The 1958 World Cup is remembered for many things. It was the tournament which featured a strong Brazil team that won its first World Cup, boasting a 17-year-old budding striker named Pelé. It was the summer when Sweden, the host nation, reached the final and represented some of the best of European football of the time. It was also the tournament where a Frenchman named Just Fontaine scored an impressive 13 goals over a span of six matches, earning a place in the record books as the highest-scoring player in a single tournament that endures to this day.
Sixty years after that World Cup and just weeks before the start of another one, it’s worth looking back at the 1958 tournament for another reason – it was the first and only time in history where all four home nations – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – participated in one competition.
It had never happened before nor since, although the expanded 2016 European Championship came the closest with England, Wales and Northern Ireland all qualifying for the finals. The story of that 1958 World Cup, and some of the surprises that came with it, had been decades in the making. The British, after all, had invented the sport. Now, for the first time in history, four of its members could shine on the world’s biggest stage. It could very well happen again in 2026 when an expanded 48-team World Cup takes place for the first time.
Not soon after Jules Rimet and FIFA established the World Cup – contested for the first time in 1930 – did a disagreement between the sport’s international governing body and the four Home Nations emerge. All four Football Associations withdrew from FIFA in 1928 over the definition of what consisted as amateur and what was referred to at the time as “broken time” payments. Most countries allowed for players to be paid as compensation for being away from their day jobs. As a result, the Home Nations didn’t take part in the first three World Cups.
Everything changed after World War Two and the 1950 World Cup, held in Brazil, a tournament remembered mostly for the United States’ shock 1-0 victory at England’s expense. Scotland should have also taken part in that tournament, qualifying after finishing runners-up in the Home International Championship. Instead, George Graham, Scotland’s FA chairman at the time, refused to budge on his earlier position that they would only play at the World Cup had the side won the championship. Despite pleas from his own players, the Scottish stayed at home.
The British Home Championship was first contested during the 1883/84 season and was the oldest international football tournament until the 1983/84 season, when it was abolished after 100 years. The first-ever match saw eventual winners Scotland defeat Ireland 5–0 in January 1884. The dates of the fixtures varied, but the bulk often took place at the end of the season.
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The rise of other international competitions, such as the World Cup and European Championship, led to a fall in prestige for the British Home Championship. Nevertheless, these new tournaments meant that the tournament took on added importance. The 1949/50 and 1953/54 championships doubled up as qualifying groups for the 1950 and ’54 World Cups, and the results of the 1966/67 and 1967/68 tournaments were used to determine who went to the second qualifying round of Euro 68.
The 1954 World Cup, held in Switzerland, saw both England and Scotland qualify for the 16-team tournament. Both teams arrived after being the top two sides – England with six points and Scotland three – in the 1953/54 British Home Championship. At the World Cup, England won their group but crashed out to Uruguay 4-2 in the quarter-finals. Scotland finished last in their group. For the Tartan Army, the lopsided 7-0 defeat to Uruguay remains one of the most embarrassing losses at any tournament.
Four years later, the stars lined up for all four Home Nations to reach the World Cup finals. The tournament again featured 16 nations, but it was the qualification process that had grown larger. As a result, UEFA organised the 27 teams into nine groups of three. The British Home Championship would no longer serve as a qualifying tournament. As a result, all four British teams had a shot at reaching the tournament proper for the first time.
That is exactly what transpired during the year-long process that started in 1956. England were placed in Group 1 along with the Republic of Ireland and Denmark. The English dominated the group, defeating Denmark 5-2 – powered by a hat trick from Manchester United’s Thomas Taylor – at home and followed that up with another five-goal performance to rout visiting Ireland 5-1.
Group 4 saw Wales paired with Czechoslovakia and East Germany. It was a manageable draw that eventually saw the Welsh finish second behind the Czechs and given another chance to qualify via a playoff against Israel. For Wales, another shot at the World Cup was fortuitous and a result of international tensions. Egypt had refused to face Israel during qualification following the military invasion of the Suez Canal. Turkey, Sudan and Indonesia took up similar positions following their decision.
With Israel facing the possibility of qualifying for the final without ever kicking a ball, FIFA had to intervene. As a result, officials decided Israel would play a runner-up from one of the UEFA groups. After Italy, Uruguay and Belgium all refused to take part in the two-legged playoff, lots were drawn that included nine nations. Wales was chosen. The team managed by Jimmy Murphy, Matt Busby’s assistant at Manchester United, jumped at the chance.
Wales had gone through qualification without the consistent appearance of John Charles after the imposing striker had just signed with Juventus and the Italian club refused to release him for international duty. Charles’ replacement, Des Palmer, tallied a hat-trick in a 4-1 home win against East Germany, however, away defeats to both East Germany and Czechoslovakia pushed the team to a second-place finish.
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Wales dominated the playoff. In Tel Aviv, they defeated Israel 2-0 thanks to goals by Len Allchurch and Dave Bowen. In the return leg, a jubilant crowd packed Ninian Park in Cardiff. Instead of a Welsh rout, the crowd was treated to a goalkeeping clinic by Israel’s Ya’akov Hodorov. He stopped nearly everything in his path, but Wales broke the deadlock in the 76th minute through Ivor Allchurch. That was followed up by a goal by Cliff Jones to end the contest and send Wales through to the World Cup.
Northern Ireland, meanwhile, were placed in Group 8 with Italy and Portugal. The underdogs going into qualification, they’d go on to shock the competition. The group got off to a raucous start. The January 1958 game between Northern Ireland and Italy, which would determine who would win the group and go through to the finals, had originally been scheduled a month earlier at Windsor Park in Belfast.
Thick fog had prevented Hungarian referee István Zolt from arriving at the stadium after his flight from London’s Heathrow Airport was delayed. The game was postponed, but nonetheless played as a friendly after a local referee named Tommy Mitchell, who possessed a “FIFA badge”, had offered to officiate.
The Italians protested, but FIFA went ahead and declared the game a friendly right before the kick off, much to the chagrin of the 40,000 spectators that had arrived at the stadium. The neutered fixture ended 2-2 – with the Italians putting in a sloppy performance – as the crowd invaded the pitch in protest. As police tried to hold them back, Northern Ireland captain Danny Blanchflower ordered his players to help the Italians reach their dressing room unharmed.
A month after the Battle of Belfast. the game that ultimately counted towards qualification resulted in Northern Ireland’s 2-1 upset of Italy, the sides meeting once again at Windsor Park. Goals by James McIlroy, a powerful midfielder nicknamed “The Brain” for his intelligence in the middle of the park, and Billy Cush helped see them through to the World Cup.
Italy’s famed oriundi – Alcides Ghiggia, Juan Alberto Schiaffino and Miquel Montuori – just weren’t good enough that day. Ghiggia, famous for his winning goal to hand Uruguay the World Cup title in 1950 against Brazil in the famed Maracanazo, was upstaged by goalkeeper Norman Uprichard.
Famed Italian sports writer Gianni Brera said about the match: “We’ve returned to year zero. Maybe we will never be able to get out of it. Out of football have come many moments to be ashamed of following the end of World War Two that a politician would be better off passing a law suppressing it.”
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In Group 9, underdogs Scotland were drawn alongside talented sides in Spain and Switzerland. Again, some shock results ensued as Scotland defeated Spain 4-2 in Glasgow in May 1957 thanks to a hat-trick from Blackpool striker John Knight Mudie. Six months later, a 3-2 win against Switzerland thanks to a winning goal from Rangers winger Alex Scott with 20 minutes left helped them win the group.
At the World Cup, Northern Ireland were placed in Group 1 with defending champion West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Argentina. Scotland were in Group 2 with France, Yugoslavia and Paraguay. Wales was placed in Group 3 alongside Sweden, Hungary and Wales, while England, the strongest of the four, had the toughest first round after being placed in Group 4 with Brazil, the Soviet Union and Austria.
While England and Scotland were favourites to advance, the surprise results of qualification spilled over into the tournament proper. It was Northern Ireland and Wales who would reach the knockout stage, with England and Scotland going home early.
Group 2 saw the largest number of goals scored in a single group at that tournament – 31 in total for an average of 5.16 per game – as France’s Just Fontaine scored six. One of those goals, the winner, came against Scotland in the third game. Coming off a 1-1 result against Yugoslavia in their opener and a 3-2 loss to Paraguay, Scotland were already out of the tournament at that point. Fontaine’s goal was the coda to what had been a poor tournament for interim manager Dawson Walker.
While France and Yugoslavia would advance in that order, Scotland’s woes had arrived after Walker was put in charge following the Munich Air Disaster, which had left Busby seriously injured. “Of course, when the awful news came you felt first for the families of those poor lads and for Matt who wasn’t expected to survive, but you couldn’t help thinking what effect such a tragedy would have on the England team,” said Bill Nicholson, who assisted England manager Walter Winterbottom at the 1958 World Cup, in 1998.
In Group 4, Brazil were considered the favourites to advance along with the Soviets, the defending Olympic gold medalists. England, weakened by the loss of several of Busby’s Babes, came into the tournament far from at their best.
In the opener, England held the USSR – playing in their first World Cup – to a thrilling 2-2 draw, the equaliser coming via a Tom Finney penalty with five minutes remaining.
After a 0-0 draw with Brazil – the first time a game had ended goalless in World Cup history – England were still alive going into their final group game against Austria, the third-place finishers at the finals four years earlier in Switzerland.
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England’s 2-2 draw against Austria, coupled with Brazil’s 2-0 victory against the USSR, left both the Three Lions and Soviets tied on points (three), goals for (four) and goals against (four). A playoff was called for 17 June, with players on both sides on just two day’s rest, to be played in Gothenburg, and the winner would advance to the quarter-finals. The Soviets defeated England 1-0 thanks to a 68th-minute goal by Anatoli Ilyin and some heroic Lev Yashin goalkeeping.
While Scotland and England flew home early, Wales and Northern Ireland became two of the tournament’s surprise sides. In Group 1, Northern Ireland would finish second after pulling off one of the biggest upsets in tournament history by defeating Czechoslovakia 2-1 in extra time in a one-game playoff. To get there, they had defeated Czechoslovakia 1-0 in group play and held West Germany to a surprise 2-2 draw. Two goals from Peter McParland – including what turned out to be the winning strike in the 97th minute – saw Northern Ireland through to the quarter-finals and a date with France.
In Group 3, Wales had to contend with hosts Sweden. That game ended goalless, a result that, coupled with a pair of 1-1 results against Hungary, runners-up four years earlier, pushed Wales into a one-game playoff. Against a Hungary side that had lost some of its best players following the country’s revolution two years earlier, Wales won 2-1. John Charles wrote about the match in his autobiography: “They kicked the hell out of me. My legs were black from the pummeling they had taken.”
The victory put Wales in the quarter-finals, where they would face the might of Brazil. The winner against Hungary was incidentally the last goal by a Welsh player in the finals of a major tournament until Gareth Bale scored against Slovakia in the opening match of Euro 2016.
Wales and Northern Ireland’s fantastic runs ended in the quarters. France demolished Northern Ireland 4-0, with Fonraine scoring two. “In years to come, when we reflect with the judgement and enchantment that distance lends to these things, we may marvel at the almost impossible feats we achieved,” Blanchflower observed in the documentary Spirit of ’58 released in 2015.
Wales, without the injured Charles in the line-up, kept it close against Brazil, but a blast from Pelé for his first World Cup goal – the one that would announce his arrival on the grandest stage – midway through the second half gave O Seleção a 1-0 win and marked the end of the Home Nations’ odyssey in Sweden.
Despite their unusual routes, both Northern Ireland and Wales made British football proud that year. With the 2026 World Cup only eight short years away, it’s a feat that we may witness again – something many thought highly unlikely just a few years ago.
By Clemente Lisi @ClementeLisi