By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Feb 25, 2013) US Soccer Players – Nearly 63 years later, it remains one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. When the USA defeated England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup, it sent shockwaves across the soccer world. To this day, it is considered by many to be one of the biggest – if not the biggest – victories in National Team history.
Twenty years after the United States reached the semifinals of the 1930 World Cup, the National Team found itself in a vulnerable position. Soccer remained the preferred game of immigrants in this country but struggled to find the mainstream acceptance baseball and football enjoyed. On an international level, the United States was a non-factor. After crashing out of the 1934 World Cup in the first round, the United States failed to qualify for the 1938 edition in France.
Following World War II, the USA fielded a team of semi-pros and qualified for the 1950 World Cup finals in Brazil by virtue of 1-1 draw and a 5-2 victory over Cuba. Although the Americans would fail to get out of the opening round, it did produce arguably the biggest win in World Cup history. For the players involved, the game seems to return to prominence every few years. Hall of Fame induction for the squad in 1976, the 2005 movie about the game, and the United States once again meeting England at World Cup level in 2010.
“England was considered pretty good (at the time),” noted historian Roger Allaway. “This was the first World Cup it had entered and it had not yet been dethroned as masters of the sport. Going into this World Cup, it probably was co-favorite along with Brazil. Friendlies between major powers were still a big deal in this era, and two years before England had scored a landmark victory when it beat Italy 4-0 in Turin.”
The story is legendary at this point. The squad of part-time players, the USA returning to the World Cup for the first time since a semifinal finish in 1934, and the disinterest of the American public. To call the USA underdogs fails to grasp what was at stake in Brazil.
Placed in Group 2 with England, Spain and Chile, pundits at the time expected an early trip home for the Americans. After losing to Spain 3-1, the USA took on England on June 29 at Estadio Independencia in Belo Horizonte. Before a crowd of 10,000, the Americans and English squared off in what would become one of the most talked about games in history.
The game’s only goal came in the 37th minute when Joey Gaetjens redirected Walter Bahr’s 25-yard shot into England’s goal. The headed ball went past goalkeeper Bert Williams and the Americans took a lead they would never relinquish. Editors around the world questioned the wire reports following the game, figuring the score was a typographical error.
In a 2010 interview with US Soccer Players, Bahr recalled the win, saying, “It was no fluke. The English were a very good team. The odds were 500-1 that we would win. We played our hearts out that day. We were better than them that day. There are also stories about how we walked around in straw hats and smoking cigars before the game. That never happened.”
Bahr recalled that the Brazilian crowd “ran onto the field and lifted Joe (Gaetjens) on their shoulders and paraded him around the field. The crowd had really been behind us for most of the game. The English players were really good sports. They shook our hands and were respectful.”
Born and raised in Haiti, Gaetjens moved to New York to study at Columbia University and worked part-time as a dishwasher. Gaetjens, who was not an American citizen at the time but eligible to play for the National Team after he’d expressed his intention to become naturalized (something allowable under FIFA rules at the time), would only earn three caps with the US. He would go on to play one game for Haiti in 1953 during a World Cup Qualifier against Mexico. He never became an American citizen. Instead, Gaetjens disappeared in 1963, presumably murdered because his family opposed the nation’s dictator Francois Duvalier.
Despite the improbable win, the USA failed to advance past the group stage following a 5-2 loss to Chile in Recife. In addition, the upset over England never resonated back in the United States. It did nothing to propel the sport and it got very little to no attention.
“This victory didn’t do a thing to boost American soccer. It was barely noticed here (in the United States),” Allaway said. “The effect can be measured by the fact that after scoring this victory in 1950, the US Men’s National Team didn’t play a single game in 1951.”
On top of that, the USA would not qualify for a World Cup for another 40 years (the 1990 World Cup), a stretch that included one of the darkest periods in National Team history.
More from Clemente Lisi: