Belo Horizonte, Brazil, June 29 — World Cup Pool result, USA 1 England 0.
That cryptic Reuters news agency flash on the 1950 World Cup finals shocked newspaper sports departments around the globe, including the Belfast Telegraph. It seemed an incredulous result — so much so I immediately queried it with London. Surely, some transmission error had occurred. Confirmation followed quickly — one of the greatest upsets in football history had found a place in the record books.
Arrogance and a superior attitude meant England did not compete in the 1930, ‘34 and ‘38 tournaments. They were unenthusiastic members of FIFA, and in 1926 broke away in a dispute over amateurism and didn’t rejoin until after the Second World War.
England, entering the tournament for the first time and 1950 joint favourites with Brazil, defeated Chile 2-0 at the Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, in the opening game, then outclassed the Americans, but just couldn’t wipe out that sucker punch and were finally eliminated when losing 1-0 to Spain in Rio, Jackie Milburn’s legitimate goal being disallowed by a dubious offside decision.
“That USA victory was a freak result by a hotchpotch team that been beaten 5-0 by a Turkish club side before leaving New York We ought to have walked away as outright winners of the tournament,” said Milburn.
“I didn’t play in the USA fixture, but watched from the stand. Even after USA scored I remarked to Willie Watson, sitting beside me, that it shouldn’t be difficult to coast it. Instead it was an embarrassment — a total disaster.”
And Tottenham Hotspur full back Alf Ramsey agreed: “We had a year’s bad luck in 90 minutes. Shots which seemed certain goals missed by the width of a coat of paint. Stanley Matthews, who had been on an FA tour of Canada, was rushed to South America, but, amazingly, overlooked for the Chile and USA games.
“Watching that in Belo Horizonte was purgatory,” he added.
“I thanked my lucky stars at the finish I hadn’t been part of it.”
USA captain Eddie McIlvenny, a Scot, released by Wrexham in 1948 so he could emigrate, began the move which led to the goal. His throw-in found Walter Bahr whose cross into the box was headed past Bert Williams by Gaetjens. He had written himself into into football folklore. Only 10,000 were in the ramshackle Estadio Independencia — England players changed in a nearby hotel — to witness the momentous feat.
Gaetjens, known to his team-mates as Larry, was of Belgian—Haitian descent and one of three non-US citizens on the team, although all indicated they intended applying for it — a tactic accepted by FIFA. He arrived in New York from Port-au-Prince after gaining scholarship entry to Columbia University, played at weekends for a team called Brookhattan and worked in a restaurant as a dishwasher to ease his student’s financial burden He joined French clubs Racing Paris and Troyes at the end of the series, but returned to his native country and appeared for them in a 1954 World Cup qualifier.
Then in July, 1964, he was arrested by the Ton Ton Macoute secret police and is presumed, like thousands of others, to have been killed by the notorious death squads rampant during the Papa Doc Duvalier reign of terror in Haiti. He was posthumously inducted into the US National Soccer Hall Of Fame in 1976 .
Only one US journalist, Dent Miskimming (St Louis Post Dispatch), who was actually on vacation, covered the story which made no real impact on a US public nurtured on baseball, American gridiron, ice hockey and basketball. Today great advances have been made by soccer, but it is still a struggle competing with other sports.
England’s team resembled a Who’s Who of football, players with excellent pedigrees whose feats, in some instances, have since been commemorated by statuettes — Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion, Stan Mortensen, Billy Wright, Eddie Bailey, Jimmy Mullen and Jimmy Dickinson.
It was a powerful combination capable of conquering the world. How many players of England’s present-day set-up would merit inclusion in that galaxy of stars?
Inevitably English media hype has already started for next year’s World Cup in South Africa, after what many consider an easy first phase series against USA, Algeria and Slovenia.
Let the Battle Begin . . . A Fab Result . . . Easy, Easy, Easy screamed the headlines. A repeat of Alf Ramsey’s 1966 success is being trumpeted, but my colleague Henry Winter (Daily Telegraph) was more measured in his assessment aptly summing it up: “As England found to their cost in Belo Horizonte and may discover in Rustenburg next summer missed chances could mean missing out. Those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it.” How true.