World Cup Archives—Part II: From Capoeira Disappointment to the Emergence of Pele (Brazil 1950 to Sweden 1958)

As the 2014 World Cup draws increasingly closer to kick-off, Melosport continues to round-up the best of the archives across a seven-part series


Following the humanitarian devastation inflicted by the Second World War (1939-1945), sport understandably took a back seat during the majority of the 1940s.

When FIFA eventually decided to continue with the World Cup, South America was the logical candidate given the previous two World Cups were hosted in Europe. Brazil won the right to host the 1950 tournament following the country’s uncontested application.

1950 Brazil World Cup

Official Uruguay 1950 poster

Official Uruguay 1950 poster

After being kept out of harm’s way during the war (under a bed), the World Cup silverware was officially christened the Jules Rimet trophy for the 1950 tournament—coinciding with the Frenchman’s 25-year tenure as FIFA president.

The stern political fallout following the war meant numerous teams withdrew from entering the competition, such as those behind the Iron Curtain. Previous tournament finalists Hungary and Czechoslovakia decided not to compete, whilst Argentina were one of four Latin American absentees following conflicts with the Brazilian Football Confederation.

This left 13 teams to contest the finals. The format imitated the inaugural tournament with group stages as opposed to knock-out rounds. The winners of the group would then proceed to a final group, and so the World Cup winner would be determined via a round-robin format.

This benefited the Brazilian economy as additional matches meant increased revenue, which would in theory cover the significant expense of constructing the magnificent Maracana stadium.

Maracana stadium 1950

Maracana stadium 1950

Holders Italy were reluctant to defend their crown following the Superga air disaster—eight Azzurri players and almost the entire Torino squad, who had won four consecutive post-war Serie A titles, lost their lives in 1949. After pressure, they proceeded to play and were eliminated during the group stage.

England ended their self-imposed FIFA exile to make their long-awaited World Cup debut. An exhibition match earlier in the year where Great Britain beat a Rest of Europe side 6-1, meant the English swaggered to Brazil with the belief that the competition would be a walk in a park.

The Three Lions‘ campaign started well enough, courtesy of a 2-0 win over Chile. But soon after they suffered a calamity of epic proportions by losing 1-0 to a USA side full of amateur players. American player Harry Keogh, who thwarted England’s attackers during the match, said;

“We thought they [England] were the best team in the world, we all did.”

The result was such a shock that when the UK press reported the match, readers assumed there had been a misprint, with the correct scoreline being 10-1. Another loss in the group (to Spain) compounded England’s humiliation of being eliminated at the first hurdle.

England lose 1-0 to USA at the 1950 World Cup

England lose 1-0 to USA at the 1950 World Cup

Elsewhere, Capoeira fever was in the air as the abolishment of Brazilian slavery meant former slaves had transformed themselves into star footballers—displaying incredible levels of skills and technique.

It made South America’s largest country proud of their racial mix, proving that sport could provide a catalyst for unity following a truly dark period when mankind was close to destroying its very own existence.

Upon winning their group, the Seleção were joined in the final four by the three other group winners—Spain, Sweden and 1930 winners Uruguay.

After dispatching Sweden and Spain 7-1 and 6-1 respectively in their first two group games, the momentum was firmly with Brazil. A draw would be enough against southern neighbours Uruguay for the host nation to be crowned world champions.

The reported attendance of the 1950 World Cup final was just shy of 200,000

The reported attendance of the 1950 World Cup final was just shy of 200,000

Approximately 200,000 fans crammed into the newly built Maracana, primed to see a landmark victory.

The match initially played out according to the script as Friaca scored the hosts’ 22nd goal of the tournament. With only four goals conceded in their previous five games, many thought Brazil’s defence would hold firm and therefore both game and the destination of the Jules Rimet trophy was a foregone conclusion.

That said Alcides Ghiggia, Uruguay’s winger, had other plans. The man labelled as El Fantasma (The Ghost) took centre stage and became Brazil’s chief tormentor by assisting one goal and then scoring the winner.

Uruguay beat Brazil

Uruguay beat Brazil

A joyous and carnival atmosphere quickly turned to dismay amid the Maracana. Jules Rimet who, along with the rest of the world, had preempted a Brazilian victory was dumbfounded since his congratulatory speech had already been written in Portuguese.

The locals could not comprehend the defeat and after the match there was a reported suicide, plus three additional deaths due to cardiac arrests.

The match was labelled the Maracanazo (disaster of the Maracana) and just as football had united a nation until that point, Brazil regressed, even from a racism perspective.

Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues compared the 1950 World Cup final defeat to the atomic bombing of Japan to end the Second World War:

“Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat to Uruguay in 1950.”

On 13th July 2014, some 64 years later, the World Cup final will return to the Maracana. Brazil will be hoping for another World Cup final appearance but a different outcome.

To Uruguay’s huge credit, the 1950 competition meant two World Cups entered and two World Cups won.

Key Facts

  • Teams: 13
  • Winner: Uruguay
  • Runner-up: Brazil
  • Goals: 88 in 22 games (average 4.0 per match)
  • Golden Boot:  Ademir (Brazil)—8 goals (from 6 matches)


1954 Switzerland World Cup

Official 1954 World Cup poster

Official 1954 World Cup poster

FIFA elected neutrals Switzerland to host Europe’s first post-war World Cup in 1954.

Scotland, Turkey and South Korea all made their World Cup debuts, while defending champions Uruguay embarked on their maiden voyage to a European hosted World Cup. Heavyweights Argentina abstained for a third successive tournament.

The competition manifested an intriguing format which has never been replicated to date.

As per 1950 there were groups of four teams. Each would contain two seeds and two non-seeds. The seeds would only play the non-seeds, resulting in two matches per country and extra-time was played if the scores were level after 90 minutes.

In instances where the top two teams finished level on points, the drawing of lots would determine the group winner. However, in the scenario of second and third place being tied on points, a play-off match would be contested—an occurrence in two of the four groups.

FIFA’s unique decisions didn’t end there. The group winners then had to play each other in the quarter-finals, with the group runners-up repeating the feat to determine the semi-finalists.

Hungary were strong favourites to win the 1954 World Cup, having amassed a formidable record of 23 wins and four draws during the preceding four years.

This sequence of results included the 1952 Olympic title and the famous 6-3 victory at Wembley—the Magical Magyars became the first foreign team to beat England at home. England travelled to Budapest for a rematch shortly before the 1954 World Cup and were promptly handed another hammering, this time 7-1.

As per Austria in the 1930s, the Hungarians played an innovative brand of effortless attacking football. The Galloping Major, Ferenc Puskas, pulled the strings with his fearsome left foot and he would go on to become of the world’s best-ever players. An annual FIFA award has been named in his honour for the best goal scored.

In 1954, as favourites, they swept aside the non-seeds in their group—beating South Korea 7-1 and West Germany 8-3 to top the group. The Germans rested several first-team players to focus all their efforts in winning their crunch play-off match against Turkey (who they had already beaten 4-1 in their earlier group match).

Despite the comprehensive 8-3 defeat, the most influential kick of the World Cup may have occurred when Werner Liebrich launched a savage assault on Puskas, which ruled out the star playmaker for the majority of the tournament. In contrast, the Germans beat Turkey 7-2 in the play-off, with Max Morlock scoring a hat-trick.

Hungary's bad tempered quarter-final against Brazil became known as the Battle of Bern

Hungary’s bad-tempered quarter-final against Brazil became known as the Battle of Bern

In the quarter-finals, a Puskas-less Hungary took on a work-in-progress Brazilian outfit, still scarred from their World Cup final defeat four years previously. What appeared on paper as a seemingly beautiful encounter firmly remained a hypothesis, as the “Battle of Bern” materialised.

The World Cup’s eventual golden boot winner Sandor Kocsis scored twice in a 4-2 Hungarian victory but the match was remembered for three players being sent-off, plus the bottling of Brazilian centre-half Pinheiro during the post-match brawl which spilled into the changing rooms and outside the ground.

Elsewhere, Austria and Switzerland played out the highest scoring match in World Cup history as the hosts were edged out 7-5 by their Alpine neighbours. Defending champions Uruguay kept one hand on their trophy after beating England 4-2.

In the semi-final Los Charrúas took Hunagry into extra-time before they finally succumbed to the Magical Magyars.

Puskas' injury was a blow to Hungary

Puskas’ injury was a blow to Hungary

Despite Puskas still being injured, he started the final where his country would face group opponents West Germany. Rather stereotypically, even back then, the Germans led in terms of innovative technology as Adi Dasler (the owner of Adidas) provided football boots with interchangeable studs—an advantage given the wet weather.

Herbert Zimmermann, the German radio commentator did his best to dampen German expectations before the match:

“Let’s not be so presumptuous to expect it to end successfully.”

Despite the Galloping Major scoring the first goal and helping his side race into an early 2-0 lead, the Germans displayed their later-on notorious resilience with goals from Morlock and Helmut Rahn to shock the world and give Germany its maiden World Cup victory. The final later became known as the “Miracle of Bern” despite tales of German players’ doping.

West Germany celebrate beating Hungary in 1954

West Germany celebrate beating Hungary in 1954

Key Facts

  • Teams: 16
  • Winner: West Germany
  • Runner-up: Hungary
  • Goals: 140 in 26 games (average 5.4 per match)
  • Golden Boot: Sandor Kocsis (Hungary)—11 goals (from 5 matches)

The mid-1950s signalled a changing of the guard in international football. Hungary’s all-stars, so dominant during the early 1950s (with one defeat in six years), diminished following their country’s plight in falling behind the Iron Curtain.

By contrast Brazil were about to announce themselves on the world stage with 17-year-old Edson Arantes Do Nascimento as their most potent weapon.


1958 Sweden World Cup

1958 Official World Cup poster

1958 Official World Cup poster

Sweden were unopposed candidates to host the 1958 tournament and therefore their selection was a straightforward one.

All four United Kingdom nations were present in 1958—England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. In the case of the latter, 1958 was their sole World Cup appearance to date.

The USSR also competed in its first World Cup and Argentina finally ended its ostracism to qualify for the first time since 1934. Italy failed to qualify for the only time in the Azzurri’s history.

The tournament’s format adopted a simple four-team group round-robin arrangement. Play-offs to determine a victor between second and third place remained consistent with 1954.

As per Adi Dasler’s boots in 1954 there was a significant technological landmark in 1958, where one match per round was televised and relayed across Europe by the European Broadcasting Union.

Defending champions West Germany finished top of their group—unbeaten with two draws and a win. France also finished top of their group with Just Fontaine netting half a dozen goals.

Wales squad 1958

Wales squad 1958

With the legendary John Charles in their ranks, Wales negotiated the group stage undefeated, amassing three consecutive draws. The Welsh prevailed 2-1 in a play-off against a depleted Hungary to reach the quarter-finals.

England, under strength following the Munich air disaster, played their part in creating World Cup history alongside Brazil—the first scoreless draw in its history. Three draws were not enough for England to progress but Brazil topped the group with 17-year-old Pele on the verge of bursting onto the world scene.

Pele playing in the 1958 World Cup final

Pele playing in the 1958 World Cup final

The youngster made his World Cup debut in the quarter-final against Wales, scoring the winner in a narrow 1-0 win and a semi-final against free-scoring France ensued.

Fontaine had added a brace in Les Bleus’ 4-0 quarter-final victory over Northern Ireland and as such the semi-final between the two nations was billed as Fontaine versus Pele. The latter rose to the challenge as he outscored his rival three to one.

Fontaine may have missed out on a final but he would go on to score another four goals in the third-place play-off against holders Germany to amass an unprecedented 13 goals at the finals of a World Cup.

Fontaine scored an unprecedented 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup finals

France’s Just Fontaine scored an unprecedented 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup finals

Pele’s impact in 1958 made a mockery of a psychologist who deemed the youngster too immature to play in the World Cup. The assessment drew a famous response from Brazil’s coach Vicente Feola: 

“You may be right. But you know nothing about football and I’ve seen Pele play.”

Feola’s faith was further strengthened in the final against hosts Sweden. Pele the legend was born as he displayed sublime skills to score a goal of beauty giving the Brazilians a 3-1 lead. By full-time he had added another as Brazil closed out the match 5-2 to win their first World Cup and in the process became the only non-European team to be crowned World Champions in Europe.

Key Facts

  • Teams: 16
  • Winner: Brazil
  • Runner-up: Sweden
  • Goals: 126 in 35 games (average 3.6 per match)
  • Golden Boot:  Just Fontaine (France)—13 goals (from 6 matches)



– World Cup Archives Part I—Launching one of the World’s Greatest Sporting Dynasties to the Brink of War (Uruguay 1930 to France 1938)

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