World Cup 1950: When the US beat England in the greatest sporting upset of all time


On one side of the pitch is a team made up of some of the biggest names in world football. On the other side are the gravediggers, the dishwashers and the postman. The result appears to be a formality.

However, in front of around 10,000 fans and an intrepid American reporter in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, one of the biggest upsets in football history took place.

The US team, which beat a star-studded England team 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup, was described by author Geoffrey Douglas as “a truly ragtag bunch”.

Joe Gaetjens’ header towards the end of the first half famously sealed the victory for the United States, which consisted of semi-professional players. However, given the lack of interest in the sport in the country at the time, it went largely unnoticed.

Many American media outlets chose not to cover the match, except for one reporter, Dent McSkimmings, who went to Brazil himself.

For American soccer historian Steve Holroyd, the result resembled the “miracle on ice” at the 1980 Winter Olympics, when the U.S. team defeated the mighty Soviet Union at Lake Placid.

“Politics aside, that’s it. I mean, a bunch of gutsy underdogs who just beat what is generally considered the best team in the world,” Holroyd told CNN Sports.

“You’d think they’d be the type of stories Americans would love to champion. In another world with the internet – if the internet existed at the time – maybe that’s what dragged football from a racial enclave into the national sporting consciousness .

“But the newspapers didn’t cover it, it didn’t get covered, and unfortunately it had zero impact on the growth of the game at any level in this country or anything.”

08 United States England 1950 World Cup

Courtesy of USA Soccer and the National Soccer Hall of Fame

Although football may not be as popular as other sports in the United States, it has a long history in the United States, dating back to the 1920s.

At a time when the other major leagues in the U.S. were professionalizing, soccer experimented with professional football.

According to Holroyd, the American Soccer League was the first soccer league to rely on corporate sponsorships, despite the economic depression of the 1920s that devastated the United States.

Holroyd explained that after the defeat of the American Football League, the sport “regressed largely back to racial enclaves.”

“It’s very much seen as a movement of immigrants, and it’s all about immigrants,” he said.

“The teams that popped up when the second American Football League was founded in 1933 didn’t look like the more unisex names you’d expect to find on these shores, like the Pawtucket Rangers or the Newark Skeeters. , now Scots at Kearney, Irish at Kearney, Germans in Philadelphia.”

Despite the sport’s brief renaissance during and after World War II, it’s still played in smaller parts of the United States — like St. Louis, Missouri.

The US team lines up before a game against England in 1950.

As a result, as the 1950 World Cup loomed, there was little national attention or coverage of the United States’ participation. That’s thanks to the U.S. Soccer Association — which, Holroyd explained, will likely only have one permanent staff member — put together a team to compete with the soccer superpowers of Europe and South America.

Douglas said the selected teams were a “hodgepodge,” drawn from across the United States. With the exception of four players who played in St. Louis, most have never met — let alone played each other.

To reach the 1950 World Cup finals, the United States had to advance to a three-team qualifying group along with Mexico and Cuba.

Mexico – a country with a football tradition – is unbeaten on a four-out record, while the United States edged through with a 5-2 win over Cuba.

Even so, there is little hope. “So they go out there most of the time and have a good time. They just want some break from work. They don’t know what a World Cup is, really,” Douglas said.

On the other side of the pond, hopes are high for a star-studded England squad. The team chose not to participate in the previous three World Cups, and this is their first World Cup.

“England missed out on the first three World Cups because they thought: ‘We’re stronger than this, we’re champions already, we don’t need to prove ourselves.’ They finally stooped to it and it would be their coronation,” Holroyd said. Say.

Filled with players regarded as greats – Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen – England are expected to do well.

They were shocked.

The American player challenged England with a header.

When Douglas spoke to some members of the US team for his book about the game, they spoke of feeling overconfident from their British counterparts.

The two teams played against each other earlier in the year and the England reserves still easily beat the USA. But the match at the Independence Stadium in Belo Horizonte was different.

“Stanley Matthews was their main player and he didn’t play because they rested him for the next opponent. But they didn’t even play (their best player) because they thought it was going to be such an easy game for the U.S. game,” Douglas said.

“So when the English came on, especially in the first half, they were very loose and joking.”

05 United States England 1950 World Cup

Courtesy of USA Soccer and the National Soccer Hall of Fame

When the game started, England, as expected, had the upper hand. United States goalie Frank Borghi, an undertaker, was described as playing the biggest game of his life that day.

In the 37th minute, the game was reversed. Walter Bahr’s cross from New York’s dishwasher Gaetjens headed past a desperate Bert Williams.

In this way, the pressure all fell on England. “At the end of the first half, when Gaggins scored, everyone panicked,” Douglas said.

“According to the US players, then obviously (England) pressed too hard. In the second half, (England) was a bit chaotic because they couldn’t believe it was happening.”

Between Borghi’s numerous saves, some wayward shots from England and some heroic defence, the USA’s lead remained intact as they secured a famous victory that has gone down in football history.

For Team USA players, the American public at home, and future generations, however, that outcome has been somewhat lost to the passage of time.

United States goalkeeper Frank Borghi makes a save.

Even after the victory, the greatness of their achievement did not immediately hit the American players.

“So when they beat England, they thought: ‘Oh, that’s cool. That’s great. Let’s get back to the really big game in St. Louis against Ford,'” Douglas said.

As important as the results are, there’s not much in the way of international coverage. Since McSkimmings was the only reporter at the game—his coverage appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—many outlets deemed the story unworthy of coverage.

“The 1950 World Cup wasn’t a bright spot on the American sports radar,” Holroyd said. “If there’s any interest, it’s that the immigrant community wants to know what’s going on in the home country. No one is for America.”

Such is the level of indifference, that when victorious players return home, they are welcomed by their families. “Today, it’s going to be a ticker tape parade. It’s going to be huge,” Douglas said.

07 US-UK 1950 World Cup

Courtesy of USA Soccer and the National Soccer Hall of Fame

It might have been a shocking moment for the sport in America, but it passed quietly due to a lack of coverage — until about 30 years later, when players started getting calls from reporters every four years, Before the World Cup, retelling their stories.

England are deeply ashamed of being overthrown by the upstart US team. Douglas detailed a newspaper, bordering theirs in black to accentuate the stigma.

“They were embarrassed because they were beaten by this nobodies from a country that wasn’t registered on the football scale,” Douglas said.

For the winning team, the “Cinderella” nature of the victory has been commemorated since, with all members of the winning US team inducted into the US Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976.

While football is rife with stories of shocks and underdogs, Holroyd believes it was “the biggest upset on the biggest world stage ever”.

In this year’s World Cup, the gap between Team USA and Team GB in 2022 is not as wide as it was in 1950. But 72 years later, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie could have done worse to line up than channel Barr and Gaggins’ spirits against England in Qatar.


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