When England visit Belo Horizonte tomorrow, they will do so as a team humbled by their Brazil 2014 experiences. Two defeats in as many games have consigned them to certain elimination, and no-one in Roy Hodgson's squad would dare rule out Costa Rica inflicting a third.
It was all very different the last time the Three Lions touched down Minas Gerais. That team of 1950 arrived proud as a proverbial peacock, wondering not whether they would beat USA, but simply by how many. England saw themselves as the undisputed kings of football. If they hadn't won the World Cup yet, that was simply because they had declined to enter the first three editions. Brazil 1950 would bring official confirmation of their pre-eminence.
As for USA's team of amateurs and part-timers, they merely represented the smallest and most insignificant hurdle to be negotiated en route. “Their players had day jobs," explained Tiago Costa, a Belo Horizonte historian. "Joe Gaetjens, for example, worked in a restaurant [cleaning dishes]. The goalkeeper helped his family in a funeral parlour." As England's Daily Express newspaper wrote in the build-up to the game: "It would be fair to give them three goals of a start."
The Americans, in truth, felt the same. Frank Borghi, that aforementioned goalkeeper-slash-undertaker, later admitted that his ambition ahead of facing the English had been "to hold them to scoring five or six.” Even the Stars and Stripes' Scottish coach, Bill Jeffrey, declared that his players had "no chance" and were "sheep ready to be slaughtered".
There was ample justification for believing this to be the case. The US had lost their last seven matches, while England went into the game on the back of a 10-0 thrashing of Portugal and a 4-0 victory over the holders, Italy. A mismatch appeared inevitable, and the 13,000 fans who packed out the newly constructed Estadio Idependencia did so expecting to see an English exhibition. As it was, they were treated to one of greatest upsets in World Cup history.
Glory for Gaetjens
Later, some suggested the writing was on the wall from the moment England omitted Stanley Matthews, ostensibly resting their star player for later, tougher tests. But that decision seemed to matter little in the opening 12 minutes, during which the favourites created no fewer than six clear chances, hitting the post twice and forcing a string of superb saves from Borghi.
"We could have played them 100 times and beaten them comfortably on 99," said Tom Finney, one of England's star players. “But it was one of those games we were destined to lose. We hit the post several times. And then they got their goal, an absolute fluke of a goal."
Joe Gaetjens' match-winning strike arrived eight minutes before half-time, and has been debated ever since. It was undoubtedly unusual, with a speculative long ball from Walter Bahr – a Philadelphia school teacher - having been drifting towards keeper Bert Williams until Gaetjens threw himself to deflect it goalwards. England were adamant that it was unintentional. The US players, though, thought otherwise. "Joe was always scoring strange goals, athletic goals," Bahr told FIFA.com in a 2010 interview.
Deliberate or otherwise, it left USA to defend for their lives, and rely on the brilliance of Borghi. As Argeu Affonso, a journalist from Rio de Janeiro who covered the match, observed: “The keeper from the funeral parlour came to Belo Horizonte to bury the English."
There was also an unexpected boost for the under-siege Americans: wholehearted local support. While watching the supposedly all-powerful English had attracted many to attend, the natural Mineiro urge to back the underdog soon took over. “We always cheered for the weaker team," Elmo Cordeiro, 80, told FIFA.com. "And that meant cheering for USA. I was the ball boy, though, and I made sure to give the ball back to both teams as quickly as possible."
Cordeiro watched enthralled at the final whistle as fans invaded the pitch to hoist USA's players on their shoulders. Even the victors' humuliated opponents acknowledged the scale of the achievement. "I admired the England players for that," said defender Harry Keough. "They all shook our hands."
Magnanimity did not, however, save the English from vilification back home. So unexpected was the outcome that, famously, newspaper editors in London assumed a misprint when the first teleprinter reports arrived, reckoning 10-1 to have been a more likely scoreline. When the truth became apparent, and the team went on to exit the tournament, those same publications offered an unforgiving assessment. The players involved never did rid themselves of the shame.
As Williams, England's goalkeeper, said in 2010: "Sixty years on and I'm still trying to forget it. People introduce you as the gentleman who played for Wolves and England. And they ask: 'Did you play against America?'"
One might assume that, just as infamy was bestowed on the English, so legendary status would have been afforded their conquerors. Not so. There was no heroes' welcome for Jeffrey and his players, and their feat only gained national recognition half-a-century later, when the story inspired a book and film. Both were named 'The Game of Their Lives' and, for Keough, that represented an apt title.
"We had no business beating a team like England," he said. "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."