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


On one side of the pitch was a team made up of some of the biggest names in world football. In the other were the gravedigger, the dishwasher and the postman. The result seemed like a formality.

However, in front of approximately 10,000 fans – and one intrepid US journalist – in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, one of the biggest upsets football has ever seen took place.

Author Geoffrey Douglas described the USA’s 1-0 win over a star-studded England team at the 1950 World Cup as “a veritable bunch of ragamuffins”.

Joe Gaetjens’ glancing header late in the first half was enough to secure a famous victory for the USA, a team made up of semi-professional players. But, given the lack of interest in sports in the town at the time, it barely made a dent on the public’s radar.

Many US outlets decided not to report on the game, and the only reporter, Dent McSkimmings, went to Brazil on his back.

And for US soccer historian Steve Holroyd, the result was akin to the ‘Miracle on Ice’ of the 1980 Winter Olympics, when the American team shocked the mighty Soviet Union in Lake Placid.

“Except for politics, this was it. I mean, a brave team of underdogs just beat what was generally recognized as the best team in the world,” Holroyd told CNN Sport.

“You would think that would be the kind of story that Americans would want to champion. In another universe of the Internet – if the Internet existed – it might have been the thing to take football out of ethnic enclaves and into the national sporting consciousness.

“But the papers didn’t pick it up, it didn’t get coverage, it didn’t have an impact, unfortunately, on any level of growth in this country or anything in the game.”

Courtesy of USA Soccer and the National Soccer Hall of Fame

Although American football is not as popular as other sports, it had a long history in the country, dating back to the 1920s.

At a time when the other major leagues in the US were becoming professional, soccer also attempted a professional soccer league.

Although the American Football League was “wiped out” by the economic depression that ravaged the country in the 1920s, Holroyd says it was the first example of a football league that relied on corporate sponsorship.

After the collapse of the American Football League, the sport “largely retreated into ethnic enclaves,” Holroyd explains.

“It is very much seen as a sport for immigrants, played only by immigrants,” he said.

“The teams that were formed when the second American Football League was formed in 1933, no longer had the more neutral names you’d expect to find on these shores, like the Pawtucket Rangers or the Newark Skeeters, now it was Colony Scots, Colony Irish. , the Germans of Philadelphia”.

Although there was a brief revival of the sport during World War II and World War II, it was played in small pockets of the country, such as St. Louis, Missouri.

The USA lined up before playing against England in 1950.

And so, as the 1950 World Cup approached, there was little national interest or coverage of US participation. The goal of the United States Soccer Association (which, as Holroyd explains, probably had only one permanent employee), was to field a team to compete against the soccer superpowers of Europe and South America.

The team that was selected was a “hodgepodge,” Douglas said, drawn from all over the United States. Most of them had never met – let alone played with each other – except four who played in St. Louis.

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

Mexico – a country with a football heritage – finished winless with four wins from four, while the USA qualified by the skin of their teeth with a 5-2 win over Cuba.

Even then, expectations were low. “So they mostly went down there on the lark. They thought they were taking a break from work. They didn’t know what the World Cup was, really,” said Douglas.

Across the pond, hopes were sky high for a star-studded England team. The team was making its first appearance at a World Cup, having opted not to appear in the previous three.

“England got through the first three World Cups because they figured: ‘We’re bigger than this, we’re already champions, we don’t have to prove it.’ They finally got involved, this was going to be their crowning moment,” Holroyd said.

Filled with players who would be considered great (Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen) the England team was expected to do well.

They were shocked.

USA players challenged to a header against England.

When Douglas spoke to some members of the US team for his book about the match, they spoke of sensing overconfidence from their English counterparts.

The teams played each other earlier this year, with an English reserve team still beating the Americans comfortably. But the match at Estádio Independência in Belo Horizonte was different.

“Stanley Matthews was their main player and he was not playing because they were resting for the next opponent. But they didn’t even play (their best players) because they thought America would be an easy game,” said Douglas.

“And so when the English came out on the field, especially in the first half, they were very loose and making jokes.”

05 us england 1950 world cup

Courtesy of USA Soccer and the National Soccer Hall of Fame

When the game started, unexpectedly, the English team was dominant. USA goalkeeper Frank Borghi, the undertaker, was described as having the game of his life that day.

In the 37th minute, the game turned upside down. Walter Bahr’s cross was headed by Gaetjens – the New York dishwasher – and past a desperate Bert Williams on goal.

And just like that, the pressure was on in England. “When Gaetjens scored at the end of the first half, everyone panicked,” Douglas said.

“And apparently (England) pressed hard, according to the guys on the US team. In the second half, (England) got kind of disorganized because they couldn’t believe it was happening.”

Between Borghi’s many saves, some wicked English finishing and heroic defending, the USA’s lead remained intact as they secured a famous victory that has gone down in soccer history.

However, for the players of the US national team, the public of the United States of America and future generations, it is a result that has been slightly lost in the sands of time.

USA goalkeeper Frank Borghi saves a shot.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the victory, the moment of accomplishment did not immediately hit the American players.

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

And despite the great result, there wasn’t much in terms of international coverage. McSkimmings with the game’s only reporter – whose report on St. Louis was featured in the Post-Dispatch – many outlets thought the story wasn’t worth it.

“The 1950 World Cup was not a blip on the American sports radar,” Holroyd said. “If there was any interest, it was the immigrant communities to see how the homeland was. No one was rooting for the US.”

Such was the level of disinterest that when the victorious players returned home they were greeted only by their families. “Today, it would be a ticker tape parade. That would be great,” Douglas said.

07 us england 1950 world cup

Courtesy of USA Soccer and the National Soccer Hall of Fame

It could have been a seismic moment for US sports, but given the scant coverage, it went largely unnoticed until some 30 years later when players began getting calls from reporters every four years before the World Cup. to retell their stories.

There was a lot of embarrassment about the result of England’s upset of the upstart US team. Douglas detailed a newspaper by covering the paper in black to highlight the ignominy.

“They were embarrassed that they got beaten by this nobody’s team from a country that didn’t sign up for football,” Douglas said.

For the winning team, the “Cinderella” nature of the victory has since been remembered, as all members of the winning USA team were inducted into the United States Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976.

And while football is full of surprises and underdog stories, Holroyd believes it is “the biggest upset on the world’s biggest stages ever”.

The difference between the 2022 editions of the USA and England teams at this year’s World Cup is not as great as it was in 1950. But 72 years later, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie could do worse than channel the spirit of Bahr and Gaetjens when they line up. against England in Qatar.