The World Cup in Brazil goes on with that now all too familiar lack of Welsh representation. While 1958 was, of course, the only time the Red Dragons qualified for the finals tournament, there had been Welsh involvement as early 1950, the last time the tournament was held in Brazil. In fact, Wales had a presence at six of the eight World Cups between Brazil 1950 and the 1978 tournament in Argentina.
Mervyn ‘Sandy’ Griffiths was born in the South Wales Valleys’ town of Abertillery in 1909. He became a Football League referee just as WWII was beginning and four years after the conflict ended, he refereed his first international, a Home Championship game between England and Scotland. A year later, FIFA named him among the match officials for the first World Cup to take place since 1938. He began with the hosts against Yugoslavia in the celebrated Maracana. Yugoslavia began with only ten players after Griffiths had denied their request to delay kick-off for one of their injured star players to receive treatment. While he- Rajko Mitic- was still getting attention, eventual top-scorer Ademir scored the opening goal and the Brazilians went on to win 2-0.
The tournament was organised as a series of Round Robins; four groups, with the quartet of winners progressing to a second group stage to decide the champions. In the first round, withdrawals left Uruguay in a two-team group with just Bolivia, meaning they had played just one previous game before Griffiths took charge of their first final round match against Spain. In his World Cup anthology The Story of the World Cup, Brian Glanville describes the match as ‘a rough game, full of Spanish temper, but kept under control and saved as an admirable match by the refereeing of Mervyn Griffiths.” Alcides Ghiggia, who would break Brazilian hearts in the ‘final,’ scored the opener in a 2-2 draw.
Before being once again selected by FIFA four years laters, Griffiths took charge of the 1953 FA Cup Final, the first time a Welshman refereed the English game’s showpiece finale. ’53 has gone down as probably the most famous of all in the world’s oldest cup competition. Stan Mortensen scored a hat-trick and Bill Perry got the late winner for Blackpool, but the game has become known as the ‘Matthews Final’ for the brilliant performance of 43-year old Stanley Matthews.
The following year, Switzerland were hosts for the fifth World Cup tournament and it was a busy one for Griffiths, refereeing three games. First, was a 1-0 win for Yugoslavia against France, followed a week later by a 2-1 victory for the hosts over neighbouring Italy. Finally, Griffiths took charge of the semi-final between Hungary and Uruguay. Hungary were favourites, but needed an extra-time brace from Sandor Kocsis to seal their place in the final, the first time the Uruguayans were ever beaten at a World Cup.
The Welshman was still, however, to have a great influence on the final that has become known as the ‘Miracle of Berne.’ Put ‘Mervyn Griffiths’ into a search engine (let’s say, Google) and the first three results are three wikipedia entries; one in English, one German, and one Hungarian, based chiefly on the events of this match. Englishman William Ling was the man in the middle for the Final, but Griffiths joined the Italian Vincenzo Orlandini as one of Ling’s two assistants. Griffiths had played the same role when the two teams met in the group stage, with Hungary winning 8-3. Kocsis and Hidegukti were among the scorers, but Puskas picked up an injury that ruled him out for much of the tournament.
Hungary were strong favourites. The eight goals scored in the first meeting were part of a total of 25 in the run to the final, while the victory had been number 28 in an eventual unbeaten run of 30 games. The returning Puskas, then Czibor had the Hungarians 2-0 ahead within ten minutes of the Final kicking off and a similar thrashing looked likely. By 20 minutes, though, West Germany were level. Late in the second half, Helmut Rahn put the Germans ahead. Hungary chased an equaliser and Puskas thought he had one. Glanville again; “The Hungarians embraced; but the flag of Mervyn Griffiths, the Welsh linesman, was up. Puskas had been given offside, and to this day the decision is argued.” West Germany had won their first World Cup. In 2008, the Guardian’s Joy of Six series described it as one of only “two truly questionable decisions” that have affected a World Cup Final.
Nevertheless, Griffiths was again among the selections for 1958. Wales were joined in Sweden by England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, meaning opportunities for Griffiths- who was also now working as a referee’s assessor- would be limited. For a third straight tournament he began with Yugoslavia who again defeated France, despite a Just Fontaine brace.
By the semi-final stage, all four corners of the United Kingdom had exited and Griffiths was free to take charge of the Brazil-France game at Stockholm’s Rasunda. For the third time at a World Cup, Griffiths signalled the end of a French defeat, but their 5-2 loss was more the result of the 17-year old Pele’s first World Cup hat-trick than any Welsh curse. It was to be Griffths’ final on-field involvement at the World Cup. He died a few days after his 65th birthday in 1974 and was honoured forty years later with a blue plaque at his childhood home in Six Bells, Blaenau Gwent.
There was no Welsh participation in Chile in 1962, but when the finals went to England in 1966, Merthyr Tydfil’s Leo Callaghan was in the group of selected referees. He continued the Welsh tradition of officiating French World Cup losses, running the line in a group stage defeat to Uruguay, and was also an assistant in Portugal’s victory over Brazil, a game that has become infamous for the Portuguese defence’s brutal treatment of Pele. His one appearance as a referee had come earlier in the same group, as Portugal defeated Hungary. Glanville wrote that the 3-1 victory “ridiculed the actual play,” and lay the cause of defeat on an early injury to the Hungarian keeper.
1974 was the next tournament to feature a Welsh referee. Clive Thomas’ World Cup bow came in Poland’s- that tournament’s surprise package- 3-2 win over Argentina. Gregorz Lato scored the first of his seven goals early on, and a minute later Szarmach doubled the lead. Lato ended an Argentinian fightback with a third Polish goal in the second half. In his second game, Rivellino scored as Brazil beat East Germany 1-0.
Four years later, Thomas again took charge of Brazil and his final blow of a whistle at the World Cup- while lacking the impact of Griffiths raised flag in 1954- is probably the most well-known of any made by a Welsh referee. The Brazilians dominated Sweden, but it was the Swedes who scored first. Right on half-time, Reinaldo equalised for the Brazilians. It was equally late in the second half the next time the ball entered the net. But it was too late. Nelinho laboured over a corner, before his near-post cross was headed by Zico. The goal, however, would not stand. With the ball in the air, Thomas blew for full-time. The Swedes celebrated; it was to be their only World Cup point in 1978. Thomas, meanwhile, responded to the Brazilians’ protests with forceful pointing to his watch and near-comedic waving of his arms.
Glanville writes, however, that it was an incident moments before for which the Welshman ‘incurred the disapproval of FIFA.’ A corner, this time from the left, was fired low to the near post. Sweden’s Bo Larsen sliced his clearance and the ball almost ends up his own net. Thomas can be seen “covering his face theatrically,” seemingly mocking an attempt at protecting his head from Larsen’s wayward strike.
In 1994, Thomas- whose reputation as a stickler for the laws of the game earned him the nickname “The Book”- showed he could see the humorous side of the Zico incident by taking part in one of the popular Phoenix from the Flames sketches on BBC’s Fantasy Football League. Thomas’ controversial whistle was the last he blew at the World Cup and it remains the last on-field action taken by any Welshman at the finals.
Much more on the history of Wales’ international referees can be found in this informative article on the FAW website.