England 0-1 USA
29 June 1950
World Cup Finals
Estadio Independencia, Belo Horizonte, Brazil
The 1950 World Cup tournament was an organisational shambles, with withdrawals and disqualifications leaving just 13 teams playing in four uneven qualifying groups of four, four, three, and two. Germany and Japan were excluded as they were under Allied occupation, while India were refused entry as they requested to play barefoot. But, crucially, for the first time the UFWC holders were involved. Back in the FIFA family, this was UFWC champs England’s first World Cup appearance, and much was expected of the so-called ‘Kings of Football’.
England had beaten Chile in their opening game, and the USA had lost 3-1 to Spain. London bookies offered betting odds of 500-1 against a US victory. English manager Walter Winterbottom must have felt confident – he left out the great Stanley Matthews. His side still featured the likes of Alf Ramsey, Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion, and Stan Mortenson. The US side, on the other hand, contained just one professional footballer, skipper and full-back Ed McIlvenny. Goalkeeper and D-Day veteran Frank Borghi was a funeral director, centre-back Charley Colombo was a meat packer, and Haitian-born centre-forward Joe Gaetjens washed dishes in a New York restaurant.
Straight from the kick-off, England, wearing unfamiliar blue shirts, peppered the US goal with shots from all distances. But the USA, organised by Scottish coach Bill Jeffrey, held firm. Then, eight minutes before half-time, US half-back Walter Bahr hit a speculative shot from almost 30 yards. English keeper Bert Williams would have had the shot covered, but Joe Gaetjens dived full-length to connect with the ball and deflect it past Williams into the back of the net.
England fought for an equaliser for the remaining 57 minutes, but the crowd favoured the underdogs, chanting, ‘One more!’ When England did break through the defence, Borghi produced heroics, including three highly unconventional stops with his face. At the final whistle English players sunk to their knees, as jubilant spectators invaded the pitch. Goalscorer Gaetjens was carried from the stadium at shoulder height. The USA became the first side from the Americas to win the UFWC.
It was the USA’s greatest-ever international football result, but few Americans knew or cared. Only one US reporter saw the game – Dent McSkimming from the St Louis Post Dispatch. McSkimming paid for his own airfare after the paper refused to cover his expenses. ‘It was like Oxford University beating the Yankees in baseball,’ he wrote.
Back in England, newspapers ran with black borders, with The Daily Express reporting that England had been ‘outplayed by American amateurs and semipros’. The US lost the UFWC title to Chile in their next game, and neither the US nor England – nor Chile – qualified for the next round of the World Cup.
Although the England team went on to better things, the US side was broken up and never played together again. Joe Gaetjens returned to Haiti, where he was arrested by the Tonton Macoutes – the Haitian secret police – and was never seen again. An investigation later concluded that he had been executed. A tragic postscript to an amazing victory.
This is an extract from the brand new edition of the official UFWC book, Unofficial Football World Champions, which is out now.