It was almost exactly 60 years ago when the US and England last met in a World Cup match, and the result, a 1-0 win for the Americans, remains one of the great upsets in football history. Yet for years, it was merely a bit of trivia, dismissed as a meaningless aberration. The match was played 29 June 1950, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, before a crowd of only 10,151. And it went virtually unnoticed in both countries.
In England it was overshadowed by the fact that no one really considered the World Cup very important; England were the kings of world soccer and no match against Johnny Foreigner was going to change that self-delusion; this was the first time they had deigned to participate in what previously they had considered a sort of losers' repechage. When the score came over the wires, English papers assumed 1-0 was a misprint, and that England must have won 10-0, or 10-1. It also happened to be the same day the West Indies, for the first time, beat England in a cricket test match in England, which was in 1950 both a far more important story to the press and far more immediate news.
England had qualified for the World Cup by winning the home internationals. Scotland also qualified under the Euro-friendly system of that time, or any time, but they decided it was too expensive to travel to Brazil, and France, offered their spot, also declined the invitation. The US qualified only because the travel problem had seen FIFA award a second spot to North America; the Americans squeaked past Cuba to join perennial group-winners Mexico.
In America, of course, soccer was not a big deal. The team was made up mostly of guys who might flatteringly be called semi-pros, and the only reporter covering the game, the euphoniously-titled Dent McSkimming of the St Louis Post-Dispatch, had been forced to take his vacation to do so.
The English often claim their team was under-strength, though if that were true, it was only because they believed the Yanks were no challenge, which would have been understandable. The fact is they chose the same squad that had already beaten Chile 2-0, preferring to leave Stanley Matthews in the stands (there were no substitutes in those days) watching. Indeed, Matthews had joined a separate England team in New York, a team led by Nat Lofthouse that had toured Canada, and they beat the US by only 1-0 in the Americans' second and last warm-up (in the first they had lost 5-0 in St Louis to the Turkish side Beksitas).
This was the English team: G: Bert Williams (Wolves) RFB: Alf Ramsey (Spurs) LFB: John Ashton (Man U) RHB: Billy Wright (Wolves, capt), CHB: Laurie Hughes (Liverpool), LHB: Jimmy Dickinson (Portsmouth) IL:: Wilf Mannion (Middlesboro), OR: Tom Finney (Preston North End), OL: Jimmy Mullen (Wolves) , IR: Stan Mortensen (Blackpool), CF: Roy Bentley (Chelsea). Hardly a team of spares. The manager was Walter Winterbottom, and there is some conflict over whether he, or the selection committee (which consisted of Walter Drewry and no one else) picked the starting XI. Most likely Drewry indicated his preference for keeping the winning side intact, and Winterbottom didn't argue.
The US team was G: Frank Longhi (Simkins Ford) FB: Harry Keough (McMahon Pontiac) FB: Joe Maca (Brooklyn Hispano) LHB: Walter Bahr (Philadelphia Nationals) CHB: Ed McIlvenny (Phil. Nationals) RHB: Charlie Columbo (Simkins) OL:Frank 'Pee Wee' Wallace (Simkins) IL: Gino Pariani (Simkins) CF: Joe Gaetjens (Brookhatten), IR: John Souza (Fall River Ponta Delgado) OR: Ed Souza (Ponta Delgado). Their manager was William Jeffrey, a Scot who had emigrated to the US and was the coach at Penn State. His big tactical move was to switch Wallace and Pariani, who usually played on the right, to the left side, which nearly paid off in a second-half goal. The three non-Americans, McIlvenny, Maca, and Gaetjens were all residents who indicated they would become US citizens, which qualified them under the rules of the day.
Simkins Ford and McMahon Pontiac were sponsored by local car dealers in the St. Louis Major League. In 1950 Simkins were the US Open Cup champions. The Simkins players had all grown up in what is now called 'The Hill' section of St. Louis, but was then known as 'Dago Hill', the same Italian neighbourhood that produced Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola. Wallace was born Frank Valicenti; he and Pariani lived on the same street, with Borghi just around the corner. Longhi's family ran a funeral parlour, which is where the 'hearse driver' often mentioned playing for the US comes from.
Philadelphia Nationals, Brooklyn Hispano, and Brookhatten were teams in the American Soccer League, generally considered the strongest in the country, but not as powerful as its original version had been in the 1920s. Maca had played third division soccer in Belgium; McIlvenny was a Scot who had played for the Welsh club Wrexham in the English league. Gaetjens was a Haitian who won a scholarship to Columbia University; he washed dishes to earn extra money, which is where the 'dishwasher' part of the story comes from.
Bahr, considered the US's best player, was supposedly told after the New York game against the English XI that he was up to first division standard. He was normally the team's captain, but on the day Jeffrey made his fellow Scot McIlvanny captain, hoping he'd be able to pass on his passion for beating the auld enemy. When Disney made a film, The Game Of Their Lives (2005, later called The Miracle Match) about the match, they handed the captaincy back to Bahr. In a more serious twisting of the facts, they also portrayed the English team as sneering toffs, which would probably have amused Williams, Mullen, Finney et al. Interestingly, in the film, McIlvanny was played by the former USA star John Harkes, whose skills resembled Bahr's, and who was the first American to play in the English Premier League.
The two Souzas were not related, but there was a large Portugese community in Fall River, Massachusetts. Fall River Ponta Delgado played in the National Soccer League of New England, and won the US Amateur Cup six times between 1946 and 1953, including 1950. That year they were also runners-up in the National Challenge Cup. In 1951 they would join the ASL.
England came out dominating, getting six shots on goal in the first 12 minutes; one hit the woodwork and Borghi made two fine saves on the others. Then, as now, the US could produce good keepers. Borghi's first love had been baseball, and he had even played two seasons of minor league professional ball. He was tall, with huge hands, and could throw the ball far downfield. Which was good, because he couldn't kick it; he never took goal kicks.
Longhi had made another fine save, off a Finney header, just before the US got their goal in the 37th minute, on a long shot by Bahr that Gaetjens deflected past Williams with his head. It was their second shot on goal. The local crowd, aware of England's position as the 'Kings Of Football' exploded in joy. The Americans nearly made it 2-0 early in the second half when Pariani sent Wallace free, but Williams was forced into making a superb save. Five minutes later, Borghi stopped a free kick from Mortensen, and from then on the play was all in one direction. In the 82nd minute Columbo brought down Mortensen with a diving gridiron tackle, and with the English players looking for a penalty, the Italian referee awarded a free kick just outside the box. Off the kick, Jimmy Mullen headed a ball that Borghi, diving, reached behind to tip over the bar. Mullen was already celebrating, and had Borghi not been a yard off his line, the ball would have been a goal. The match ended 1-0, and the Brazilian fans carried the Americans off on their shoulders.
Neither team advanced to the next round. England lost their final match 1-0 to Spain, who went through. In their opening match the US had actually led the Spanish 1-0 after 80 minutes before wearing out and losing 3-1. It was even worse in their final match against Chile. Down 2-0 at the half, they fought back to tie the match 2-2 with two goals in the first three minutes of the second half, before the halftime rest wore off, the Recife heat got to them and they lost 5-2. Remember, these were guys who played on weekends during their season, worked full-time jobs, and trained when they could.
The match prompted no boom in US soccer; in fact it would be another 40 years before the US qualified again, although they have now played in six tournaments in a row, and in 2006 even qualified ahead of Mexico in their group (which didn't stop FIFA from seeding them in the bottom tier, with Mexico in the top, which put the US into a 'group of death'; not that greater attraction of the tournament on Televisa had anything to do with that). John Souza, whom most sources credit with the second, penalty goal against Chile, was selected to the tournament all-star team by Mundo Esportivo; no American would be similarly honoured until Claudio Reyna in 2002.
Bahr would go on to coach at Penn State, and father two sons, Chris and Matt, who played pro soccer (Chris was NASL rookie of the year in 1975). Both also had long careers in the NFL, and kicked American footballs in Super Bowls. Keough wound up the coach at St Louis University; his son Ty played professionally and for the USA.
Of the three non-Americans on the team, only Maca became a citizen and he too had a son who played pro in the NASL. The other two benefitted briefly from the US success. McIlvanny was signed by Manchester United, and Gaetjens by Racing Club Paris; neither returned to the US. McIlvanny made no impact at Man U, and went on to play for Waterford in Ireland. Gaetjens injured his knee at Racing Club, moved to lower division play at Olympique Ales, and played once for Haiti in 1953.He retired in 1954, returned to Haiti and went into business, sponsoring and coaching youth teams as well.
The Gaetjens were a prominent family, dating back to Joe's German grandfather. In a moment of stereotyping fiction, the Disney film decided to show Gaetjens practicing voodoo, shades of Pedro Cerrano in Major League; in fact, he didn't. Gaetjens' family supported the opposition to Papa Doc Duvalier; when Duvalier was elected in 1964, they began to flee the country. They begged Joe to leave, or at least accept the US citizenship he's been offered in 1950. As an American citizen, he'd be safe from Duvalier's miltia, the Ton Ton Macoute. Joe refused: he wasn't political, he was popular, his friends included the chief of police.
But on 8 July 1964, just one day after Duvalier declared himself president for life, the Ton Ton Macoute came for Joe, and he was taken to the notorious Fort Dimanche. For weeks the family tried to work through lawyers, to bribe officicals, to appeal to his friends, including the chief of police. Nothing worked. One morning they went to Fort Dimanche expecting to finally see Joe. Instead they were told he was dead. Some say Papa Doc killed him personally.
England wore blue away jerseys for the match in 1950; legend says they were never worn again but in fact they were, in 1959, and then retired permanently after a loss to Peru. They will be wearing white tonight, though the Americans will again have a Haitian-born player in their lineup. Perhaps voodoo can work again. But this time around, many of the Yanks have played in the same Premier League as their opponents, if anything they know them too well. And it's unlikely Fabio Capello will keep Wayne Rooney watching in the stands. But even though it might still be considered an upset, an American win would be nothing like the shocker it was, or perhaps should have been, in 1950.