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The most bizarre qualification for Wales in the World Cup
Sunday, 5th Jun 2022 11:00 by Keith Haynes

To some today’s world cup play off game against Ukraine is the biggest game ever, if not then in living memory, that is if you factor in the way Wales last qualified for a world cup.

From the 1958 Wales World Cup squad only three survive to this day. Firmly stamped in to Wales football history, the golden era of football for the Wales national team no doubt. However, the qualification story is possibly one of the craziest decision making ideas in FIFA history, and as for the Wales FA at the time, complete and utter shambolic logistical lunacy.

But what a story.

To understand why these two very odd play off games between Wales and Asian qualifiers Israel, yes Asian qualifiers Israel, occurred you have to look at the actual qualification matches in Wales group beforehand. Without doubt the bizarre decisions made by Wales footballing governing body regards logistics alone back then would be met with utter embarrassment today. In those days no substitutes were allowed in domestic football. So injured players would nearly always play on if they could walk or even just stand. Remember Bert Trautmann ? The rest of the world had made great strides introducing substitutes recognising the need for injured players to receive proper treatment. Wales and England just didn’t see it.

The qualification group consisted of Wales, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. The East Germans playing their first official football matches since the partitioning of Germany. The east under the control of Russia, and the west of the country under the control of, yes you guessed it, the west. This made trips to communist controlled countries mystical indeed. Wales decided to play their two away games in the communist block, as it was referred to, in one hit. It wasn’t the best of decisions when you look at what Wales actually did logistically.

Wales didn’t qualify for the 1958 World Cup as you would expect it to happen, in fact they didn’t qualify for the 1958 World Cup proper, but that’s to come in part two. Wales kicked off their group qualification with a 1-0 win at home against Czechoslovakia. A hard fought game at Ninian Park, a young Roy Vernon of Blackburn Rovers scoring the winning goal. From there those two games in the eastern bloc followed. They were a disaster for Wales. To save money the Wales FA decided to only send twelve players for the two games, believing that one replacement should cover injuries over the two game week. It was utter madness. Subs had been introduced in International football in 1954, but Wales and England didn’t cotton on until eleven years later.

Derek Tapscott received an eye injury and withdrew from the first game on the eve of the fixture. John Charles turned up so late because he couldn’t be released by his club, he was unable to train beforehand. The squad took two footballs with them, it doesn’t get much better I’m afraid, and it was no surprise that their poorly thought out logistics actually led to Wales losing the game 2-1. On top of that a couple of very odd decisions by the referee from the Soviet Union didn’t aid any chances Wales had. The ‘squad’ as it was called was down to ten fit men, and Wales actually travelled to Czechoslovakia with those ten fit men. Manager Jimmy Murphy was furious. The Wales FA actually felt that was okay. The media in Wales hammered the governing body and they reluctantly allowed two more players to travel to Czechoslovakia. Ray Daniel and Des Palmer were called up, and travelled to Prague, again ridiculous decision making would put pay to Wales qualifying for the finals. Wales lost 2-0, so after three games they had won one but lost those crucial away games in Eastern Europe. Czechoslovakia won their remaining two games winning the group on goal difference, and indeed on beating Wales 2-1 over their two games home and away.

In their final group game, Wales defeated East Germany 4–1 following a hat-trick from Swansea’s Des Palmer, and an own goal from the opposition goalkeeper warned Wales a crushing win. However, the Czech’s were top of the group, and Wales were out. So, how did Wales actually make it to the 1958 World Cup when they didn’t qualify and no play offs were scheduled ?

Incredibly Israel, Turkey, Indonesia and Sudan, had as much to do with Wales World Cup journey as our national side did itself. All were drawn in the Asia area for qualification. All four countries were drawn in a knock out qualifier, but the aforementioned countries refused to play bar Israel. Turkey refused to play Israel as they felt they should be in the European group, Indonesia were then drawn against Israel and when they refused to play, Sudan got the nod. Sudan refused to play as well, both for obvious political reasons. FIFA had a ruling that stated that any country in qualification had to play at least one game. Turkey, Indonesia and Sudan, had neither filled that obligation nor tried to, so Israel were awarded the right to progress to the finals. However, FIFA applied the same rule to Israel leaving them with four nations having not played a single game. And none could qualify, even though Israel had won the group.

We have purposely left out Egypt who also refused to even consider playing Israel at any time due to the Suez crisis just concluding. Even when Indonesia offered a solution to FIFA that they would play against Israel but on neutral ground it was refused. A quandary.

FIFA resorted to what FIFA does best and turned it in to a lottery, quite literally. They drew lots with the second placed group sides from Europe who hadn’t qualified for the World Cup included. Wales being one of the countries. Belgium were drawn out and plans were made for them to face Israel over two legs, the usual home and away format. Then Belgium decided they didn’t want to play. Without going in to it in as much depth as we could other countries then stated they didn’t want to play either. Then Wales were drawn out of an ever decreasing pot and were awarded the home and away tie against Israel. The ties would take place in 1958 on the 15th January in Israel, and the 5th February in Wales.

It’s one of those you couldn’t make it up scenarios.

So what effect did the Munich air disaster have on the Wales team ? It just adds more madness to the whole story really. Wales manager, Jimmy Murphy, was also assistant to Matt Busby at Manchester United at this time. As the Wales game against Israel in Cardiff was played on February 5th it meant he missed United’s trip to play Red Star Belgrade on the same day, so was not present on the flight that crashed in Munich a day later. Murphy went on to be credited with the resurgence of Manchester United post the air disaster taking charge of Manchester United whilst Sir Matt Busby spent a long time in convalescence.

Wales then were to play off against Israel over two legs. A full squad ( a round of applause Welsh FA ) travelled to Ramat Gan,Tel Aviv, and stayed in a hotel near by. The temperatures were around 26c, and Wales manager Murphy made the odd decision the players couldn’t use the hotel pool as he believed it would affect their strength training. Their energy would be sapped by the extreme heat. Okay, well Murphy was the manager but that seemed another very strange decision.

John Charles in action for Wales against Israel

Israeli keeper Chodoroff ends up with a broken nose and torn shoulder ligaments, no subs, he played on

That would leave the Wales squad with more time to prepare for the fixture of course, but then here was another problem. Nobody had brought any footballs to Israel for the Wales team to train with. Yes, they had landed in Israel for a World Cup play off with literally no balls. Why Wales didn’t try and purchase any balls in Israel remains a mystery to most, but Murphy decided there was no need and strength training was the only way forwards. So Wales went in to the game having not kicked a ball.

We told you it was mad didn’t we ?

Wales of course were favourites and ended up beating Israel 4-0 over the two legs. Winning 2-0 in Israel cheered on by a hundred Welsh servicemen who had flown in from Cyprus in a 55,000 crowd. Then it was 2-0 again in Wales in front of 38,000. Surprisingly after the long road it took to see Wales qualify for the World Cup that year the games themselves went pretty smoothly. The only real issue was an injury to John Charles which would resurface again in the finals in Sweden. Wales were starting to impress on the pitch and that led to a World Cup campaign that took them to the quarter finals of the competition in Sweden. The Israel game away was the first time Wales had played and won a competitive game outside of the United Kingdom.

We don’t do it easily do we ? And we probably won’t today either. But all we need is one goal and it could be 1958 all over again. In 2022.

Photographs licensed from Reuters

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