One of the most haunting moments of any World Cup was the sight of Pelé hobbling off the pitch after Brazil had been knocked out in 1966, a dark coat draped over his hunched shoulders. The Bulgarians had tried, and failed, to kick him out of the tournament; the brave Pelé soldiering on until the Portuguese finally did for him in Brazil’s final group game. He had been maimed by lesser men, but Pelé should have seen it coming, for the Hungarians had done precisely the same thing to John Charles eight years earlier.
Wales have only qualified for one World Cup finals, and it was a bit of a fluke when they did. They finished second in their three team qualification group, and with only the winners progressing to the finals in Sweden it all appeared to be over.
But then the machinations of international politics granted them a most unusual reprieve. Israel were in the African and Asian qualification zone, but a succession of opponents refused to play them, meaning that they finished top of their group by default. FIFA couldn’t countenance a nation playing in the World Cup finals that hadn’t even kicked a ball, so they decreed that Israel would have to contest a play off match against one of the European sides that had finished second in their qualifying group. A draw was held, Wales’ name came out of the hat and they duly made short work of the Israelis; defeating them by 2-0, both at home and away.
The Wales side was managed by Jimmy Murphy, whose day job was being second in command to Matt Busby at Manchester United. By a horrible coincidence Wales’ second victory over Israel came a day before the terrible crash at Munich in which many of the famed ‘Busby Babes’ perished. Murphy’s role with the national side meant that he missed that trip and so, with Busby fighting for his life, he took over the running of the decimated United side. After that traumatic season ended Murphy was able to switch his attentions to the World Cup. The nation he led, however, was not blessed with a deep pool of talent, with over half of the squad selected for the finals playing their football in the lower leagues. There was, though, one great hope. From Ian Rush to Ryan Giggs and now to Gareth Bale, Wales have consistently produced one world-class player in every generation. In the 1950s, it was John Charles.
Charles was one of the finest centre forwards of his day; a six-feet two inches tall powerhouse who was unparalleled in the air and often unstoppable on the ground. He made such an impression at Leeds United that, in 1957, he was bought by Juventus for a record British fee.
Their investment soon paid dividends, with Charles finishing as leading scorer in his first season in Serie A as Juventus won the title.
He duly went to the World Cup at the end of that season, not only as Wales’ most valuable player, but as one of the most coveted footballers on the planet. The supporting cast for Charles included Ivor Allchurch, a prodigiously gifted inside-forward; Cliff Jones, a flying winger who would go on to become an indispensable part of Spurs’ famous 1960/61 double-winning side and Jack Kelsey, a fine goalkeeper who would rub chewing gum into his palms to make the ball easier to catch.
There were few who expected Wales to make much of an impression at the World Cup. Prior to the play-off against Israel, Wales had only ever played ten matches outside the British Isles and nine of them had ended in defeat, with 30 goals being conceded in the process. It was hardly an auspicious record. They were drawn in the same first round group as their Swedish hosts, who had several stars that played for top Italian clubs; Hungary, runners-up at the previous World Cup, and Mexico.
To everyone’s surprise, Wales emerged unscathed from their first three matches; drawing one-one with both Hungary and Mexico and 0-0 with Sweden. That left them level on points with the Hungarians and in equal second place. Goal difference was not yet used as a way of separating teams and so a play off match was needed to determine which one of them would progress to the quarter finals.
The Hungarian defence had subjected John Charles to some merciless tackling in their first of their two contests, but their treatment of him in the play off game was simply appalling. He was shoved, kicked and hacked as the Hungarians sought to neutralise Wales’ most potent threat. To his eternal credit the ‘Gentle Giant’ refused to retaliate, instead giving the Eastern Europeans a lesson in how to behave with grace under pressure.
Sadly, it was a lesson lost on them. Halfway though the second half Charles was kicked so viciously from behind that he spent the remainder of the game limping around the pitch, these being the days before substitutes were allowed. Undeterred, the Welsh came back from a 1-0 deficit; Allchurch equalising with a stunning volley and Medwin taking advantage of a defensive error to score the winner.
Despite their array of attacking talent, the root cause of Wales’ success was the strength of its defence. Murphy may not have had as many riches at his disposal as other coaches, but he compensated by making his side hard to beat. Indeed, Wales conceded fewer goals than any other team in the tournament, save for their next opponents, the mighty Brazilians; a team so stacked with talent that even the 17-year-old Pelé wasn’t sure of a place in it. And Wales had to take them on without John Charles, who had failed to recover from the injury inflicted on him by the Hungarians.
Continue to Rest In Peace, John Charles, we lost the Gentle Giant 14 yrs ago today. The standing ovation from all sides of the The Millennium Stadium vs Italy in 2002 will live with me forever #RIP #Legend #JohnCharles pic.twitter.com/cEAIrYkBxk— Wales Match Shirts (@WalesMatchWorn) February 21, 2018
Few gave the Welsh much of a prayer against Brazil, but they played to their strengths, defending in depth and frustrating the favourites so successfully that it wasn’t until the game was in its final quarter that they finally succumbed; Pelé scoring with a well-placed shot after deceiving his marker with a deft piece of skill.
The Welsh were out, but what if John Charles had been fit to play? No team is perfect, and the Brazilians were no exception. They were vulnerable in the air and Charles was exactly the type of player who could have exploited that weakness.
Charles was replaced in the side by Colin Webster, an energetic enough striker, but he simply didn’t have the aerial presence to trouble the Brazilian defence. In the opening minutes of the game Webster missed two chances to score; opportunities that Charles may well have taken with ease. If Charles had been on the pitch then perhaps Pelé’s great career may not have started with a World Cup triumph at all, but with a humiliating defeat to the rank outsiders from Wales.
Simon Turner is the author of ‘If Only: An Alternative History of the Beautiful Game’ published by Pitch Publishing. You can follow him on Twitter at @simonaturner100