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This Time for Africa: The 1966 World Cup Boycott

Following last week’s article on the first African team at the World Cup , it seems only right to follow it by examining another momentous occasion for African football, namely England 1966.

While many football fans associate ’66 with Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet trophy, ’66 was equally as important for African teams. You might be wondering why, considering no African teams were actually part of the games. But therein lies our story this week.

1966 marks the occasion when African teams boycotted the FIFA World Cup in response to a growing schism in the FIFA house between established footballing powers and the emerging independent African Nations. The seeds of the boycott, as this article will examine, were a long time brewing.

While we have already looked at Egypt’s 1934 World Cup Campaign, it is fair to say that qualification to the World Cup for African teams was trickier than the process for European teams. From 1934 to 1966 only one African team (Egypt 1934 and 1954) had qualified for a World Cup. How big was the barrier for African teams in qualification? The answer is quite large.

During the 1958 World Cup qualification process, a FIFA rule that any qualifying team had to have played more than one match or would need to play off against a European team had a significant effect on the twelve Asian and African teams that entered qualification. In effect it meant that Afro-Asian countries would need to play European teams to have a chance of World Cup Qualification.

In response to the unfair ruling the Asian and African teams withdrew en masses, to the extent that Israel got through qualification without playing a single game, meaning that they had to play off against Wales. Wales duly dispatched Israel 4-0 over two legs to qualify for the finals.

Matters were hardly better four years later. Again the format was tinkered with, but not to the benefit of African and Asian nations as this time there were no automatic places offered to them. In response, both Egypt and Sudan withdrew. The winners of the African and Asian sections would again have to play off against European teams.

The result was predictable enough. The winners of the CAF competition, Morocco, were beaten over two legs by Spain, while AFC winners South Korea, were beaten by Yugoslavia over two legs.

It was felt however that for the 1966 tournament improvements had been made. This time both the CAF and AFC confederations were given one place between them, but the changing geo-political world meant that this was not enough.

The 1950s and early 1960s were a time when the ‘Winds of Change’ were sweeping through colonial Asia and Africa. The Second World War had weakened old colonial powers such as Great Britain and France, and both nations had been slowly giving up their empires in the decades that followed.

This of course meant a shift in relations between the colonizing nations and the newly independent nations. Questioning of old power structures emerged and football was no exception. Why should the largest and second largest continents have to play off against each other for one single place at the World Cup finals when European teams had several qualifying places? Was that fair?

We also have the issue of Apartheid in South Africa to consider, which was a point of contention between CAF and the President of FIFA, Stanley Rous. South Africa had been admitted to FIFA in 1954, but had been expelled from the CAF in 1958.

Amazingly, it took three years for FIFA to follow the CAF’s lead and suspend South Africa from FIFA in 1961 after South Africa’s failure to fulfill an ultimatum regarding anti-discrimination rules.

FIFA President at the time of the ’66 World Cup, Stanley Rous, was elected as FIFA president shortly after South Africa’s expulsion from FIFA but he was seen as a champion of South African football for reasons we will now explore.

In 1963, South Africa was readmitted to FIFA after Rous traveled to the country for the purpose of investigating football in South Africa. Rous concluded that football could disappear if South Africa were not readmitted into FIFA. Coupled with this, the South African Football Association proposed playing an all-white team for the 1966 finals and an all-black team in 1970. South Africa was duly re-admitted to FIFA. This thankfully was not the end of the matter.

At FIFA’s next annual congress lobbying from African and Asian representatives led to South Africa being suspended again yet amazingly it took another twelve years for South Africa to be expelled outright from FIFA.

Rous, oblivious perhaps to the Winds of Change, continually pressed for South Africa to be readmitted, allegedly 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 finally backed down when CAF members made it clear that they would all withdraw from FIFA at the 1966 FIFA congress in London.

It is from this background that CAF and AFC nations withdrew en masse from the 1966 tournament. The impact to say the least was extraordinary. 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 were both played in North Korea, with the home team winning 9-2 on aggregate. North Korea went on to have an incredible World Cup Run as detailed by Daire O’Driscoll’s piece earlier this month.

How then was the boycott received in Great Britain? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t covered a great deal. In July 1965, The Guardian briefly mentioned it in dispatches, stating that it was a ‘sour note’ in preparations that were otherwise going well. Despite the lack of interest in England, it is fair to say that the boycott worked. From 1970 on it was decided that there would be at least one African and one Asian nation at each World Cup tournament.

Morocco and Israel were the Afro-Asian representatives in 1970 in Mexico. While in 1974, Zaire became the first Sub-Saharan African team to qualify for the World Cup. At long last in 1978, Tunisia became the first African team to win a match at the World Cup finals, beating Mexico 3-1 at the 1978 tournament.

The boycott destabilized the FIFA presidency of Stanley Rous. The disputes over African and Asian involvement in the World Cup and the involvement in countries that supported anti-apartheid measures proved to be the fatal blows to the FIFA presidency of Stanley Rous. The confederations became more and more exasperated with FIFA’s continuing Eurocentric stance.

Joao Havelange eventually utilized the growing discontent, promising increased involvement for the Asian and African confederations in his successful bid to seize the leadership of FIFA at the organization’s 1974 congress. The Asian and African delegates seized their opportunity and Rous was pushed into retirement.

The 1966 boycott was a seminal moment in the development of the African and Asian involvement in football but also proved pivotal in shaping the leadership of FIFA.

The boycott displayed the growing importance of the Afro-Asian bloc.

So when we’re enjoying the games this summer, just remember the difficult path that African and Asian nations have had to take to gain rightful recognition at football’s largest stage.

Join me next week for the first of a two part examination of the first Sub-Saharan African team at the World Cup. It’s a story of dictatorship, foreign imports, intimidation and beautiful football. It promises to be a good one.

Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.