (at least to Wales) at the time, but it’s a game no one remembers because of the tragedy that followed it.

The national manager Jimmy Murphy must have been thanking his lucky stars he was not at his other job. Because it would have put him in Belgrade – with the rest of Manchester United squad.

Yes, the European Cup game against Red Star was played the same day. Wales and Murphy must have thought all was right with the world after winning qualification – until the horrifying news came through the following day.

The Israeli team was composed of amateurs who must have felt the tie was beyond them when they arrived at Ninian Park. Their goalkeeper, however, was not willing to go down without a fight.

Ya’akov Hodorov, a local truck driver from Tel Aviv, put in one of the great forgotten goalkeeping performances. Time and time again, the Welsh were denied by his magnificence in a display that deserves to be remembered better.

The ‘Gentle’ Giant

Cue the turning point.

On the hour, John Charles, perhaps out of frustration at being denied a goal, knocked out the Tel Aviv truck driver with a ferocious elbow. Three minutes of unconsciousness would have kept out the best of them. But a disoriented Hodorov managed to soldier on.

The damage, though, was done. Allchurch took advantage of the loop the Israelis were knocked for by scoring the first goal 15 minutes later. Cliff Jones made it extra safe just five minutes later – and 4-0 on aggregate.

As for Hodorov, he was taken off at the end of the game, surrounded by fans. He promptly collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital. Later he said he didn’t remember conceding either of the goals.

Of course, the real work began four months later.

A lot was expected from Welsh forward John Charles, who was playing with Juventus at the time

The world’s biggest stage

On the surface, Group C at Sweden ‘58 looked too close to call. Besides Wales, there were the hosts Sweden, who maximised home advantage to finish as runners-up.

There was also a handy Mexico side that denied Wales a certain two points. The group was rounded off by Hungary, a touch weaker than the trailblazers of 1954, but still a quite resolute proposition.

The Hungarians were up first. They were fancied to dispose of the Welsh easily on 8 June in Sandviken but the debutants were made of sterner stuff.

Bozsik put the 1954 runners-up ahead after just five minutes, but the talismanic John Charles equalised later in the first half. The score stayed at 1-1 and Wales came away with an unexpected point. Pretty good.

Confidence boosted, Wales recorded a further two draws against Mexico (where they let slip a late equaliser) and Sweden. The latter result sent Sweden through as winners of the group but Wales and Hungary, joint on points, were deemed inseparable. A playoff, scheduled for 17 June, was needed once again.

Hungarians humbled

It became one of the iconic nights in World Cup history. As in the group stage game in Sandviken nine days previously, the Hungarians were favourites in the playoff at Malmö. As in Sandviken, the Welsh fell behind a third of the way through the game. As in Sandviken, they roared back to restore parity. But unlike in Sandviken, they managed to finish the job this time.

Allchurch’s equaliser left the game hanging tantalisingly in the balance. It was an open invitation for anyone to step forward and seize their moment. To become heroes. To write their name in history. One man, it seemed, would be enough.

That one man was Terry Medwin. His winning goal came a quarter of an hour before the end and this time, Wales, having taken the lead, held on to win 2-1.

The quarter finals now lay in wait – as did a Brazil side absolutely desperate to taste success. As did a teenager whom no one had heard of, least of all the Welsh.

A Pyrrhic victory

The victory, however, came at a heavy cost to the squadron. This depletion of their ranks led to Wales’ last ever World Cup game on 19 June 1958 also posing one of the World Cup’s biggest ever “what if?” questions.

The bloody-minded Hungarians had resorted to violent, targeted attacks to stop a Welsh side that was by then indistinguishable from a charging bull.

It was not without consequences – the Soviet referee Latychev eventually dismissed Sipos – but it claimed a significant casualty, the emblematic John Charles. A literal leathering from the opposition left him unable to play against Brazil.

In subsequent years, almost the entire Welsh contingent at least partly attribute the loss of their physical and psychological edge to the absence of Charles. His brother Mel, manager Murphy, Medwin, Colin Baker, Cliff Jones...the list is endless.

Of all the great football hypothetical questions, the possible impact of a fit John Charles against Brazil in the quarter-finals is perhaps the most nagging.

The curse of Gothenburg

Pele scored the winner against Wales to help Brazil reach the semis of the 1958 World Cup

Wales, though, refused to let Brazil pass. And it was the goalkeeper Jack Kelsey who was their hero on the day.

The Arsenal custodian was the proverbial immovable object who held off the Brazilians for over an hour. His determination, however, was not rewarded but cruelly punished. It was an unheralded teenager in yellow who did the honours.

That teenager was Pele.

With the majority of the attention directed at halting Garrincha and Didi, Pele was conveniently gliding below the surface. He had been biding his time and picked precisely the right moment to rise for air. Sweet, cool, glorious air.

His shot cannoned off defender Stuart Williams after 70 minutes and finally, Jack Kelsey was beaten.

That was enough. Pele’s goal proved to be the difference between the two sides as Brazil held their nerve for a historic 1-0 result, subsequently archived in both Brazilian and Welsh memories.

The curse of Gothenburg is a day enshrined in the history of Welsh football above others, perhaps in dual homage to the euphoric progress of Wales to the 1958 World Cup quarter-finals and the defiance of Jack Kelsey, beaten only by one of the greatest World Cup performers ever and that too off a fortunate deflection.

Brazil, of course, went on to win their first World Cup a few days later. Wales were undoubtedly disappointed at their exit, but they did not forget the challenge they had posed to one of football’s greatest ever sides.

Nor did Brazil. Ahead of Chile ’62, Brazil invited Wales to play a couple of warm-up games as part of the world champions’ preparations. Those two matches in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were a mark of respect from one set of athletes to another.

Wales were respected by the locals for the immense difficulty they had caused their champions in the previous tournament. That’s perhaps one of the ways they would like to be remembered.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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