When the four British national associations rejoined FIFA in 1946, after an absence of 22 years including those of the Second World War, it was readily assumed that they would enter the first post-War World Cup, in 1950 in Brazil. But it was certainly not anticipated that England, still regarded as the motherland of football, would suffer its most humiliating defeat ever.
f that defeat was to hurt English football for years to come, at least it had the salutary effect of jolting the English traditionalists into realising that they no longer had the game all to themselves. It was, in a way, the end of one era, and the start of another.
The 1950 World Cup was the only edition to do away with the knock-out system; instead, there were four first-round groups, with the winner of each going into a final pool of four. With more games, the system helped FIFA raise the money to cover the expenses of the visiting teams, but the decision led to the resignation from the World Cup Committee of Henri Delaunay, the Frenchman who later gave his name to the European Championship trophy.
England qualified for Brazil as winners of the British Home Championship, and were generally regarded as joint favourites along with the home country. Players such as Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion, Billy Wright and Alf Ramsey were stars of the world game, although most people acknowledged that the Brazilians had more natural talent.
Goals by Stan Mortensen and Mannion helped England win their opening game easily enough, beating Chile 2-0 in Rio de Janeiro, and despite complaining about breathing difficulties there was plenty of optimism (maybe even arrogance) that the US would not present a major obstacle in the next game, in Belo Horizonte. The stadium there was fairly modest, with little more than 10,000 spectators, a less than perfect playing surface and poor facilities, but England were happier in the mountain air as they stayed as guests of the English-owned Morro Velho gold mine. They were confident enough about the whole thing to stay up until the small hours the night before the game and to rest the 35 year-old right-winger Matthews, with the intention of saving him for the third game, against Spain.
England had beaten the US in a warm-up game in New York on their way to Brazil, the Americans fielding a team that had never played together before. Although many accounts have since described the US team as a collection of immigrants, that is not true. Captain Eddie McIlvenny had emigrated to the US from English League club Wrexham in 1949, left-back Joe Maca was born a Belgian, and centre-forward Joe "Larry" Gaetjens was from Haiti. But the rest were full-blooded Americans, including a clever inside-forward in John Souza. The coach, Bill Jeffrey, was a Scot who had emigrated to the US 30 years earlier, working as a successful coach mostly at Penn State College. A realist who knew British football well, he said on the eve of the game against England that his team really had no chance.
England started brightly, as expected, and hit the post in the opening minutes. It seemed only a matter of time before a goal came. But the US defence, with goalkeeper Frank Borghi (formerly a catcher in minor league baseball) growing in confidence with every save and the resilient McIlvenny, Charles Colombo (incongruously wearing gloves) and Walter Bahr standing firm, gave nothing away.
Eight minutes from half-time, the Americans scored the goal that made history - that shot heard round the world, as American newspapers were to call it, alluding to a patriotic American poem. Bahr took a throw-in from McIlvenny and shot from about 25 metres, but goalkeeper Bert Williams seemed to have it covered. Then Larry Gaetjens came flying into the path of the ball, giving it the slightest of deflections with his head but enough to wrong-foot Williams and divert it into the net. Gaetjens finished face-down in the grass and never actually saw his effort go in, until he looked up and saw the ball tangled in the net.
England came all out in the second half to avert a disaster, but mostly lacked the courage to shoot, although a header from winger Jimmy Mullen did appear to cross the goal-line before being kicked clear. Finney was later quoted as saying it seemed there was a curse on the American goal, but England's finishing was dreadful. In fact the Americans came closer to scoring, when Frank Wallace broke away in the closing minutes and Ramsey cleared after Williams was beaten.
A misprint for 10-1?
The 90 minutes came with the score-line unchanged. The English players took their numbing defeat well, congratulating the jubilant Americans as spectators rushed onto the field and carried off Gaetjens (who was later to play in France before returning to Haiti and disappearing from public life) and his colleagues shoulder-high.
When the first teleprinter reports of the 0-1 scoreline arrived in newspaper offices back in London, editors threw them away, assuming it was a misprint for 10-1. But it was true enough, and the English, newly returned to the international football fold, had to admit they had lost touch with the rest of the football world.
As US player Harry Keogh said later, "Of course we had no business beating a team like England, but I guess a game like this happens every now and then just to prove that anything can happen in this game of fervour and spirit and rhythm." That was certainly the case in Belo Horizonte.