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.
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
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.