However, in front of about 10,000 fans – and an intrepid American reporter – in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, one of them Football’s biggest problem of all time took place.
Described by author Geoffrey Douglas as “a veritable bunch of regamphins”, the United States beat a star-studded England team 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup.
Joe Gaetjens’ glancing header near the end of the first half was enough to secure a famous win for the USA, a team made up of semi-professional players. But, given the lack of interest in the sport in the country at the time, it barely made a blip on people’s radar.
Many American outlets chose not to run reports of the game, with only one reporter, Dante McSchemings, following his back to Brazil.
And for US soccer historian Steve Holroyd, the result was akin to the ‘Miracle on Ice’ of the 1980 Winter Olympics when the US team stunned the mighty Soviet Union in Lake Placid.
“Politics aside, it was. I mean, a strong group of underdogs just beat what was generally universally recognized as the best team in the world,” Halroyd said. CNN Sport.
“You’d think that would be the kind of story that Americans would love to champion. In a different universe with the Internet — if the Internet existed then — maybe that’s what took soccer out of the tribal areas and into the national sport. It leads to consciousness.
“But the papers didn’t pick it up, it didn’t get coverage, it didn’t have any impact, sadly, on the development of the game at any level in this country or anything.”
While soccer may not have been as popular as other sports in America, it had a long history in the country, dating back to the 1920s.
At a time when other major leagues in America were going professional, soccer also attempted a professional soccer league.
Although the American Soccer League was “wiped out” by the economic depression that ravaged the country in the 1920s, according to Holroyd, it was the first example of a soccer league that depended on corporate sponsorship.
After the failure of the American Soccer League, the sport “regressed largely into ethnic areas,” Holroyd explained.
“It’s seen as a game for immigrants, played exclusively by immigrants,” he said.
“The teams that came out after the formation of the second American Soccer League in 1933, you no longer had the neutral names that you would find on these shores, like the Pawtucket Rangers or the Newark Skaters, now it was the Kearney Scots, Kearney There were Irish., Philadelphia Germans.
Although the game had a brief renaissance during and after World War II, it was played in small parts of the country – such as St. Louis, Missouri.
And so when the 1950 World Cup approached, there was little national interest or coverage of America’s participation. It was up to the United States Soccer Football Association – which, Holroyd explained, probably had only one permanent member of staff – to put together a team to compete against the soccer superpowers of Europe and South America. .
Douglas said the team that was selected was a “hodgepodge,” drawn from across the United States. Most of the four who played in St. Louis had never met — let alone played with each other.
To reach the World Cup finals in 1950, the United States had to advance through a three-team qualification group alongside Mexico and Cuba.
Mexico – a nation with a football heritage – remained unbeaten with four wins from four, while the USA qualified by the skin of their teeth thanks to a 5-2 win over Cuba.
Even then, hopes were low. “So they went there mostly on a lark. They just thought they’d get some time off from work. They didn’t know what the World Cup was really about,” Douglas said.
Across the pond, hopes were high for a star-studded England team. The team was making its first appearance at the World Cup and had opted not to appear in the previous three.
“England won the first three World Cups because they thought: ‘We’re bigger than this, we’re already champions, we don’t need to prove ourselves.’ He finally decided to participate, it was going to be his coronation,” Holroyd said.
Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen – packed with players who will be considered greats – the England squad was expected to do well.
He was quite shocked.
When Douglas spoke to some members of the American team for his book on the match, they spoke of feeling more confident than their English counterparts.
The teams had played each other earlier in the year, with England’s reserve team still comfortably beating the Americans. But the game at the Estádio Independência in Belo Horizonte was different.
“Stanley Mathews was their key player and he was not playing as they were resting him for the next opponent. But they didn’t even play (their best players) because they thought America would be such an easy game,” Douglas said.
“And so when the English took the field, especially in the first half, they were very loose and joking around.”
When the game started, not surprisingly, the English team dominated. American goalkeeper Frank Borghi – an undertaker – had the game of his life that day.
In the 37th minute, the game turned on its head. Walter Bahr’s cross was cannoned in by Gaetjens – a dishwasher from New York – headed and past a despondent Bert Williams in the goal.
And just like that, all the pressure was on England. “By the end of the first half when Gatjens scored, everybody was nervous,” Douglas said.
“And then apparently (England) pushed a little too hard, according to the guys on the American team. In the second half, (England) got kind of disorganized because they just couldn’t believe it was happening.
Between countless saves from Borghi, some exceptional finishing and some heroic defending from England, America’s lead held as they recorded a famous victory, and one that has gone down in soccer history.
However, for the players on the American team, the American people back home and future generations, it is a result that has been somewhat lost in the sands of time.
Even immediately after the win, the momentary reflection of what they had accomplished did not immediately affect the American players.
“So when they beat England, they thought: ‘Oh, that’s great. That’s great. Let’s go back to the really important games in St. Louis against Ford Motors,'” Douglas said.
And despite the magnitude of the result, there wasn’t much in the way of international coverage. With McSkimmings the only reporter at the game — whose report appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — many outlets deemed the story unworthy of coverage.
“In 1950 the World Cup was not a blip on the American sports radar,” Holroyd said. “If there was any interest, it was the immigrant communities who wanted to see how the motherland was doing. Nobody was supporting America.
Such was the level of disinterest, that when the victorious players returned home, they were greeted only by their families. “Today, it’s going to be a ticker tape parade. It’s going to be huge,” Douglas said.
It could have been a seismic moment for the sport in the US, but given the lack of coverage, it went off without a hitch – even nearly 30 years later when the players were met by journalists every four years before the World Cup. Calls started coming in, to tell their stories.
There was great shame in England as a result of the defeat by the American team. Douglass described a newspaper with a black border on his paper to highlight the scandal.
“He was embarrassed to be beaten by a team of people from a country that didn’t register on the football scale,” Douglas said.
For the winning team, the “Cinderella” nature of the victory has been remembered ever since all members of the winning U.S. team were inducted into the United States Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976.
And while football is full of shocks and underdog stories, Holroyd believes this is “the biggest upset ever on the world’s biggest stages”.
The disparity between the 2022 editions of the American and English teams at this year’s World Cup is not as great as it was in 1950. But 72 years later, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKinney could do worse than carry on Bahr and Gaetjens’ spirit against England in Qatar.