No matter what players are in the squad, what manager is in the dugout or how they performed leading up to the finals, England are always considered one of the main players in a World Cup. Despite being lacklustre for the majority of campaigns in the last 50-odd years, they are always placed in the ‘big boys’ bracket. But why?
When you think of all of international football’s powerhouses – the likes of Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Italy and France – they’ve all won the World Cup (with the exception of perhaps Holland). Of course, there’s also a star above the three lions. And considering that since becoming world champions in 1966, England have barely scraped past the quarter finals and sometimes they’ve not even qualified at all, but they’re still considered one of the top dogs because of that single World Cup win. And that will never change. It’s etched in history.
But prior to that World Cup win, England were considered just another irrelevant football team like Sweden, Croatia and Scotland. In fact it wasn’t until twenty years after the first World Cup was staged, that England would finally take part. They didn’t apply for the first three tournaments due to boycotting FIFA in a disagreement over financial irregularities (perish the thought), and this would be the first World Cup since 1938 that was held, due to World War II. But England qualified for Brazil 1950 by winning the British Home Championship – which had doubled as a qualification group.
England, led by Walter Winterbottom, were one of the tournament favourites, and were drawn in Group 2, alongside Spain, Chile and the United States of America. The Maracana played host to the three lions’ first ever game in the World Cup finals, which ended in a 2-0 win against Chile. But it would be wouldn’t take long to come unstuck, as they succumbed to the USA (managed by a Scot) in what is now a famous 1-0 loss.
They would need to beat Spain in the next fixture, and hope that Chile would beat the States, as well as goal-difference working in their favour. But it didn’t need to come to that, as Bilbao’s Telmo Zarra scored the only goal of the game – leaving England in 2nd place in the group, and out of the competition.
Just like 4 years previous, England qualified for the World Cup 1954 in Sweden by winning the British Home Championship. Still managed by Winterbottom, they were seeded, alongside Italy in Group 4, also featuring Belgium and hosts Switzerland. In a bizarre law of the format, the 2 seeded teams did not have to face each other, and nor did the 2 unseeded teams.
Another odd law stated that, if any group game was to finish with in a draw, then extra time would be played to try and decide on a winner. And that’s what exactly happened in the first game, against Belgium in Basel. With the score being level with 3 each at full time, extra time was played. Legendary Bolton forward scored at the start of the added period, but Belgium equalised shortly after, and a 4-4 draw was played out until the close. There were no replays set for the group stage, and penalty shootouts had not yet been invented, and so the game was declared a draw after all.
The second, and final group game would be against the hosts in Bern. A goal in each half saw England win the game, and the group – qualifying for the Quarter finals. And in another bizarre twist, all 4 group winners were drawn to face each other in the next stage, whilst the 4 group runners up would play each other in the other Quarter Final games.
England were drawn against current holders Uruguay, who had topped their group after winning both of their games – including a 7-0 thrashing of Scotland. Carlos Borges, who had scored a hat-trick against the Scots, opened the scoring after just 5 minutes. Nat Lofthouse brought the Three Lions level, but Uruguay would go into half time in the lead and Juan Schiaffino doubled that lead just after the break. Tom Finney gave England hope on 67 minutes, but Uruguay made sure of their win with 10 minutes to play, bringing the curtain down on England’s second World Cup.
1958 was the first year where England had to endure a qualifying group that wasn’t combined with the British Home Championship, in order to get to the finals. But whilst still under the management of Walter Winterbottom, England made it to Sweden quite comfortably, seeing off Ireland and Denmark. But just a few months before this tournament kicked off, the English were rocked by the Munich air disaster where Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor and David Pegg all lost their lives in the crash.
England were drawn into a strong group, alongside Brazil, who at that stage had also never won the World Cup, but were considered to be one of the strongest teams in Sweden, the Soviet Union who were reigning Olympic champions and Austria, who finished 3rd in the previous World Cup after losing in the Semi-Finals to eventual winners West Germany.
The first game took place in Gothenburg, and the Three Lions went into half time 1-0 behind to the Soviets. A lead which was double on 56 minutes. But West Brom’s Derek Kevan pulled one back on 66 minutes, before Tom Finney levelled the scoring with just 5 minutes to play, from the penalty spot – earning a well-earned draw, before going into their game against Brazil.
Brazil had beaten Austria comfortably in their opening game, and were clear favourites to beat England, however a strong resolve kept the Brazilians at bay as a 0-0 draw was played out. This would be the only game in this World Cup that Brazil did not win, as they went on to lift their first World Cup in comfortable fashion.
England went into the final group game searching for their first win in the tournament, as they took on Austria in front of just 15,800 spectators in Boras and would go into half time 1-0 down. Fulham’s John Heynes pulled things level after the break, before Alfred Korner gave the Austrians another lead. But it didn’t last long as Kevan score the equaliser in the last goal of the game – leaving England’s main group campaign without a win, but also without defeat.
Finishing 3rd in the group, England had a lifeline, as they would face the Soviet Union in a play-off game, in a replay of the group’s opener 9 days earlier, which had finished all square. But it wasn’t to be England who got the better of the second match, as a single Anatoli Llyin goal dumped England out in the group stage.
After sweeping Portugal and Luxemburg aside in the qualifying rounds, England booked a place in their 4th consecutive World Cup in 1962 in. Walter Winterbottom was still in charge, and took the three lions to South America once again – this time in Chile, where England were drawn in Group 4 alongside Hungary, Argentina and Bulgaria.
Opening their campaign against 1954 runners up Hungary, with just 7,938 spectators witnessing the fixture in Estadio El Teniente, Rancagua. The Hungarians took the lead on 17 minutes, and it wouldn’t be until the hour mark when England would find a breakthrough – Wolves’ Ron Flowers converting from the penalty spot. But the game wouldn’t remain level for long, as Hungary took the lead again, resulting in defeat.
2 days later though it would be a different story. Another Flowers penalty and a Bobby Charlton goal in the first half, followed by a Jimmy Greaves effort gave England a comfortable lead over Argentina, who did manage to pull back a consolation towards the end. A 0-0 draw against Bulgaria in the final group game saw England qualify for the quarter finals, pipping Argentina on average goals scored.
The quarter finals would see England take on Brazil, but unlike in 1958 they wouldn’t be able to keep the reigning champions at bay. A Gerry Hitchens equaliser saw the game at 1-1 at half time, but 2 second half goals resulted in England being knocked out by the eventual winners and bringing the curtain down on another World Cup campaign.
This was to be Walter Winterbottom’s last game in charge of England, as he was replaced by Alf Ramsey. And the rest is history.