The miracle of Belo Horizonte
USA fielded a dishwasher, a hearse driver and a Haitian-born student
They were given odds of 500-1 against England’s page-oners
The English press, assuming a misprint, reported that England won 10-1!
England arrived at their first FIFA World Cup™ in 1950 oozing confidence, tipped by many to ride the dazzling wing play of Stanley Matthews to win the first tournament following the end of World War II.
USA, on the other hand, made a long boat trip south to Brazil with a hopeful smattering of part-timers and were expected to do little more than make up the numbers. What happened on 29 June 1950 is still considered one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, when an unknown Haitian-born student, a dishwasher, a hearse driver and no mean amount of good fortune enabled David to fell Goliath.
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The English arrived in Brazil with a bevy of world-renowned stars such as Matthews, Wilf Mannion and Tom Finney - and they were expected to run roughshod over the competition. Things seemed to be going to script for Walter Winterbottom’s men, too, with a simple opening win against Chile and a seemingly soft second test against the Americans, who arrived – unlike in 1930 and 1934, when they used mostly foreign-born players – with a raft of native-born amateurs and semi-pros.
Most played for pennies after work and on weekends in a country where the game of football was a novelty restricted to universities and immigrant communities. Indeed, ahead of facing England, the US were given odds of 500-1 to win after going down 3-1 to Spain in their opening match.
The Americans, as was expected, were under the cosh from the opening whistle. With only a minute-and-a-half gone, Roy Bentley got on the end of a whipped-in cross and forced Frank Borghi – USA’s outstanding goalkeeper and a professional hearse driver - into a diving save.
The pressure did not subside anytime soon for brave Borhgi, either, as the English - without star man Stanley Matthews, whom coach Winterbottom had decided to rest for the presumed walkover - had no fewer than six clear scoring chances inside the opening 12 minutes, two of which crashed against the post. “I was hoping to hold them to scoring only five or six goals,” Borghi recalled of his feelings at the start of the game.
The 37th minute proved decisive for the Americans who, up to that point, had taken just one shot, easily gathered by English goalkeeper Bert Williams. In truth, the Stars and Stripes were having serious difficulty keeping hold of the ball and their last-gasp tackling, the sinewy athleticism of Borghi and profligate English finishing were the only things keeping them in the game.
However, with eight minutes to go before half-time, Walter Bahr – a school teacher in Philadelphia - crossed in a hopeful ball from midfield that seemed out of reach of any of the four American strikers. As Williams took a step to collect, Gaetjens flung himself headlong and somehow managed to nod past the bemused keeper. An erratic but athletic forward, Haiti-born Gaetjens was studying accounting and washing dishes in a Brooklyn restaurant when he was discovered by US coach William Jeffrey on the eve of the tournament in Brazil.
After the interval, the 10,000 fans on hand expected the fancied English to finally come to life and teach the impudent upstarts a lesson. However, the Americans, buoyed by Gaetjens’ goal, grew in confidence and, with Borghi making save after save, they had a heroic, defiant figure upon whom they could depend.
As their confidence rose, the Americans seemed to grow in stature, and the crowd took the young part-timers to their hearts, cheering their courageous display as English frustration mounted. The Three Lions had their final chance with eight minutes to go, but Charlie ‘Gloves’ Colombo – USA’s inelegant enforcer – hauled down Mortenson, streaking toward goals, with a tackle more suited to rugby than football.
When the final whistle went, the Americans were paraded around the pitch on the shoulders of the Brazilian fans, who were surely never to forget that humid June day when the US roared to tame the Three Lions.
What they said
“You hustle and you hold off a team for a while, but you usually don't hold off a team that is much better than you as long as we did - especially when we scored an early goal, relatively speaking. We would have been happy with a 2-0 loss. In our wildest dreams we didn't think we'd ever win. We just thought, 'We'll do the best we can and hope for a good result'." Harry Keough, USA defender
“Not a lot went right. It was one of those games where we were destined to lose. We hit the post several times in the first-half and twice again in the second. They got the goal, an absolute fluke of a goal, and our heads dropped. After that, I think we believed that it wasn't going to be our day and we stopped playing. We could have played them 100 times and beaten them comfortably on 99 occasions.” Sir Tom Finney, England winger
What happened next...
The stunned English never recovered from their shock loss, going down 1-0 – even with Mathews back in the line-up – in their third game and heading for home as failures in the eyes of their media and fans. They did, however, lift their first and only Jules Rimet trophy on home soil just 16 years later, with a veteran of the USA loss, Alf Ramsey, as coach.
The Americans, meanwhile, could not quite recapture the form that saw them edge the English and went out after going down 5-2 to Chile. There was no heroes’ welcome back home, either, and it would be another 40 years before the Stars and Stripes made their next appearance at a world finals.