When the draw for the 2010 World Cup finals was made in December of last year, the British press went into a depressingly familiar mode in their dismissal of their opposition, the irony of which was all the more striking for those – and it has to be said that they may not have been amongst football’s aesthetes – that picked out England vs the United States of America as one of the “must see” matches of the first round of the tournament. It was sixty years ago this summer that the USA team caused one of the biggest surprises in the history of the competition in beating England 1-0 in the group stages of the World Cup in Belo Horizonte, but with film footage of the match seemingly limited to just a couple of minutes’ worth and even the authenticity of the most striking image of the match almost entirely discredited, how much can we believe about what happened at the match?
The received wisdom is roughly as follows: England, who had not deemed the World Cup worthy of their presence beforehand, turned up to play a United States team of amateurs, expecting to put twenty or thirty goals past them. Instead, the Haitian-born Joe Gaetjens scored the only goal of the game whilst England (who had rested Stanley Matthews) did everything but score, hitting the woodwork on countless occasions and being kept at bay by the American goalkeeper, Frank Borghi, who was, for this ninety minutes, the finest goalkeeper that the world has ever seen. The British press was so shocked at the result that a wire of it was assumed to be a mis-print and “England 10-1 USA” was reported as the final score. England then went on to be knocked out of the tournament by Spain, and the beginning of the end of England’s (unofficial) reign as the greatest team in the world was nigh.
The truth of the matter is, however, more complex than this. The England squad didn’t arrive in Brazil in the best of mental health, to be sure. Showing that their contempt for the tournament hadn’t completely dissipated, the FA had arranged for a ‘B’ team to play out a goodwill tour of Canada that coincided with the tournament and used some of the players that the coach, Walter Winterbottom, had wanted to use in the tournament, including Stanley Matthews, who was, at the time, possibly the finest winger in the world. In addition to the trip to Canada, Manchester United had requested that their players be omitted from the tournament for the tour of the USA, but they eventually travelled to Brazil, although Matthews would join the squad late and, as it turned out, with a slight injury. England won their first match, 2-0 against Chile, with a less than convincing performance that turned out to be an omen of what was to come.
With only one team per group qualifying for the final pool, England couldn’t afford any mistakes against the USA. Matthews, however, was still carrying a slight injury and it was decided by the Selection Committee (England, of course, wouldn’t have a manager that picked the team until Alf Ramsey took over in May 1963) to rest him for what should have been a straightforward match. It was, perhaps, a forgivable mistake to rest Matthews, with the final match against Spain looking likely to be the group decider and only the winners going through to the final pool. Yet England had other weaknesses as well. The Stoke City midfielder Neil Franklin had decided the dubious pleasures of the FA’s £20 per week maximum wage to go and play in Columbia and had not been adequately replaced with the relatively inexperienced John Aston. There were other inexperienced players in the team for this match, as well.
Still, though, the American team put in an immense performance, by all reports, both contempary and retrospective. England pushed forward from the kick-off, having six shots on target – two of which hit the post – in the first twelve minutes. The Americans settled and, seven minutes from half-time, they took the lead. What we know about the goal is that Walter Bahr either crossed or shot the ball and the Haitian-born Joe Gaetjens turned it past Bert Williams. What exactly happened, however, is disputed. As near as we have to an “official” version is that Gaetjens deflected the ball past the England goalkeeper Bert Williams and in, but there are almost as many versions of how this happened as there are reports of the match. At one end of the spectrum, some accounts have Gaetjens getting in the way of a wayward shot with the side of his head. At the other end of it, Gaetjens throws himself full length at a cross-cum-shot from Bahr to turn the ball past Williams. The truth is almost certainly closer to the latter than the former, but we will never know for certain. What we do know is that the iconic image of the goal wasn’t of the goal itself. It doesn’t take very close inspection to be able to see that the ball is on the wrong side of the netting. This seems to be as near a we will manage to ever seeing it.
We do know that it wasn’t the American team’s only shot on target of the match as well. Williams saved one shot in the twenty-fifth minute, and America had chances to extend their lead in the early stages of the second half. As time wore on, however, England pushed hard for an equaliser and with eight minutes to play had an appeal for a penalty turned down when Charlie Colombo pulled Stan Mortensen down, only for the referee to award a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area. When the full-time whistle blew, however, it was, however, an enormous result. The England players clearly felt aggrieved to have had so much of the play without scoring, but that an American team which had shown its strength in taking an early lead in their opening match against Spain – a lead which they had held until fifteen minutes from time before losing 3-1 – was still regarded as a major surprise.
Ironically, the match wasn’t reported in the two countries at all that we might have expected it to be. In America, football would not become newsworthy in any sense for another two and a half decades and it was no great surprise that the heroics of the team went largely unreported. In Britain, the sports sections of newspapers at the time never ran to more than one page and football never appeared there during the summer. With the test cricket season in full flow, that England should lose a match thousands of miles away in a competition that the team had never entered before was of little interest to the public of the time. Both teams went on to be eliminated from the competition. England were beaten by Spain in their final group match, while the USA were thrashed by Chile and finished bottom of the group. The legend of the American team that beat the indomitable English was born.
England in 1950, though, weren’t that great. They had lost to Scotland, Sweden and Ireland during 1949 and anything that the American team did to the psyche of the national team paled alongside the absolute hidings that England received at the hands of Hungary in November 1953 and May 1954. England’s 7-1 thrashing in Budaspest is still their worst ever. For a nation whose football supporters were seeking to forge an identity in 1950, however, the fact of the result is enough in itself. Building a tradition requires a folklore to accompany it and America’s win in Belo Horizonte has been the bedrock upon which the development of the game on the other side of the Atlantic has been laid. And the result of the match never lies. For every occasion that England were unlucky, Frank Borghi was the match of Stan Mortensen. Ultimately, the poor preparation of the FA and the sheer fact that, once they had deigned to enter the World Cup, England had made critical tactical errors meant that they deserved their early exit from the competition. In 2010, the English arrogance remains, though it is largely in the minds of the press who report that beating a team ranked only a handful of places below them in the FIFA world rankings will somehow be “easy”. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, goes the aphormism – England supporters will be hoping that Fabio Capello is better versed in history than sections of the British press occasionally seem to be.