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1950 FIFA World Cup from an American perspective

Bob Foster FIFA football soccer World Cup 1950

Some of the biggest stars in international football filled half of the pitch. A postman, a dishwasher, and a gravedigger were on the other side. The outcome appeared formal. However, one of the biggest upsets in football history occurred in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in front of about 10,000 people and one daring US writer. Author Geoffrey Douglas called the US a "real bunch of ragamuffins" after they defeated a talented England team 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup. A fleeting header by Joe Gaetjens at the close of the first half proved to be enough to give the semi-professional US squad the historic victory. However, it hardly registered on people's radars at the time due to the nation's lack of interest in the sport. Few US media outlets covered the match; only one reporter, Dent McSkimmings, travelled to Brazil on his own initiative. According to US football historian Steve Holroyd, the outcome was comparable to the 1980 Winter Olympics' "Miracle on Ice," in which the US team defeated the powerful Soviet Union in Lake Placid. Apart from the political aspect, that was it. A courageous group of underdogs recently defeated what was widely acknowledged to be the greatest team in the world, Holroyd told CNN Sport. FIFA World Cup 1950 from an American angle.

Though it is not as popular as other sports in the US, football has a long history dating back to the 1920s. Around the time that other major US leagues were going professional, football attempted to establish a professional football league. Holroyd claims that the American Soccer League was "wiped out" by the national economic depression of the 1920s, which made it the first soccer league to rely on corporate support. According to Holroyd, the sport "largely retreated into the ethnic enclaves" following the demise of the American Soccer League. "Played exclusively by immigrants, it is very much seen as a sport for immigrants," he stated. "Kearny Scots, Kearny Irish, and Philadelphia Germans were the teams that emerged when the second American Soccer League was founded in 1933; they no longer bore the more neutral names you would expect to find on these shores, like Pawtucket Rangers or Newark Skeeters." The sport did see a brief comeback during and after World War II, but it was limited to certain areas of the nation, such St. Louis, Missouri.

As a result, there was minimal public interest in any coverage of the US's participation in the 1950 World Cup. It fell to the United States Soccer Football Association—which, as Holroyd notes, probably only employed one permanent staff member to assemble a squad to take on the footballing heavyweights of South America and Europe. According to Douglas, the team that was chosen was a "hodgepodge," drawn from players from all over the US. With the exception of four who performed in St. Louis, the majority had never even met, let alone collaborated. The US, Mexico, and Cuba had to advance through a three-team qualification group in order to play in the 1950 World Cup finals. Mexico, a nation with a long history of football, went undefeated with four victories out of four, and the US just made it through with a 5-2 victory over Cuba. Hopes were low even then. They primarily went down there for a giggle. They simply assumed they would be able to take a break from their jobs. Really, they had no idea what the World Cup was," Douglas remarked. Hopes were quite high for an England team filled with stars on the other side of the pond. The squad had opted not to participate in the previous three World Cups, so this was its first time participating. "Because they believed they were already champions and could handle this, England decided not to compete in the first three World Cups. This was going to be their coronation—they had finally agreed to take part,” Holroyd remarked. The England team was expected to perform well because it included players like Stan Mortensen, Tom Finney, and Stanley Matthews who would go on to be considered greats. They were going to have an enormous shock.

Some of the US team members who Douglas interviewed for his book on the match mentioned that they felt their English counterparts were overconfident. When the teams had faced off earlier in the year, the Americans had been soundly defeated by an England reserve squad. However, the match held at Belo Horizonte's Estádio Independência was not the same. Their star player, Stanley Matthews, wasn't participating since they were resting him for the next match. However, they didn't even field their best players since they believed that playing  America would be quite simple, according to Douglas. "Therefore, the English were incredibly carefree and full of jokes when they took the pitch, especially in the first half.
As expected, the English squad dominated from the start of the match. The undertaker-turned-US goalkeeper Frank Borghi was said to be having the game of his life on that particular day. The game completely changed course in the 37th minute. The cross from Walter Bahr zipped past the dejected Bert Williams in goal and off the side of New York dishwasher Gaetjens. And suddenly England were under immense pressure. When Gaetjens scored at the end of the first half, everyone started to panic, according to Douglas. And then the people on the US team said that England had pressed a bit too aggressively. England became somewhat disorganised in the second half as a result of their inability to comprehend what was happening. With a combination of incredible defending, some erroneous finishing from England, and endless saves from Borghi, the US managed to hold onto their advantage and record a legendary triumph that will live on in football history. But the outcome is one that has been mostly lost to the passage of time for the American players on that day, the American people back home, and future generations.
The American players were not immediately struck by the enormity of what they had accomplished, even in the immediate aftermath of the victory. "Oh, that's pretty cool," they thought after defeating England. That is really fantastic. "Let's move on to the highly significant games against Ford Motors back in St. Louis," Douglas remarked. Furthermore, there wasn't much worldwide attention, even in light of how big the outcome was. Several media outlets decided not to cover the incident since McSkimmings was the only reporter there at the game and his article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. According to Holroyd, "the 1950 World Cup was not a blip on the American sports radar." "The immigrant populations were the ones who showed any interest at all in learning how the homeland was faring. Nobody was supporting the US team. The players who had won were so uninterested that only their families met them when they got back home. There would be a ticker tape parade today. It'd be enormous," Douglas remarked. This may have been a turning point for American sports, but because of the lack of coverage, it passed into history without much fanfare until almost 30 years later, when players started getting calls from reporters every four years, in advance of World Cups, asking them to share their stories.
The English felt a great deal of embarrassment at being defeated by the young American squad. Douglas detailed a newspaper, emphasising the shame by drawing black borders around it. According to Douglas, "they were embarrassed that this team of nobodies from a country that didn't register on the football scale" defeated them. Since then, the winning squad's "Cinderella" victory has been celebrated, with every member of the US team being inducted into the United States Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976. According to Holroyd, this upset is the biggest upset in history on the biggest international stages of football, even with the wealth of surprises and underdog tales in the sport.

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