To one side of the pitch was a team made up of some of the biggest names in the game. world football. In the other was a gravedigger, a dishwasher and a postman. the result it seemed like a formality.
Yet in front of approximately 10,000 fans, and a fearless American reporter, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, one of The biggest surprises in football occurred
Described as a “true bunch of bums” by author Geoffrey Douglas, the USA defeated a star-studded England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup.
Joe Gaetjens’ header near the end of the first half was enough to secure the famous victory for the USA, a team made up of semi-pro players. But, given the lack of interest in the sport in the country at the time, it barely appeared on people’s radar.
Many American outlets chose not to carry reports of the game, with only one reporter, Dent McSkimmings, going to Brazil on his own.
And for US soccer historian Steve Holroyd, the result was akin to the ‘Miracle on Ice’ of the 1980 Winter Olympics, when the US team stunned the mighty Soviet Union in Lake Placid.
“With the exception of politics, this was it. I mean, a brave group of underdogs just beat what is generally universally recognized as the best team in the world,” Holroyd said. CNN Sport.
“You’d think they would be the kind of story Americans would love to champion. In a different universe with the Internet, if the Internet existed then, perhaps that would have been what would have brought soccer out of ethnic enclaves and into the national sports consciousness.
“But the newspapers didn’t pick it up, it didn’t get the coverage, it had zero impact, unfortunately, on the growth or anything of the game in this country at any level.”
Although soccer in the US may not have been as popular as other sports, it has a long history in the country, dating back to the 1920s.
At a time when other major leagues in the US were becoming professional, soccer also attempted a professional soccer league.
Although the American Soccer League was “wiped out” by the economic depression that wracked the country in the 1920s, according to Holroyd, it was the first example of a soccer league that relied on corporate sponsorship.
After the failure of the American Soccer League, the sport “largely withdrew into ethnic enclaves,” Holroyd explained.
“It looks a lot like an immigrant sport, played exclusively by immigrants,” he said.
“The teams that emerged when the second American Football League was formed in 1933, no longer had the more neutral names one would expect to find on these shores, like the Pawtucket Rangers or the Newark Skeeters, they were now Colony Scots, Colony Irish, Philadelphia Germans. ”.
Although there was a brief revival of the sport during and after World War II, it was played in small places around the country, such as St. Louis, Missouri.
And so, as the 1950 World Cup approached, there was little national interest or coverage of America’s participation. It fell to the United States Soccer Association (which, Holroyd explains, likely had only one permanent member on staff) to assemble a team to compete against the soccer superpowers of Europe and South America.
The team that was selected was a “hodgepodge,” said Douglas, selected from all over the United States. Most had never met, let alone played with each other, except for four who played in St. Louis.
To reach the World Cup final in 1950, the US had to go through a three-team qualifying group, along with Mexico and Cuba.
Mexico, a country with soccer heritage, went undefeated with four wins out of four, while the US qualified by the skin of their teeth thanks to a 5-2 victory against Cuba.
Even then, hopes were low. “So they went down there mainly for fun. They just thought they would have some free time at work. They didn’t really know what the World Cup was,” Douglas said.
Across the pond, hopes were sky high for a star-studded England team. The team was making its first World Cup appearance after having opted not to appear in the previous three.
“England bypassed the first three World Cups because they thought: ‘We are bigger than this, we are already the champions, we don’t need to prove ourselves.’ They finally deigned to participate, this was going to be their crowning glory,” Holroyd said.
Filled with players who would go on to be considered greats (Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen), the England team was expected to do well.
They were in a great shock.
When Douglas spoke to some of the US team for his book on the match, they spoke of feeling overconfident from their English counterparts.
The teams had met earlier in the year, with an England reserve team still handily beating the Americans. But the game at the Estádio Independência in Belo Horizonte was different.
“Stanley Matthews was their main player and he wasn’t playing because they were resting him for the next opponent. But they didn’t even play (their best players) because they thought America would be such an easy game,” Douglas said.
“So when the English came out on the pitch, especially in the first half, they were very loose and making jokes.”
When the game started, unsurprisingly, it was the English team that dominated. American goalie Frank Borghi, an undertaker, was described as having the game of the life of him that day.
In the 37th minute, the game turned around. Walter Bahr’s cross was shelled off the side of the head by Gaetjens, a New York dishwasher, and past the desperate Bert Williams on goal.
And so all the pressure was on England. “At the end of the first half, when Gaetjens scored, everyone panicked,” Douglas said.
“And then apparently (England) pushed too much, according to the guys on Team USA. In the second half, (England) got a little bit disorganized because they just couldn’t believe this was happening.”
Between countless saves by Borghi, some misguided shots from England and some heroic defences, the USA’s lead was kept intact by recording a famous victory that has gone down in soccer history.
Yet for the players on Team USA, the American public at home, and future generations, it’s a result that’s been somewhat lost to the sands of time.
Even immediately after the victory, the significance of what they had accomplished did not hit the American players immediately.
“So when they beat England, they thought, ‘Oh, that’s great. That’s great. Let’s move on to the really big games in St. Louis against Ford Motors,” Douglas said.
And despite the magnitude of the result, there wasn’t much international coverage. With McSkimmings the only reporter at the game, whose report appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, many outlets felt the story was not worth covering.
“The 1950 World Cup was not a blip on the American sports radar,” Holroyd said. “If there was any interest, it was the immigrant communities looking to see how the mother country was doing. No one supported the United States.”
Such was the level of disinterest, when the victorious players returned home they were greeted only by their families. “Today, it would be a ticker parade. It would be huge,” Douglas said.
This could have been a seismic moment for the sport in the US, but given the sparse coverage, it passed without a murmur, until some 30 years later, when players began receiving calls from journalists every four years, before of the World Cups. to retell their stories.
There was great embarrassment in England over the result of being ousted by the upstart team USA. Douglas detailed one newspaper by bordering its paper with black to highlight the ignominy.
“They were embarrassed to have been beaten by this nobodies team from a country that wasn’t registered on the football ladder,” Douglas said.
For the victorious team, the “Cinderella” nature of the victory has been commemorated ever since, with every member of the winning US team inducted into the 1976 United States Soccer Hall of Fame.
And while football is awash with shock and underdog stories, Holroyd believes it’s “the biggest upset on the biggest world stage in history.”
The disparity between the 2022 editions of the USA and England teams at this year’s World Cup isn’t quite as great as it was in 1950. But 72 years later, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie could do worse than channel the spirit. of Bahr and Gaetjens when they line up. against England in Qatar.