1958 Sweden

A brilliant young star called Pele
Came to Sweden the World Cup to play
And at just seventeen
Led Brazil's winning team
To the first overseas Jules Rimet

The 1958 World Cup is memorable, but not for the hosts or the top goal scorer. Few except for World Cup aficionados can tell you that Sweden were hosts and reached the final, or that Just Fontaine scored 13 goals in the tournament, which to this day remains a record. No, 1958 is all about Brazil's first win, and a 17 year-old genius, called Pele.

What was going on in the world in 1958?

  • 14-year old Bobby Fischer wins US Chess Championship
  • Munich air disaster, 23 killed including 8 Manchester United
  • Cuban rebels kidnap Juan Manuel Fangio, 5 times world driving champion
  • US army inducts Elvis Presley, private #53310761
  • Nikita Khrushchev becomes President of USSR

And 1958 saw the birth of some future famous people from the entertainment world:

  • Actors Sharon Stone, Alec Baldwin, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jennifer Saunders, Viggo Mortensen
  • Musicians Jools Holland, Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and dancer Michael Flatley

Back to the World Cup – The format

4 groups of 4 teams each with each team playing the other 3 in the group, an improvement from 1954. As in 1954, if the second and third placed teams finished on the same points, then there would be a play-off with the winner going through. If a play-off resulted in a draw, then goal average from the group games would have been used to determine who went through to the next round.


First time participants were USSR, Wales, and Northern Ireland, which meant that 1958 is the only World Cup which featured all four British sides, with England, and Scotland also qualifying. All 3 rookie teams fared well and made the quarter-finals, although none progressed any further.

The 1958 competition remains the only occasion when Italy failed to qualify (Italy did not take part in the 1930 tournament, but there was no qualification for that competition).

Tournament facts and records

  • Brazil's win was the first in an away continent
  • Brazil and England played out a 0-0 draw, the first goalless match in World Cup history
  • Just Fontaine set a record of 13 goals scored in a single tournament, which still stands
  • 3 of the groups required playoffs to decide who progressed to the quarter-finals. USSR beat England 1-0, Northern Ireland beat Czechoslovakia, and Wales heroically beat Hungary, although this Hungarian side was a shadow of the 1954 version
  • The final holds many records: Pele became the youngest player to play in the finals tournament, the youngest goalscorer and the youngest World Cup winner
  • Nils Liedholm became the oldest player to score in a World Cup final at 35 years and 263 days
  • This final had the highest number of goals scored by a winning team (5) and the highest total goals (7)

Who should have won but didn’t?

Nobody: Brazil were comfortably the best team and thoroughly deserved their first World Cup triumph. Lining up in an innovative 4-2-4 system, Brazil did not call on either Pele or Garrincha until their final group game against the Soviet Union. Then, Pele joined Vava in the attack and Garrincha taking up position on the flank.

Brazil came from behind to beat Sweden 5-2 in the final, with Vava and Pele scoring two each. For Pele that meant a total of six goals in three knockout matches.

A brilliant young star called Pele
Came to Sweden the World Cup to play
And at just seventeen
Led Brazil's winning team
To the first overseas Jules Rimet

Brazil had already won the hearts of the home nation with their off-field friendliness and now they celebrated by parading a Swedish flag around the pitch. They also received the congratulations of King Gustav IV, royal approval for a victory sealed by a tearful teenager they would soon also call 'The King'.

Heroes and Villains

Heroes: Wales

The heroes of the 1958 World Cup are Wales, a rookie team who have thus far not achieved a second World Cup finals appearance. Their 1958 campaign was a great effort and represents significant over-achievement.

Drawn in a group with Sweden, Hungary and Mexico, Wales finished level on points with Hungary and came from a goal down at half time to beat them 2-1 in a play off to reach the quarter-finals.

Their reward for getting there was to be pitched against Brazil, and this without their best player, John Charles, at the time the centre forward for Juventus. Tottenham left back, Mel Hopkins somehow managed to keep Garrincha quiet and Arsenal goalkeeper, Jack Kelsey held everything. Interviewed after the match he claimed that his secret was chewing gum which he rubbed on to his hands!

Pele scored a deflected goal, the only goal of the game, after 66 minutes, a goal he has often described as the most important he ever scored. It was his first World Cup goal and still remains a record for the youngest goal scorer.

In the moderm era, this effort would surely convey the nickname "Plucky Little Wales".

Villain: Just Fontaine

Just Fontaine may be a surprising choice for villain of the 1958 World Cup; after all, he did score 13 goals. It is not that he scored a lot of goals, indeed a record for a single tournament, but the fact that 4 of these were scored in the meaningless third place match between France and West Germany, a dead rubber match. The goals from this game have skewed the scoring record book and really, in my opinion, such matches ought not to count towards World Cup records. I would rather he was recorded as top scorer with 9 meaningful goals, still a tremendous achievement, but a statistic still within the realms of normality for the winner of the Golden Shoe.

It is not really his fault, but Just Fontaine therefore is tagged as the villain of the 1958 World Cup.


1958 lacks the glaring controversies of some other World Cups. The nearest was perhaps seen in the Sweden v West Germany semi-final, when national fervour in the pumped-up crowd flowed through to the players, resulted in a vicious encounter.

Cheerleaders were sent on to the pitch to stir up the crowd before kickoff, and indeed maintained a chorus of support at pitch-side throughout the match, contrary to the practice of previous matches. The match reached boiling point and German player Erich Juskowiak was sent off (the first ever German player to be sent off in an international game) and German team captain Fritz Walter was carried off injured following a horrendous yet unpunished tackle from a Swedish defender, which effectively put West Germany down to nine men.

It is hard to say whether the result of the match was altered by the atmosphere, but certainly West Germany did not take the defeat well.

Quick Facts

  • Teams: 16
  • When: 08 June 1958 to 29 June 1958
  • Matches: 35
  • Goals Scored: 126 (average 3.6 per match)
  • Attendance: 819,810 (average 23,423)

Verdict: Good, Bad or Ugly?

It was a good but slightly anaemic World Cup. Brazil, especially Pele, played with great flair but were so far ahead of the rest that it does not feel like a proper contest. The Swedes proved to be good hosts albeit with a element of anti-German sentiment.

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