1950 and all that: humbled England return as underdogs
Belo Horizonte may mean “beautiful horizon” and it is indeed surrounded by some lovely mountains, but Brazil’s sixth-largest city is, for the most part, the ugliest of industrial urban sprawls.
Fitting then, that England’s World Cup campaign will limp to a close in a city that played host to one of English football’s most depressing and humiliating results.
It was here, on June 29, 1950 in a World Cup group match that England lost 1-0 to the United States. Lord knows England fans have suffered a few depressing defeats since then, but few created the shock waves that this one did.
At the time, England really were one of the best teams in the world and so confident of their superiority that the 1950 World Cup was the first that they had deigned to enter. A team packed with legends such as captain Billy Wright, future World Cup-winning manager Alf Ramsey, Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion and goalkeeper Bert Williams were expected to be one of the tournament’s contenders.
The US were literally a bunch of part-timers. Even their Scottish coach, Bill Jeffrey, told the media beforehand that his players were “sheep ready to be slaughtered”. They had shipped 45 goals in their previous seven internationals, including 11 against Norway. The Daily Express in England crowed: “It would be fair to give [the US] three goals of a start.”
The result, thanks to a diving first-half header by Haitian-born Joseph Gaetjens from a cross by Walter Bahr, was met with such disbelief in England that one paper reported the result as 10-1 to England!
In the US, where football — an amateur minority sport — simply did not appear on the national sports radar back then, only one newspaper report of the match appeared. The players faded back into obscurity and, outside of footballing circles, the event went largely unrecognised until the 1970s when the team were inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976. It was not until 2004 that the surviving members of the team were recognised as Honorary All-Americans by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. In 2005, the match was re-enacted in a dreadful straight-to-DVD film, The Match of Their Lives (also known as Miracle Match).
I interviewed Bahr for the Mid-Ocean News when he visited Bermuda in the mid-1980s. Even then, he joked that he and his team-mates were better known around the world than they were in their home country. The result, he said, seemed to have become more incredible with the passage of time.
Bahr, a schoolteacher at the time, admitted that his “cross” for the goal was unintentional. He had shot from 25 yards out but as Williams went to his right to cover it, Gaetjens dived at the ball near the penalty spot and got just enough of a touch to send it to Williams’s left.
Until last week, England’s match today with Costa Rica at the impressive Estadio Mineiro might have been viewed as another expected win against one of the game’s minnows. Who would have thought that it would be England, not Costa Rica, going into the game as underdogs after the Ticos’ sensational defeats of Italy and Uruguay.
Perhaps the exploits of the Americans here 64 years ago can inspire England to regain a modicum of pride and “upset” the group D leaders.
Footnote: Older Bermudian players may remember Walter Bahr’s son, Chris — he scored both goals against Bermuda in a qualifying match for the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. Chris and his two brothers — Casey and Matt — all played in the old NASL and Chris and Matt later earned Super Bowl rings as place-kickers for the 1980 and 1983 Raiders, and 1990 New York Giants respectively.