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1950 FIFA World Cup Teams England and USA

Bob Foster FIFA football soccer World Cup 1950

The Three Lions' first World Cup was much anticipated, albeit by the rest of the world rather than the English themselves. The Brazilian press hailed them as the 'Kings of Football' upon their arrival, and England would be the centre of attention in South America. Anything less than a title would be considered failure in an England group brimming with talent, probably the best the country had ever assembled, so here we had England’s first Golden Generation, a star-studded line-up. At the age of 35, Stanley Matthews was still possibly the best player. Stan Mortensen, his Blackpool colleague, was 29 years old and one of England's most productive attackers at the time. Other forwards featured two of the North East's best players, Jackie Milburn and Wilf Mannion, as well as Tom Finney, who, like Mortensen, was arguably at the pinnacle of his career when the tournament came around. Midfielders included Portsmouth veteran Jimmy Dickinson, while the defence would be led by Billy Wright and Alf Ramsey.The 1950 England FIFA World Cup team that faced the USA on June 29, 1950 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.How is it possible that such a skilled bunch of players, many of whom are regarded as among the game's all-time greats, could fail so dramatically and humiliatingly, losing to rank amateurs? Is this another example of the English overestimating their own skill pool? Were we simply overconfident, or was something else at play? The England squad encountered a multitude of issues subsequent to the touchdown in Rio; nevertheless, the indications started to emerge weeks prior to that. Neil Franklin, one of the most distinguished players in the country and England's finest defender during the late 1940s, would have been among the first names on the team sheet in Brazil. Franklin, who was subsequently eliminated from contention by the FA after declining a spot at the World Cup with his wife who was due to give birth that summer, relocated to Colombia and joined Independiente Santa Fe in order to circumvent the FA-imposed domestic wage limit. Franklin, the first authentic ball-playing defender, was indispensable to that England squad. "Within weeks of the World Cup, we had lost our linchpin," Billy Wright said of his absence.

As important a player as Franklin was, and he certainly was just that, his absence alone cannot be used to justify England’s complete collapse. The England team had not been fully prepared for life in Brazil, and were not helped by those who organised the trip. The journey to Rio was a gruelling 31-hour trip including stops at Paris, Lisbon, Dakar and Recife. When the team finally reached touchdown in the then-Brazilian capital, men with gas masks boarded the plane and sprayed all the passengers down with pesticides, reportedly leaving them coughing and spluttering. Hardly the warmest of welcomes. Whilst the England team hotel, ‘The Luxor’, still sits proudly on Copacabana beach, the area was a little less luxurious when Walter Winterbottom’s men checked in over half a century ago. Brazil was a major culture shock for the entire England team, most of whom had never ventured outside of Europe. The food provided at the hotel was not suitable for elite sportsmen during a World Cup. Wolves shot stopper and England goalkeeper Bert Williams described one of the meals as “a bowl of olive oil with a piece of bacon floating around in it.” This lack of decent nutrition in conditions no England player would have any familiarity with playing in could certainly be considered a major factor.

The food wasn’t the only thing that shocked the England team. Their first game was hosted at Brazil’s Maracana, one of the world’s great football arenas. However, not from where the England players were sitting. The stadium was dilapidated and in need of immediate repair work. The building was still ongoing at the Maracana, leaving it mostly empty with an attendance of only 29,703 for England’s game against Chile, compared to the officially 173,830 (widely believed to be more than 200,000) that crammed into the venue for the World Cup final less than a month later. Rats infested the cold, damp and dirty changing rooms. But England were resolute, if not spectacular, and rose to see off Chile in a 2-0 win with goals from Mortensen and Mannion in either half.

4 days later, took place over 250 miles away in Belo Horizonte, and probably still goes down as the most humiliating and shocking defeat in the country's history. The story goes that a bunch of ragtag, part-time, amateur players were hastily assembled for the World Cup and shocked the world by beating the founders and supposed “King’s” of the game in England. Unlike most fairytale stories of this ilk, the story is incredibly close to the truth. The US team was really made up of rank amateurs. Their goalkeeper was a baseball player turned ‘soccer’ player who never kicked the ball, with the US defenders having to take his goal kicks. The US goal scorer, Joe Gaetjens, was a Haitian-born forward who worked as a dishwasher in a New York restaurant.
The captains of England and USA, Billy Wright and Ed McIlvenny (right), exchange souvenirs at the start of their match on June 29, 1950 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil
The outcome was very accidental. Despite his incapacity to kick a ball, American custodian Frank Borghi played an absolute blinder in goal as the England team primarily pounded the US goal. Gaetjens' header gave the United States the lead in what was essentially their lone attack of the contest. Stanley Matthews had to take a 28-hour flight to join the England team for the US game after missing the first match against Chile due to the FA sending him on a goodwill mission to Canada as an ambassador. However, upon arriving, he discovered he was not included in the team. The only England selector for the competition, Arthur Drewry, had a rule against altering a winning squad. Matthews was therefore out. "Come the final whistle; I thanked my lucky stars; I hadn't been a part of it," he remarked after watching from the stands.
A few days later, England took on Spain once more at the Maracana. England would have to win by a two-goal margin in order to advance, as Spain had won both of their matches against the US and Chile. They didn't. They actually lost once more. Telmo Zarra's goal early in the second half secured Spain's spot in the next round, leaving England level with Chile and the US after one victory and two losses. The disgrace was barely acknowledged at the time. The shocking outcome from the US received extensive coverage, with the exception of England, where the West Indies' historic victory at Lords dominated the back pages.
It would take England sixteen years to make apologies, until 1966, when Alf Ramsey—a participant in the dismal England tournament in Brazil—led his team to victory on home soil. In fact, England's team was the best at the 1950 World Cup. The squad was incredibly talented and had only lost one official international match against non-British opponents in the previous eleven years. During that time, they had defeated Portugal 10-0, Italy 4-0, and the Netherlands 8-2. What should be regarded as the greatest failure and missed opportunity by an English "Golden Generation" in history was caused by the absence of Franklin (and to some extent Matthews), culture shock, inadequate nutrition, and having a single team selector with no prior experience managing a football team.

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