This article originally featured in The Football Pink fanzine issue 20.

The 1958 World Cup is still fondly remembered by the Swedish public, leaving a sporting legacy for the country and all tournaments that came after it. But did it even take place? Was it just a cruel, elaborate hoax? MARGARET BRECKNELL investigates.

The year 1966 is hardwired into any English football fan’s brain.  Realistically you have to be approaching your 60th birthday now to have any real recollection of the actual day. However, this is almost irrelevant, as we have all been brought up with images of Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick and England’s controversial third goal.  I’ve seen the clip of Hurst’s third goal featuring THAT commentary from Kenneth Wolstenholme so many times that I now half believe I actually did see it at the time.  In reality, however, I have been reliably informed that my two-year-old self was taken to look round Yeovil town centre that afternoon. There can’t have been many queues in the shops that day. You will gather that my Mum wasn’t much of a football fan.

The 1958 World Cup tournament holds a similar place in the Swedish imagination. It was the biggest sporting event Sweden had hosted in a generation. The nation had not experienced anything quite like it since 1912 when the Summer Olympics had been held in Stockholm. With a population of just seven million people at the time, Sweden was, perhaps, an unlikely venue for such a high profile event. However, it proved to be a great success, both on and off the pitch.

The country had been preparing for the tournament for eight years, after successfully lobbying to host the event at the FIFA Congress of 1950. Organising Committee Chairman, Holger Bergerus, had taken out a mortgage on his own home to fund the addition of two end stands at the national football stadium in Solna, a suburb of Stockholm. New stadia were built in the Swedish cities of Malmo and Gothenburg. The Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg has proved a particular success, as it has gone on to host a number of other high profile sporting events over the years including the final of Euro ‘92.  It has also become a major music venue. Foo Fighters front man, Dave Grohl, famously fell off the stage there and broke his leg in 2015, meaning the band had to cancel their headline slot at that year’s Glastonbury festival.

Some of the settings for the group matches in the 1958 World Cup would have been less familiar to the world’s footballing elite. Places such as the small port town of Uddevalla and Sandviken – a small town in the north of Sweden whose population was only a tad over 20,000 – found themselves playing host to the likes of Brazil, Mexico and Hungary during that memorable June.

A total of sixteen teams lined up for the tournament that began on 8th June 1958, including, from a British perspective, teams from all four home nations. This is still to date the only occasion on which all four have reached the same World Cup Finals.  It is poignant to imagine how different England’s campaign may have been had it not been for the Munich air crash that had happened just three months earlier.  As it was, England lost a play-off match for a quarter-final place to the Soviet Union.

Before it started, the host nation was little fancied to progress far in the tournament. However, the Swedes remained undefeated as they came top of what was admittedly a relatively weak Group 3.  In the quarter-final they defeated England’s conquerors, the USSR, 2-0.  That victory set up a semi-final against the 1954 World Cup winners, West Germany.

Strange to recall, Sweden’s manager at this time was a Yorkshireman called George Raynor.  He had previously enjoyed success in the role, famously leading Sweden to victory in the 1948 Olympic Games football tournament at Wembley and third place at the 1950 World Cup Finals held in Brazil.  He’d then enjoyed a stint as Head Coach at Lazio, before rather incongruously returning to England in 1956 for a brief spell in charge at Third Division South side, Coventry City.  Raynor had been asked to return to manage Sweden a year before the World Cup Finals.  A much-respected figure in Swedish football, it was hoped he would be able to revitalise the national side whose performances had disappointed since his departure for Lazio some three years previously.

Helped by the Swedish FA’s decision to allow professionals to play for the first time, Raynor’s astute tactical awareness and motivational skills regalvanised the national side.  The Swedish squad for the 1958 World Cup Finals included a number of top-class footballers who played week in, week out in Serie A.  As a former manager of Lazio, Raynor would have been well aware of the abilities of players such as AC Milan captain, Nils Liedholm, Gunnar Gren and Kurt Hamrin.

The semi-final against West Germany in Gothenburg would prove to be one of the most famous matches in Swedish football history.  At half-time the teams were level at 1-1, but shortly after the break, defender Erich Juskowiak became the first German to be sent off in an international match.  Then German captain, Fritz Walter, was injured.  As the second half wore on, the depleted German team began to tire.  Sweden were able to take full advantage of their opponents’ bad luck and sealed a famous victory with late goals from Gren and Hamrin.

Five days later on 29th June 1958 Sweden faced Brazil in the World Cup Final.  After a fairly low-key reaction to the initial stages of the tournament, interest in Sweden now reached fever pitch. This was the first ever World Cup Final to be televised live, which brought the game to the attention of a much wider audience than ever before.  No doubt, there would have been many Swedes watching who had never seen a game of football before in the same way that millions of non-football fans sat down in this country to watch the 1966 World Cup Final (with the exception of my dear old Mum, of course).

Sweden took the lead after only four minutes with an excellent strike by captain, Nils Liedholm.  Brazil were already renowned for their particular brand of entertaining football but were yet to win a World Cup. The home fans must have hoped that this early goal would demoralise the flamboyant South Americans. However, it wasn’t to be. The Brazilians took control of the game with two goals from Vava before half-time. Then in the second half a young Brazilian footballer, playing in his first World Cup at the age of just seventeen, took centre stage with a goal that is still rated one of the best in World Cup history.  Ten minutes into the second half, the youngster flicked the ball over a defender before smashing it into the net with a perfect volley. Pele had well and truly arrived on the international scene.

The final score was 5-2. Brazil had finally won the World Cup. So appreciative were the home fans of the Brazilian team that the victors did a lap of honour carrying a large Swedish flag.

In the same way as the England 1966 squad remain household names, the players from the 1958 Sweden team are still celebrated as greats of the Swedish game.  At the end of the 20th century, Nils Liedholm was voted the best Swedish player of the millennium by readers of one of the country’s leading newspapers. Liedholm also went on to enjoy a highly successful managerial career in Italy, most notably with AC Milan and AS Roma.  He was the manager of the AS Roma side which lost to Liverpool in the 1984 European Cup Final.  Kurt Hamrin is also regarded as one of Sweden’s all-time greats, enjoying – in addition to his international career – a hugely successful career in Italy’s Serie A.

As for Sweden’s successful manager, George Raynor, one of only two Englishmen to manage a national team in a World Cup Final, he returned to England in the hope of finding recognition for his managerial abilities at home. It wasn’t to be. Only months after Sweden’s heroic World Cup campaign, Raynor found himself as manager of non-league Skegness Town. Known for his forthright views, Raynor was perhaps too big a character for a high profile managerial job in England at that time. Virtually unremembered at home, he remains a celebrated and highly esteemed figure in Sweden.

Bearing in mind that the Swedish football team was not to enjoy anything like similar success again until the early 1990s, the country’s exploits in the 1958 tournament were always destined to remain part of Swedish football folklore in similar fashion to the 1966 success over here. In fact, it almost goes beyond football, for when we hark back to England’s victory in 1966, are we not also looking back to a time when the country was great, and life was better? In the same way the Swedes looked back nostalgically to 1958 as a time when they were at the centre of the world stage. So that should be the end of the article. Sweden hosted a hugely successful World Cup, very nearly won it and the main contributors have been widely lauded ever since. But actually, it’s not, for there is a remarkable postscript to this story that happened a staggering 44 years after the event.

On 29th May 2002 a half hour documentary called Konspiration 58 (Conspiracy 58 in English) was aired on Sveriges Television, Sweden’s equivalent of the BBC. In this programme an extraordinary claim is made that the 1958 World Cup in Sweden actually didn’t take place at all.  Instead, TV and radio footage of the event was faked and staged in the USA as part of a Cold War experiment by the CIA to test the effectiveness of television as a propaganda tool and its power to influence people. It is argued that Sweden did not have the technical and economic resources at the time to host such an event (clearly not taking into account Holger Bergerus, the official, who you will recall, was prepared to fork out for stadium improvements out of his own pocket!).  Viewers are introduced to a Swedish historian called Bror Jacques de Waern, who claims that for over twenty years he has looked for proof that the tournament took place, but without success.

Evidence is presented to support the claim that the TV coverage was faked.  Analysis of the pictures from Sweden’s semi-final game at the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg reveals buildings in the background that have never existed in Sweden but are actually to be found in Los Angeles. Much is made of the length of the shadows cast by the players.  It is suggested these shadows could not have possibly been produced by the position of the summer sun in Sweden but would be more in keeping with a location on America’s west coast.

Players from the 1958 Sweden squad such as Kurt Hamrin and Agne Simonsson are brought forward to dispute the claim. At one point Simonsson eloquently remarks, “Soon no one will be left who can swear that the World Cup took place here.” Lennart Johansson, who was UEFA President at the time the documentary was made in 2002, also takes part and is seen making an impassioned plea in defence of the tournament actually taking place in Sweden.

As the programme progresses, it becomes clear that the likes of Hamrin and Johansson have paid the price for speaking out in this manner. Viewers are introduced to a militant group, led by a mysterious figure called Olof Arnell. It is alleged this group has led a campaign of intimidation against players and officials who have dared to dispute the conspiracy theory. Lennart Johansson himself recounts how he has received death threats, but insists that ”While we’re alive, we who were there must document what happened”. On the other side, Arnell tries to justify his group’s unsavoury methods by arguing that those who insist on perpetuating the myth of the 1958 World Cup must be stopped.

It is fascinating to imagine how Swedish viewers must have reacted to this documentary as it progressed. Many, of course, would have discounted the conspiracy theory out of hand. Others would have been intrigued by the evidence that was presented to support the theory. After all, who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?

In any event, as the final credits rolled, a voiceover revealed that the whole documentary had, in fact, been a fake. The conspiracy theory was a hoax and, yes, breathe a sigh of relief everyone, there was no militant group waging a campaign of terror against Lennart Johannson. Indeed, Johannson and all the other contributors were in on the deception.

So, what compelled director, Johan Löfstedt, to make such an elaborate “mockumentary”?  I imagine it must have been an interesting and fun project to conceive, but there was a much more serious purpose to it than that. Löfstedt was attempting to make a point about the whole topic of conspiracy theories. In particular, he was trying to draw parallels with those people who deny that the Holocaust ever took place. Löfstedt set out to show it is possible to portray anything as never having actually happened if the “evidence” is presented in a certain way, even something as iconic as the 1958 World Cup is in Sweden.  Key to Löfstedt’s success in this project was his ability to persuade high profile figures such as Hamrin and Johansson to take part, which helped to make the programme appear somehow more credible.

Konspiration 58 is still readily available to watch, with English subtitles, on the internet, so take a look for yourself.  Once you are in on the joke, it is easy to spot that the documentary is a set-up. Nevertheless, the programme does have a strangely realistic air to it and I can understand how some viewers were fooled at the time. It also speaks volumes about the legacy of how people view propaganda during the Cold War era that a documentary about faking the 1958 World Cup becomes a plausible proposition. Frighteningly, it has proved so effective that to this day you will find internet users still prepared to discuss whether the 1958 World Cup actually took place. I find that quite scary, but who am I to judge? After all, I am the one who half believes I saw Geoff Hurst’s third goal in the 1966 World Cup Final, even though at the time I was actually in Yeovil town centre.

MARGARET BRECKNELL – @mabrecknell