Following a major upset and political upheaval in Europe, arguably South America’s most famous team was finally ready to fulfill its destiny. Jogo bonito – the beautiful game – was about to come into its own. Two players would become household names. One was a Moroccan-born striker who played for France, and was only on the team due to injury. The other was from the suburbs of Brazil’s three largest cities, on his way to becoming arguably the greatest player in the history of world football.
(The 1958 FIFA World Cup poster. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
1958 FIFA World Cup
Runner Up: Sweden
Third Place: France
Fourth Place: West Germany
Leading scorer(s): Just Fontaine, France (13)
After the Soviets had begun the invasion of Hungary, European teams were now free to exert more control. As the decades wore on, Europe and South America would continue their rivalry for continental football supremacy. Within two years, the UEFA European Championship (known for short as “the Euros”) would be founded. Several years before, they had also begun the European Cup, which is now known as the UEFA Champions League, the greatest European club competition in the world. Sweden would come back from failing to qualify to take their host nation all the way to the final.
The World Cup finally seemed to get it right – sixteen teams qualified, with every team in the group stage would get three games, with no extra time in the group stage for draws. It would stay this way for the next twenty years. If the second and third place teams were tied, it would lead to a playoff, although many felt it was too much too soon. So, controversially, FIFA resorted to a new measure called “goal average” to determine who went through. For the final time, there would be a group stage “playoff.” Teams received two points for a win and one point for a draw.
Sweden as host qualified automatically, as did West Germany who were defending champions. For the only time, all four home countries of the United Kingdom – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales – qualified. Wales and Northern Ireland would debut this year, with Wales winning an intercontinental playoff with Israel to get in. Hungary put the invasions behind them to win the group over Bulgaria. They wouldn’t replicate the success of four years earlier, but they had a few good years in them. After finishing tied on points, a playoff was needed to decide whether the Soviet Union or Poland advanced. The Soviets won 2-0 to make the Cup for the first time. Yugoslavia also qualified. The last team in was France, who knocked out the Belgians despite struggling in the months leading up to it. Belgium needed a win against France in Brussels to advance, but were eliminated after a scoreless draw. During qualification, Thadée Cisowski seemed to be ready to break out for Les Bleus. But he never got there. Instead, Raymond Kopa would be forced to rely on a lesser-know teammate, a 24-year-old striker from Marrakech in what is now Morocco. His name was Just Fontaine. Injuries would force him out in his prime a few years later, but in 1958, Fontaine would have a World Cup for the ages.
(In his only World Cup appearance, France’s Just Fontaine would score 13 times to lead all players. Photo courtesy of FIFA.)
In South America, Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay all qualified. Argentina’s team, “La Nuestra,” felt it finally had the talent ready to win the World Cup. And in the pre-Maradona years, it arguably was their best team they ever had. But Brazil had a player who would transcend everybody. He wasn’t quite eighteen years old yet, and had grown up in between the three major cities of Brazil – Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. His real name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento. But he’s known by only one name, only four letters long – Pelé.
(Pelé became a household name in 1958. Photo courtesy of FIFA.)
The final team advancing would be Mexico, who survived a final round pairing with Costa Rica to advance. Although Africa and Asia entered, they played in the same qualifying group at the time, and couldn’t get anybody through (as mentioned, Israel lost to Wales in a playoff for the last spot). One notable absence was Italy. Shockingly, Northern Ireland had beaten the group, leaving the Azzurri out in the cold. The final match was a shocking 2-1 upsets in Belfast by the hosts. This is the only time that Italy has failed to qualify for the World Cup (they didn’t enter in 1930). The field of sixteen was set.
In hindsight, it may have been the Group of Death for Argentina, in for the first time since 1934. Each of the last three times, they had withdrawn, and they were hungry. But in the opening game in Malmö, the West Germans showed that their championship was no fluke. Led by Helmut Rahn, who had scored the winner in the 1954 final, and Uwe Seeler, La Nuestra fell 3-1 in the opening match. Even worse, they were forced to borrow the jerseys from the local team because they didn’t bring a change of kits, so for one match, Argentina wore yellow. The plucky Northern Irish upset Czechoslovakia 1-0, behind a goal from Wilbur Cush (21′). Argentina managed some pride back by winning 3-1 over Northern Ireland, keeping their hopes alive. West Germany and Czechoslovakia drew 2-2 in Helsingborg. Every team was still mathematically alive.
Back in Malmö for the final group game on June 15, the Germans got a goal from Rahn (20′) and Seeler (78′). But Northern Ireland got two of their own from Peter McParland, both times giving them a shock lead. West Germany was forced to rally both times, and they held on for a 2-2 draw. West Germany had enough points to advance. Northern Ireland would be forced to play off after Czechoslovakia demolished Argentina 6-1. It was 3-0 at halftime and it never got any better. Argentina would be going home in last place in the group. Their fans were so disappointed that the players were booed and had objects thrown at them upon arriving home at the Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires.
(Czechoslovakia destroyed Argentina 6-1 on June 15, 1958, leaving the latter with one of their greatest World Cup disappointments. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
In the playoff, McParland scored twice, including once in extra time, to send Northern Ireland through to the quarterfinals. Two big teams were going home, and one small one was standing, having knocked off the giants.
(Peter McParland scored five goals in the group stage to lead Northern Ireland to a shocking quarterfinal berth. Photo courtesy of Birmingham Mail.)
This group set a record for most goals scored in group play by all four teams, which still stands today. The city of Norrköping was the host of the France-Paraguay match, and Fontaine got off to a fast start. Only in the lineup due to injuries, Fontaine scored a hat trick, after conceding the first goal to the visiting Paraguayans. France had hosted in 1938 but had fallen short. Their own fans expected little of them. But Fontaine, Raymond Kopa, and Roger Piantoni would lead France to their greatest finish up to that point. Even more exciting, one broadcaster was said to have shouted “Vive la France!” every time after they scored. He would have plenty of chances to do so, as France ran over Paraguay 7-3. Yugoslavia fought to a 1-1 draw with Scotland. In the next match, Yugoslavia upset France 3-2 despite two more goals from Fontaine. Todor Veselinovic had the winner two minutes from time, also his second of the game. Paraguay beat Scotland 3-2 as well to stay in it.
(Yugoslavia beat France 3-2 in an exciting Group 2 match. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
Raymond Kopa got the scoring going for France (22′) in their final match against Scotland. Fontaine added one of his own (44′), and they survived a goal from Sammy Baird (58′) to win 2-1 and take top of the group. Yugoslavia took second after a 3-3 draw with Paraguay. A goal from Zdravko Rajkov (73′) broke Paraguayan hearts, and although Paraguay got one back, it was too late.
The hosts Sweden had a pretty easy group, drawn with Wales, Mexico, and a decimated Hungary. Agne Simonsson had a brace for the hosts against Mexico, taking the opener in Solna 3-0. Hungary got a goal from 1954 holdover Joszef Bozsik (5′) early, but Wales got one back to tie from John Charles (27′). The score ended 1-1. Mexico and Wales drew 1-1, earning Mexico their first point in World Cup competition. The hosts got two goals from Kurt Hamrin to beat Hungary 2-1. The hosts and Wales finished 0-0, while Hungary stayed alive with a 4-0 victory over Mexico. Under current rules, Hungary would move on instead of Wales. This year, though, it would come down to a playoff. Hungary took an early lead through Lajos Tichy (33′). But in the second half, Wales broke through. Fifty-five minutes in, Ivor Allchurch equalized, and twenty-one minutes later, Terry Medwin’s shot broke Hungarian hearts. Wales were through to the quarterfinal.
(Terry Medwin scored the winner to send Wales to the quarterfinals. Photo courtesy of http://www.tottenhamhotspur.com)
Many considered this group the toughest – Brazil, USSR, England, and Austria. For all of his prowess, Pelé was left on the bench for the first two games. They felt he wasn’t ready yet. Still, it didn’t matter, as they won the first match 3-0 over Austria, with Altafini scoring twice, as did Nilton Santos. The Soviet Union and England drew 2-2. Brazil and England played to the first scoreless draw in history in the next game, while Austria were eliminated after losing to the Soviets 2-0. Austria managed a point in a 2-2 draw with England, who like Wales drew all three matches. Brazil beat USSR 2-0 behind two goals from Vavá. Pelé played, but he didn’t score. Still, his pace of play and his passing won rave reviews. A star had been born. In the playoff, the Soviets beat England 1-0 to advance. The quarterfinals were set.
Brazil would end Wales’ run 1-0 in the quarterfinals. In the sixty-sixth minute, Brazil’s Didi won a ball near the box. He headed it down to Pelé, who controlled the ball with his chest. He dribbled around the defenders, aiming for the corner. GOAL!! Pelé had his first World Cup goal, which proved to be the winner to send Brazil into the semifinals.
(Pelé scores his first World Cup goal against Wales. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
Sadly, Northern Ireland’s magical run came to an end as well. France ran over them 4-0, with Fontaine’s brace complementing two other goals to send Les Bleus into the last four. Hosts Sweden won 2-0 over Soviet Union to advance. They didn’t have a great team per se, but they had a working-class team that got them through. Defending champions West Germany won over Yugoslavia 1-o to advance.
France’s run would come to an early end. Vavá scored only two minutes in. Fontaine got one back in the ninth minute. But it would be too little too late. In the Pelé-Fontaine matchup, it was the Brazilian who won. It was arguably his finest hour – a hat trick against the high-scoring French. Piantoni added one for France late, but Brazil advanced to the final with a 5-2 victory.
(Pelé had a hat trick in the semifinals against France. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
Hosts Sweden would also advance after beating West Germany. The defending champions took the early lead through Hans Schäfer (24′). But Sweden tied it (32′) and it was 1-1 at halftime. With less than ten minutes remaining, the hosts broke though. 37-year-old Gunnar Gren was the one to put Sweden in the lead (81′), and Kurt Hamrin added a third (88′) with time running down. As working class as they were, Sweden had made the final.
Third place game
Just like Pelé had done to them the previous game, Fontaine would run all over the Germans. But he did Pelé one better – he scored four goals against the defending champions. Kopa added one of his own, and France took deserved third place honors, winning 6-3. It was Fontaine’s finest hour – and his last moment of glory. Injuries would force him out before the age of 30.
(In the third place game, Just Fontaine had the match of his life, scoring four times against the defending champion West Germany. Photo courtesy of ESPN FC.)
Since both teams traditionally wore yellow, Brazil went with their lesser-used blue kit. They even had to sew the patches onto the chest before the game. Sweden took the lead early (4′), when Nils Liedholm put them up 1-0. But that year, Brazil wouldn’t be denied their destiny. Two first-half goals from Vavá (9′ and 32′) gave Brazil a 2-1 lead at halftime. Then Pelé came on even stronger. He made it 3-1 (55′) and added a second (90′) sandwiched around another from Mario Zagallo. Sweden could only come back with one goal of their own. In the end, the score was 5-2. Brazil had its first championship. And Pelé had been crowned king of the world, making sure his name was known.
(Pelé in action in the final against Sweden. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
(Highlights of the 1958 final. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
(The victorious Brazil squad of 1958. Photo courtesy of http://www.sportsnet.ca.)
Pelé was the youngest goalscorer ever at a World Cup until 1982 when Norman Whiteside of Northern Ireland beat his record in the group stage. He remains the youngest to score in the final.
Mario Zagallo became the first of two people (West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer is the other) to win the World Cup as both a player and a coach. He won in 1958 and 1962 as a player, and coached them to the 1970 title (he was also an assistant on the 1994 World Cup-winning team and coached them to runner-up position in 1998).
In 2002, the Swedish press created a mockumentary called Conspiracy 58 where they argued the whole Cup was faked by the CIA and FIFA. Although it was a parody, many took the film seriously, including several notable publications like FourFourTwo magazine.
So unprepared was Just Fontaine to play in the ’58 Cup that he was forced to borrow a teammates shoes once they got to Sweden. He credits the shoes for his prowess that year.
This is the only time that Northern Ireland and Wales have made the quarterfinals. As of this writing, Wales has not featured in the World Cup since (with several close calls).
The first match between Wales-Hungary (a 1-1 draw) was the only match played in the provincial town of Sandviken. It became the northern-most game in the history of the World Cup.
The two stars of the World Cup in 1958 would have profoundly different careers. By 1963, Fontaine was out of the game due to knee injuries. As glorious as his Cup was, he never got another one. Pelé would go on to score over 1,000 goals in his career, which is almost unheard of. If the outcome had been different that day, would Fontaine be the household name? Although Fontaine made the FIFA 125 list of greatest players, you wonder how much better he’d be if he had been able to stay healthy.
References and Sources
World Cup’s 50 Greatest Moments (BBC 3 documentary)
Soccer’s Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Clumsy Keepers, Clever Crosses, and Outlandish Oddities (John Snyder)
Soccer’s Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves, and Fantastic Free-Kicks (Jeff Carlisle)
¡Golazo! The Beautiful Game from the Aztecs to the World Cup: The Complete History of How Soccer Shaped Latin America (Andreas Campomar)
The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet’s Biggest Sports Event (David Hirshey, Roger Bennett)
The Mammoth Book of the World Cup (Nick Holt)