From the Jaws of Victory book: Wales at the 1958 World Cup

The 1958 World Cup was held in Sweden — wait, no, hang on. Hang on just a second.

Released in 2002, the Swedish documentary Konspiration 58 (Conspiracy 58) investigates the theory, once marginal but apparently growing in support, that the 1958 World Cup was not held in Sweden. Or anywhere else. That the competition was in fact staged somewhere on the west coast of the USA, as a joint effort between American Intelligence, FIFA and various international television networks.

Their motivation: the Cold War. Their goal: to demonstrate that televised propaganda could fool the world. Their success: well, you’re the proof of that.

You want evidence? The film follows an investigator called Bror Jacques de Waern, who has dedicated his life to analysing the myriad flaws in the conventional narrative. Buildings in the backgrounds of games that cannot be found anywhere in Gothenburg. Shadows that are too long, too dark, for Swedish latitudes, but just right for Los Angeles. The curious case of West Germany’s goalkeeper, clearly smiling — laughing, even — as he concedes to Sweden in the semi-final. And the Brazilian team’s boots? They simply didn’t exist.

Embed from Getty Images

Wikipedia and IMDB will tell you this film is a ‘mockumentary’. That the director and producer were trying to satirise conspiracy theorists, to make a point about historical revisionism and the importance of good sourcing. But then, that’s exactly what they would say, isn’t it? As one of the interviewees is forced to concede, “I saw Wales-Hungary in Sandviken Jernvallen … [Bror Jacques de Waern] might be right there.” Even a man dedicated to maintaining this fiction cannot seriously claim, with a straight face, that he saw Wales play at a World Cup.

The 1958 World Cup was — apparently, allegedly — held in Sweden, across 12 cities over three weeks. Just Fontaine scored 13 goals, while England went out in the group stages. Brazil won and Wales didn’t.

Looking back at World Cups, you see ‘Brazil won’ quite a lot. You don’t see ‘Wales didn’t’ all that often, even though Wales have failed to win many more World Cups than Brazil have won: 21 and counting. A 100% to 0% record. The dragon prances under starless skies.

Twenty of those tournaments came and went with Wales gone in qualifying, a melancholy litany of inadequacy, injustice and penalties sent over the bar into nothingness. All smaller footballing nations have their own version of this story, of course. But not all of them have a 1958.

For there are two ways not to win a World Cup. There is the usual way, achieved by most, which is to not win and to never look, at any point, as though winning was even a possibility. And then there is the other. The defeat that could have been victory. Hell, why not, the defeat that should have been victory. Here, the win exists alongside the not-win, but only as an imagined thing, a counterfactual. Curse and consolation.

Perhaps fittingly for a team that’s always struggled with conventional qualification, Wales’ path to Sweden 58 was a tangled mess of bureaucratic improvisation. Europe had 27 teams competing for nine places, so: nine groups of three, winners go to Sweden. Simple enough.

Wales were drawn with Czechoslovakia and East Germany and won their first game against the Czechs in Cardiff, despite going in as underdogs.

But next came the two away games and Wales lost them both. A tiny squad — 13 players, almost outnumbered by ten national team selectors — managed only a limp, 2-1 defeat to East Germany in Leipzig and then, with injuries necessitating emergency call-ups from back home, lost 2-0 in Prague. That meant Wales needed their two opponents to exchange wins, but Czechoslovakia strolled to victory home and away, leaving Wales out with a game to play. They beat East Germany 4-1 to round off the campaign, but there was no prize for second place.

From the Jaws of Victory book

Except this time, there was. Israel had emerged as the victors of the Africa and Asia qualifying section, but they’d done so without playing a single match, as one by one their opponents defaulted the games. Turkey did so in protest at being included in the Asian section of qualifying, Indonesia after their request to play on neutral ground was refused, and Egypt and Sudan in light of the recent Suez crisis and the ongoing Arab League boycott of Israel.

FIFA’s rules specifically required all qualifying teams to have played at least one game on the way to the finals — the competition might look a little silly otherwise — so Europe’s runners-up were all thrown into a hat. Out came the name: Belgium. But they decided they were too embarrassed to accept such charity. So out came another name: Wales. No such embarrassment.

Following the draw, Wales manager Jimmy Murphy told the press, “Wales has got a second chance of qualifying for the World Cup and you can take it from me, the lads are going to grasp the opportunity with both hands.” And he was right. Wales dispatched Israel’s young semi-professionals handily, scoring four unanswered goals over two legs. And the play-off also amounted to another, much bleaker stroke of luck for Murphy, whose day job was assistant to Matt Busby at Manchester United. It was the day after the second leg, when he returned to Old Trafford, that he received news that United’s plane had crashed that morning after refuelling in Munich. His replacement for the trip, Bert Whalley, was numbered among the dead.

Mario Risoli, author of the definitive When Pelé Broke Our Hearts: Wales and the 1958 World Cup, believes the impact of the disaster on Murphy’s role as Wales manager “remains debatable” but notes the man himself was powerfully affected. It is well-documented that Murphy essentially ran the club while Busby recovered and Risoli notes he frequently did so without sleep. It is almost impossible to imagine there was no impact, even just in terms of Murphy’s state of mind.

But if Wales’ summer preparation was affected, then at least they had a talented squad to call upon as they headed to Sweden as the World Cup’s first African representatives. Three of the squad — Mel Hopkins, Terry Medwin and the great Cliff Jones — would go on to win the double under Bill Nicholson at Tottenham. They were joined in Sweden by Jack Kelsey, title-winning Arsenal goalkeeper and the elegant Ivor Allchurch, named by Bobby Moore as “one of the best inside-forwards he’d played against”. And alongside his brother Mel, who would likely have been the best player in any other family, was John Charles, the Gentle Giant, beloved in Leeds, adored in Turin and unquestionably one of the finest footballers ever to play the game. More on him later.

Wales’ draw could have been a lot worse. They dodged West Germany and France from the Western European pot, and Brazil from the Americas. But they, along with Mexico, were expected to finish behind Hungary and Sweden. Certainly, Wales’ selection committee felt their adventure would be a short one – they were booked on flights back to London immediately after the last round of group games.

But Wales proved themselves the equal of their competitors in highly literal fashion, drawing every game. They could have beaten Hungary, they should have beaten Mexico and they were perhaps a little fortunate Sweden were resting players for the last round of games. Three points left them level with Hungary, but behind on goal average.

Embed from Getty Images

Once again, the bureaucratic shenanigans fell in Wales’ favour. FIFA, all-knowing and all-powerful, announced that goal average would replace the tried and tested play-off, a decision that would have sent Wales home. However, FIFA, moving in mysterious ways, made this announcement after the first round of group games had been completed. The Swedish FA complained that changing the rules mid-tournament wasn’t fair on anybody. It has also been suggested their motives weren’t entirely Corinthian and they quite fancied the extra revenue that would come with a couple more games.

But either way, FIFA conceded the point, reinstated the play-offs and Wales’ lousy goal average mattered not. They were still in. The Welsh selectors, not a group of men to let a ticket go to waste, flew to London and then immediately back to Sweden.

It’s at this point we need to pause and talk about John Charles. Players can be compared within context, however, and within his game, at his time, Charles wasn’t just one of the finest players in the world, he was two. Nat Lofthouse named him the best central defender he’d ever faced, while Bobby Moore named him the best attacker. Unfortunately, the laws of football and metaphysics meant Wales couldn’t pick him twice.

Charles had played Wales’ first qualifier in defence, but he started the World Cup as a striker and scored the equaliser in Wales’ first game against Hungary. This was not the great Hungary side of the early 1950s, the magical side that humiliated England home and away and reached the World Cup final in 1954. Most of that team had gone into exile after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the few left remaining were the wrong side of 30.

Murphy made sure his charges wouldn’t be overawed, describing the opponents as “an ordinary side living on reputation”. But even the most ordinary of sides knows how to put the boot in, as Brian Glanville later recalled, Charles was “chopped down three times in the first 16 minutes”. In the interests of even-handedness, we should note Hungary weren’t the only team solving the problem of greatness in the opposition ranks with a little applied violence. According to Risoli, Dave Bowen kicked Nandor Hidegkuti “from the first to the last whistle”, rendering the former great “virtually anonymous”.

But when the play-off came around, the Hungarians, who took an early lead, redoubled their efforts. Glanville recalled that “at corners, Charles found his arms pinioned by one opponent while another crashed into him from behind”. Eventually, he limped off with an injury and then, since substitutes were not permitted at the time, limped back on. His movement limited, he didn’t score, but he did play the pass that set up Ivor Allchurch for the equaliser, a luscious, dipping half-volley that almost certainly stands as the most beautiful goal Wales have scored in a World Cup, even if the competition is slim. Terry Medwin pinched the winner after a defensive mix-up, and Wales were through to the quarter-finals. But — and here the dramatic music swells — at what cost?

This is the point where we part company with reality. In reality — boring reality, miserable reality, enemy of romance and beauty — Wales held Brazil 0-0 for just over an hour, before some skinny teenager called Pele scuffed a deflected shot past Kelsey for the only goal of the game. Wales lost and went home, and are so far yet to trouble the World Cup again. Brazil dispatched France in the semi-finals, then Sweden in the final and lifted their first World Cup of five.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons this particular what if is so much fun: it’s not just because ‘Wales’ and ‘World Cup winners’ look strangely good together. Brazil’s win in 58 is widely credited with laying to rest the ghost of the Maracanazo, that nation-scarring defeat in 1950. They won again in 1962 and 1970, in the process becoming Brazil as we understand them today: carnival, sex, Pele. The Brazil that Nike pay through the nose to be allowed to sell back to us. Presumably Pele, Garrincha, Vava and the rest would have gone on to have pretty decent careers regardless, but international football would look at least a little different and possibly a lot.

Embed from Getty Images

The crucial point is this, John Charles didn’t play. His rough treatment at the hands and feet of the Hungarians had knackered him beyond even the grit-your-teeth standards of the 1950s and so Colin Webster played in his stead. Webster, though a perfectly competent footballer, wasn’t really a line-leading striker. And he certainly wasn’t John Charles because nobody else has ever been John Charles.

And oh, how Wales needed John Charles. Terry Medwin and Cliff Jones found early space down the wings and sent cross after cross into the Brazilian box into the vast empty space where Charles should have been, where he conspicuously wasn’t. On the bench, after Webster came close, but not close enough to one Welsh cross, Charles turned to Murphy and said, “I would have scored that”. And you don’t have to take my word for it, or Charles’s, biased as he might have been. Here’s Glanville again, from John Charles’ obituary:

“Had he not been viciously treated and injured by the Hungarian team in a sulphurous group play-off, who knows whether Brazil would have reached the semi-finals, let alone have won that tournament?”

And here’s Glanville again, in his role as the eulogiser of British football, returning to the theme in the obituary of John’s brother Mel: “There were those who believed that had John been able to play in Gothenburg, Wales might even have won, since they put over more high, searching crosses that day than in any previous game, and John was formidable with his head.”

There is a terrible sadness in this second image. As if in denial, as if hazy with grief, Wales played a near-perfect game for a side with John Charles up front and so, accordingly, they lost. But that probably wouldn’t be fair, as he had done with the Hungarians, Murphy pulled his “this lot? Rubbish” trick again and Wales were in decent heart throughout the game.

There’s another important absence, too. The absence of a Brazilian rout. The eventual champions played six games at the tournament. Four of them were comfortable to handsome wins: 3-0 against Austria, 2-0 against the Soviet Union, 5-2 against France in the semi-final and the same score again against Sweden in the final. But they couldn’t score against England in the group stage and they couldn’t break down the Welsh for more than an hour. Mel Charles kept Altafini quiet, Mel Hopkins did the same with the great Garrincha. Stuart Williams marked Mario Zagallo completely out of the game. Behind them, Kelsey was getting his sticky hands on everything. Eventually, it took a deflection, almost a fluke, that Pele later called the most important goal of his career. But then, Pele said a lot of things.

So there’s the evidence, as thin or as rich as you like. Unlike any other team in the tournament bar England, Wales were capable of keeping Brazil quiet at one end. At the same time, they were capable of creating chances at the other sadly, the player to take those chances was sat on the sidelines with a grimace on his face.

Therefore, Wales could have won, should have won, would have won the game — and, by the rules of conkers, the tournament — had things only gone a little differently. Had the Hungarians not sharpened their studs, the bastards.

This is, of course, completely absurd.

Most football what ifs have the decency to stop at one fork in the road: a penalty not given here, a post cracked there. This one requires a cascade of abstractions and suppositions, a whole tube train of sliding doors. If Charles J. had played and if Wales had found him and if he’d scored and if Pele hadn’t and if all the other brilliant Brazilians hadn’t as well and if the Welsh defence had kept Fontaine quiet and if, if, if, if, if… you can nod in agreement, or laugh in dissent — you can call me and Glanville’s anonymous friends rude words if you really want to — but that changes nothing. It’s inarguable in a literal sense, there isn’t enough sense in it to hang an argument on.

It is notable that Glanville approaches this through rhetorical questions and anonymous whispers. He was writing obituaries, and obituaries are serious things, and this is, at heart, a deeply unserious exercise in making things up. But that’s the strength of it. This isn’t a coulda-woulda-shoulda to get energised about. There is no injustice; it’s too vague for that. This is a daydream, several layers deep, something to drift in and play with. Almost entirely untethered from and so largely untroubled by, reality. It doesn’t have to have happened. It doesn’t even have to have nearly happened. It just has to have not happened in such a way as to not quite totally destroy the possibility of it having happened. Which, luckily for everybody, it did. Or didn’t. One of the two. Possibly both.

As Sweden striker Agne Simonsson says in Konspiration 58: “Of course, some details might have been wrong throughout. But that all fades away as time passes.”

When Mel Charles returned to Wales, there was no crowd waiting to greet the team. No seething horde of autograph hunters behind panicked security guards. And when he made it back to Swansea train station, he was greeted by the conductor: “Have we been on holiday again?” Wales, you see, hadn’t won the World Cup. Again.

This is an extract from Halcyon Publishing’s excellent book, From the Jaws of Victory, which is available to buy now.

From the Jaws of Victory book: Wales at the 1958 World Cup
4 (80%) 8 votes