Sweden 1958 and Pele was launched upon an unsuspecting world, his hat-trick in the final entering into football folklore. It was also the only tournament to date where all four home nations qualified for the finals. England had qualified undefeated in their campaign, eliminating the Republic of Ireland and Denmark. Northern Ireland went into their final game against Italy in Belfast knowing that victory would see them qualify; a 2 – 1 victory sent them to the top of their group. Despite a 4 – 1 thrashing in Madrid, Scotland qualified ahead of the Spaniards and Swiss.
The Welsh seemed destined to miss out, finishing as runners-up to Czechoslovakia but politics intervened. Israel had been drawn to play Indonesia, Egypt and Sudan. The former pair withdrew in the CAF second round whilst the Sudanese pulled out in the final round. Fifa, ever the compromise artists, decided that a European runner-up should play-off against Israel. When Belguim declined, Wales stepped in and duly won both legs 2 – 0, reaching their first and so far only, World Cup finals.
Drawn alongside hosts Sweden, Mexico and Hungary, the Welsh believed the could qualify. For Hungary 1954 seemed a lifetime away. Soviet Union military crushed the 1956 revolution and many of the ‘Magnificient Magyars‘ had left the country. The 1958 squad containing just six players who had travelled to the 1954 tournament.
For Wales, it was their ‘classic’ line-up. In goal, Jack Kelsey was outstanding, a world class goalkeeper who made 352 appearances for Arsenal between 1949 and 1962 before going on to run the club shop until the 1980s. Kelsey is regarded as one of the best goalkeepers ever to don the Arsenal jersey, his performances in Sweden widely held as the reason for Welsh progression.
Often overlooked in this campaign, in Arsenal terms, was Dave Bowen. Having started his career at Northampton, Bowen joined Arsenal in 1951, going on to make 162 appearances for the club. Like Kelsey, he was part of the London XI which was defeated 8-2 on aggregate by Barcelona in the first Fairs Cup Final. Bowen was to win nineteen full caps for his country, the 1958 World Cup finals were the pinnacle with the Arsenal man named captain despite the presence of other, more famous names.
For Arsenal Football Club, it was the first time that a current player had appeared in the finals. Laurie Scott had travelled with the ill-fated England team to Brazil in 1950 whilst future Gunners Mel Charles and Don Howe would also be in Sweden.
Under the current system, Wales would not have qualified for the Quarter Finals. They drew all three group games against Mexico, Hungary and Sweden, one of the two games that the hosts failed to win all tournament, the other being a 2 – 5 reverse in the final. Finishing level with Hungary, this was a time when equality of points meant a play-off. The Hungarians had scored more and a better goal average. It mattered not. They would have progressed today. As it was, their main objective was to stop John Charles in the play-off and hope for the best.
When Tichy scored just after half an hour, they achieved the second objective. The first was to prove costly for Wales, Charles suffering an injury that would end his participation in the competition thanks to overly robust defending by the Hungarians. Many believe that had he been fit, the Brazilians might not have progressed. That they did was despite the best efforts of Kelsey. The level of his performance can be gauged by the fact that a nation not noted for appreciating their own goalkeepers called him “The Cat With Magnetic Claws“.
Wales 2 – 1 Hungary
Wales 0 – 1 Brazil