England’s threat to boycott the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia may seem outlandish now, but teams opting out of the World Cup was all the rage back in the day.
Uruguay famously got sulky over the shortage of European teams at the first World Cup and refused to travel over for the 1934 tournament, and Argentina joined them four years later when FIFA decided to stage a second consecutive World Cup in Europe.
In 1958, a whole host of African and Asian nations withdrew from qualifying in protest at Israel’s participation. But even this pales in comparison to 1966 – the only World Cup ever to be boycotted by an entire continent.
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Of the 16 places available at the 1966 World Cup, ten were allocated to Europe, four to South America and one to North & Central America. Don’t adjust your abacus – that does indeed leave just one place for the three remaining continents to fight over.
This was no worse than it had been for previous tournaments, but the winds of change were growing stronger. Many African nations had recently declared independence, and traditional power structures, long since accepted as the norm, were now under question. Football was no different.
With old elitist attitudes stripped back, the injustice of the format became clear. Why should the two largest continents compete for a single place at the FIFA World Cup when Europe was getting the lion’s share?
The 15 African teams were drawn into qualifying groups, but a ball was never kicked in anger. When CAF’s demand that Africa should be guaranteed at least one place at the finals was declined, they tended their resignation from the tournament.
That Rous had no iota of regard for Africa, which led to its boycott of the 1966 World Cup, is a fact conveniently forgotten by football historians. It was because of that boycott that Africa finally got its first permanent qualifying spot in the 1970 WC.— Osasu Obayiuwana (@osasuo) March 14, 2018
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With Egypt’s debut in 1934 remaining Africa’s only appearance at a World Cup, some thought that FIFA were justified in their allocation of places. But CAF believed that the World Cup should live up to its name and be a global affair, as African teams were never going to improve if not given the chance to do so against higher-quality opposition.
The boycott worked, and in 1970 the format was changed to guarantee that an African nation would compete at the World Cup, something which has remained the case ever since. But for one country, the 1966 World Cup remains an eternal example of what might have been.
Four decades before Ghana made their World Cup debut in 2006, the Black Stars were shining bright. They won their first Africa Cup of Nations title on home soil in 1963, and successfully defended it two years later in Tunisia. Finally, here was an African team which could do their continent proud on the global stage.
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It was they who cried foul the loudest when FIFA confirmed their allocation of places for 1966. Ohene Djan, who sat on FIFA’s executive committee in addition to his role as Ghana’s Director of Sport, raised the first complaints.
“Registering strong objection to unfair World Cup arrangement for Afro-Asian countries,” Djan told FIFA in a terse telegram approved by Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah.
"Afro-Asian countries struggling through painful expensive qualifying series for ultimate one finalist representation is pathetic and unsound. At the worst, Africa should have one finalist. Urgent – reconsider.”
When FIFA refused to compromise, Ghana bit the bullet and withdrew from the tournament in 1964, setting the precedent for other African nations to follow suit.
“I don't know any of us who will say he didn't regret it," former Ghana international Kofi Pare told the BBC in 2016. "After we had been watching the World Cup, we knew we could have done better. I think we were one of the greatest teams. If we had played at the World Cup, we would have gone to the final – or won it – honestly.”
The key to Ghana’s success was Osei Kofi, a wizardly winger compared to George Best and known by the lengthy but poetic nickname ‘one-man symphony orchestra’. He scored in every game at the 1965 Cup of Nations, and would surely have been one of the breakout stars of the World Cup. Despite what it cost him and his country, Kofi stands by the boycott to this day.
"We should have regretted not playing in the World Cup but it was a cheat," he said. "It was not fair. And it hurt FIFA for Africa to do this."
Oddly enough, it was the performances of a team from the very continent CAF had been railing against – Europe – which forced FIFA to reconsider their position. Portugal finished third playing some of the best football at the tournament and scoring 17 goals in six games.
Over half of those goals were scored by Eusebio, a player born in Mozambique – an African country under Portuguese rule until 1975. FIFA found themselves dismissing African talent with one hand and presenting the Golden Ball to an African born player with the other. Their outdated attitudes had been exposed in a way that even they could no longer ignore.
By the time the rules changed, Ghana’s time had passed. Osei Kofi was 28 and past his best as the Black Stars lost to Nigeria in qualifying, before Morocco went on to clinch Africa’s sole berth in the finals. They performed valiantly, taking the lead against eventual champions Germany and earning an historic draw in their final group game against Bulgaria.
The milestones have kept coming in the years since. Tunisia got Africa’s first win in 1978, Morocco became the first African side to qualify for the knockout phase in 1986, before Cameroon went a step further and reached the quarter finals in 1990.
And then in 2010, the continent that FIFA had once declined to invite to the party were the ones staging a carnival of their very own, as South Africa became the first African nation to host the World Cup.
Fittingly, Ghana went the furthest of the African teams, reaching the quarter finals and coming within a Uruguayan hand of a place in the semis. It would have been a just reward for sticking to their principles 46 years before.