Head like a traction engine
We've kept you waiting a week for the next installment of our What If? series. And you'll be glad we did. Here's the ever-superb Andi Thomas of Twisted Blood on a forgotten Welsh golden generation.
Sometimes, a word or phrase acquires, through association, a kind of toxicity. Though it may come from humble or well-meaning beginnings, and it may seem innocent when considered abstractly, it is failure that corrupts. So Francis Jeffers, by flopping at Arsenal, forever poisoned “fox in the box”. No chairman would dare propose that his club “live the dream”, thanks to Peter Ridsdale. The allure of Ruud Gullit’s “sexy football” was washed away during the Derby in the Rain. And, perhaps most vexed of all, the disappointed trudge from the fields of South Africa finally put paid, once and for all, to the hollow braggadocio of Adam Crozier’s “golden generation”.
Of course, the idea of a golden generation was not originally an English one. In a footballing context, it was first applied, so Wikipedia tells us, by the Portuguese media to a collection of players – Luís Figo, Sérgio Conceição, Rui Costa, João Pinto, and the rest – that were not only sublimely talented but actually productive, winning back-to-back FIFA Youth Championships in 1989 and 1991.
Almost by definition, a golden generation should be trailblazers. They should be one-offs. David Beckham and his friends represented a generation not so much golden as gilt; shinier, yes, thanks to the 1990s, which saw the rehabilitation/gentrification (as you like) of English football via the sodden glamour of the Premier League, and all the subsequent celebritarian buffoonery. But England remained fundamentally much the same as what came before, and what looks to be coming afterwards – good, but not good enough – and the teams of Sven, Schteve and Don Fabio have done nothing to change that. Contrast this with, say, the Magic Magyars, or the Danish Dynamite, or the Swedish and sadly-truncated Yugoslavian teams of the early-90s: these are teams that stand above their predecessors, the better to cast long shadows on those who follow.
And they all fell short, for one reason or another. Whether good-but-not-good-enough (Sweden, maybe Portugal), inexplicably flawed (Denmark, maybe Portugal), unlucky (Hungary, maybe Denmark and Portugal), or geopolitically shafted (Yugoslavia) each of the examples above achieved enough to be recognised as almost-great, but never quite got their hands on the big shiny lumps of silver that matter more than they really should. To this list – a list of fascinating teams made all the more alluring for the lingering what-ifs – we can add Wales, who for one tournament, in Sweden, in 1958, held their own among the best in the world.
By rights, Wales shouldn’t even have been there. Europe’s eight places went to the winning teams in groups of three, and Wales, though they beat both Czechoslovakia and East Germany at home, lost their away fixtures and finished second behind the Czechs. But elsewhere in the world, Israel had emerged as winners of a ten-team Africa and Asia pool despite having not played a single game, as one by one their opponents – Turkey, Egypt, Sudan, and Indonesia – withdrew, apparently as a result of the fallout of the 1956 Suez crisis and subsequent war between Israel and Egypt.
An unusually sensible FIFA rule dictated that no team could qualify without having played a game, and so a special two-legged playoff between Israel and a UEFA runner-up was arranged. Belgium refused, but Wales accepted, and beat an amateur (and presumably by then seriously out of practice) Israel 4-0 over two legs to progress to Sweden. As qualifications go, it wasn’t the most convincing. It might even be the least. But it’s hard to imagine anybody in Wales really gave a flying one.
None of this sounds particularly golden, true. Yet there is context, and there is gloss. Firstly, of course, there’s the size of Wales: any country of (then) around 2.5 million people, whose people generally prefer rugby anyway, and whose premier clubs were at the time in the English second division deserve a slice of luck from time to time. Secondly, there’s the opposition: this was back in the days before the world was a small place, when crossing the Iron Curtain genuinely meant hostility and strangeness.
Thirdly – and most importantly, of course – there were the personnel. Three members of the 1958 squad – Mel Hopkins, Terry Medwin, and the prolific Cliff Jones – would go on to win the Double under Bill Nicholson at Tottenham. They were joined in Sweden by Jack Kelsey, title-winning Arsenal goalkeeper, and the elegant Ivor Allchurch, named by Bobby Moore as one of the best inside-forwards he’d played against. Jimmy Murphy, assistant to Matt Busby, was manager. And at the heart of the side, alongside his more-than-averagely-talented-and-comfortably-the-best-in-any-other-family brother Mel, was John Charles, the Gentle Giant: beloved in Leeds, adored in Turin, and unquestionably one of the finest footballers ever to play the game.
(Interesting aside: the 1958 Welsh squad contained three pairs of brothers: John and Mel Charles, Ivor and Len Allchurch, and Colin and Tom Baker. Not that Tom Baker. Having decided that the research is beyond me, I’m going to assert that this is the most fraternal a World Cup squad has ever been, and wait for somebody on the internet to prove me wrong. Also along was the pleasingly-monikered Ken Leek, who presumably doubled on mascot duty.)
Wales were drawn in a Group of Perhaps Not Death But Certainly Significant Inconvenience alongside hosts and eventual losing-finalists Sweden, Mexico, and Hungary. While the 1954 runners-up were not the side they had been – managerial genius Gustav Sebes had long departed, while Ferenc Puskás was also missing, having declined, along with Sándor Kocsis and Zoltán Czibor, to return to Hungary following a Honved tour to South America – several fragments of the Aranycsapat remained, including captain József Bozsik and England's nemesis Nándor Hidegkuti.
Wales conceded early to Hungary in the first game, before John Charles equalised just before half an hour. The game finished one-all, as did the next against Mexico, Wales having taken the lead after 32 minutes only to be sucker-punched in the 89th. Two points from two games was far from great, but Hungary lost 2-0 to Sweden, leaving the Welsh in second place going into the last round of fixtures. Hungary were one point behind, with Mexico to play; Wales played the already-through Sweden, needing to match the result to be sure of qualification.
It wasn't to be. Wales drew 0-0, while Hungary put four past the hapless Mexicans. Both teams had finished on three points, and goal average and goal difference favoured the Hungarians. But this was in a time before the invention of burnout, of tiredness, and of over-playing, so FIFA rules required a replay: a straight shootout between the Hungarians and the Welsh for the right to play Brazil in the quarter-finals. Hungary took the lead through Lajos Tichy, but Wales first equalised – a beautiful, dipping twenty-five yard Ivor Allchurch volley – and then Terry Medwin gave them the lead. Wales were through, and the tournament was theirs.
Or not. For in the playoff, Hungarian boots had connected time and again with the most divine shin bone of them all, meaning that Wales faced off against Brazil without John Charles in his tripartite role of captain, totem and talisman. Wales, with Charles on the bench, lost a tight game 1-0, a deflected goal from some 17-year-old scamp called Pelé, who faded into obscurity shortly after the tournament.
Would Wales have beaten Brazil if Charles had played? Maybe. They certainly came incredibly close without him. Mel Charles recalls that they hit the woodwork several times, and it’s not hard to imagine that his brother would have given an already good team that bit extra. Would they then have gone on to win the trophy? Again, maybe. They certainly pushed Brazil closer than either France or Sweden, who both succumbed 5-2 in the semi-final and final.
Perhaps significantly, Brazil scored at least twice against every opponent they faced bar two: Wales, and everybody’s favourite imperial swine England, with whom they’d drawn 0-0 in the group stage. Without wanting to suggest that these fancy foreign types didn't like it up them, this might betoken a certain weakness to football as played in these islands.
We’ll never know, of course. But it feels like reasonable inference where a team lacking its best player pushes one of the finest sides in the history of football so close. Pelé later acknowledged the closeness of the game, and mused that, had Charles been fit, “who knows what would have happened”. No less an authority than Brian Glanville agreed:
I still say that, if he hadn't been kicked to pieces by the brutal Hungarians in the previous playoff game, Wales could have won, because all sorts of very tempting centres were coming across the goal and John wasn't there to head them in.
There’s the rub with golden generations: no matter the talent, the nature of international football means that everything needs to come together at the right time. Ask Puskás; ask Johan Cruyff. Wales found themselves having to play the biggest game of their modern international history without the services of one of the finest footballers of his or any other era. If Charles had played – or if Pelé hadn’t, perhaps – how different might football history have looked?
Because that Brazil team is perhaps the rarest of things: the golden generation that not only could but did. Didi, Garrincha, Vavá and the rest won back-to-back World Cups in 1958 and 1962, and birthed the Golden Era. They exorcised the demons of the Maracanazo, that traumatising loss on home soil to Uruguay in the last game of the 1950 competition. They notched up the first and second of the penta. They made Brazil Brazil. It’s only a shame they had to stop Wales becoming Wales! to do it.
When Mel Charles returned to Wales, there was no crowd waiting to greet the team. No hordes of autograph hunters squirrelling beyond security guards. And when he made it back to Swansea station, he was greeted by the conductor. “Have we been on holiday again?”