Our lives will never be the same again: The story of how the African boycott of England ’66 changed the game forever


When brothers Bobby and Jackie Charlton celebrated on the Wembley pitch in 1966, Bobby said to his brother;

“Our lives will never be the same again.”

He was right of course, but he could also have been talking about FIFA and world football.

How pivotal for the world game was the 1966 World Cup?

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I’d argue the world game was never the same afterwards, possibly more so than any of the tournaments which preceded it.

1970 is regarded as the moment the competition came of age. The greatest player on the planet finally able to show off his abundant skills without fear of violence. The greatest team many can remember seeing, swept all aside to produce one of the finest performances in a Final. Technology allowed the whole tournament to be broadcast around the world in glorious technicolour. There were a number of other ‘firsts’ in that tournament. Yellow and red cards were used for the first time, as were substitutes.

I suggest this wouldn’t have been possible in 1966.

Several things happened in England which led to the success of 1970. It caught the imagination of the public as sports-mad fans filled the grounds. The television coverage was much more accessible than Chile 1962 when many of the matches were shown in countries several days after they’d taken place.

1966 had seen the ‘mother country’ lift the trophy. Brazil, Italy, West Germany and Uruguay had all won the thing. England joining them only added to the kudos.

The fact Pelé was literally kicked out of it gave the 1970 tournament an ideal ‘final chapter’ to his glorious career.

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North Korea qualified for the first time and wowed the locals by knocking out the Italians and racing into a three-goal lead against Portugal. This was one of the breakthroughs for the world game, and links nicely to the main contributing factor for this piece.

The whole African continent boycotted the qualification stage and the change it brought about finally gave it the recognition it was so cruelly denied thus far.

This also set in motion the change within FIFA which slowly but surely wrestled the power away from Europe.

You could argue the introduction of red and yellow cards and substitutes could have been introduced in 1974 if they hadn’t been in 1970, but the whole business with Africa fractured the governing body. There was a real sense of purpose in making the Mexico tournament the biggest and best ever. Any innovation was designed to ensure it competed with the Olympics for the title of the biggest tournament in the world.

Up to 1962 the only African nation to have competed in a World Cup was Egypt in 1934. But don’t be under any illusions this was a hard-fought struggle through rounds and rounds of matches. They beat Palestine over two legs and were on the boat across the Mediterranean to Italy.

Africa had had a tenuous relationship with the football’s biggest tournament. Countries had to apply to take part. But all sorts of issues ranging from travel to climate conspired to thwart their progress.

It wasn’t until 1962 that more than two nations from the continent applied. Yet even the team that came through this wasn’t guaranteed a place in the finals. They still had a play-off to negotiate. And that was one of the sores which was growing on the face of CAF.

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It irked them. They already felt excluded. The World Cup was growing in popularity, getting bigger, in a position to challenge the Olympics for popularity.

In 1964 FIFA announced its plans for England ’66. Africa again wouldn’t get an automatic qualify place. The Confederation was already going to see a greater representation in the Olympic Football tournament for Tokyo that year. The continent was on the up. Yet FIFA still seemed to act as if they were doing them a favour.

FIFA and CAF were already on a collision course.

Throughout the twentieth century, African nations had gradually thrown the shackles of colonialism and were emerging as independent nations, keen to show off their wares. They saw the World Cup as an ideal vehicle to promote themselves.

FIFA was very much concerned solely with the interests of Europe and South America. Africa was largely an irrelevance. By the time CAF was set up in 1957, there were only four members from the continent in FIFA. Within a few years that number had swelled to 20, as the continent was gaining in confidence and ambition.

Against this backdrop was the situation in South Africa. From 1948 South Africa had adopted apartheid, a racially segregated system. South Africa was admitted to FIFA in 1954. Once CAF came into being the country was expelled. It was further suspended from FIFA in 1961 after failing to comply with an ultimatum regarding anti-discrimination rules.

The FIFA President, Sir Stanley Rous had been secretary of the FA since 1934 and joined the Executive Committee in 1958. He was a supporter of South Africa’s re-admission. So much so, he made a trip to the country to investigate football there. He came back maintaining the game would disappear if they were not allowed back into the club.

The South African FA even came up with the idea of playing an all-white team for the 1966 World Cup and an all-black team in 1970.

At their meeting in January 1964, FIFA announced its plans for the upcoming World Cup in England. 16 teams would contest the finals. England and Brazil were already there by way of being hosts and holders. The remaining 14 berths would be split, UEFA (9), CONMEBOL (3), CONCACAF (1), leaving just one place for Asia, Africa and Oceania.

The blue touch paper was lit.

Ghana’s Director of Sport, Ohene Djan had just been appointed to FIFA’s Executive Committee.  Within a month he sent a telegram to FIFA’s Executive;

Registering strong objection to unfair World Cup arrangement for Afro-Asian countries STOP Afro-Asian countries struggling through painful expensive qualifying series for ultimate one finalist representation is pathetic and unsound STOP At the worst, Africa should have one finalist STOP Urgent – reconsider”

Djan’s bullish tone was reinforced by the fact the president of Ghana, Kwame Nkurmah, had his back.

Nkrumah was the first president of the first sub-Saharan nation to achieve independence. He wanted to use football to unite the continent and gave Djan permission to do whatever was necessary to enhance its standing in the world.

A more detailed response followed as Djan was joined by Ethiopian, Yidnekatchew Tessema. Tessema was a former professional footballer, playing 15 times for his country. He was a founding member of CAF and later became president.

We limit our demand, in the name of fair play and equity for one place of finalist to be granted to Africa, considering that this can and should be effected without hardships by reducing the allocation of Europe by one.


Otherwise, our FIFA Executive Committee members will take up this matter at its meeting in Tokyo, in the purpose of bringing it to appreciate that in the absence of this necessary adjustment African Associations cannot for the considerations stated above participate in the World Cup Jules Rimet Championship, 1966.

The Executive Committee of the African Football Confederation decided that copies of this resolution be communicated to all African national associations asking for their support in defending this right cause and inviting them to take appropriate action.”

They argued Africa’s standard of play had significantly improved in the preceding years. They also re-iterated the view the cost of qualifying for African, Asian and Oceania countries was greater than other confederations, given the risk there was no guarantee of a place in the finals.

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FIFA pressed ahead with its plans, though. In an attempt to dampen the flames, they put South Africa with the Asian and Oceania teams. The remaining 15 African teams were split into six groups, three groups of three, and three groups of two.

CAF was not satisfied with FIFA’s decision to still allow South Africa to participate in international football. Finally, the pressure told and FIFA relented. South Africa was disqualified from FIFA in September 1964. But this was merely a compromise, as FIFA had no intention of changing their qualifying format.

That was it for CAF. They pulled all their members out and no African nation took part in the 1966 qualifying section.

In the end, just two nations from the three continents took part. North Korea beat Australia over two matches, 9-2 to qualify for the first time.

Upon arrival in England, North Korea soon endeared themselves to the locals. Pak Doo-Ik, who’d scored their opening goal in qualifying, scored the only goal as they beat two-time winners, Italy to shock the world and reach the knockout stages.

At Goodison Park, they raced into a 3-0 lead inside the opening 25 minutes against Portugal. Four goals from Eusebio helped the Portuguese to recover to win 5-3. Portugal eventually finished third, and with a real sense of irony Africa could, in part, claim their victory.

Eusébio, captain Mário Coluna and left-back, Hilário were all born in Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony, and were essentially Africans.

Eusébio ended the tournament as top scorer, and despite the African’s absence, their presence was very much felt.

Soon after Bobby Moore climbed the 39 steps to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy aloft, FIFA finally reversed their decision and announced one automatic qualifying place for Africa for the next tournament in Mexico.

Unfortunately for Rous, his days were numbered. CAF, still smarting from their treatment and increasingly of the belief the ‘regime’ at the head of football’s governing body may have given them a place at the World Cup but was unlikely to concede further ground.

They began to switch allegiance to Brazilian João Havelange.

In 1974 their influence resulted in Havelange voted in as president and the winds of change had finally blown Africa’s way. The world game would never be the same again.

Morocco won the right to represent the continent at Mexico, performing with great pride and dignity, taking the lead against West Germany, only to lose to two late goals. Their 1-1 draw against Bulgaria was Africa’s first World Cup point.

In 1978 Tunisia became the first African nation to win a World Cup match when they beat Mexico, 3-1 in Rosario, Argentina.

So 1966 could be considered the last World Cup under the ‘old guard’ and the end of an era, with the game-changing, albeit slowly at first, forever.

By 1982 FIFA had expanded the number of participants to 24 and Africa received two places with Oceania receiving an automatic place, for the first time.

In Qatar 2022 Africa had five representatives. The foundations of this were laid back in the mid-sixties with the 1966 World Cup, the catalyst.

Life really was never the same for Bobby, Jackie, FIFA and the African continent.