On one side of the pitch was a team made up of some of the biggest names in world football. On the other side a gravedigger, a dishwasher and a postman. The result appeared to be a formality.
But in front of about 10,000 fans – and an intrepid US reporter – in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, one of the biggest upsets in football ever happened.
Described by author Geoffrey Douglas as “a real bunch of rags”, USA beat star-studded England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup.
Joe Gaetjens’ header late in the first half was enough to secure a famous win for the USA, a team of semi-professionals. But given the lack of interest in the sport in the country at the time, it hardly bounced on people’s radar.
Many US broadcasters chose not to cover the game as only one reporter, Dent McSkimmings, went to Brazil on his own.
And for US soccer historian Steve Holroyd, the result resembled the “miracle on ice” of the 1980 Winter Olympics, when the American team stunned the mighty Soviet Union at Lake Placid.
“Except for politics, that was all. I mean, a brave group of underdogs just beat what’s widely recognized as the best team in the world,” Holroyd told CNN Sport.
“You’d think they’d be the kind of story that Americans would like to champion. In another universe with the internet – if the internet existed then – that might have been just the thing to pull football out of the ethnic enclaves into the national sporting consciousness.
“But the newspapers didn’t pick it up, it wasn’t reported, unfortunately it had no impact on growth or anything at play in this country at any level.”
Although soccer may not have been as popular as other sports in the United States, it had a long history in the country, dating back to the 1920s.
At a time when other major leagues in the US were becoming more professional, soccer was also trying to become a professional football league.
Although the American Soccer League was “wiped out” by the economic depression that devastated the country in the 1920s, according to Holroyd, it was the first example of a soccer league that relied on corporate sponsorship.
After the failure of the American Soccer League, the sport “largely withdrew to the ethnic enclaves,” explained Holroyd.
“It’s very strongly viewed as an immigrant sport, played exclusively by immigrants,” he said.
“The teams that emerged when the second American Soccer League was formed in 1933 no longer had the more neutral names one would expect on these shores, like Pawtucket Rangers or Newark Skeeters, now they were Colony Scots, Colony Irish, Germans out Philadelphia.”
Although the sport enjoyed a brief resurgence during and after World War II, it was played in small parts of the country — like St. Louis, Missouri.
So, as the 1950 World Cup drew near, there was little national interest or coverage of America’s participation. It was up to the United States Soccer Football Association – which, according to Holroyd, most likely had only one permanent staff – to put together a team to take on the footballing superpowers of Europe and South America.
The team chosen was a “mess,” Douglas said, chosen from across the United States. Most had never met — let alone played — apart from four who played in St. Louis.
To reach the final of the 1950 World Cup, the United States had to go through a three-team qualifying group alongside Mexico and Cuba.
Mexico – a country steeped in footballing tradition – went unbeaten with four wins out of four, while the USA narrowly qualified thanks to a 5-2 win over Cuba.
Even then, hopes were low. “So they mostly went downstairs in search. They just thought they were getting some time off work. They didn’t really know what the World Cup was,” Douglas said.
Across the pond, hopes for a top-flight England squad were sky-high. The team competed in a World Cup for the first time after opting not to compete in the previous three.
“England missed the first three World Cups because they thought, ‘We’re bigger than this, we’re already world champions, we don’t have to prove ourselves.’ They finally deigned to take part, this should be their crowning glory,” said Holroyd.
Filled with players who would go on to be considered greats – Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen – the England side were expected to do well.
They expected quite a shock.
When Douglas spoke to some members of the US team for his book about the game, they said they sensed overconfidence in their England counterparts.
The teams had played each other earlier in the year, with an English reserve team still comfortably beating the Americans. But the game at the Estádio Independência in Belo Horizonte was different.
“Stanley Matthews was their main player and he wasn’t playing because they were resting him for the next opponent. But they didn’t even play (their best players) because they thought America was such an easy game,” Douglas said.
“When the English came on the field they were very loose and cracking jokes, especially in the first half.”
When the game started, it was not surprising that the English team dominated. US goalkeeper Frank Borghi – a undertaker – was described as having the game of his life that day.
The game turned upside down in the 37th minute. A Walter Bahr cross rebounded over the head of Gaetjens – a dishwasher from New York – past a desperate Bert Williams into the goal.
And already the pressure was all on England. “At the end of the first half, when Gaetjens scored, everyone kind of panicked,” Douglas said.
“And then (England) apparently pushed a little too much according to the US team lads. In the second half (England) got kind of disorganized because they just couldn’t believe this was happening.”
Between Borghi’s countless saves, some erratic shots on goal from England and some heroic defences, the USA’s lead remained intact as they celebrated a famous victory that went down in football history.
However, for the US team players, the American public at home and future generations, it is a result lost in the sands of time.
Even immediately after the win, the American players were not immediately struck by the impact of what they had achieved.
“So when they beat England, they were like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool. That’s pretty awesome. Let’s get to the really important games in St. Louis against Ford Motors,” said Douglas.
And despite the size of the result, it didn’t get much international coverage. Since McSkimmings was the game’s only reporter – whose account appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – many outlets did not consider the story worth reporting.
“The 1950 World Cup wasn’t a blip on the American sports radar,” said Holroyd. “If there was any interest, it was the immigrant communities wanting to see how the motherland was doing. No one supported the US.”
Such was the disinterest that when the winning players returned home, only their families greeted them. “Today it would be a confetti parade. It would be huge,” Douglas said.
This could have been a seismic moment for the sport in the US, but given the scant coverage, it passed without a murmur – until some 30 years later, when players began receiving calls from journalists every four years before the World Cups. to tell their stories.
In England, there was great shame at the result, being toppled by the rising US team. Douglas described a newspaper outlining its paper in black to highlight the shame.
“They were embarrassed to be beaten by this team of nobody from a country that wasn’t on the football scale,” Douglas said.
The winning team has since celebrated the “Cinderella” character of the win, with all members of the winning US team being inducted into the United States Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976.
And while football is awash with shocks and underdog tales, Holroyd believes it is the “biggest excitement on the world’s greatest stage ever”.
The gap between the USA and England team’s 2022 spending at this year’s World Cup isn’t as big as it was in 1950. But 72 years later, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie could be doing worse than channeling the spirit of Bahr and Gaetjens if they face England in Qatar.