In Stockholm's Rasunda Stadium, 50,000 humans watched the last seconds of the final of the World Soccer Cup between Brazil and Sweden. It had been raining, and under heavy skies pools of water and churned-up patches of mud gave the players a precarious footing.
Most of the fans present, naturally, were Swedes. Now they had lost hope of winning, but they were still dazed by the display of soccer art they had been offered. The Brazilian fans were echoing the slogan which at that moment virtually their whole nation was chanting: "São João, São João, que o Brasil seja campeão [Saint John, Saint John, make Brazil champion]."
Their prayer was answered by a far-from-divine figure in a neat dark blue sweater and shorts: the referee. One hand brought his whistle to his mouth for the long, final blast, and the other swung in an arc to indicate the end of the game.
It was all over. Brazil had won its first World Soccer Cup, a 30-centimeter-high statuette of a woman which was offered in 1930 and is now the most envied trophy in the world's biggest international sport; it is arguably the most desired sporting prize in the world.
Brazil itself went wild. (On the day of the semifinals President Juscelino Kubitschek had evaded questions from 20 Pan-American ambassadors on the grounds that "Today is futebol day"; the Senate suspended session when three consecutive senators surrendered the floor to go pick up the game on the radio; a murder trial in Rio was adjourned when prosecutor, defendant and his counsel and the jurymen all rose to cheer the news sneaked into the courtroom that Brazil had scored its first goal against France; after the game, the streets of Rio and Sao Paulo were ankle-high in spent firecrackers, confetti and streams of toilet paper.) But from Vladivostok to Peru, soccer fans had been hanging on to their seats ever since the first qualifying game was played in Vienna on September 30, 1956, when the Austrian national team beat Luxembourg 7 to 0.
From that day on, for almost every month over the next year and a half, somewhere in the world national teams were fighting for the great prize. Fifty-three nations, the largest in world cup history, registered for this competition. Uruguay was the first winner in 1930, and the Italians were world champions in 1934 and 1938. Uruguay regained the title in the first postwar contest, and in 1954 West Germany upset all expert predictions by winning the coveted cup in Switzerland.
Although this championship was fought out smoothly enough, it was not without its incidents. Some national personalities, molded either by current politics or by ancient differences, were unable to overcome these prejudices.
Politics turned the Afro-Asian sector into a shambles. In Group One, Nationalist China withdrew rather than play Indonesia, which defeated Red China to take the group title. In Group Two, Turkey resigned in a huff when she was classified as Afro-Asian rather than European, thereby waiving an almost certain passage to the tournament's last 16 and leaving Israel winner of the group. Cyprus could not get together on arrangements to meet the Egyptians, to whom the Group Three title was thus relinquished without contest. Sudan beat Syria in Group Four, but neither Sudan nor Egypt would agree to play Israel. Then Indonesia could not agree on a neutral site on which to play Israel and also withdrew from the fray.
Thus Israel was technically and comically the victor in a vast section without having played a game. But the organizing committee decided no nation could join the last 16 without having at least one scalp to its belt and ordered Israel to meet one of the runners-up (Wales) in another group. Wales beat Israel and earned an unexpected trip to Stockholm.
Politics queered some of the Latin American playoffs, too. When Guatemala acquired a new president via the assassination of the old one, he suspended his team's cup play. Venezuela also withdrew, but belatedly, and was fined 5,000 Swiss francs by the organizers.