When we think of the FIFA World Cup, we imagine a truly global enterprise. Nations from all corners of the globe, boasting the world’s greatest footballers, meeting every four years to determine who is the best of the best. 32 teams from five confederations were present for the most recent edition of the World Cup in Russia in 2018. It did not always used to be this way.
The inaugural World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930 and was contested by just 13 nations from Europe and the Americas. The hosts became the first World Cup champions, and the competition has been gradually growing in scale with each instalment. Fast forward to 1966 and the World Cup had expanded to include 16 nations in the finals, which were held in England for the first time. The qualification process was even more global. 72 teams from five confederations were invited to compete for a place in the World Cup proper in July 1966. But of those 72 two teams, only 51 would participate. The 1966 World Cup would become one of the most important in the competition’s history, not for the football that was played that summer, but for those nations which refused to compete at all.
Just as the World Cup continued to grow throughout the rest of the 20th century, football across the world was maturing and becoming more professionalised. The international governing body of association football, FIFA, delegates the overseeing of football across the various continents to six recognised confederations. The oldest of these confederations in COMNEBOL, or the South American Football Confederation, which was formed in 1916. The other five confederations did not begin to take shape until the mid-1950s. Next came the Asian Football Confederation in May 1954, predating its European counterpart, UEFA, by one month. The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) and the Oceania Football Confederation would be formed in the 1960s, but the confederation most important to the story of the 1966 World Cup was the Confederation of African Football (CAF), which came into existence in February 1957.
The CAF became instantly significant for becoming the first ever pan-African organisation in existence. African nationalist movements and decolonisation was just beginning to really build momentum in 1957. That year, Ghana became the first sub-Saharan nation to achieve independence. Ghana’s first president, Kwane Nkrumah, wanted to use football to help unite Africa and appointed the nation’s fist Director of Sport. Ohene Djan was given this role and was told to whatever was necessary to put African football on the map and use to sport to rouse patriotic sentiment amongst the Ghanaian population.
With independence achieved, the Gold Coast Football Association became the Ghana Football Association and Ghana and Djan’s project begun. It did not take long for the Black Stars to find continental success and worldwide recognition. Under the management of former player Charles Kumi Gyamfi, Ghana matched Spanish champions Real Madrid in a 3-3 draw in August 1962. While a team filled with talent, Ghana’s star forward was Osei Kofi, once described by England’s World Cup winner Gordon Banks as a player as good as Manchester United’s George Best. “We had the ‘Black Stars’ proper in those days,” Kofi, now a church minister, told the BBC in the Ghanaian capital, Accra. “We had the men, those who were strong and those who were intelligent.” Over the next three years, the Black Stars would win successive African Cup of Nations titles. Kofi was the joint-top goal-scorer in the ’65 tournament and scored a crucial goal in the final. The Black Stars of Ghana were now ‘The Black Stars of Africa.’
Ghana set their sights on their next target: the FIFA World Cup. While the Black Stars were dominating African football, preparations were being made for the 1966 World Cup. Plans were being made as early as January 1964, when FIFA decided that the tournament would consist of 16 teams. Ten teams from Europe (UEFA), including hosts England, four teams from South America (COMNEBOL) and one from Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF). That meant there was just one place to be fought for by teams from Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
The CAF were outraged. Ohene Djan was a member of FIFA’s executive committee by 1964 and sent a telegram to FIFA objecting to their decision. “Registering strong objection to unfair World Cup arrangement for Afro-Asian countries STOP.
“Afro-Asian countries struggling through painful expensive qualifying series for ultimate one finalist representation is pathetic and unsound STOP. At the worst, Africa should have one finalist STOP. Urgent – reconsider.”
Djan was not wrong to say the qualification process would be expensive. 21 teams were entered into the qualifiers from the African, Asian and Oceanian nations. 15 African teams would compete, with three reaching the final round to face one winner from the Asia-Oceania qualifiers. These matches would be played on a home and away basis, forcing a lot a travel for the participating nations. South Korea would eventually withdraw from the qualifiers for logistical reasons, due to the venue for the qualifiers being moved from Japan to Cambodia.
“We are not beggars,” Djan professed. “We are putting forward just and moderate demands, taking account of the huge progress made in our football.”
But the lack of representation was not the only insult to the competing African nations. Not only was the CAF significant for being the first pan-African organisation in existence, in 1960 it became the first sporting organisation to ban South Africa on the basis of the government’s apartheid policy.
With pressure from the CAF, FIFA soon suspended South Africa in 1961. But just two years later the nation was readmitted and allowed to qualify for the 1966 World Cup. To avoid a clash with another African nation, South Africa were placed in the Asian qualifying group. Dependent on their success, they could still face an African country in the final round.
“That was not acceptable and complicated things for sure,” said Fikrou Kidane – a FIFA congress attendee as an Ethiopian Delegate. So, in 1964, the CAF set out their demands: re-suspend South Africa and give Africa its own place in the tournament. Otherwise all CAF member nations would boycott the World Cup.
South Africa was once again suspended from competing, but FIFA would not balk in the CAF’s second demand. Without a qualification place of its own, Africa carried out its threat; 15 CAF nations pulled out of the World Cup.
“It was not a difficult decision,” Kidane explains, who now works an advisor to the current CAF president. “It was a matter of prestige. Most of the continent was fighting for its own independence – and CAF had to defend the interest and dignity of Africa.”
The African-Asian qualifiers were eventually contested by just two nations: North Korea and Australia. The North Koreans were the overwhelming victors, thumping Australia 9-2 over two legs. They would then go on to be the surprise package of 1966. In their debut World Cup, North Korea reached the quarter-finals, defeating former champions Italy on their route to the final eight.
The 1966 tournament is most remembered for perhaps two things – England’s first and only World Cup triumph, and the individual brilliance of Portugal’s Eusebio. This was Portugal’s first World Cup and remains their most successful. They finished third, with Eusebio finishing the tournament as top goal scorer.
The irony lies in the fact that Eusebio, and three of his Portuguese teammates, were born in Mozambique – then a colony of Portugal. Eight years earlier, Moroccan-born Just Fontaine scored a record 13 times for France at the World Cup in 1958 – a record for a single World Cup which still stands to this day. The performances of several African-born players on the international stage sent a clear message – African football was to be taken seriously.
(Above: The Portuguese national team at the 1966 World Cup. Eusebio at the centre of the bottom row.)
The 1966 World Cup had carried on as normal. England were the champions of the world, despite the fact that an entire continent had refused to compete. The Some-of-the-World Cup doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. So, just two years later, FIFA took a vote. It unanimously decided to give Africa a World Cup place of its own. The boycott had worked.
“Right from the very beginning,” explains football historian Alan Tomlinson, “this was a story about cultural politics in the post-colonial period.” Demanding to be taken seriously, not only as independent nations but also as a pan-African collective, the CAF challenged FIFA as the law-makers of world football and forced them to change. A confederation the size of the CAF threatened the hegemony of UEFA, who made concerted efforts to limit the growing influence of African nations within the FIFA Congress.
Unable to play within the laws of the game, the CAF forced the rest of the world to take notice on their own terms. “I think it [the boycott] was absolutely pivotal,” Tomlinson continues. “If FIFA had proved obstructionist about that, world football might have gone in a different direction.”
(Above: Ghana at the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals, their highest ever finish at a World Cup finals.)
Today, Africa has five places at the 32-team World Cup. Asia, who were also granted their own place in the 1968 vote, get now get four places with a chance for a fifth through an inter-confederation play-off. South Africa became the first African nation to host a World-Cup in 2010, which also meant a record six African nations competed in the tournament that year.
But for the stars of African football in the 1960s, particularly Ghana’s golden generation, there must be a tinge of regret for not getting the chance to prove themselves on the world stage. “After we had been watching the World Cup, we knew we could have done better,” said Kofi Pare, a former Ghana international to the BBC. “I think we were one of the greatest teams.
“If we had played at the World Cup, we would have gone to the final – or won it – honestly.”
Written By George Peckham
The Ghana Football Association: History
BBC: How Africa boycotted the 1966 World Cup
James D. Le Sueur (ed.), The Decolonization Reader (2003)
Peter Alegi, Chris Bolsman (eds.), Africa’s World Cup: Critical Reflections on Play, Patriotism, Spectatorship, and Space (2013)
Peter Alegi, African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game (2010)
Paul Darby, ‘Africa and the ‘World’ Cup: FIFA Politics, Eurocentrism and Resistance’, The International Journal of the History of Sport (2006)