Hoax or history?

11 Jun

Ivor Allchurch v BrazilImage copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

Swansea Town’s Ivor Allchurch, known as ‘The Golden Boy’, was one of the stars of Wales’ only previous side to qualify for a major tournament – the 1958 World Cup

Imagine the 1958 World Cup never really happened and Euro 2016 was in fact Wales’ first ever appearance at a major football championship.

That the team did not really reach the quarter finals in Sweden, but the whole event was staged in the USA as part of a Cold War stunt.

Sound far-fetched? Not according to documentary Conspiracy 58 that tried to convince people in the host country it never happened.

While it was later revealed as a hoax, the tournament made such little impact in Wales for many people it may as well not have taken place.

Conspiracy 58, which was shown nationally in Sweden, explored claims the 1958 tournament was staged by FIFA and the CIA to test the power of television to influence people.

Some of these included that you could see the Los Angeles skyline behind stadiums in grainy footage and shadows cast by players were in the wrong position for Swedish summer.

“It was broadcast with no explaining comments,” said journalist Lasse Sandlin, who took part in the hoax.

“I got phone calls from a lot of friends talking about me as ‘that idiot’ (because of his denial of the event), so it did work the right way.”

Afterwards, producers revealed its aim was to explore the topic of Holocaust Denial – making Swedish people doubt an event that people had grown up hearing stories about.

Mr Sandlin, who was 14, in fact remembers the tournament vividly – including the impact of Wales’ John and Mel Charles.

Image copyright
Arne Norlin

Image caption

The cover of Arne Norlin’s book showing the Swedish royal family watching their opening game versus Mexico – the hosts lost in the final to Brazil

Image copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

Pele scored his first World Cup goal as he fired Brazil to a 1-0 victory against Wales in the quarter finals in Sweden

Despite little recognition back home, their efforts were widely applauded in Sweden, with some believing they could have won the tournament, according to Arne Norlin.

“They played very well together, like a club team,” said the author.

“Seven of the team that played Brazil (in the quarter final) started in Swansea Town.

“Individually, they weren’t as good as Brazil, but as a team they played better.”

While writing a book on the tournament, Mr Norlin travelled to Swansea, interviewing Mel Charles and Terry Medwin.

He described many of the side – like Mr Charles and Cliff Jones – growing up together in Swansea and playing every day after school.

“There was talk from the 1940s of this golden generation that would achieve something one day,” he added.

And Mr Norlin believes they could have, with the management “bitterly regretting” not resting Juventus striker John Charles from an earlier game, where he sustained a tournament-ending injury.

“They could have spared him and the feeling was they then could have won (against Brazil).

“Instead, they missed three good chances to make it 1-0.

“If John Charles had been in the team, he would have taken at least one.”

Image copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

A quirk of fate helped John Charles’ Wales take part in the 1958 World Cup. They did not qualify outright but won a coin toss that allowed them to play, and beat, Israel for a place

Image copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

The 1958 World Cup was the first and so far only tournament where all four home nations – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – qualified

The scale of the tournament was altogether different to now, with Sweden one of the smallest countries to host it.

“There was no security, FIFA wanted fences, but we decided rope worked in our games, so would work for the World Cup also.

“Luckily, there were no pitch invasions, just a few photographers and people went into the goals and picked out the balls.”

Some stadiums held just 10,000, with this small scale mirrored by recognition of the players’ achievement in Wales.

“There was no open-top bus parade to Cardiff, Mel Charles went home to his mum and had a cup of tea,” Mr Norlin said.

“He couldn’t even keep his jersey as a memory, he had to give it back to the federation.

“As he got back to Swansea (train station) with his bags, he met someone he knew who asked ‘have you been on holiday?’

“He didn’t even know a World Cup had been on.”

Image caption

Sports lecturers and writers Peter Stead (left) and Huw Richards say they have both watched endless re-runs of the 1958 tournament, but agree that it made little impact at the time

Image copyright

Image caption

It was not until 1966 when England lifted the World Cup that Britain had become “a nation of telly addicts” and the whole country became engrossed in the tournament

This lack of public awareness is further illustrated by the fact the tournament totally passed one “fanatical fan” by.

“I remember watching the 1954 World Cup on a neighbour’s television but I have no memory of 1958,” said retired lecturer and sports author Peter Stead, who was 14.

He kept a diary of games he watched and while it included Swansea, Cardiff and Wales home internationals in 1958, there was no mention of the World Cup.

“I was out of the house all the time. It was the summer with cricket and I can’t remember my timetable being affected in any way,” he added.

The reason for the “marginal impact” of the tournament is simple he believes.

“You now get caught up in sport on television, but it was a lesser thing back then. You weren’t in the habit of watching it,” he said.

“Also, the nature of Brazilian football (it was their first World Cup win) wasn’t known, Pele was new, there was no world perspective on sport.

“Television now invites you in to become part of it.”

‘Telly addicts’

Mr Stead thinks the turning point came in 1966, by which time the UK had become “a nation of telly addicts” and he remembers where he was for every England game in that tournament.

“Now you can watch a football match every night. There is a total preoccupation even with the build-up but it didn’t exist in 1958.

“Sometimes I disappoint myself and ask ‘where was I? How did I miss it?’ But telly hadn’t taken over and when I was 14, there were other things to do.”

Journalist Huw Richards agreed “it did not penetrate”, adding: “Not until 1966, when it was in Britain, that is when it dawned on British football fans.

“That is when you saw people who were not the slightest bit interested getting fascinated.”

In terms of Wales’ long wait to qualify, Mr Richards is also quite philosophical.

“You can look at it as fate – we played Israel (to qualify for 1958) when a toss of a coin went our way, so maybe it is balancing that fortune,” he said.

And while much has changed since Wales’ last appearance at a major tournament, one thing remains – the potential worldwide exposure qualification brings.

“In Sweden many people didn´t understand that Wales had its own team,” said Prof Bill Sund of the Swedish Institute for Social Research.

“They understand England as Great Britain. But Wales became a team through the (1958) championship.”

Image copyright
Bill Sund

Image caption

Prof Bill Sund likened the playing style of John Charles to Sweden’s current star Zlatan Ibrahimović. But he said the Welsh striker’s ability to also play defence made him a true star

Image copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

Pele in the match with Wales


No comments yet

Leave a Reply