McParland: I was only a goal behind Pele at Sweden 1958

  • Peter McParland finished Sweden 1958 one goal behind Pele

  • Part of the inspiring Northern Ireland side that reached knockout stages

  • Talks scoring a brace against the reigning champions, Pele, Just Fontaine and more

The 1958 FIFA World Cup™ is synonymous with Just Fontaine’s record 13-goal haul, a 17-year-old Pele announcing himself to the world and Brazil claiming their first-ever world title. But often overlooked is the story of minnows Northern Ireland, who after pipping giants Italy and Portugal to a place at Sweden 1958, became the then-smallest country to qualify for a World Cup - and where they continued to defy the odds.

Nobody expected much from Peter Doherty’s charges. Paired alongside heavyweights Czechoslovakia, then-South American kings Argentina and reigning world champions West Germany in the group stages, you could have been forgiven for thinking the Ulstermen would simply be making up the numbers. They instead exceeded all expectations, eventually reaching the quarter-finals, where they would come up against Just Fontaine’s France and stand 90 minutes away from facing Garrincha’s Brazil.

Among the leading scorers at that tournament was Northern Ireland’s Peter McParland, who finished Sweden 1958 behind silver boot winners Pele and Helmut Rahn with five goals. After attending a recent showing of the ‘Spirit of '58’, a documentary film depicting Northern Ireland’s World Cup journey, caught up with the former Aston Villa star to talk upsetting the odds, hearing early whispers about a young whizz kid named Pele, scoring twice against reigning champions West Germany and more. Peter, if we can take you back to 1958 World Cup qualification, it was a big upset to pip Italy and Portugal to a place at the tournament – it was the first time Italy failed to qualify for a World Cup. What are your memories of that campaign?

Peter McParland: Qualification for Northern Ireland used to be the British Championship which wasn’t great for Wales and ourselves as it was usually Scotland and England that won it. But the qualification process for Sweden '58 was different; we could now face other European teams. At first we thought: ‘Perfect, we want to go to the World Cup and this is a good chance.’ But we ended up drawing Portugal and Italy, which wasn’t helpful at all! It was a very tough assignment. In the end, we faced Italy in a play-off for a place at Sweden. We were well experienced by then as a team and we felt we could do the job against the Italians, which we did. I’ve always had that on that on my CV, telling people Northern Ireland were the first team to stop Italy from qualifying for a World Cup.

Northern Ireland's outside-left Peter McParland

How did it feel to reach the World Cup with Northern Ireland for the first time?

It was a new experience for us, facing the top 15 teams in the world. It felt like a new adventure. After we had qualified, we were all looking forward to it and then we had a situation with the Lord’s Day Observance people in Northern Ireland. Some of our games at the World Cup were scheduled on a Sunday and back then in Northern Ireland, it was a big thing that you didn’t play football on that day. Not long after we qualified, we all got letters from the group that were anti-football on the Sabbath and it was signed by some of the country’s leading political figures. But this was the chance of a lifetime, to go to the World Cup, and all the lads felt the same. It was an opportunity we weren’t going to give up.

You had a very tough qualifying group and then an even bigger task at the tournament itself to get out of a group consisting of giants Czechoslovakia, South American champions Argentina and 1954 winners West Germany…

The Czechs were dark horses to win the tournament and that team got to the final in 1962 with the same players, so to beat them was a great achievement. Argentina were one of the favourites to win that World Cup and while we knew they were South American champions, we didn’t know a great deal about their team. We knew all the Germans, of course. A number of their 1954-winning side were there. I scored twice in the 2-2 draw against them and also hit the crossbar – so I could have had a hat-trick against the reigning world champions. It was a fantastic achievement for a country our size to get out of that group.

Northern Ireland at Sweden 1958

The 1958 World Cup is associated with a 17-year-old Pele. What did you hear of him when you were in Sweden?

We hadn’t heard of Pele before the tournament started. It wasn’t until one of Brazil’s strikers got injured that Pele came in and got a goal ­­­– and he obviously followed up with a few more after that. It was then that he really came to the fore and showed all the great gifts that he had and how fantastic he was despite being a young lad. He got six goals at the tournament and I got five – and I can always say that I was only a goal behind Pele at the first tournament. Once we got France in the quarter-finals, our manager Peter Doherty said: ‘Let’s get this French team out of the way and then we’ll play the circus team in the semi-final.’ He called the Brazilians ‘circus boys’ because of the way they juggled the ball about and the great skills and tricks they could do. Some circus team they were!

In the scoring charts of that World Cup, you finished in the top five. Just Fontaine was the eventual golden boot winner, what was it like to come up against him in the quarter-finals?

Just Fontaine and I had scored five goals each going into that quarter-final and we were the leading scorers in the competition. We didn’t know too much about Fontaine before the tournament. We knew the French had a brilliant side and we were very aware of players like Raymond Kopa and Jean Vincent and the great defenders they had. The regrettable thing for us was that the French had five days’ rest before the match and we were playing just two days after our last game. We were also travelling by bus and train for fair distances, if somebody had said that we could fly to these games because of the long journeys it would have helped. I think we also would have had a better chance against the French if we would have had our feet up for five days before the game and a lot of the players feel the same way about that.