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1958 World Cup: Wales' Finest Hour

Welsh 1958 XI
Rugby. The one sport which dominates Welsh life and sporting culture. The recent success of the Welsh team captained by Sam Warburton to the World Cup semi-finals and two consecutive Six Nations has promoted the Celtic nation to a global scale. However, despite this, perhaps Wales' greatest sporting success story lies within the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. In a tournament where all four home nations qualified, the Welsh story and run to the quarter-finals remains the most intriguing.

The 1958 World Cup provides the United Kingdom with quite an anomaly, as all four home nations (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) qualified for the final draw in Sweden. Amongst the British contingent was holders West Germany, twice winners Uruguay and favourites, the 1950 runners-up, Brazil with seventeen year-old Edson Arantes do Nascimento, also known as Pelé at the forefront of their plans for global victory.

England had qualified for the World Cup twice before, in the 1950 and '54 tournaments, losing famously to the United States in the former before defeat at the hands of reigning champions Uruguay in 1954 a year after their 6-3 and 7-1 drubbings at the hands of Ferenc Puskas' Hungary. Scotland had also qualified in 1954 only to be comprehensively beaten 5-0 by again Uruguay in a group stage in which they failed to gain a point. Northern Ireland were also competing in their first World Cup finals following topping a group containing Italy and Portugal.

USA 1-0 England
However, it is the Welsh story which offers us the most interesting accumulation of events in 1958 which is still to this date (2013) the only World Cup they have ever qualified for. The national side in the late 50s found success due to its frontline of Ivor Allchurch, PSV Eindhoven's Trevor Ford and Juventus star John Charles, the latter nicknamed "Il Gigante Buono" or "The Gentle Giant" due his large physique and the fact he never received a booking. Managed by Jimmy Murphy, the squad has since become known as the "Golden Generation" of Welsh football.

As far as qualifying was concerned the Welsh road to Sweden has to be one of the most unusual in living memory. Following a second place finish to Czechoslovakia in Group 4, a campaign which included a 4-1 thrashing of East Germany, the Welsh looked to have missed out on qualifying. However, Middle-Eastern tensions meant Sudan, Indonesia and Egypt were reluctant to play Israel following the Suez Crisis - Israel were awarded the title of "Group Winners" by default. From the European nations lots were drawn to determine who would play Israel in a play-off. Belgium were drawn initially only to refuse participation, in doing so leaving FIFA with Wales as the next eligible nation. The Welsh won the two-legged tie 4-0 and qualified for their maiden World Cup. - (How the teams qualified)

John Charles
The group stages saw Wales drawn in a tricky collection of teams including 1954 runners-up Hungary, albeit without Puskas, Kocsis or Czibor due to the fallout of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Hosts and eventual finalists Sweden and CONCACAF qualifiers Mexico completed the four-team table. Jimmy Murphy's side would record respectable draws against all three nations, although almost defeating the Mexicans but for an 89th minute Jaime Belmonte goal cancelling out Allchurch's opener. Wales three-point led to a tie for second place with Hungary meaning another play-off would have be played to determine who would reach the quarter finals.

The other British nations had mixed fortunes in Scandinavia. Northern Ireland progressed to the last 8 after a play-of victory over Czechoslovakia, whilst England and Scotland both exited at the group stage. England drawn alongside Brazil, USSR and Austria lost out via the play-offs to the Soviet Union, but managed to play out the first ever goalless draw in World Cup finals history, 0-0 with a Vava inspired Brazil. Scotland only managed a point from a group containing a French side offering the likes of Madrid's Raymond Kopa and Stade Reims' Moroccan-born Just Fontaine who went on to score 13 goals at the finals, a record to this day.

Just Fontaine
However, the Welsh play-off victory against Hungary would go down as the greatest in Welsh football history to that date, only being perhaps trumped by the 2-1 victory over Italy in 2002. The Eastern European side were as aforementioned, a side missing the flair of Puskas and Kocsis, but still boasted the "Magical Magyars Nandor Hidegkuti, Joszef Boszik and goalkeeper Gyula Grosics. Despite Lajos Tichy 33rd-minute opener, Wales hit back through first Allchurch, before Terry Medwin scored the pivotal goal which turned out to be the winner 17 minutes from time to provide the 1958 World Cup with one of its greatest ever shocks.

Brazil would meet the Welsh in the quarter-finals in front of 25,000 at the Ullevi stadium in Gothenburg. Brazil had entered the World Cup seeking to collect the Jules Rimet trophy for the first time, having gone so close in 1950 before losing to Uruguay at the Maracana. The previous World Cup saw them lose to the Might Magyars 4-2 in a violent affair dubbed at the time, "The Battle of Bern." At the front of the South-American's attack was the 17-year-old Pelé who was yet to score at the tournament. Vava had been stealing the limelight scoring 2 goals against the USSR in the group stages.

Wales entered the game as huge underdogs, with Brazil expected to roll over the side depleted of their star man John Charles through injury. It was Pelé who would score the only goal of the game, his first internationally, becoming the youngest ever World Cup scorer in the process. The goal came in the 66th minute, around the same time Northern Ireland were found 4-0 down to Fontaine's France. After the game Jimmy Murphy was recalled as saying "with John Charles in the side we might have won".

Pelé takes on the Welsh
Since the 1958 quarter-final much has been said of the time "Pelé broke our hearts" before his Brazil side emerged as the overall victors, beating Sweden 5-2 in the final. The Encyclopedia of World Football has described the Welsh World Cup performance as "heroic" and "unlucky" due to the loss of Il Gigante Buono, John Charles. Unfortunately Wales have yet to repeat the 1958 heroics and earn a spot at a major tournament, last coming close in 2003 for the following year's European Championships, when Vadim Evseev broke Welsh hearts again in a controversial two legged tie with Russia.

Despite near misses in 2003 as well as twenty-six years previous when Joe Jordan's "handiwork" resulted in a 1-0 victory for Scotland at Anfield before the 1978 World Cup, the future for Welsh football looks bright. Cardiff City have recently joined Capital One Cup winners Swansea in England's top flight whereas Newport County have reached the Football League for the first time 25 years. The national team has also began to show signs of re-emergence following the arrival of Chris Coleman after Gary Speed's tragic passing. The back-to-back victories over Scotland have breathed new fire into the Welsh team and with an array of talent including PFA Player of the Year Gareth Bale, Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey and Liverpool's Joe Allen it is surely only a matter of time before the heroics of 1958 are repeated!
The Future's Bright!

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