It remains one of the most impactful sporting surprises for a country that’s never been regarded as a world power, against the nation that invented the modern game and the rules by which the world plays the sport. In 1950, when the United States faced England, status counted for little.
The historical connection between the two very proud nations extends well beyond the chalked white lines of the pitch. However, on the world’s greatest stage, an American team of amateur and semi-professional players took what could be considered nothing short of footballing nobility in an England side boasting professional stars.
One of the best ways to inversely describe the scenario is framing the scene and scenario of a British team of cricketers who happened to take an interest in baseball – and who played it with some degree of proficiency – taking the diamond against major leaguers who earned money to throw a ball and swing a bat.
Tales like this really are the stuff of sporting magic – a David versus Goliath theme with an American line-up that included a postman, a mill worker and, ironically, and even perhaps a bit foreboding enough from England’s perspective, a man who was a funeral director by profession. There is even the account of a few American players not making the trip to the Estádio Independência in Belo Horizonte in Brazil because they couldn’t afford to miss work nor did they have the opportunity to take days off to play sport.
An often overlooked point in this tale is the way the post-Second World War world viewed sporting events and tournaments and the degree in which representation in said tournaments matched a country’s sporting ambition in the game beyond the realm of national pride. After all, the World Cup, much like the Olympics, is a platform where national pride and sporting ambition are on display, vetted, and either invalidated or validated.
The tournament itself remains a strange case study of post-war history, with Germany occupied and partitioned and an occupied Japan unable to participate in the event. Countries with rich traditions and pedigrees in football withdrew or were not permitted to take part in qualification, including Czechoslovakia and Hungary along with a host of nations behind the Iron Curtain. Argentina refused to play after a disagreement with the Brazilian federation and Peru and Ecuador. Other notable absences included Austria and Belgium.
It remains no secret that the English Football Association never put any emphasis or onus on the task of entering previous World Cups. The prevailing thought was that England had invented football and the football played on its soil was sufficient. Competitions involving emerging nations playing the game many thought was gifted to them by English affairs abroad or post-colonial influence was for spectacle and, therefore, for the rest of the world to meander in. Furthermore, at the time, if foreign nations wanted to flirt with the idea of winning a tournament and being crowned world champions, there was little anyone could do to assuage the efforts.
Back then, the world was aware that England was still regarded as the best team going.
England’s 1950 World Cup squad was thoroughly talented. There is footage of them gathering at the airport pre-tournament looking as confident and assured as ever in their ability to show up and dominate in Brazil. And why not? The footballing world was still significantly less powerful and considerably smaller in those days.
A phrase often shared in recollection of the English team’s approach to the 1950 World Cup is best summed up in the perception of the plausibility that most of the players – seasoned professionals – were under the glaring assumption they were en route to Brazil to collect the World Cup, not necessarily be made to compete for world football’s most coveted trophy and title. While that may be harsh, there was an undeniable air of pomp.
Although England later brought the World Cup home in 1966, it was skipper Billy Wright, a Wolves legend, who delivered an assured proclamation in 1950 that he, along with some of the greatest footballers in history such as Alf Ramsey, Jimmy Dickinson, Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen, would “bring the cup home” – a nation that has been popularised, mocked and even revitalised in English football for decades.
Wright said nothing wrong, however, as more than a few players mentioned would go on to be considered for knighthood and all played hundreds of professional football matches over long careers, something the Americans couldn’t even fathom. If one were to combine their appearances as a team, it would still not add up to one English player’s cumulative matches played at a professional level. That alone makes this match so memorable.
The World Cup in 1950 was not the global spectacle the world has on offer these days. It was cloaked in post-war austerity and rigidity in a place that was still off the map for most people tuning in to the game. The idea of this tournament being played in Brazil added to a disconnect with a world still recovering from the shock of the Second World War. And so, the stage was set for two countries that were heavily involved as allies in the war to play in a tournament that was still finding its identity.
Brazil was truly a world away for many and teams like India, who qualified for the tournament, decided to withdraw as the cost of travel and accommodation proved to be too much for a sporting tournament. Other nations decided to lessen the financial burden of the trip to Brazil and opted to travel by boat rather than air.
Radio coverage, which was the key medium for media outlets, was broadcast over weak airwaves due to the lack of established wire and radar towers in Brazil capable of reaching European shores. Most fans around the world would be lucky to see a few minutes of black-and-white newsreel footage of the event, days and sometimes weeks after the event had taken place. People waited for the newspaper to print the results, again oftentimes well after the event took place.
Although the footballing aspects of both teams highlighted the differences between the English and American squads, a common and respectable similarity was that both sides boasted young men who gave up years of their lives to serve their country in the military, and more than a few on either side lost years of a career to fight in the war.
Football has a way of highlighting the differences between players and the common fan, but in 1950, most of the professional English players earned a pittance in comparison to what others earned in decades going forward. The Americans were not even sure that their travel and tournament budget would allow them to receive new kits for the finals.
The American strategy, as told by the late Walter Bahr, was to acknowledge and respect the gulf in footballing quality and understand that England were heavy favourites to win the match. Bahr stated: “Our goal was probably to keep the score respectable. We knew they were better prepared, coached, managed and in better condition. We were going in as complete underdogs. I don’t think any of us went in there thinking we had a chance of winning.”
Regarding the game, England dominated the ball as much as one would expect. The Americans had to defend for long stretches with England striking the woodwork and pressing for a goal. However, they absorbed the pressure and hit the Three Lions on the counter when Joe Gaetjens – a dishwasher and aspiring accountant who was born in Haiti and living in New York – scored one of the most iconic goals in America’s history in the world game.
A shot from Walter Bahr in the 37th minute was deflected by Gaetjens past goalkeeper Bert Williams to put the US ahead on the scoresheet. No film exists of that goal. There is a single photo capturing the moment, however, showing the goalkeeper and an English defender staring in disbelief at the ball in the back of the English net. Another moment frozen in time is that of Gaetjens, hoisted on top of the shoulders of fans, being carried around the stadium pitch.
That match in 1950 is part of American sporting history and although it was a great upset, its impact helped spark a series of legendary myths and stories about what happened. Some myths, more urban legend than fact, state that British newspapers recorded and printed the score as 10-1, thinking the 1-0 scoreline to the United States was an error on the wire service.
The feat made an impact on American popular culture too, inspiring the film retelling the history of the match called The Game of Their Lives. Indeed, the 1950 World Cup was the scene for many great moments in football. But if ever there was a match that could be labelled the most improbable of triumphs, it is that match between the amateurs from the United States against an English team regarded as the best in the world. In football, anything can happen – that’s why the game is played.
By Jon Townsend @jon_townsend3