The 1958 World Cup in Sweden was by far the most representative finals tournament to date. Forty six of the original entries played 89 qualifying games and for the first time no nation, other than hosts and holders, received a bye to the finals.
But no one, on reflection, really cares about that. What every proper football fan on the planet knows, even those not old enough to remember but with the ability to read, that was the stage on which a 17 year old announced himself to the world, in some style. It’s a good job the fashion for players’ names being emblazoned on the backs of their shirts was not the way things were in 1958 and also a good thing the youngster’s nickname was Pelé, just imagine Edson Arantes do Nascimento up one side of the shirt, across his broad shoulders and down the other side.
Pelé made his Brazil début just a year earlier, a year after his club début with Santos. But it was on the biggest stage of all he started the meteoric rise to a level beyond any player who came after, even the magician Messi.
All four home nations were there in Sweden, England despite the tragedy of Munich just a few months earlier and the loss of England players Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor and David Pegg. Wales were the best home performers and reached the quarter-finals where, hindered by the colossal loss of the injured John Charles, they lost 1-0 to Brazil and, of course Pelé was the goalscorer, to set up a semi-final against France, for whom Just Fontaine set a new finals scoring record of 13 goals by the time he netted four goals to clinch third place against West Germany. The Germans – defending champions, lost their semi 3-1 to the surprise team of the tournament, hosts Sweden, an ageing team most of whom played in Italy and were encouraged by fierce home support.
The second semi-final belonged to Brazil and their new talisman, Pelé. It has to be said that a key moment in that semi, when the score was still 1-1, was when France lost a key defender in Robert Jonquet, after a clash with Vava. Jonquet was left hobbling for the final hour of the game and the French were effectively playing with ten men. Didi and Vava both scored but it was the hat-trick from Pele that stole the headlines.
Brazil faced hosts Sweden in the Stockholm final and all eyes were on the 17 year old who had already hit four goals in his previous two games. The youngster did not disappoint though it was Sweden who scored first when 36 year old Nils Liedholm pounced after just four minutes. That goal meant the Swede became the oldest player to score in a World Cup Final. Brazil were level inside three minutes through Vava who then made it 2-1 to the South Americans. Pelé and Zagalo then made it 4-1 before Simonsson pulled one back for the hosts. But the last word was from Pelé. He made it 5-2 and a legend was born.