World Cup 2014

There must be a few people alive who can remember the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 – although not many, since they would be at least 90 by now and, as the World Cup wasn’t broadcast on the radio until the 1934 final in Italy and not televised until the 1954 tournament in Switzerland, they would have had to be in Montevideo in person.

84 years ago only 13 teams entered and for the only time in the competition’s history there was no need for a qualifying tournament at all. FIFA, founded in 1904, was nothing like the quasi-governmental behemoth of today with its 209 members and huge financial clout. Back then it was a ramshackle, amateurish, cash-strapped organisation with a mere 30 members, most of whom didn’t enter because of the difficulties of travelling to Uruguay. There were just 18 matches, compared to the 64 that will be played in Brazil over the next month, and they all took place in the capital Montevideo. Uruguay beat Argentina 4-2 in the final at the Estadio Centenario, coming back from 2-1 down in front of an official attendance of 68,000 (unofficially, it is estimated 80,000 squeezed into the purpose-built stadium which is still the home of Uruguayan football). The template of home advantage that has seen the host nation win six of the 19 World Cups so far was established – one of many reasons why Brazil are favourites for the 2014 competition. The clinching goal was scored in the 89th minute by Héctor Castro (1904-1960), who was nicknamed “El Manco” (“The Maimed”) because he had lost his right forearm in a nasty accident involving an electric saw when he was 13.


Castro remains the only amputee to win a World Cup medal. I bet England fans wish something similar had happened to Diego Maradona!

Mmm…I could watch that clip all day long – including the commentary of Barry Davies, dumbly misinterpreting the events going on in front of his own eyes and thus missing the sensational scoop that God, it turns out, isn’t an Englishman. Viva Malvinas!

Very little footage exists of the 1930 tournament apart from FIFA’s marvellously inadequate official film.

Wales, it goes without saying, has been but a footnote in the World Cup saga. We have qualified for the finals just the once: Sweden, 1958. However, even that modest, long ago achievement, when Wales amazingly got to the quarter finals and only lost 1-0 to eventual winners Brazil thanks to a 17 year-old Pele’s first World Cup goal, is laden with significance. Firstly because Wales set an unusual and still extant record simply by playing in Sweden: the only team to play in the World Cup finals after failing to qualify. Wales had come 2nd to Czechoslovakia in UEFA Group 4 and had been eliminated – until the one qualification slot allotted for Africa and Asia combined was never filled as team after team refused to play Israel and got expelled. FIFA rules stated a team couldn’t qualify without playing a game so the nine European group runners-up went into a draw to decide who would play Israel over two legs – and Wales came out of the hat! Most unusual: a bit of luck. In early 1958 Wales beat Israel 2-0 in front of 60,000 at Tel Aviv then 2-0 three weeks later at Ninian Park in front of 30,000 to qualify for Sweden by the back door. No film was made of that crucial showdown between the rival Chosen Peoples in Cardiff, despite the fact that the BBC and British cinema newsreels by then regularly showed highlights of all England and Scotland games, even friendlies. Wales, as ever, was the nation that dare not speak its name.

Although also not televised in the UK, some evocative film of Wales in the finals in Sweden survives, including the fantastic Ivor Allchurch (1929-1997) strike in the Group 3 play-off match against Hungary, necessary after both teams tied for second place in the Group. Wales had done well to draw all three games, including 1-1 against Hungary, but nobody expected them to knock out the Magyars in the play-off at the Råsunda Stadium in Stockholm. Wales were 1-0 down before Ivor’s sublime volley levelled the scores, and went on to win 2-1 when Terry Medwin capitalised on defensive dithering to sweep home the winner in the 76th minute. The opposition might not have been the magnificent Hungarian team of a few years earlier, the “Aranycsapat” (“Golden Team”) of Hungarian legend, the team of Ferenc Puskás (1927-2006), Sándor Kocsis (1929-1979), Nándor Hidgekuti (1922-2002), Zoltán Czibor (1929-1997) and József Bozsik (1925-1978), the team that still has the highest rating of all time under the Elo Rating System, the team broken up after the USSR crushed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956; but Hungary were still streets ahead technically and physically and tactically and this result, 56 years later, remains Wales’ greatest football victory.

One other little fragment of World Cup history was made by Wales and Hungary in that play-off match. Although FIFA records give the attendance as 20,000, because that was the number of tickets sold, it was actually only 2,823 – the lowest post-WW2 gate at any World Cup and the 2nd lowest of all time after the 2,539 who saw Romania beat Peru in Montevideo in 1930. The reason for those empty terraces in Stockholm was not, I hasten to add if only to reassure myself, because Wales are a turn-off in Scandinavia, but because of the mass boycott of the match by the Swedish people to express solidarity with the Hungarian Revolution following the Soviet execution of a rebel leader the previous day: an early example of how politics and sport are inextricably connected (they’re the same thing).

It is somehow typical that Wales’ most famous contributions to the World Cup have not been as ball-kickers, but as killjoys. Oh dear: are we really fated to be nothing more than the officious jobsworths ruining the fun at others’ carnivals? I only ask; I don’t want to hear the answer. The two examples are notorious and cringeworthy: linesman Mervyn Griffiths (1909-1974) raising his flag for offside far too quickly to incorrectly disallow Puskás’ 88th minute ‘equaliser’ in the West Germany 3 Hungary 2 final in Bern in 1954; and ref Clive Thomas ludicrously blowing the final whistle with the ball in mid-air from a corner just as Zico headed in what would have been the winner in the Brazil v Sweden match in the 1978 tournament in Argentina. I’m not uploading those clips; I’m trying to make Welsh identity enticing not embarrassing…

Yes, despite being a perennially disappointed and thwarted Wales fan, I love the World Cup. And even though I’ve got a book to finish (details soon) and I’m doing any gardening job I can scavenge and I’m running what you might call a complicated life, I will nevertheless find the time and watch every single match in the 20th World Cup. I’ve got a tenner on Colombia. May the best side win (even if it’s England).

What’s that I hear you say? I vowed never to write about football again ( Well, I’ve changed my mind.