In England at least, the 1966 World Cup finals have been mythologised. To an extent, they have started to become the footballing equivalent of Arthurian legend – a set of values of Englishness that we either subscribe to or not. This is a shame, because the 1966 World Cup was a fascinating tournament and some of the most notable stories have slipped under the collective radar because of the suffocating over-presence of that “Russian” linesman, Argentinians chasing the referee around the pitch and all the other micro-stories that make up the occasionally muddied and contradictory narrative of England’s eventual win in that tournament. Amongst these is the story of a dispute that didn’t only have a direct, tangible affect on the 1966 tournament itself, but would also go on to have long-term ramifications for the entire FIFA organisation.

Egypt became the first African nation to attempt qualification for the World Cup, in 1934 and 1954. As the game’s appealed continued to grow, however, there was a growing clamour from African and Asian nations to be involved in the World Cup finals, and the Asian Football Confederation was founded in 1954, with the Confederation of African Football following in 1957. The early rules for African and Asian countries were stringent, to say the least. For the 1958 World Cup, twelve Asian and African teams entered, but a FIFA rule stating that any qualifying team had to have played more than one match or it would need to play off against a European team had a significant affect on the qualification process. There were so many withdrawals that Israel got through without playing a match, meaning that they had to play off against Wales, who beat them 4-0 over two legs to get to Sweden.

Four years later, the format was tinkered with, but this was hardly to the benefit of African and Asian nations. This time only two nations – Egypt and Sudan – withdrew, but this time there were no automatic places on offer for them. The winners of the African and Asian sections would have to play off again against European rejects, and what came to pass was as predictable as it was depressing. The winners of the CAF competition, Morocco, went out over two legs against Spain, whilst the winners of the AFC competition, South Korea, were thrashed over two legs at the hands of Yugoslavia. For the 1966 tournament, there was a slight improvement in matters, and the CAF and AFC confederations were given one place between them, but this didn’t take into account the changing world in which FIFA needed to operate.

The 1950s and early 1960s were probably a traumatic time for imperialists. With its energy and finances sucked dry by the Second World War, Britain had been slowly giving up its empire and this changed the relationship between it and its former colonies. Why should the largest and second largest continents on the planet have to play off against each other for one single, solitary place amongst the World Cup finals? In addition to this, and quite specifically, a fault line was building between the membership of the CAF and the President of FIFA, Stanley Rous. That issue was apartheid. South Africa had been admitted to FIFA in 1954, but expelled from the CAF in 1958. They were suspended from FIFA in 1961 after failing to fulfil an ultimatum regarding anti-discrimination rules, but Rous was elected as FIFA president shortly afterwards, and he was a champion of South African football.

In 1963, they were readmitted to FIFA after Rous travelled to the country to “investigate” football in the country, concluding that the game could disappear in the country if they were not readmitted and after the South African Football Association proposed playing an all-white team for the 1966 finals and an all-black team in 1970. It turned out to be short-lived. At FIFA’s next annual congress, held in Tokyo just after the Olympic Games, a greater turnout of African and Asian representatives led to South Africa being suuspended again. They were finally expelled from FIFA twelve years later. Rous, however, continued to press for them to be readmitted, to the point that he was prepared to establish a Southern African confederation so that South Africa and Rhodesia (who were themselves expelled in 1970) could compete. Rous was forced to back down after CAF members made it clear that they would all withdraw from FIFA at the 1966 FIFA congress in London.

It was against a background of such tensions that CAF and AFC nations withdrew en masse from the 1966 tournament, and the whole African/Asian qualification competition came down to a two-legged tie between the two nations that had defied the boycott – North Korea and Australia. The two matches between the teams were both paid in Phnom Penh, and North Korea won 9-2 on aggregate to guarantee their first (and until this year, only) appearance in the World Cup finals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the boycott wasn’t covered a great deal in the British press. In July 1965, The Guardian briefly mentioned it in dispatches, stating that it was a ‘sour note’ in preparations that were otherwise going well. The boycott, however, worked, and from 1970 on there would be at least one African and one Asian nation at each World Cup tournament. Morocco and Israel were the representatives in Mexico.

The North Korean team, of course, far from disgraced themselves at the tournament itself. Perhaps fortunate to be drawn to play all three of their group matches at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park, they kicked off with a 3-0 defeat at the hands of the Soviet Union. However, in their second match a goal two minutes from time scored by Pak Seung-Zin earnt them a 1-1 draw against Chile, meaning that if they could somehow beat Italy in their final group match and the Soviet Union beat Chile, they would edge through to the quarter-finals of the competition. Pak Doo-Ik’s goal three minutes from half-time was enough to beat an insipid Italian team (ironically, this match, which would go on to be one of the most talked-about in the entire tournament, was watched by the second lowest crowd of the series, with just 18,000 turning out to watch it), and in the other match the Soviet Union beat Chile to send the Koreans to a quarter-final match against Portugal at Goodison Park.

In the quarter-finals, the Korean team ran out of steam against Portugal, one of the strongest teams in the tournament, who featured in Eusebio possibly the best player in the world at that time. They rushed into a three goal lead within twenty-five minutes, but by half-time the Portuguese had already pegged them back to 2-3, and a rout in the second half saw the final score 5-3 to Portugal, who went on to play England at Wembley in the semi-finals. We will never know whether North Korea would have qualified from the African/Asian groups had they not boycotted but, if nothing else, one of the ironies of the whole affair was that the performance of the team that broke the boycott was so popular that it may just have turned heads at FIFA about how beneficial for the tournament a broader spread of competing nations could be for it.

The political machinations continued, of course. North Korea withdrew from the 1970 qualifiers over their refusal to play Israel, and Rhodesia found themselves in the AFC/OFC grouping after being expelled from CAF – they were expelled from FIFA at the 1970 congress. Tunisia would go on to become the first African team to win a match at the World Cup finals, beating Mexico 3-1 at the 1978 tournament, but Asia would have a longer wait for its next win – it wasn’t until Saudi Arabia beat Morocco and Belgium in 1994 that their confederation’s next win would come. It took, of course, until the new century before the finals themselves would come to Asia or Africa.

The disputes over African and Asian involvement in the World Cup and the involvement in countries that supported apartheid proved to be the fatal blows to the FIFA presidency of Stanley Rous, though. The confederations became more and more exasperated with FIFA’s continuing Eurocentric stance, but they needed someone that they could get behind to oust him. That man came in the form of Joao Havelange, who promised increased involvement for the Asian and African confederations with his bid to seize the leadership of FIFA at the organisation’s 1974 congress. The delegates duly obliged and Rous, a relic from another era with at best out of date and at worst just plain racist convictions over how the game should be run, was pushed into retirement. For all of the problems that Havelange’s presidency of FIFA would bring – and there would be many – the importance of change within the organisation at that time is clear.